September 2017: A Georgian mountain running adventure

The Idea: A solo, unsupported 100km mountain run to the highest constantly inhabited village in Europe.
Location: Upper Svaneti, Georgia
Transport: Flights to Kutaisi, local bus to the mountains + legs
Essential Kit: WAA Ultra bag + Kit, Inov8 Trailtallon 275s

The idea

I first read about Ushguli in an on-board magazine on a Wizz air flight; it described a beautiful and remote mountain village on the border of Georgia and Russia, high in the Caucasus mountain range, unspoilt by mass tourism. This description ticked all the boxes for me, so I read on; it described how with a 4-hour local bus transfer from Kutaisi airport you could arrive at Mestia and from there, you could make the 4-day, 65-km hike through the mountains to Ushguli, ‘the highest constantly inhabited village in Europe’. The plan was already forming in my head. I turned to Faye and told her “I reckon I could run this in a couple of days or maybe even one day with a bit of training”. I tried to convince her that it would be a great idea for her to join me on horseback along the lower pass to Ushguli as my support team… She rolled her eyes and went back to reading her book.

I found myself laying on my back on the balcony of an elderly Georgian woman's house, staring at the overhanging roof above. Having spent the entire night being violently sick with food poisoning, I had no energy whatsoever.

Eight months later and I was on another Wizz air flight, this time alone, and on my way to Kutaisi. I had failed to convince Faye or any of the EA boys to join me, so it had become a solo, self supported trip. During the months of planning, I’d added an optimistic extension to the route continuing on after Ushguli. This new route was ambitious, especially considering I now had to run with four days’ worth of kit on my back, so I had also factored in a few shorter alternatives and escape routes in case anything went wrong. The way things turned out, it was a good job I did.

Mestia

During the planning stages of the trip I had spent countless evenings packing and unpacking my running bag and trying to find the perfect compromise between having everything I needed for four nights in the wild and actually being able to run under the weight. Every time I took something out, I’d talk myself through the reasons I needed it and then swiftly put it back in. In the comfort of my living room, my bag lingering around the way-too-heavy 11kg mark, the thought of getting lost with the bears and wolves and the scale of the challenge felt like a terrifying but distant prospect. But now, as I sat in the dingey room of my guesthouse in Mestia, still sore from the morning’s slow, bumpy bus ride from Kutaisi, the reality was beginning to set in. I managed to convince myself to ditch a few of the ‘luxury’ items from my pack, which suddenly felt less essential, bringing it down to a slightly more manageable 8kg. I tried to distract myself from the reality of the next day with a Facetime call to Faye and an early night – my pack, trainers and poles laid out to set off at first light.

Final plans

I had devised my route from a couple of Soviet Era maps of the region that I’d picked up from eBay. To supplement this information, I did all the research I could online and eventually spent a good amount of time talking to locals in Mestia’s tourist information office. My plan was to stop in villages every night and try to find a place to sleep. This saved me having to carry the extra weight of camping gear, but narrowed down my route options significantly.

Though I hadn’t told anybody, my plan was to run the whole route from Mestia to Ushguli in a single day. Covering 65km with almost 4000m of elevation was inevitably going to be tough, but as far as I was aware, it’d give me the speed record for the route. After Ushguli, I’d take the next day a little easier in terms of distance, climbing up the Latpari pass on the other side of town in pursuit of some exciting rocky ridges. I’d spend that night in the village of Iprali, putting me in a good position to retrace the first day’s steps over the next two days, on my way home. This was the rough plan, but as ever in the mountains, I knew it was important to keep my plans flexible…

The run

With six hours of hills in my legs, I was cursing every unnecessary gram on my back, and was so grateful to have lost that extra 3kg. “Why the fuck did I decide I needed to run with my camera?” I thought on every long gruelling uphill, and then, “I’m so glad I brought my camera!” whenever the hill ended and a brand new view, even more epic than the last revealed itself.

Approaching the village of Adishi, 2000m above the valley floor at the end of the first day, I was hours off schedule and totally exhausted. The dark was setting in fast and I was still around five hours away from Ushguli. To make matters worse, ominous, dark storm clouds were starting to roll in over the mountains. Thankfully, I was able to find a place to stay relatively easily in Adishi. A local woman offered me a room in her house and I collapsed on the bed as soon as I’d relieved myself of my heavy bag. Listening to the rain hitting the tin roof, I thought back over the day and pieced together everything that had contributed to being so off schedule.

Retracing my steps

That first morning had started so well. I was making good time, enjoying running through the lightly defined path that weaved gently over the smaller inclines leading out of Mestia. With the impressive Svaneti ridge and the iconic-looking Mt Ushba looming in the distance, I leapt over tree roots and slid down scree slopes, feeling in my element. After the first long climb, the route wound back down into an adjacent valley, filled with small farming communities and the ruins of old villages complete with the iconic defensive towers the region is famous for. It was all going to plan.

As I reached the head of the valley, however, it became apparent the bridge marked on my maps no longer existed. Instead, I was presented with two small wooden platforms either side of a 15-metre wide, fast-flowing river. Negotiating this river crossing took over three hours. I took numerous plunges up to my chest in the bitterly cold, fast-flowing water before finally accepting defeat and heading back the way I’d come to find a road bridge. As well as killing time, it had sapped my energy.

I stopped in the next village to eat lunch and recover a little. I was frustrated, but it was hard to stay frustrated for long as I devoured incredible fresh food in the most beautiful surroundings. Applying some perspective, I appreciated where I was and how lucky I was to be able to be there at all. Reaching Ushguli in a single day suddenly became less important than savouring the moment. I resolved to take the next few kms a little slower and drink in all the mountain scenery my body could handle.

Adishi to Ushguli

After an awful night’s sleep, I woke up in Adishi to find that the whole valley was covered in a thick mist. I had been warned of the dangers of crossing the river just outside of town, and worried that the storm I’d listened to all night would have made the river waters even higher. As I set off to cross the river and begin my journey, I prepared myself for the worst.

Remarkably, on approaching the river, I found a clear path to cross. I rolled up my shorts and managed to negotiate the knee-high water without too much trouble, using my running poles to keep myself stable against the strong current, and to probe out the next rocks to tentatively step over to. I laughed to myself thinking how easy this ‘dangerous crossing’ had been compared to what I had been attempting the day before.

The sun started to peek out from behind the clouds and the mist cleared to reveal the incredible Adishi glacier and the Svaneti ridge, suddenly not so distant as it once was, looming above me like a huge amphitheatre of snow, rock and ice. The rest of the route that day went exactly to plan, and within four and a half hours I found myself running the last section of dirt road into Ushguli.

Ushguli

Ushguli was as incredible as I had imagined. Framed by huge mountains on either side, the collection of three small villages that make up Ushguli scatter upon the hills, stone towers sticking up from every other building. The snow on Georgia’s highest mountains formed the backdrop to the scene, taking my breath away as I sighed in relief at being there.

I took the afternoon off to explore. My plans had altered because of the river crossing on the first day, and I’d decided to shave quite a few kms off the return trip to Mestia to make up for lost time. I wandered around Ushguli taking photos and consuming much needed calories with a big lunch. I ordered cheese and bread, a cucumber and tomato salad and an omelette, and ate it all way too fast. Almost instantly after lunch, my stomach started churning. I figured it was just from eating too fast after a long morning of running, but as the afternoon went on I felt worse and worse.

Sick

At 4 o’clock in the afternoon on the following day, I found myself laying on my back on the balcony of an elderly Georgian woman’s house, staring at the overhanging roof above. Having spent the entire night being violently sick with food poisoning, I had no energy whatsoever. None of the food I had eaten was repairing my body as I needed it to, having run 70km with countless mountain ascents, I could feel the toll of the days before weighing heavily on me. To stay on course, I needed to wake up early that morning, run up to a summit just out of town, then continue on my route as planned. Unfortunately however, my body had other ideas.

My stern Georgian hostess came up the stairs with a mug of salty tea, heaping spoonfuls of what looked like blueberry jam into it, implying with basic sign language that it would be good for my stomach. She then left me to go back to milking her cows, which freely roam the streets of Ushguli along with every other farm animal imaginable. I remember the rest of that day as a blur of dashes between the toilet, my bed and the balcony. I looked out at the epic views in the distance and felt sorry for myself. I was in the place that I’d been dreaming of for months, but didn’t have enough energy to even walk down the hall to my room, let alone go out to explore.

I managed to go a whole day without being sick, forcing down half an energy bar in the afternoon and some plain boiled potatoes in the evening. No matter how I felt, I had no choice but to make my way back to Mestia the next day or I’d risk missing my flight. So I prayed that I’d be able to keep the food down this time, and tried to sleep.

Broken but not defeated

Morning came and, though I still felt weak from the little amount I’d eaten the past two days, I decided to head up through the Latpari pass as planned. I figured I’d try my luck at hitchhiking back to Mestia once I’d hit the dirt road that runs along the valley from Ushguli. After a breakfast of more boiled potatoes, bread and a little cheese, I lugged my pack (which now felt heavier than ever) onto my shoulders and made my way into the hills.

I didn’t even attempt to run the ascent. I was so drained from the sickness that walking was hard enough. Climbing the steep scree slope to the top was a real effort – every two steps I took forward, I slid one and a half back, making the last push to the ridgeline extra tough. Finally, sweat dripping from every pore and my legs burning under the strain, I made it to the top. This was the part of the route I’d been looking forward to the most – over 3000m up, the knife edge ridge weaved through the valley, revealing incredible views at each new twist and turn. I suddenly felt my energy flowing back as if the scenery was fuelling me, and I couldn’t help but run. “This is why I am here”, I thought, “this is what mountain running is all about!” ▲