Avalanches And Snow: The Hike To The Chaladi Glacier
It was April in Svaneti. And the sun was just beginning to shine on this mountainous and isolated region of Georgia for the first time in months.
That meant the snow was melting.
The high peaks were icy in the distance as I set out to hike to the Chaladi Glacier from Mestia. I had around 3 hours of walking in the fresh mountain air before I reached the glacier, following rough trail marks etched onto the rocks and trees along the path.
In the town of Mestia, the hub in Svaneti for all things travel related, the tourist information centre had given me rough directions to the trail, and onto the glacier. The guy said it should be easy, there would be a bit of snow on the ground but not too much to worry about. Getting breakfast at a cafe nearby, fuelling up for the walk ahead, the waiter- who also doubled as a tour guide in the busier summer months- began to tell me how it was still too early to hike to the Chaladi Glacier. With the snow melting, there was danger of avalanches and rock falls along the way. ‘I wouldn’t go’, he said reassuringly as he poured me coffee.
Slightly unnerved by the now apparent possibility of being crushed by a thunderous avalanche in the Georgian mountains, I hightailed it back to the information office to make further life dependant enquiries. The information man was unfazed. Ahh the old avalanche risk. He said he’d walked it a few days ago. Yes there was always a risk of a loose boulder, or a bit of snow falling, but what did I expect? I was in Svaneti.
Well, there was nothing to do but get on with it and to start the hike to the Chaladi Glacier. I’d just have to hope that the mountain gods would keep the avalanches at bay on this day.
And what a glorious day it was in Svaneti.
The sun was pouring through the light cloud cover and the sky was a vivid colour of blue. But as the sun beat down on the snow capped mountain tops, I couldn’t help but think of all that snow melting, shifting the rocks that had been held in place over the long, long winter…
The road out of Mestia ran alongside the river. It was particularly fierce as the melting snow was channelled down from the peaks. I followed the raging current, passing by local farms, mountain huts and huge sheets of snow and ice.
The road was blocked further up by the debris of a huge landslide, which clearly had fallen recently- the rocks were laying on top of the ice itself. I climbed over the mountain rubble, and hiked on up the trail, passing the odd smaller piles of rocks and dirt mingling with melting ice, until I reached a crossroads.
One path carried on to the Russian border, and the other, the trail I needed to the glacier, went over the frothing, fearsome waters of the raging river.
There was a rickety suspension bridge, rusted through in most places, but clinging on just enough to support me across.
On the other side, what had until now been a relatively flat trail started to climb upwards and into the forest that led to the Chaladi Glacier.
The snow here was still particularly deep, protected from the sun’s rays by the dark shade of the trees overhead. It was thick enough to completely cover the trail I was following. Most of the markers were still visible, but as the snow began to heat up in the midday sun, walking the trail became a dangerous game to play. Each step was a hideous gamble that could end with me at best up to my knees in the freezing snow and ice, or at worst, trapped under the rocks and crevices that waited below the white sheet, innocently hidden beneath the surface.
It was slow going as I navigated my way precariously along the trail- slipping, sliding and falling. I was starting to realise why the tour guide at breakfast wouldn’t be seen up this way until the snow had melted…
With soggy boots, and a nasty ice burn across my legs, I eventually stumbled out of the forest and into the valley which the Chaladi Glacier creeps monstrously along.
The faint sound of rumbling reached me as the noise of tumbling rocks reverberated across the mountains. I hiked out to the middle of the valley, as all along the rock face, stones were falling from the top. It was unnerving, but on the trail I seemed far enough from the small dangers that were hurtling downwards. I hoped….
The valley began to narrow, and as I forced the hideous image of landslides and avalanches from my mind, and I trudged slowly through the soft and ever melting snow, the Chaladi Glacier reared outwards towards me.
It blocked the end of the valley, slowly inching its way year by year towards the forest. I could hear the massive sheets of glacial ice groaning in the heat, but somehow it held it altogether, as more rocks tumbled on top of it to give the blue-white ice a fine covering of grey.
In the Spring sunshine, I felt exposed in the centre of the valley, surrounded by rock, ice and snow, that felt like it could crush me at a moment’s notice. But I held out, and took in the formidable sight of the glacier stretching down from the mountains towards me. After the hard slog through the snow, ice and rock to get here, the glacier was slightly underwhelming. There wasn’t much I could really do with it but stare from a distance- not daring to get too close the shifting mountains. The setting and the hike to the Chaladi Glacier were spectacular though, so I still stared in awe at this powerful icy beast that has stood here for thousands of years, not caring for the time of mere men like myself.
But soon the sound of falling rocks stirred me from my gaze, and I turned back hurriedly to make the hike back to Mestia, before the Svaneti mountains unleashed themselves upon me.
How To Hike To The Chaladi Glacier!
The best place to start from is of course the town of Mestia, in the Svaneti region of Georgia! From here it is roughly 11 kilometres there and back to hike to the Chaladi Glacier, and depending on the conditions the whole trip should take anywhere from 6-8 hours. You don’t need a map as the trail and markings are well maintained, even in the snow, but it’s wise to take provisions. The water from the river is however safe to drink! Mmmm, Fresh glacial water!
From Mestia, head from the centre towards the airport. There are a few sign posts in town pointing the right way. You will cross over the river at the big bridge, walk out of town, past the airport and simply keep following the road until you reach the suspension bridge. Cross over and then follow the trail markers up into the woods. From the bridge to the glacier itself will probably take around an hour.
This article was first printed in Georgia Today.