In May 2013 the Canadian skier Trevor Hunt (www.coaststeepskier.com) and I went to the Georgian Caucasus. The goals were a continuation of my "The 5000m Peaks of Georgia" long-term photo project and exploring new ski terrain on lesser-known 4000m summits.
We first managed to make the first ski descent of the remote N-NE face (45°+) of Mkinvartsveri (Kazbek; 5034m). We were, together with Georgian climbers a few weeks prior to us, the first people to climb this route in over 50 years. We then continued to Svaneti, where we found and skied two incredible ski lines (SW face, 45° and SE couloir, 55-60°) on Chatyn-Tau West (4310m)...
More on Trevor´s website.
A ski mountaineering, photography and story telling project about climbing and skiing the 5000m peaks of Georgia (Caucasus): Shkhara (5193m), Janga-Tau (5058m) and Mkinvartsveri (Kazbek; 5034m).
Bezengi Wall: One Day...
In June 2010 Boris Avdeev and I stood on top of Shkhara, a 5193m high, very difficult summit in the Caucasus. Shkhara is the highest point of the Bezengi Wall, a 12 km long mountain massif largely above 4500 m along the Georgian-Russian border. Shkhara also marks the eastern end of the wall, and is either the last or first summit of the Bezengi traverse – a traverse of the entire massif, over multiple 4500-5000 m summits, and one of the greatest alpine challenges in the Caucasus and Europe.
A few weeks later Boris writes me - “one day we have to do the traverse”. This day will never come. Boris perishes in an avalanche in April of last year. We were to climb Janga-Tau (5058 m) together a few weeks later, a remote and seldom climbed peak in the central part of the Bezengi Wall. After 2 months in a mental hole, full of doubt about the sense of going to the mountains, and filled with lack of motivation and self-discipline, I travel to Georgia again. On June 22rd I summit Janga-Tau with Robert Koschitzi. As I sit on the summit and watch Robert coming up, I look to great Shkhara rising behind him, where Boris and I stood two years earlier, and then look behind me, to the remaining summits of the Bezengi wall to the West. I wonder if I will ever make the traverse. Maybe, one day... (Published as Leica Fotografie International Photo Story)
Robert Koschitzki near the summit of Janga-Tau, with Shkhara looming in the background. Leica Fotografie International X1 Mastershot
Janga-Tau (5058 m)
2005 I came first to the Caucasus of Georgia. The place captured me instantly, like no other had before. Soon the idea to climb and ski all three 5000m mountains of Georgia was born: Shkhara (5193m), Janga-Tau (5058m) and Mkinvartsveri (Kazbek, 5034m). In 2006 and 2008 Deon Louw, Andreas Riesner and I made two first ski descents from the summit of Mkinvartsveri. In 2010 Boris Avdeev and I stood on the summit of Shkhara, the most difficult and dangerous of the three. Before I started the difficult ski descent from Shkhara, I saw in the distance the east flank of Janga-Tau emerging from the clouds, and I imagined skiing it one day.
In June 2012 finally, after numerous adventurous trip to Caucasus, years of preparation and training came down to that one moment, as I reach the summit Janga-Tau with Robert Koschitzki, and thenI ski down the east flank of Janga-Tau, finishing the project, with great Shkhara looming in the background…. (Published as Leica Fotografie International Photo Story)
Shkhara (5193 m) is the highest mountain of Georgia, and the third highest in Europe. Shkhara sees few ascents, mostly from the easier Russian side. Together with Boris Avdeev I climbed the south pillar in 2010, and I could also ski from the summit. It was amongst my hardest climb and definitely my most difficult ski descent. I am often in Georgia, and whenever I see the mountain, I am filled with deep respect and a shiver runs down my spine at the thought of our tour back then. My Georgian friend Tato Nadiradze – who has also climbed Shkhara – and I have come to call the mountain “an (aggressive) animal”. All routes are long, steep, and objectively dangerous, and retreat is almost impossible when something happens. The weather is very changeable and can be fierce. It is a mountain that gets you, if you are not very, very careful. (Published as Leica Fotografie International Photo Story)
During our 2010 trip, Boris Avdeev and I climbed the south pillar. I made the first accurate DGPS survey of the summit (5193m), supported by GeoAT and Jonathan de Ferranti. I also managed to make the first partial ski descent of the south pillar (TD+, to 55°+).
Mkinvartsveri/Kazbek (5034m): The Quest to Ski the SE Face Direct (50°+)
In 2005, at the end of our first trip to the Caucasus, I saw Mkinvartsveri (5034m) and its SE face. A 3-years quest to ski the face started, with several attempts and a close call when Deon fell down the face on our first ski descent attempt. 2008 I skied the route completely with Andreas Riesner. It is rated 1300m, 50+degr, 3B. We also made first descents of two other routes on the mountain, and of Ortsveri (4365m) NE face (45°+). Recently Trevor Hunt and I visited also the remote N-NE side: >>Georgia | Caucasus 2013.
Every year in spring I work as ski guide in Troms and Lyngen in North Norway, far above the Arctic Circle. I am part of the crew of the boat Vulkana - we use a converted former fishing boat to access peaks directly from sea level ("ski by boat").
During the 1988 - 1994 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict nearly 400.000 refugees - ethnic Armenians - fled Azerbaijan to Armenia. An even higher number - over 600.000 - of Azeris were driven from Armenia and Karabakh.
The government of Armenia provided the refugees from Azerbaijan with rooms in former public administrative buildings not in function after the collapse of USSR - e.g. abandoned hotels, hostels, schools or kindergartens. Many refugees acquired Armenian citizenship, others decided to hold their refugee status. Many died here as they grew older, others had success to escape the situation - but too many still survive in poor social and living conditions, and that since 20-23 years.
Additionally, many ethnic Armenians fled Iraq and more recently, Syria. Currently UNHCR Armenia counts 900 Iraqi-Armenian refugees and 90 Syrian-Armenian families. These ethnic Armenians are descendants of those driven from West Armenia during the 1914-1918 Armenian Genocide, now returning to Armenia proper.
In the autumn of 2012 I visited refugees living in Armenia, collaborating both with UNHCR and Mission Armenia, which work to improve the situation for refugees in Armenia, and also with the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly Vanadzor, which work on human rights issues in Armenia. This project is part of a large photo project about displaces people and refugees in the South Caucasus, and after Armenia this year and Georgia & Abkhazia (2011), I hope to continue this work in Azerbaijan as well.
Tskhaltubo is a former Soviet sanatorium, turned into a shelter for internally displaced people (IDP) from the short but intense 1992-93 Abkhaz war.
Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia after the 1992-93 war, but this status is only recognised by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. The ensuing complex and intense conflict resulted in a wave of atrocities by both sides of the conflict (probably aided by the presence of Georgian militia and North Caucasian fighters), and the Mingrelian-Georgian population fled Abkhazia during 1991-1994, and again 1998, resulting in a wave of IDP in Georgia.
Some 7000 IDP have been living in Tskhaltubo since 18 years in poor, cramped and unsanitary conditions, waiting for another future, seemingly forgotten by the rest of the world. Tskhaltubo’s dilapidating buildings used to be the Soviet holiday paradise, now they are haunted by the ghosts of the past and the broken promises of the present.
The photos were taken during a photo project for the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), which supports resetting and livelihood projects for IDPs in Georgia.
Ushba - the infamous beauty of the Caucasus. The meaning of the name is unclear, but has been translated from the Svan language as "terrible mountains" or " place of the Witches Sabbath" or from Karachay-Balkar into "three peaks" (North, South and small Ushba). It is perhaps the most beautiful mountain in the Caucasus, but also one of the most difficult and dangerous, and few climbers who see it can escape its draw. Ushba is the source of many climbing tales, histories and tragedies.
I attempted the mountain first in 2010 with Boris Avdeev, after our successful ascent of Shkhara (5193m). We ran out of time, food and motivation on the summit day...and turned around, despite sunny weather and being already past the most difficult sections; but on Ushba you better step back when you feel things are not right.
In June 2012 I returned. Robert Koschitzki and I attempted the easier and lower north summit (4694m). Still early in the season, we climbed to about 60 m below the summit, but needed to turn around due to treacherous, loose snow on the summit ridge. Ushba was on my mind again. Inevitably, I returned to Ushba in August of the same year, and finally summited Ushba with the Georgian climber Tato Nadiradze.
After every difficult climb or ski descent I am momentarily filled with joy and relief, but as time passes, a certain emptiness takes over. When you have put everything into reaching that one goal, what is left when you reach it? It’s a matter of balance – the harder and higher I climb, the more important becomes returning to the valley and to home, to friends, loved ones and family, and embracing the life outside the mountain world. All that is just as much part of alpinism as the mountains themselves.
Image taken at the high camp of Ushba (4710m), one of the most famous, difficult and dangerous mountains in the Caucasus.
Climber: Tato Nadiradze (Published as Leica Fotografie International Photo Story)
Tato Nadiradze taking in the view at Ushba's high camp. Leica Fotografie International M-Analogue Mastershot}
Moment of Relief
In August 2012 I diagnozed a young alpinist high on Ushba (4710m, Caucasus) with accute pulmonary edema, a form of accute altitude sickness. After a night of first aid, phone calls and long waiting, finally a rescue helicopter arrived in the early morning. Ushba almost would have claimed another life (like so many times before), but the young climber survived, miraculously without permanent damage. He fully recovered and has become a close friend. But I lost the camera I took this photo with during the hectic moments of the rescue.
A year later, in August 2013, an Armenian climber found the camera and brought the SD card down. I picked the card up two weeks ago in Tbilisi and found this image. (Published as Leica Fotografie International Photo Story)
Signalling the rescue helicopter that arrives to rescue a young altitude-sick climber.
Climber : Tato Nadiradze. Leica Fotografie International X1 Mastershot.}
1) A lonely, elderly woman walks down a muddy street as winter arrives in Ergneti, on the Georgian side of the buffer zone to South Ossetia. In 2008 a conflict erupted between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia. The losers of this political power game are the people living on either sides of the buffer zone, who lost wives, husbands, sons or daughters, who lost their homes and livelihoods admits the shelling, burning and bombing of villages. (Published as Leica Fotografie International Photo Story)
2) A family of ethnic Georgians displaced from South Ossetia during the 1991-92 war. The father of the family was disabled during the first war, and died of emotional pressure during the 2008 South Ossetia conflict.
The photos were taken during a photo project for the Danish Refugee Council (DRC).
Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia after the 1992-93 war, but this status is only recognised by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. The ensuing complex and intense conflict resulted in a wave of atrocities by both sides of the conflict (probably aided by the presence of Georgian militia and North Caucasian fighters), and the Mingrelian-Georgian population fled Abkhazia during 1991-1994, and again 1998, resulting in a wave of Internally Displaced People in Georgia. Less than half of the formely 525.000 people in Abkhazia remained(1). Abkhazia itself remains isolated, with little international aid, and heavy dependence on Russian support.
After 1994 and 1998, displaced Georgians began to resettle in Gali district, which now – like before the war - is the the only Abkhaz town with a largely Mingrelian-Georgian population.
(1)De Waal, T., 2010: The Caucasus – An Introduction. Oxford Press.
Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia after the intense 1992-93 war. The complex conflict resulted in a wave of atrocities by both sides. The Mingrelian-Georgian population had to flee. Abkhazia itself saw massive destruction and until today remains isolated, with little international aid, and heavy dependence on Russian support.
I visited Abkhazia in autumn 2011 with the Danish Refugee Council. My experience there was mixed; with evidence of destruction, poverty, lack of perspective, desolation and seemingly no future to look forward to on the one hand, but also reconstruction, revitalization and a motivation to make Abkhazia a livable place again on the other.
Large parts of the capital Sukhumi have been rebuilt, and the city is regaining its charm. Here, men play chess on a sunny but crisp afternoon in a park. For me this photo is a symbol of another Abkhazia, which may hold a future for its people after all. (Published as Leica Fotografie International Photo Story)
In autumn 2011 I worked with the Norwegian and Danish Refugee Councils on a photo project about internally displaced people (IDP) in Georgia, following the conflict in Abkhazia. I also worked with educational projects and children, both in Georgia and in Abkhazia. What I took away from this work is that children are the same on both side of the conflict – playful, innocent, curious. They are still far away from politics, ethical questions and the issue of status of the Abkhazia, and they gave me hope that this seemingly endless conflict someday will be solved for good. (Published as Leica Fotografie International Photo Story)
In a school in Kutaisi (West Georgia) for children of IDP from the 92-93 war in Abkhazia. The school is maintained with the help of the NRC. Leica Fotografie International M8 Mastershot.
In summer 2010 Anders Ödman (www.peantphoto.com) and I travelled to the Tien Shan of Kyrgyzstan. One objective was to ski the north face of Pik Pobeda (7439m), but it was too avalanche-prone for a serious attempt. We picked the lower, but very remote East summit (6762m) as alternative, which would take us into a world of ice and snow in the last corner of the Kyrgyz Tien Shan. We climbed Khan Tengri (7010m) for acclimatization, and then started the long approach up the Zvezdochka glacier.
After several days approaching and climbing the mountain, Anders had to turn around 200m below summit, wanting to spare energy for a safe descent. I continued alone and then made the first ski descent of the mountain via the NE ridge (50+ deg). A lone ski descent - steep, exposed and above a remote desert of ice and snow - and one of my finest.
This photo was taken discretely in the metro of Tbilisi (Georgia). But it could have been taken in the metro of any city in the world. No matter how different cities are on the surface, life inside the Metro trains seems the same. Cramped, dark, dank, and yet we seem to find time and place there for short contemplation and daydreaming that we cannot find in the bustling life above. The pace of the city comes to a forced stop, you drift of in thoughts, interrupted by the announcements of the familiar names of metro station and shuffling around of people. How many metro stations do you pass everyday and never get off at, wondering what may be there? (Published as Leica Fotografie International Photo Story)
The Daily Commute - Metro, Tbilisi (Georgia). Leica Fotografie International Photo Story and M Analog Mastershot.
Since 2005 I regularly come to Georgia and its capital, Tbilisi; a seemingly never ending and continuous journey. The reasons I keep going there have become nebulous – initially it was for the mountains and adventure, later for the culture, the people, friends, love; for the memories, to remember and to forget, the unique possibilities for photography projects - and to write my Caucasus diaries. Several of the photos from these journeys have been published, but the diaries the go along with them, telling the whole story, remain visible to no one but me. (Published as Leica Fotografie International Photo Story)
I am in constant motion, chasing one dream, goal and project after another. My life is balance act between demanding ski and mountaineering expeditions to remote and difficult mountains in the Caucasus and Central Asia, photo projects – I work mostly on a photo project about refugees in the South Caucasus - and the hard training, daily work routine and my personal life. I am restless, always at a hundred percent, often on the road. I keep a diary, but there is still too little time to digest what I have seen and experienced.
But in the night, back home, the mind begins to digest and wander. I am taken back to the most scary moments in the mountains, I meet lost friends, or I am back in the cold and dark refugee shelters of Georgia and Armenia. Then, like tonight, ghosts from the past leave me sleepless as my mind drifts off yet again. (Published as Leica Fotografie International Photo Story)