Monday, 23 April 2018

Planning my hike across the Greater Caucasus Mountains

Since last autumn, I've been planning my next hike across the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range, from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. It'll probably take between two and three months.

I've created my own hiking route from Sochi to the Russian/Georgian border point, situated south of Vladikavkaz. I did this by joining up loads of trails shown on digital maps, and doing lots of research using Russian internet reports. My route includes loads of high passes, areas without roads or habitation, and goes through many military-controlled border zones. I'm anticipating very difficult terrain, late-lying snow, and few resupply opportunities.

Walking along the border areas of southern Russia requires special permits from the FSB, so I've made contact with a Russian trekking tour company, who've kindly agreed to help me obtain the necessary permits for the Russian section of my route. 

Once beyond Russia, I'll be about halfway! I'll then continue eastwards through Georgia, as far as Omalo, in the Tusheti National Park. After Omalo, I can see a potential route passing directly along the border ridge with Russia in order to reach Lagodekhi, (situated at the Georgian/Azerbaijani border). However, I've been advised against taking this route, due to risk of being arrested by soldiers patrolling the border with Dagestan. I'm not sure what I'll do here yet, but I'd like to avoid hitch hiking or using transport if at all possible. 

I'm finding it really difficult to plan a route through Azerbaijan. The only mountain paths I can see are only shown on old Soviet military maps. However, the greater problem is the ambiguous situation with regards to getting permits to hike in Azerbaijan. I've spoken to several knowledgable people, and most of them have told me that it's just not possible to hike near the border zones because of the very strict rules. Fortunately, one guy has offered to try and help me with permits and a route, so there is still some hope.

In the meantime, I'm pressing on with my plans. I've already booked my flight to Russia on June 18th, and I've applied for my visa. I'm also trying to learn Russian, which is proving difficult. My kit list has been fine-tuned, and I've started making regular trips out to the Peak District to try and get my hiking legs back a bit. Unlike other walks I've made, I'm going to be straight in at the deep end with this one in terms of technical terrain and big miles, so I need to be well prepared from the off. Let's hope the knee behaves.

It all feels very intimidating and nerve-wracking at this point. My biggest fear is the terrain. I'm worried that there'll be lots of snow, scary high passes, and no proper paths. I'm definitely expecting some serious bushwhacking and sketchy river crossings in the valleys. Oh and there's gonna be bears again. Plus the whole Russian military police situation is going to be awkward to manage.

Wish me luck!