Celebrating Ushba

Although this mountain seems omnipresent in Svaneti, visible from anywhere, it’s ironic that from my house you can’t see it. People see a peak between two closer mountains and think that this must be the one; but you actually have to walk down our road a couple of minutes, then five minutes or so up another road, before you see how mistaken you are, and the gigantic mass of the South Peak looms into view.

It’s this peak the ascent time of which has just met a new speed record, performed by Zura Kvesitadze and Lasha Kvekveskiri on September 18, in 9 hours 56 minutes. The full story of that momentous achievement has been covered elsewhere, so here I will only offer my utmost congratulations to the climbers and concentrate on some other details of this mountain.

Ushba’s twin peaks differ in height by approximately one meter. The mountain’s height is 4710 m. But these are somewhat dry facts... not accounting for the mountain’s location in Svaneti, and its sheer, colossal, multi-faceted presence. Is this the “geological feature” which has motivated the Svans to be animists, worshipers of nature, from long before the ancient arrival of Orthodox Christianity here?

You see, from Etseri, my village, the South Peak dominates, which is impressive enough, believe me. There’s a small lake about seven hours’ walk above us in which the mountain is gloriously reflected—at least, when it’s not playing coy and covering itself with clouds, a frustratingly common occurrence. Drive about twenty minutes, into Becho, and you get a spectacular enough view that the main hotel there is named the Grand Hotel Ushba. Another twenty, into Latali and off a side road across the Enguri into one of its outlying hamlets, and you finally get an angle which is about 45 degrees, showing both peaks but not side by side. It seems like another mountain altogether, though.

Continue, and above Mestia you do get the view about 90 degrees around from my view, with those two peaks next to each other. Again, such a different view that you might not be aware that you were looking at the same mountain. It peers over the closer mountains, and the higher you go, up the Hatsvali ski lift for example, the more of it you see, crushingly revealed. Go on into or past Mulakhi, and this view remains, even as far as K’ala, nearly to Ushguli. You’ll lose it there, and will have to climb up some hours above Europe’s highest village before the twin Peaks reemerge.

I have a Caucasus picture by Vittorio Sella on a wall upstairs. Yes, I know, these are a dime a dozen, many available online, out of copyright (he was active in Svaneti more than a century ago). But this one is a large foldout panorama, one of three which came with a book I bought in the man’s home village of Biella, Italy, some years ago. I have never seen its like before, so it might be the only such print in Georgia. A four-plate stretch shows the Central Caucasus, dominated by, you guessed it. My local friends think it was taken from the Russian side of the Caucasus, though, which is quite possible and I’m not expert enough to judge.

To get such photographs in the late 19th century meant lugging your precious 8 by 10 inch glass plates, coating and developing chemicals, big box camera and tripod, and all supplies high up precarious footpaths by horse or donkey teams, along with plenty of helpers, I suppose. Somewhat removed from today’s Google Earth or drone-captured snaps.

Ushba was first (as far as we know) climbed by Douglas Freshfield’s team in 1868; it remains the most difficult, though far from the highest, climb in the whole of the Caucasus. And it does inspire awe from any angle. Again, “gilotsavt” (congratulations) to the record breakers, and stay safe. This one’s also known to be a killer.

My best photo (so far) of the Mountain is from near Becho, when I was driving home from Mestia a few years ago. Sunset and clouds rewarded me. There will be more pictures, even better ones I hope.

Tony Hanmer runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1250 members, at


He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:


Tony Hanmer

01 October 2015 20:19