Ant on a Cold Tin Roof: Svaneti

My nickname in my family was always Ant, from Anthony, my full name. So this week I became the Ant on a Cold Tin Roof.

We have four roofs of the same material, corrugated galvanized metal (tin, I think), but only one of them doesn’t let the snow slide off it. This is the garage roof, unheated and thus too cold. The barn and house roofs never gather snow as they are warmed from the inside by their inhabitants or by electric heat, and for some reason the little outhouse one doesn’t accumulate much either.

The garage only got its roof a year after its walls went up, and I suppose I expected the slide. But the only time it started to happen was when things warmed up to above freezing recently, and the weight of the stuff was enough to let gravity take over. Now we’re just a bit colder, show is still coming from the sky, and some of us are getting anxious about what’s overhead.

Traditionally, house and tower roofs in Svaneti were made of huge heavy pieces of the ever-present slate; the beams under them were solid enough to take all this weight, tons of it, so they wouldn’t mind a few more hundred kilograms or so of snow on top. But modern unpainted metal roofs let much of it come off. Not so painted ones, or wooden ones, which have far too much “stick” to their surfaces. So, some of us have begun ascending and shoveling the snow off. Myself included, knowing the forecast.

The first time I did this was as a volunteer, spending the second of my two winters in Ushguli. March 2009, while a Rustavi 2 TV crew was on its way to meet me and make me famous, a meter of snow fell in three days, cutting off our electricity for ten days and sending all of us up to protect our roofs from caving in. It’s the kind of thing where you don’t want to be wrong, because you could find yourself buried under both roof and snow, a grave situation indeed...

I did actually try an experiment: I dragged our flexible water pipe up there with me and let water run under the snow in a few places for a while, to see if I could start some reduced-friction slippage. Imagine what fun that would be, the whole lot coming down by such a simple method! Alas, it failed to work; I gave up and began shoveling.

What was there was in several layers, the topmost and lightest being fresh, while that underneath had had time to be pressed down a bit and form a more solid mass. This I could cut into with the shovel and either throw or slide off the roof. I had to be careful, though, because the roof’s surface itself remained quite slippery once I was actually on it and not on snow! So I didn’t finish the job totally, just enough to satisfy myself that we wouldn’t hear a crash in the middle of the night and find a ruined garage. If I slipped off, it would only be into more snow on the ground, but I thought it best not to allow this if possible. A natural lack of fear of heights certainly helped, though.

I have seen enough houses with collapsed roofs from a single owner’s absence in winter, to know that the danger is real, and so is the tragedy. Prevention is SO much easier than cure, and you just never know, do you, how much weight of snow will be just too much? It’s the kind of test the results of which are only known when the subject has been destroyed, and the parameters of strength arising from materials and construction are unique for every roof. So we grit our teeth and get up there and do what we have to do.

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

28 January 2016 19:44