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On Foot: Mountain Running to Europe’s Highest Village

Sweat, lactic acid, arduous terrain and breathtaking vistas on the high trails of Georgia in the Caucasus Mountains – the historic divide between Asia and Europe, and home to Europe’s tallest mountain.

For every two steps forward, I slip one back on the loose rock beneath my feet. Sweat beads and streams down my face and back, and my clenched hands tightly grip my running poles as I rhythmically plant them in the scree in an attempt to stay balanced. My calves burn, my shoulders ache from the weight of my pack, and lactic acid builds up in my thighs as they propel my body uphill. But I keep running, pushing harder and higher, each hurried breath filling my lungs with fresh, thin mountain air.

The heavy, uphill slog is exhausting, but there’s reprieve as I finally clamber atop the rocky ridgeline and pick up pace on the plateau. Amongst the cascade of mountains, new peaks slowly reveal themselves, appearing from behind one another, as I run the winding ridge and continue to gradually gain altitude, until finally I see the imposing, snowcapped tops of the Svaneti range, home to some of the Greater Caucasus’ highest peaks and largest glaciers. The mountainscape is captivating; I lose all sense of pace and am distracted from the usual niggling stresses that often occupy my mind on long-distance runs: am I going too fast? Should I be going faster? Do I need to save some gas for the next big hill? Should I be putting more energy in now to ensure I reach my end point before sunset? Consumed by the beauty of the high mountains, these concerns melt away.

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It was in an in-flight magazine that I first learnt about Ushguli, a community of four beautiful and remote Georgian mountain villages on the border of Russia, high in the Caucasus Mountains and untouched by mass tourism. Nestled in the Upper Svaneti UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ushguli is the highest constantly inhabited settlement in Europe and, according to the article’s supplementary imagery, comprises rustic, medieval, old stone buildings theatrically set upon a backdrop of snowcapped peaks. Tantalised, I read on, and before long a wild plan had begun to form in my mind. I spent the rest of the flight trying to convince my wife, Faye, that it would be a good idea to join me on horseback – despite her having never ridden before – as I attempt to run the 65-kilometre hiking route, through hidden settlements, towering peaks and rocky outcrops, from the highland townlet of Mestia to Ushguli. She wasn’t convinced.

Eight months later, I was on my way to northern Georgia. However, not only had I failed to recruit Faye, but none of my usual adventure buddies were able to join me either. It had become a solo, self-supported trip, the prospect of which I’d initially found quite daunting, especially having read about bears and wolves free roaming the Georgian wilderness. But after months of preparation, both mental and physical, I was ready. More than that, I was excited.

I had devised my running route from a couple of Soviet-era maps I’d picked up on eBay, and plotted my way from Mestia to Ushguli, adding an optimistic extension to the route, continuing on after Ushguli up the Latpari pass, climbing above 3,000 metres, before looping back round to Mestia. According to my plan, the whole route would take me three days to cover 120 kilometres – a day for each leg of the route – and from my research, it appeared that completing the journey from Mestia to Ushguli in a single day would be a record-breaking speed for that distance. I planned to stop in mountain villages each night and try to find a place to stay – I’d heard that many locals use their homes as unofficial guesthouses – which saved me having to carry the extra weight of my camping gear, but also narrowed down my route options significantly.

My flight took me into the city of Kutaisi, and from there I caught a local bus – a converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van, rusty and well used, but with a tarted up, gaudy interior with overly plush seating and religious iconography sellotaped to the dashboard. Over the next five hours, as the driver hurtled along the steep, winding roads, I stared out the window as the scene changed from the crumbling facades of Soviet-style apartment blocks to rural villages lost in time, tumbling waterfalls and crystal blue lakes, and the rocky peaks of the Caucasus Mountains. With each stomach-churning hairpin bend, the mountains drew closer, and my anticipation and excitement mounted until finally I arrived in Mestia and my adventure had truly begun.

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Through the haze of the bright sun, the rugged landscape appears endless, extending in all directions from the impressive summits of the Svaneti range in the north, to the foothills of Lower Svaneti in the south. In the distance, I spot small villages on the mountainsides, their positions betrayed by rising smoke from residents’ homes and the tiny dots of people and cattle moving around. Each village is famously peppered with medieval towers historically used for defence against invasions that oddly seem to outnumber all other buildings in the villages. I run on, and the ridge begins to slope towards the valley, forcing me into the chilly shadows of peaks I’d recently surmounted. I quickly become engulfed by the surrounding cliffs and the echoing roar of waterfalls as they stream off the glaciers. The grassy valley below glitters with dew from last night’s frost and a herd of ibex bound out ahead, crossing my path before heading back into the hills.

I keep a fairly steady pace as the trail undulates the valley sides, following the path of a fast flowing river. After a few easy kilometres, my route reaches a river crossing and I’m drawn to a halt. According to both the maps I’d purchased and the people I’d spoken to in Mestia, there should have been a bridge here. Instead, I find two ends of a bridge with the middle undoubtedly washed away by the strong glacial waters. The river is deep, fast-moving, and roughly 50-metres wide. After evaluating my (extremely limited) options, I roll up my shorts as high as they’ll go, brace myself for the freezing cold water, and wade in. The forceful flow almost topples me, and I clumsily steady myself with my running poles. After a painfully long time and a few retreats and re-attempts to find a shallower place to cross, I eventually make it across safely, suffering only one small slip that left me with some wet kit and a bit shaken and cold but, importantly, still alive!

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trail running has an incredible ability to draw you into your environment, with nothing between you and it; no hunk of metal, no car door, not even a helmet. With each stride, there’s a physical connection that forces you to be in tune with every loose rock, every tree root, every ascent and descent. It demands that you understand yourself as well as the terrain, and it allows you to cover great distances at a pace that allows you to really experience your surroundings.

Trail running can leave you feeling vulnerable to the natural world and its elements – especially when you are on your own. An innate sense of survival can surface, forcing you to work with nature to overcome obstacles. But in this, trail running has an incredible ability to draw you into your environment, with nothing between you and it; no hunk of metal, no car door, not even a helmet. With each stride, there’s a physical connection that forces you to be in tune with every loose rock, every tree root, every ascent and descent. It demands that you understand yourself as well as the terrain, and it allows you to cover great distances at a pace that allows you to really experience your surroundings. Trail running allows you to travel almost anywhere – scrambling up rocks, traversing knife-edge ridges, weaving between trees, crossing streams – to places that would be impassable by bike or car. It’s just you, nature, and a very minimal amount of kit.

However, I haven’t always felt so liberated by or passionate about running. I’d always loved the idea of it but was derailed by the monotony of the road and gym. This all changed when, only a few years ago, I first tried trail running. Pounding the earthen floors of the trails that weave the forests and moorland on the Jurassic Coast where I live, with waves crashing below and sea mist filling the air, I was worlds away from the drudgery of the treadmill or tarmac roads of grey urban areas. Instead, I felt free to explore and find my own path, making up routes as I went, becoming immersed in the environment and occupied by my enjoyment of running in these wild spaces. Since then, my love for trail running has taken me to some incredible places – to the famed peaks of Chamonix’s High Alps, to Snowdonia’s wild and rugged terrain, and many other corners of the UK. And with every trip I go on, every route I set upon, my love for running grows deeper.

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My sights are now firmly set on Ushguli, the place that’s been the centre of my focus for the past few months. The path begins to wind down into the Enguri Valley through the forest, and I feel my pace quickening; my legs are tired from the last 60 kilometres, but I’m too excited to let that slow me down. I turn a corner, and the path leads me out from the trees into a clearing, and suddenly what has been a small dot on an old Russian map for the past eight months falls into sight.

Built into the Svaneti foothills, Ushguli’s villages, Murqmeli, Chazhashi, Chvibiani and Zhibiani, climb the valley sides and lie against the backdrop of Georgia’s highest peak, Mt. Shkhara (5,193 metres). The unpaved streets bustle with shepherds and farmers herding their livestock – sheep, goats, cows – assisted by their fearsome and staggeringly large Caucasian sheepdogs. The locals nod in response to my gestures of salutation as they continue with their daily lives. I slow my run to a walk and draw in a deep breath of relief to have made it and in awe of this picturesque place. •

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The hard day’s run has left me thirsty and famished, and I venture deeper into the little villages until I find a quaint, typically Georgian café. An omelette and few litres of water later, I amble through the medieval buildings and meet an older woman outside her house who asks in broken English if I need somewhere to stay. I take a quick look at her home and agree upon a price, with which we sit down to share black tea served with jam – a fairly typical preparation of tea in the region – and attempt conversation with the aid of Google Translate. She leaves shortly after to milk her cow, and before I rest ahead of tomorrow’s run, I decide to take a walk in the hills. In the late afternoon light, the landscape beams. I couldn't be happier. All those hours of training feel worth it; the cold early mornings running before work and the rainy evening hill reps all built me up for this. I take a moment to appreciate just how privileged I am to be able to explore this incredible, remote corner of the world, and, for just a few days, become a small part of these beautiful mountains.

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This story is from Volume Ten

The Altitudes Volume

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