LogisticsFood, Lodging, and Transportation:
This was our second trip to Georgia and previously we had stayed at the Hotel Shamo in Gudauri (approx 1 hour from Kazbegi) and had been very happy with the accommodations and food, so we opted to stay there pre and post climb. This is a step up from staying in Kazbegi in one of the pensions or the Mountainhouse. $64/couple gets you a double room with private bath (shower) and includes dinner and breakfast. Gela Burduli is the proprietor and he's a guy that "makes things happen." We paid him 50GL (each way) to drive us to/from Kazbegi on the front and back side of our climb. Of note-- Gudauri is lovely, but you probably won't be able to get marshrutka transportation to/from Kazbegi, so you'll have to make other arrangements as we did. www.shamohotel.com
Routes and Maps:
We knew the basics about the trail from reading some of the other posts on this site, but once we got to the Met Station, I saw a great map on the wall which also depicted the route. www.bethlemihut.ge has this map and also the Google Earth track that you can download. It would be worth it to check it out as I couldn't find any other decent maps of the area. From that site, you can also download the Garmin GPS tracks. We did not have a GPS, nor did we need one, but if you plan on climbing in marginal weather, it could be useful!
The Met Station (Bethlemi Hut):
We knew we'd have to pay to stay in the hut, but everything was rather vague as to how this was going to happen. Gela called Joni, one of the Met Station "hosts" and let him know we'd be coming. We were told to pay when we arrived a the station. Though this is acceptable, you can save a bit of money paying ahead of time. Information on how to do this is also found on the Bethlemi Hut website. www.bethlemihut.ge HINT:
you get charged per person, not per room. We had a room all to ourselves for 50GL/night (25GL/person), whereas a group of Czech climbers paid 150GL/night to squeeze 6 climbers into the same size room. If you are a small group, you may want to stagger your arrival (say two groups of three 30 minutes apart) in the hopes that they'll put you in two rooms!
As has also been noted, if it is not the peak season, you'll want to make sure the Met Station is open before you begin your climb (or get the key). The station was surprisingly free of drafts, clean, comfortable, and offered a kitchen/dining area for prepping and eating as well as socializing. At the time we were there, however, there was no power or heat although I have seen this mentioned/advertised. Water is piped from the glacier to two points right outside the station, however, common sense dictates that this is temperature dependent. Many climbers had graciously left extra food and items in the kitchen area.
You may have one or several "hosts" at the station during your stay. They greeted us warmly and treated us to chai, cha cha, cookies, and chocolate. They greeted many other guests this way-- wonderful Georgian hospitality at 3653m!!! They also sell beer, Snickers, wet wipes, etc... but I wouldn't want to depend on such things being in stock at all times.
We opted to not use a guide. We summited with no problems but on the descent, once we got down below the Mali Plateau, we followed the tracks of the guided group that started after us thinking that the local guide must have known a better route than the one we had taken on our way up (we had stayed on the climber's right side of the glacier). We regretted our decision to deviate from our tracks as the guide had taken his clients through a pretty nasty crevasse-filled part of the glacier. He took them this way on the way back as well-- much to the horror of his clients. If you have previous mountaineering experience, I would suggest trusting your own experience and instincts.
We used a 7mm rope and had "standard" mountaineering gear (ice-axes and crampons), but opted to forego helmets as we believed the rock/ice fall danger could be mitigated by route selection. If you stay in the hut on a bed with planks, they are padded so you can leave your mat at home as well. If you need to rent gear, you may be able to rent some of it from the Mountainhouse in Kazbegi (www.mountainhouse.ge). If you need fuel canisters, however, I'd plan on getting these in Tbilisi. We used liquid, but were told there are two sporting good stores in Tbilisi that carry fuel canisters. In terms of finding liquid fuel, again, don't wait until you get to Kazbegi-- try to get it in Tbilisi. We waited thinking we could purchase in Kazbegi, but we couldn't. Eventually we found road side gas station (I use the term loosely) just outside of Kazbegi that had hand painted wooden signs that said "Petrol" and "Diesel." He also sold benzene and we used that.
The plan was to get driven to the Gergeti Chapel (2174m) and begin our climb from there. When we arrived in Kazbegi, we were told the road was out, so we began our climb from the town (1700m) which added about another 50 minutes to our day. We began at 1000 and noted that by 1015 there were already standing lenticular clouds on the peak. Once you get to the meadow-covered hilltop (Mt Gergeti, I think?) where the chapel sits, there is a dirt road that we were told was the trail. This was not the case. It was a very long dirt driveway which dead-ended at someone's beautiful house. We then scrambled up the hillside and eventually got back on the "real trail." Later on, at one of the informational signs, the trail splits-- it continues straight or you can go right. It's about the same either way-- they both meet up again at the overlook of the Gergeti Glacier.
A few hours later you'll start walking on the climber's left hand side of the glacier. At some point you'll need to cross to get up to the Met Station. A descending climber instructed us to continue up on the left side until we were past a large mound of rock debris on the glacier and they to "walk toward the red flag." Unable to see the red flag, we picked a point directly below the Met Station and once we were about half way across the glacier, we were able to see a red flag marking the trail where the glacier and the ground meet. From there, there were several smaller red flags and then cairns up to the station.
It took us seven hours from Kazbegi to the Met Station. A Turkish Group had aborted their climb only 150m from the summit due to very poor visibility. They descended in near white-out conditions and relied on their GPS to return. One climber got snow blindness. The weather at the Met Station began to degrade rapidly that evening.
Low overcast skies prevented other groups from summiting, but as we had only planned to do an acclimatization hike, it worked out well. We hiked up to within about 300 meters of the Mali Plateau (4500m) and then began our descent as the weather was starting to come down. A storm rolled in that evening bringing with it snow, sleet, hail, rain, wind, and lightning. A Turkish climber phoned a friend working for a Turkish governmental meteorology agency and got the weather forecast. We planned to postpone our summit attempt until Thursday.
Weather was miserable. Everyone exercised good judgment and no one tried to summit. Very low ceilings and high winds all day long until evening when the skies began to clear. Sunset offered our first unobstructed views of the summit. Winds were still gusting 40kts.
We woke at 0315 to completely clear skies-- no moon, but plenty of stars. The wind was still howling, but it was acceptable to climb and we set off at 0424-- approximately 1 hour before first light. We opted to start then based on our experience during our acclimatization climb. The trail could be difficult to follow and there were sections that we thought better to tackle with light vice in the dark. Our Georgian hosts and the local guide agreed that this was a wise time to start. We had a very uneventful ascent. Upon reaching the Mali Plateau, we saw a group of 8 climbers midway between the plateau and the summit who had started from the Russian side. Not needing to break trail any longer, we quickly gained on them an reached the summit 5 hours and 47 minutes after leaving the Met Station. We only roped up for maybe the last 100m of the climb. Some reports suggest that the final portion approaches 50deg, but I disagree, concurring with other's on this site who suggest 40deg to be more accurate. Clear skies gave us a beautiful 360 degree panoramic view of the Caucasus, including views of Elbrus, however, the (estimated) 60kt winds drove us quickly from the summit. The only difficulty on our descent was in following the tracks as I mentioned above in the "Guide" section. We returned to the Met Station before 1415, coming in at just under 10 hours which is what we had estimated: 6 hours up, 4 hours down. Our diversion through the crevasse field probably added an additional 45 minutes to our descent.
The descent is never my favorite part. We began at 0800, making it across the glacier before descending into a cloud. We had partial cloud coverage which kept the temperatures mild for most of our descent. We had arranged to have Gela pick us up at 1500 in Kazbegi and we found that even going slowly, we had plenty of time to get down the mountain. We spent about an hour near the chapel before descending the last few hundred meters into town.
We had hoped that over the course of the climb that we might see Caucasian Tur or other indigenous wildlife, but alas, we saw only stray dogs, horses, donkeys, mules, and domesticated sheep and goats!