The Lada Niva’s engine whines in protest as the rev counter approaches the redline. Tires squirm for grip in the loose snow. Vasil, our driver, calmly smooths out the drift and slingshots his car into the next hairpin bend. Behind our heads in the trunk our axes, shovels, snowshoes and crampons create a cacophony of steel and aluminum. Counterpoint to the rubber and leather squeaks and tinny rattles from the Niva.
High in the Kazbegi Caucasus, Lisa and I have packs loaded with food, equipment and camera gear for a multi-day snowshoe and wild camping adventure.
After a dinner of local specialties in one of the small restaurants, Vasil drives us back to our base for the week; on the way, revealing a treasure trove of possibilities for trekking, ski touring and mountaineering in this area.
After only 30 minutes, we have a least a month’s worth of options.
We need to head out for a reconnaissance.
The next morning we shoulder our packs early and head down a snow-covered road, scoping potential trails.
Within the first 10 minutes we have had four offers of lifts from local drivers, curious as to what we’re doing out this early with heavy packs.
At the fifth offer, our resistance crumbles and we gratefully accept a lift down the road to the appropriately named Sno village.
Thanking our driver, I offer him a 10 lari note. His response is a swift, “I’m not a taxi.”
Fearing I’ve made a faux pas, I look to see if he’s annoyed, but the beaming smile is its own answer.
This generosity of spirit is present in nearly every Georgian we meet throughout our trip.
Our entrance into Sno is across an off-kilter suspension bridge, some planks missing completely. Luckily the river is only a few meters below us, not the yawning chasms you might encounter in the Himalaya.
Eventually we’re on the correct track to the trailhead. Once on the mountain, we can begin to make sense of the landscape and terrain. A multi-day itinerary starts to take shape in our minds. Check lists can be made and crossed off. In this deep cold we will have to find a water source at some point, otherwise we will be melting snow for hours.
Heading home for the night, we’re already excited for the adventure ahead.
As though he has read our minds, Vasil calls us asking if we have any plans for the next day.
“Can you pick us up at 6a.m.?” we ask
“How about 7 a.m.?” he counters.
Grateful for the extra hour’s sleep, we agree.
Morning comes all to early. We briefly question our respective career paths, but the magnetic pull of new mountains is all the incentive we need to get out the door.
One wild ride up a twisting mountain road in that rattling Lada Niva to our drop off point, and we’re alone!
Just us and an amphitheater of peaks, radiant under starlight.
Late in the day, we chance upon a perfect spot for our first camp. The spur widens enough for a comfortable place to pitch our tent. In the midst of setting up camp my stomach growls—time to make dinner.
Cocooned in layers of silk and down we fall asleep amid the deep silence of remote winter peaks.
Plumes of breath swirl and dance above me in the light of my head torch. To my left, I can hear Lisa curl deeper into her sleeping bag.
It’s my turn to make breakfast. First order of business: thick, hot coffee.
Easing my way slowly through the narrow door, the rain fly slithers and crackles in the cold.
The sting of freezing air causes an involuntary cough. Burying my face into the hood of my jacket I jog in place to create heat.
With coffee made and grateful mumbles of thanks from inside the tent, I can get to work prepping our breakfast.
Our winter adventure in this mountain vastness speeds by all too fast. Days pass in a kaleidoscope of sensory wonders: the smell of snow on the wind, moonlight glinting of shards of ice as though the ground is carpeted in diamonds, a dense forest hiding a stone fortress, hot spiced soup, and the joy of traveling in the wilderness with a close and trusted friend.
Below, enjoy these locally-inspired dishes that we prepared at camp!
Georgian Caucasus Menu
Lobio with Mchadi (Red bean, pepper, onion and herb stew with cornbread)
Ingredients (Serves 2)
2 cups dried red kidney beans, soaked in water overnight.
1 white onion, finely sliced
1 green pepper, roughly diced
1 cup flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped
1 vegetable stock cube, crumbled
1 tsp white pepper
1/2 tsp dried fennel powder
1/2 tsp black cumin powder
1/2 tsp coriander powder
Salt — to taste
1 tbsp butter or ghee.
Cornflour, finely ground
2 tsp sea salt
1 tsp chili flakes
1 cup hard white cheese, cut into fine cubes.
2 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil.
Extra cornflour for dusting
Camping stove, pump and fuel bottle
Ceramic pot and skillet
Wooden spoon and spatula
Silicone dry bag, to knead and store the dough.
Mix the beans, parsley and stock cube together and store in a lightweight leakproof container.
Store the onion, pepper and spices in a separate container.
First make the cornbread.
Mix together the cornflour, spices, salt, eggs and oil.
Then add in the cheese and a little water at a time.
Knead until you have a smooth dough.
Store in a silicone dry bag or reusable container.
Light the stove and when burning correctly reduce the heat to a simmer.
Add the butter/ghee and when gently sizzling add the onion, pepper and spices.
Cook for 2-3 minutes.
Add the bean mix, stir well and enough water to cover completely.
Increase the heat to full, cover with the pot lid and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat slightly, cook for 20 minutes or until the beans are soft, adding more water if necessary.
Taste and season with salt if needed.
Remove from the heat and keep warm.
Place the skillet on the stove, reduce the heat to medium/high.
Break off a golf ball size lump of dough, roll in between your hands until smooth and flatten.
Dust with a little cornflour and place in the skillet.
There is space in the skillet for 2-4 breads, depending on size.
Dry fry for a few minutes on both sides until cooked through and the cheese starts to ooze out.
Serve the bean stew in an insulated container with some bread.
Chicken Satsivi Soup (Winter Camp Version)
Ingredients: Serves 2
Cooked meat from thighs and one breast of chicken
(Slow cook in the oven and when cold pull the meat apart with forks or your hands)
1 cup walnuts, smashed to fine chunks/powder
1 cup coriander leaf
1 cup parsley leaf
4 cloves garlic
1 glass white wine
1 cup sour cream
2-3 cups water (depending on how thick you like your soup).
1 chicken stock cube, crumbled.
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp hot paprika
1 tsp dried tarragon.
50 g butter (wrapped)
Camping stove and pot
Bamboo chopping board
Insulated coffee mug with airtight lid
Insulated bowl/mug — to serve
Method: Cooking in camp
Put the pulled chicken into an airtight container, and chill in the fridge overnight.
Use this to transport to camp.
Mix the wine and sour cream together and transport in a leakproof coffee mug
Fill your bottle with water.
Place the spices, stock cube and walnuts in a small reusable container.
Place the herbs, onion and garlic and butter in another reusable container.
Hike to your chosen lunch spot, or overnight camp.
In camp, finely chop the herbs, garlic and onion.
Heat the pot, add butter and foam gently.
Add the onion, garlic, herbs and spice/walnut mix; cook for 2 minutes.
Add the wine, sour cream and water, bring to a simmer.
Add the shredded chicken and cook for 15 minutes minimum.
(If you have the time and fuel, cook for longer as the flavours will intensify)
Taste and season if needed.
Serve in the insulated bowls/mugs.