For many tourists coming to Georgia the primary activities consist of a cultural tour of Tbilisi, centered around the Old City and Rustaveli Avenue, and then a trip to the Black Sea. Fewer are interested in the magnificent peaks of the Greater Caucasus, which is a shame, considering that the peaks of Georgia and Russia are significantly higher than the peaks of any other mountain range in Europe. The highest mountains of the Alps are about 4,500 meters, while the Greater Caucasus has six peaks above 5,000 meters, two of which are in Georgia. (The other four are on the northern side of the border in Russia, including the tallest peak in Europe, Mount Elbrus at 5,642 meters.)
Kazbek – 5,047 meters
Of the mountains in Georgia Kazbek (ყაზბეგი or მყინვარწვერი) is the one which enjoys the greatest amount of tourism, due to its proximity to Tbilisi. Although the road to Stepantsminda is rough and patchy after Gudauri, it only requires a three or three and a half hour drive from Tbilisi’s Didube station, where a number of marshrutkhas depart daily.
Kazbek, a relatively steep dormant volcano, is the highest peak of the eastern half of the Greater Caucasus. Only Tebulosmta (ტებულოს მთა), the highest mountain of Chechnya, competes in terms of prominence and aesthetics—but it’s only accessible by jeep.
It’s not a particularly daring mountain for climbing. Several tour operators are available in Stepantsminda for organizing expeditions. There’s a climber’s hut halfway along the route before the glacier. As many veteran volunteers in Georgia already know, Kazbek is best enjoyed from the church overlooking Gergeti, a hike requiring about two hours from Stepantsminda.
Ushba – 4,710 meters
Although not in the top ten tallest mountains of the Greater Caucasus, Ushba (უშბა) is certainly the most beautiful with its double-horned peaks piercing into the sky like the head of a bull. The slopes are steep and rocky, and the weather unpredictable due to its isolation, making it one of the most dangerous mountains in the region and a long-time favorite for Soviet alpinists training for the Himalayas.
Ushba can be seen briefly on the drive to Mestia, where it sits at the end of a string of villages collectively named Becho. But as you drive further to Mestia it quickly disappears behind a collection of smaller mountains and hills, and can only be seen again in the distance if you continue eastward toward Ushguli.
For anyone who loves the sharp peaks of the Alps, especially the Matterhorn, Ushba offers similar splendor in a less crowded, less over-priced atmosphere.
Climbing tours can be arranged, but only seasoned mountaineers are capable of summiting. Even recently Ushba has claimed lives, a testament to its enduring wildness and stubborn character.
Shkhara – 5,068 meters
Georgia’s other notoriously dangerous mountain is farther east from Ushba along the Greater Caucasus, sitting on the Russian border. Shkhara (შხარა) is one of the peaks of the Bezengi Wall—the other famous ones being Dzangi-Tau and Katin-Tau (both on the Russian side). The Bezengi Wall, along with Ushba, were the great tests of Soviet alpinism. While most of the peaks of the Greater Caucasus were conquered in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they remained essential training grounds for professional mountaineers proving themselves for the more daunting peaks of the Himalayas.
Viewed from the Georgian side Shkhara is an immense black and white ridge. From Mestia the best vantage point for enjoying Shkhara is a few kilometers northeast from Ushguli. There you can see Shkhara’s glaciers and wonder how anyone would be crazy enough to climb it.