Day 6: Atsunta Pass - Down
I thought I had overcome the obstacles others had failed to conquer. The challenge had come and gone. I let out a sigh of relief and relaxed my guard upon a successful climax of the hike and relished in the accomplishment.
I was gravely mistaken to feel this way. The first hundred meters beyond the pass will hopefully be the most horrible I walk for the remainder of my life. For one hundred meters I truly feared for my life. For one hundred meters I had to watch helplessly as Abi was exposed to the same, uncontrollable, threat. For one hundred meters participated in the most terrifying, humbling, and dangerous thing I have ever done.
It was hard to tell from the get go, but by the time I understood the reality of my situation turning back was equally horrific. Soon after beginning to head down, the trail disappeared. It was obstructed in some zones by residual avalanche snow, now frozen into impenetrable ice. Other regions had been washed away completely by landslides. The peaks above were sharpened to a pencil point through the winter season and the shavings spilled down the near vertical shoot I was traversing. Impassible snow-pack combined with unstable landslide debris now formed the trail and there was no clear way forward. The descent went from bad to worse. The deeper I went the more solidly the ground under foot was frozen. With each attempted step the surface rock washed away exposing the ice just below. Probing with my poles there was no sign of stable ground and every bit of terrain felt eager to slide. From above, rocks tumbled off the rugged formations and as they careened down the shoot, gaining speed until out of sight, I could picture myself in their shoes. The sound of their cracks and cries continued long after exiting my field of vision.
Abi was in front of me, and as I traced her steps a short loss of traction left me ghost pale. For a split second I had lost control. I could see my face on the rubble that tumbled down, helplessly grasping for a hold as it splintered on the rocks below. I was shaking, the ground could not be trusted, and unable to move for fear of certain death I stood like a statue. My mind flailed, jumping between what ifs and formulating a new plan. Going backwards was equally futile, the ground above was frozen solid and the little traction I had on the way down was washed away by my progress. I slowly regained my composure and made another attempt. Though successful, I felt the risk itself had induced a level of physical pain. Things remained grim. Across a near solid ice patch I struggled to dig in for grip with my boots. I hacked away with my poles making little progress, trying to form more substantial foot holds; the effort went unrewarded. A scramble back uphill towards another snow field was akin to climbing an escalator in the wrong direction, as each step washed away beneath me. A fleeting window of opportunity would open to propel the next motion, any hesitation and I would become just another piece of debris in the jumble. For an hour I battled mind and mountain, and upon rejoining an unobstructed trail I dropped to the ground. My legs were trembling and I could hardly catch my breath.
An hour of steep, but non-threatening descent returned me to the valley below. I routinely gazed back up to where I had started, still shaken by the experience. I couldn’t help but wonder how the group of Lithuanians, with their horses and general lack of experience, could possibly descend such terrain; it was impossible, comical even. Eventually two small dots appeared and began the same descent. I wasn’t sure who they could be as no other small groups left town behind me. I feared for them, unsure what I would do in a worst case scenario. Once they reached the snow, I realized what was going on. These were members of the Lithuanian guide crew and with shovels and axes in hand they had come ahead to clear the trail. As I continued my hike through what was now a beautiful ridge, they tossed load after load of ice, snow, and loose rock down the shoot. For hours they slowly progressed along, leveling and stabilizing the terrain. I had certainly come too early to do this hike, but it turns out only by a couple of hours...
Arriving at camp I was able to decompress from the day. The unbelievably clear sky and monumental mountain view that dominated the campsite put my mind at ease. Eventually the Lithuanians strolled by and confirmed the trail had been rebuilt, at least partially, before their crossing. All I could do was shrug, they did not share my trauma. Before heading to bed I went to relieve myself on the far side of a nearby hill and just as I prepared to bare all, another boarder guard miraculously appeared. I scrambled to the ready, nothing dampens the mood on bathroom time in the wild like an assault rifle. I slept easy knowing Georgian and Russian guards still had their watchful eye on me.
Day 7: Final Leg to Shatili
The rising sun began boiling the air inside my tent, booting me out onto the grassy plateau. At a nearby boarder checkpoint I handed over my papers proving that I hadn’t infiltrated from the north, and began a steep descent to the valley floor. Through dense pine forest I cut back and forth, leaving the once pleasant high altitude climate behind for sweltering heat. A long stroll along the Khonischala River bank was now the only thing standing between me and the cozy comforts of a Georgian guest house. The trail turned to road, and aggressively direct warning signs threatened severe consequence for diverting off. Soon Russian flags could be seen flying on hills across the river marking the border 1.5km away.
Shatili was in sight, and after quickly organizing transit for the next morning out of the mountains I gleefully dismounted my boots for the last time. One hundred of the most striking, strenuous, and stressful kilometers I have ever traversed were behind me, but the experience has not faded away quickly. At the time I didn’t know just how much the last few days would affect me moving forward, but rest assured the scars are still present. In retrospect would I do it again? Absolutely. The region is too stunning for anything to negate it permanently. But never would I advise beating the crowds on this one, not to any living creature. The guesthouse had a small TV upon which the first World Cup match I had the opportunity to watch was about to begin, Serbia vs. Switzerland, I melted into the couch and slowed my mind.