‘It started with a toilet’: the hikers’ hut cleaning up Georgia’s Mount Kazbek | Georgia holidays

DDawn arrives just after 7am when the early September sun stretches its head over the mountain ridges east of the northern Georgian city of Stepantsminda and paints the glaciers and knife-edges of Mount Kazbek in peachy and magenta hues.

On the wooden deck where I stand shivering, I alternately blowing off the steam from a cup of coffee and struggling to capture the glorious light on my phone or in doodles in a notebook.

Like thousands of climbers and hikers before me, I could have carried a tent, food and a stove, to pitch on the treeless alpine meadow in the shadow of Kazbek, a dormant stratovolcano that straddles the Georgian-Russian border. At 5,050 meters it is the third highest mountain in Georgia. But I came to visit something new for Georgia, an alpine country not necessarily known for its alpine culture. A hut.

AltiHut is a 45-bed hostel at 3,014 meters that offers hikers room and board while at the same time aiming to be a model for sustainable tourism – because garbage and human waste have long been an embarrassment here. Its owners may be visionaries of Georgia’s potential as a hiking mecca. Or stupid entrepreneurs.

Located at 3,014 meters above sea level, Altihut features murals of famous Georgian mountaineers. Photo: Mike Eckel

AltiHut is cozy and comfortable. There are several bedrooms with modern, well-insulated windows. Power comes from solar panels and heat from a wood-burning stove in the dining room, where huge windows offer stunning views of Kazbek and its approaches, including the Gergeti Glacier, a lumbering geological marvel that for eons has been dragging the mountain into rivers of silt, sand, pebbles and boulders and now succumbs to climate change oblivion himself.

Georgia has this incredible mountain culture, but we don’t have a tradition of mountain huts

“Georgia has this incredible mountain culture, but we don’t have a tradition of mountain huts,” says Nikoloz Alavidze, one of the three main partners of the hut company. “It’s still a luxury for many Georgians.”

Nik and his partners came up with the idea after being dismayed at the amount of litter left behind by tourists climbing Kazbek. “It started with a toilet,” says Nik. “Years of rubbish is up there – Soviet rubbish. Plus human waste, which is a problem because it doesn’t decompose at altitude.”

The three began pitching ideas to city officials, proposing to build high-altitude bio-toilets, but officials just wanted to make a deal out of it. Then they suggested building a proper hut to accommodate some of the foot traffic and also reduce alpine waste. They received permission from national authorities to purchase the land, which is in a protected area, and invested more than $500,000 in site work and a geological survey.

Cozy bedrooms in Altihut.Cozy bedrooms in Altihut. Photo: Mike Eckel

While there are no showers at AltiHut, there are fully functional indoor plumbing for the toilets. David Chichinadze, another partner who opened AltiHut in 2018, says the sewage system is a big improvement over the open sewers and dumps that plague the mountain’s most popular campground: the old meteorological station a few kilometers up.

The hut opened in November 2018, just as winter was setting in and a group of Polish climbers were the first to stay overnight. The following year they had few customers – new operations, little marketing – and then in 2020 the pandemic. Four years later, however, more and more Georgians know the hut, as well as more foreign tourists. There are backcountry ski touring competitions and an ultramarathon race was scheduled for the weekend. The rarely seen Güldenstadt Redstart, which populates the high ridges, also attracts bird watchers.

Funny house rules at the hutHouse rules at the hut with a wink.

Half board stays in the high winter season (December to May) cost around £95 per person. So far, the clientele is mainly European, not Georgian. “The problem isn’t affordability, it’s the lack of a mountaineering culture among the local population,” says David. “Most Georgians prefer not to spend their holidays actively, but by the sea and in restaurants. However, now we are seeing a new generation of Georgians who are more interested in outdoor sports.”

As in the German and Swiss huts that AltiHut is modeled after, no hiking boots are allowed, so visitors are offered Crocs to shuffle around in. Linens provided; The laundry is washed down in the village and transported up and down by horse. (This is also an option for transportation if walking isn’t your thing.)

If there’s one thing underwhelming about Altihut, it’s the food. It’s simple: cheese dumplings similar to Ukrainian vareniki, served with butter, cabbage and beet soup. The best is the daily baked bread. You’ll be hungry from the trek when you arrive, so this filling fare is welcome. But in Georgia, a country with excellent food culture, it’s a bit disappointing. Beer and wine are available at the cabin, as well as a variety of spirits, including Georgia’s other national drink: chacha.

You can hear the rush of the river – thousands of years of glacial runoff – and the faint call of hawks riding the updraft

At the time of my visit, the few other guests included a trio of young Austrians and a few late arriving Turks who wanted to climb Mount Kazbek before dawn. Like me, they had all made the four-hour climb to the hut from Stepantsminda, which lies astride the main Georgia-Russia road. A three-hour drive from the capital, Tbilisi, Stepantsminda is a mosh pit full of tourist services, including cafes, guides, and reasonable B&Bs to acclimate to the altitude. Jeep drivers will lie to you about how difficult the climb is to convince you to ride with them. Ignore them: the hut, Mount Kazbek, Gergeti Glacier and the stunning alpine scenery are all reasons enough to do the trek.

And then there’s the 14th-century stonework known as the Gergeti Trinity Church, perched on a cliff above Stepantsminda and far below AltiHut. On the ascent to the church you can either hike along a valley stream or along the road. Either way, you’ll have to meander through the backyards drying the laundry of the locals, most of whom depend on tourism for their livelihoods. With a good clip, you can reach the church in 90 minutes – it’s a 500-metre climb through sandy scrub pines – and contemplate what it was like for Orthodox monks and their workers centuries ago to erect the building using only horses and brute force .

Gergeti is a fully functioning church and monastery. Its structure is a cross-in-square design, typical of late Byzantine architecture. The original murals and murals have faded with time, but the iconostasis and the crackle of the beeswax candles still add an air of sacredness.

Man with three horses under towering peakSupplies and laundry are carried up the mountain on horseback. Photo: Mike Eckel

From the church you ascend a ridge that winds through dry grass and trees in early September and is a popular route for alpinists en route to the summit. The ascent – about 800 meters from the church – is not technically demanding but requires some effort, especially in the hot late summer sun. The ridge approaches the AltiHut from the southeast along a steep path with a steep drop off into a valley. As you stop, you can hear the murmur of the river—thousands of years of glacial runoff—and even the faint call of hawks riding thermal thermals.

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