Linking almost a thousand miles of forest and mountains, the trail will offer hikers tough terrain in a little-known corner of the world.
Paul Stephens had hiked and bushwhacked for hours up the old Soviet trail through dense beech and pine forest. He was looking for the pass that connects the Khazreti and Tusheti regions in the Greater Caucasus range, the sawtoothed line of peaks that divides Russia from Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Reaching the top, he looked down into the steep canyon below and breathed out in relief. The track continued.
Out here, he knew, paths had a habit of just disappearing. And halfway down, as he scrambled through deep stands of six-foot-tall poisonous hogweed, the “trail” did just that.
Big rockfalls had wiped out long sections of the route, “so I was crossing these really sketchy landslides,” he said. Soon, the loose stone got too dangerous to traverse and he knew he would be forced into crossing the rushing mountain river at the bottom of the gorge. He was alone, with no support, in a remote area. He stepped off a boulder and plunged into the cold, rough water. “The river kept getting deeper and deeper and more and more difficult to cross, and I was really unsure that I was going to be able to make it out of the canyon,” he said.
Physical and Mental Challenges
Those were the kinds of epic physical and mental challenges he and a small American and British team have taken on to scout and build the Transcaucasian Trail (TCT), a 932-mile, long-distance trekking route stretching from the Black Sea in the west to the Caspian Sea in the east. The trail is planned to pass under gorgeous 16,400-foot peaks capped with snow and through a stunning high-altitude UNESCO World Heritage site.
“You have incredibly steep terrain. You have a lot of rivers, and a lot of dense forests that are really difficult to navigate through,” Stephens said. The very obstacles to building a trail here are what make the region a world-class trekking destination. Though virtually unknown on international lists of top treks, the Caucasus lures a small but growing number of extreme hikers looking for adventure in a mostly uncharted wilderness. Stephens hopes the TCT will bring greater access to a still wild place.
Vipliani’s house was an hour-and-a-half hike up a steep jeep track through pine forest
From a hiker’s point of view, one of the biggest problems is that the old Soviet trails in the region are unmaintained, with trail markers faded to nothing in places. “Sometimes we lost our track in the woods,” said Irakli Chakhvashvili, a young Georgian geographer who has helped with some of the scouting and mapping.
He recalled a recent hike up to a well-known glacier above Mestia, a popular tourist town in the mountainous Svaneti province in western Georgia. “The markings are also in bad shape,” he said. “It was marked on the maps, but you shouldn’t trust that.”