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Hell Mell 2: The Rhododendron Jungle

fog
Once again, the Nothing threatens to destroy Fantasia.

When my brother and I were bold adolescents, we strayed off in the swampy woods between Borden’s Pond and Great Meadows Wildlife Refuge with our neighbors, the Hull brothers. Stubbornly refusing to backtrack, we ended up plodding through a foot of mud, concertina wire hedges, and poison ivy–cutting through the sewage treatment plant on the final leg. When we got home, muddied, bloodied, and itchy, we dubbed our path the Hell Mell trail because we’re very clever.

There have been many sequels, and I don’t know that this one really qualifies as the worthy successor. It seems like it, but then I’m sure Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull sounded good at the time too.

Our fog-christened hike progressed from a leisurely bisection of the ghost village of Khalde—where the Tsarist Russians quashed Svan resistance and smashed their towers into Jenga piles—up to the Chebureki Pass (I’m terrible with remembering Georgian place names) at 2,790 meters, where we had panoramic views of Shkura, Georgia’s highest peak, and the Gene Simmons-like tongues of the Khalde and Adishi Glaciers, both drooling rapid, freezing rivers into the valleys below.

robin's ascent
Robin's ascent toward the Chicklet Pass
adishi glacier
Adishi Glacier, currently being sued by the Rolling Stones for trademark violation

Having been warned by other hikers that finding a safe place to cross the river on the other side of the pass would be tricky, we scouted out a few options from on high (our view from the pass is the photo at top). Problem is, from high above you cannot tell how cold, quick, or comedically calamitous the jazz-hand fingers of glacial melt will be.

I think I uttered the phrase “I’m not worried,” a little too confidently several times.

After several flailing and failing attempts to ford at the first juncture, we meandered through the shoreline grass to a few other promising options, who very quickly broke those promises. Never trust anything you’re told way down upon the Svanee river.

A small victory was had when I managed to cross in my Keen sandals but barely and without my bags. Though the water at its deepest was barely over my knees, it was sufficiently swift to splash up to my waist in places, freezing my toes and chilling my jewels.

fording expat monkey
Even this narrow, shallow streamlet threatened my poor balance on numbed nubs of feets

In a worst-case scenario, we could get across at this zig-zag pass of splintered streams. But we decided to fall back to our other worst-case scenario plan. No, not building a raft out of dried feces, but bushwhacking to a sprawling snow spill down a gorge that thickly bridged the river further downstream.

The problem was getting there. At this point the foliage was so dense that we had to climb a foot or two above the ground to get some purchase on branches that would bend enough that we could squeeze between them. And the ground was so soft that if you did get your feet on the ground they’d disappear in either loose grass and rock or else creepy wet spongecakes that fantasized of swallowing your leg whole and telling their friends.

In short, it was hectic enough that I had to put my camera in my bag, which is saying a lot.

beginning of the rhododendron jungle
The first, sparser leg of our bushwhacking through the Avocado Jungle of Death (sans avocado trees). Without Bill Mahr to help us through, there was no question this would be dicey.

I don’t know if there are snakes up here, but I can imagine them, which is just as much of a threat. As noted during my Nepal leg, in such situations I find it comforting to sing loudly. No sane animal would stick around after hearing that.

The worst bit (of the hike, not my singing) came toward the end, as we rappelled a few feet from the brief plummet into the river, along a wall of rhododendrons, clinging their tentacles and relaying across until we got to a clearing and the savior avalanche.

Turns out both Robin and I had macabrely imagined scenarios where we fall in through the snow and get tragically snagged in the icy flow below, drowning. It sounds as though mine was a bit more elaborate, including making a video to family and clawing my way below the surface a while. But the cow tracks and dung on the snow seemed argument enough that this was a solid crossing.

snow bridge
The famous snowbridge from that blog entry about the snow bridge

From there we could see our night’s destination in the distance, like Rivendell, but without as many elves. We ran into a friendly Canadian family–who I later learned by Googling the name on their bags (no, that’s not weird) were led by their daddio travel writer Bruce Kirkby–and shortly after paused a while on a low footbridge over a rushing white-water stream that released a pleasant misty spray on us.

Upon reaching Adishi, we settled in with a nice family, who to be fair, deserve their own blog entry. So that will be next. All in all a stellar 9-hour day and great hike. I’m happy that neither Robin nor I drowned. Especially me.

See my complete collection of Svaneti photos on Flickr.

(For the record, the pass is actually the Chkhutnieri Pass, which I learned by using the Google and found this nice video of someone else’s journey–when the river was lower–on YouTube.)

adishi
The greater Adishi metropolitan area

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  1. By When My Father Goes to Bed, We Can Make Disco 16 Jul ’11 at 9:30 pm

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