Footwear testing caucasian style

14.05.2012 Blog Bergpost Joachim Stark News
4 Mountaineers, 4 Boots and a Mountain Paradise. Last year four Hanwag ProTeam members, a mountain guide, an outdoor photographer, a journalist specialising in mountaineering and a forestry engineer, decided to leave the Alps behind them to head out east for three weeks.

It takes us twelve hours to cover the approximately 500 bumpy kilometres from Tbilisi to Mestiya. Apart from being a trip into the mountains, it’s also a journey back in time – at least if the state of the roads and the fortified towers at each village are anything to go by. In Georgia, generous hospitality is one thing both town and country have in common. Guests have always been treated here as if they were sent from heaven – wherever they go. This might be due to tradition, or the sociable and honest nature of the Georgian people. The fact that tourists bring money into the country also has a role to play: tradition and economics go hand in hand.

The impression that most people have of the Caucasus is very different to the reality. Yes, the region was a trouble spot until recently and yes, some areas are still not really stable. However, the wild, lawless days of the Caucasus and the province of Swanetia in particular, are long gone. In the meantime the mountains have become a paradise for mountaineers, trekkers and outdoor enthusiasts – and one that is only just starting to be developed. The region still rates as an insider’s tip – for now anyway. The Georgians are not unaware of the potential their wild mountains have as a tourist attraction. The objective
of our small Hanwag ProTeam expedition was to climb Mount Ushba, the 4,700-meter peak known as the “Matterhorn of the Caucasus” because of its picturesque double summit. It’s late August and the valleys are hot and oppressive. Up among the higher peaks, the icy summits at 4,000 and 5,000 metres beckon. That’s where we’re heading. Everything we need for the multi-day trip is carried in our rucksacks: stoves, provisions, ropes, ice tools, bivouac equipment and crampons. My teammates Ursi, Ralf and Regine are wearing the Friction GTX®, while I have my Sirius GTX®,.

The first part of our journey leads us through classic trekking terrain. There is even a (marked!) trail up to the start of the glacier. From here, we make our way over the moraine and the eroded surface of the Ushba Glacier to our first camp. Up until this point, the classic Alaska GTX® trekking boot would be the best choice of footwear. For anyone planning to turn back at the end of the marked path, before the glacier starts (a superb day trip in itself), a lighter trekking model would be more appropriate, such as the Tatra (made of Terra Care Zero leather). For trips earlier on in the year when the snows are melting a Gore-Tex® membrane boot would be more advisable, for example the Altai GTX®. Both of these TREK category models are lighter and more comfortable than the Alaska GTX®, although they are not as robust.

Our own ’ALPIN’ and ’ROCK’ category boots were not really put to the test during the approach. But that soon changes after the bivouac. Crampons are required – we’re now entering real mountain terrain. Ursi and Regine both wear prototypes of the next-generation alpine all-rounder, the Friction GTX®. Weighing just 820 g, it’s a remarkably lightweight performance boot. It provides moderate insulation and has crampon compatibility for crampons with a flexible basket-type toe piece and heel bail. As a result, it’s ideal for summer high alpine mountaineering and technical rock and mixed climbing. Ralf is wearing the previous model. They both share the same characteristics when it comes to stability and versatility, but the newer model has a superior design. We get to see the comparison in action. Ralf sees it somewhat differently, “It’s all just bells and whistles. The old model is superb. I’ve done three seasons and numerous trips to the Western and Eastern Alps in mine. No problem! Although if I’m honest, I wouldn’t say no to a new pair...”

Alpine Footwear for Alpine Terrain

On similar terrain with sections of firn and technical rock climbing, but at 1,500 m lower altitude, the versatile Ferrata Combi GTX® would be the perfect choice. It’s not Hanwag’s bestselling technical rock boot for nothing. But up here for multi-day trips high in the Caucasus Mountains at over 4,000 m, with the glaciers and unstable rock faces, fresh snow and sub-zero temperatures (in summer too), it’s better not to make any compromises. This is why we left our fast & light footwear at home in the cupboard.

In fact, I opted for a heavier boot than the others: the Sirius GTX® is a rigid alpine boot with a stiff leather upper. It has a firm, fully crampon compatible design for automatic crampons with a toe bail wire. However, its upper is slightly lower than on the flagship alpine model, the Omega, which makes it more flexible. It also has less insulation. All in all, it’s an outstanding 3-season boot. I was also really impressed by my Sirius GTX® on a multi-week mountain and trekking expedition in the Himalayas. The Sirius coped with everything up to 6,300 m. I only had to pull on my clumpy expedition boots to go beyond that point. Anyone who values durability over weight and wants to use automatic crampons with a toe bail wire will love the Sirius GTX®.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the summit. A storm during the night was enough to bury our dreams of reaching it under fresh snow. The change in the weather put an end to the good conditions on the serac zone and the summit ice ridge, making them an incalculable and dangerous risk. Treacherous new snow was covering the crevices and ploughing through the knee-deep drifts was really strenuous. Huge slabs of snow were plummeting down the face too. Unfortunately we didn’t have the two or three days it would have taken to sit it out and wait for the lousy conditions to improve. Our experiences on the mountain were sometimes grue
some and sometimes breath-taking, but we certainly won’t forget them in a hurry. During our two remaining days we explored the cultural and culinary delights of Tbilisi and the surrounding areas. There is certainly no shortage of things to see in Georgia. Nature and culture are easy to combine. And for outdoor enthusiasts, Georgia is a paradise waiting to be explored. Whether climbing in the Caucasus Mountains, trekking in the Lesser Caucasus (for example in the Borjomi National Park) or hiking through the cave monasteries of Vardzia or David Gareja.

Joachim Stark