Crippled in the Caucasus

‘Oh for a Landcruiser and a pair of snow chains’ I thought as I desperately dug snow out from under the wheels of my rental car. Ironically it was only when I decided to turn back that I got stuck.

Anyone who skies will know that it’s a fairly simple proposition that mountains get covered in snow over winter. I spend a lot of time in various mountain ranges, but invariably only in the snow-free summer months.

I’d picked up the car at Tbilisi airport.  I knew the road north would be bad but it came as something of a surprise to find the High Caucasus covered in feet of snow.

I had planned to drive North from Tbilisi along the Georgian Military Highway to the little hamlet of Kazbegi, now known as Stepantsminda, just a stone’s throw from the Russian and Ossetian border.  I had wanted to fit in a bit of mountain running as early spring training.

Looking forward to warm spring weather, I pictured that I’d be able to dump my car in the village and disappear for a run across beautiful mountain meadows, with snow capped peaks in the distance. What presented me were virtual blizzard conditions.  Not at all the training weather I’d hoped for.

It was after the village of Gudauri – altitude 7,200 ft –  that the road really got bad. I could feel the car squirming as I moved slowly over the snow, sliding gently every now and again as I veered across the road to avoid huge potholes.  Even at my slow speed the car’s anti-lock brakes kept firing and unpleasant noises were coming from the suspension struts.  Several times I had to reverse then accelerate hard to get up particularly slippery climbs.

There wasn’t much traffic on the road.  A few tough looking military trucks emerged from the gloom every now and then, with wheels bigger than my car and snow chains to match.   I slowly began to realise that this wasn’t the place for a Toyota Yaris.  I’d have to try reaching Kazbegi another day.

I drove on a little further considering my options but quickly the wind picked up and the visibility dropped to virtually zero. I could hardly see past the bonnet.  I was getting hungry and was increasingly conscious that getting stuck in the snow would not be a particularly enjoyable situation.

So I made a snap decision to turn the car around and head back. I touched the brakes, the ABS fired and the car slid gracefully into a six-foot high wall of snow on the side of the road.

I quickly popped the automatic transmission into reverse but outside the front wheels just spun worthlessly.  I turned the steering wheel and tried again. Still nothing. I was stuck.

Through the gloom and snow I couldn’t see more than a dozen or so meters.  I looked out of the side window and along the road. Suddenly I felt extremely vulnerable. If another truck came along it surely wouldn’t see me until it came crashing into my side door.

I turned the steering wheel full lock and fiddled with the gearbox to engage a higher gear, but however gently I was with the accelerator, the wheels just kept spinning.

Exasperated, I climbed out of the car, listening carefully for the sound of trucks above the howl of the wind.  I started scraping snow out from under the front wheels with my bare hands.  I tried reversing again. Nothing.

I got back out of the car and rummaged around in the snow for rocks that I could move to provide extra traction.  Only then did I start to think what else I had in the car that I might be able to shove under the wheels to give more traction and how much I might risk letting the tyres down.

Back in the car I gave the accelerator the lightest of touches. The car dithered for a moment then shot back into the snow on the other side of the road.  I engaged forward gear and set off a little too fast back down the road, deliriously happy to be free.

I found a hotel in Gudauri and set about trying to find something decent to eat. Even the simplest of food tasted great after a long day in the car. I went to bed promising myself that I’d make it to Kazbegi the next day.

In the morning the weather had cleared, but the roads had frozen over, making them even more treacherous than before.  The views were stunning but so too were the drops into the valley.

Retracing the route of the previous day was even more taxing. I was driving at little more than walking pace. With just the most basic maps on my GPS, I worked out it would talk the best part of the day to make Kazbegi, if I made it at all.  I cursed myself for not splashing out on a bigger car.

But Landcruisers and big 4x4s can get you into more trouble. As you drive into a small town they draw more attention than you might wish to have.  They encourage you to take more risks. And digging a Landcruiser out of snow is a much bigger job.

And besides, it’s always good to have the car wimp out before you do.