Mount Kazbek, more properly known in Georgian as Mkinvartsveri ('Ice-Top'), is a long-extinct volcano 5,047m in altitude, and is by far the highest peak in this section of the Caucasus. It's laden with mythology, firstly of Amirani, the Georgian Prometheus, who was chained to the mountain as a punishment for his pride and whose shape can be made out in the rock from far away, and secondly of the tent of Abraham which was said to stand on the summit, protecting the Holy Manger, or the Tree of Life - or treasure. The Greek Prometheus was supposedly chained up here for stealing fire from the gods, as was the Georgian Amirani, for challenging the omnipotence of God. Amirani’s abode was somewhere near the Betlemi (Bethlehem) cave, 4000m above sea level, where resided a hermit and many very sacred objects – Christ’s manger, Abraham’s tent, a dove-rocked golden cradle whose sight would blind a human being. There is indeed a cave at 4000m, near the Betlemi Hut ( opposite ), which serves as the base for most Kazbek ascents today. There are also legends of lost treasure connected with the Betlemi Cave.
There were taboos against hunting on the mountain and climbing it. Not surprisingly, the first to conquer this peak were foreigners: Freshfield, Tucker and Moore of the London Alpine Club in 1868. At the Betlemi hut you may be able to get an experienced local guide (non-English speaking) to lead you up the mountain for €150 to €200 per person – though to ensure guide services it’s best to take a (more expensive) package with an experienced agency. If you need climbing gear, rent it in Tbilisi as there's none available here.
Kazbegi is a UIAA grade II climb (PD, with just 100m of ice climbing in the final couloir) and is best tackled in September or October; the classic route on the icy south face is UIAA grade III+. Kazbek is far easier than peaks such as Uzhba in Svaneti; climbing it takes four days as a rule - one day to the hut, one day training and acclimatising, one day to the summit and back to the hut, and a day to return to town. It's a 1,855m climb from the town of Kazbegi to the Betlemi Hut - a good day's work if carrying food and climbing gear - and 1,381m more to the summit. It's also possible to turn left at the top of the glacier to climb Ortsveri (4,258m), another UIAA grade II peak, which makes a useful warm-up.
The ascent of the mountain is technically straightforward, though there is some danger in crevasses. The climb generally takes three or four days from Kazbegi.
- Day 1 Hike from Kazbegi up to the Betlemi Hut at 3652m. It’s also possible to camp at 2950m, about 2½ hours short of the hut.
- Day 2 Spend the day acclimatising by climbing up to the Maili Plateau at 4500m, or to the summit of Ortsveri Peak (4365m) and then back down to the Betlemi Hut.
- Day 3 Leave in the early hours of the morning and follow the north side of the glacier westward for 4km, passing south of the summit cone, and then up to the broad, snow-covered Maili Plateau at 4500m. Steeper climbing then leads back east to a saddle at 4900m, followed by mixed snow, rock and ice to the summit (six hours). This final section involves about three rope lengths of 35- to 40-degree ice. Descend to the Betlemi Hut for the night (five hours).
- Day 4 Descend to Kazbegi.