UNTAPPED VISITS GEORGIA AND AZERBAIJAN
UPDATE! See a quick 5 minute video summary of the trip here!
Ryan Brady, a native New Englander and graduate student in the Master of Outdoor Adventure & Expedition Leadership program at Southern Oregon University, and classmates embark this summer on a bikepacking expedition in the countries of Georgia and Azerbaijan.
The trip primarily visited the Caucasus Mountains, an area at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. With no shortage of exertion on the horizon yet 5,500 miles away from the heart of maple headquarters in Richmond, VT they were still well stocked with UnTapped. Now resettled back into class, we checked in with Ryan to hear how the trip went.
First off, tell us a bit about this intrepid team?
We are a team of five students and one instructor. Since September of last year, we studied and adventured together as part of the first class to complete the new Master of Outdoor Adventure & Expedition Leadership degree at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. The program takes a “cohort” model: we form a mix with backgrounds as trekkers, bikers, climbers, boaters, and skiers. We met last fall at the start of the school year, enrolled in the same courses, collaborated on projects, and will soon graduate together. Thus, once it came time to embark on our expedition, we knew each other quite well. We have various levels of athletic ability, but share a spirit for excitement in the free air.
Nathan leads Chad up a lengthy hike-a-bike section between remote villages that lay amid glaciated peaks.
What is the genesis of this trip? Where did the idea to visit this part of the world come from?
For our degree, one requirement is to plan and execute an international expedition. This trip was that nine credit course. We all wanted to do something to challenge ourselves and none of us had properly bikepacked before. In exploring this general concept, we came across Cass Gilbert’s report onBikepacking.com, and that was our primary inspiration. This trip was one of several other ideas, but we chose this one with two rounds of voting. Additionally, the Caucasus was a region we had never visited. Cursory research clearly showed Georgia, where we planned to spend the most time, as a country with great adventure potential, and people and their hospitality were consistently praised.
Akoshki tower-house in the Svaneti region stands in front of Shkhara, Georgia’s tallest peak at 5,201 m.
The Transcaucasus Trail, the TCT, a 1,500 km trekking trail can be difficult to navigate for visitors and tourists and even locals as well. How was that portion of the trip?
That’s right, the Transcaucasus Trail is not well-known to locals, particularly because it is still in development. Also, the folks who hike in Georgia and Azerbaijan are more commonly European foreigners as locals do not appear to have the means or motivation to venture too far into the backcountry, especially in the mountains. Though we explored the possibility of using the TCT as a route, we gave more attention to Mr. Gilbert’s track for the regions we chose to visit.
Abbie’s bike rests on a common roadside expression of the Eastern Orthodox faith as the team completes the last major climb from sea level into the Caucasus Mountains en route to the tourist town of Mestia.
The trip was roughly a month and a half long and half a world away. Was it divided into sectors or one full-fledged, nonstop adventure?
The expedition was 37 days long and was essentially continuous. However, we planned our route with several options along the way: junctions where the path could turn into mountains or veer towards valleys. There were three such points. At the first — which was immediate upon leaving the Black Sea — we ventured into the mountains of Svaneti. At the second, our group divided, and half biked into the mountains of Kazbegi for a brief visit (choosing not to continue for the duration of that segment of the route as it was planned on the map) while the other half traveled over the smaller Gombori Mountains; we joined in Azerbaijan. At the third point, we identified that the mountainous route was, in fact, impractical for bikes and so stuck to the mountains’ edge until we reached the Caspian Sea in Baku.
Wayfinding to Azerbaijan’s capital is simple for the next 110 km on this cross-country highway that transports travelers from Georgia at the northern border to the shores of the Caspian Sea.
How did the group take to local cuisine?
For the most part, the fare in both Georgia and Azerbaijan was low in variety, particularly in the rural areas where we spent the majority of our time. But there was never a dearth of bread—quite the opposite, really—and eggs were easy to come by; both of these pair great with maple syrup, of course! However, UnTapped maple proved a special ingredient among these local options: with the combination of bread, egg, and maple syrup; a sort of French toast could be whipped-up in a jiffy. We first discovered the serendipitous union at a restaurant but soon employed it with equal success at our campsites for a delicious tent-side dish.
Chad discovers the serendipitous union of scrambled eggs, simple and plain Georgian shoti bread, and UnTapped at breakfast in Mestia before heading deeper into the mountains.
We attempted to share UnTapped with locals but only received one or two takers. Their loss! Caucasia is not New England, and through the difficulties of language differences, I’m not sure what they knew to make of it!
After pushing their bikes uphill all day, Nathan and Ryan search for the proper path over the top of a grassy, precipitous ridge.
What’s next on your adventure protocol – where are you off to next?
I would like to continue to develop in backcountry skiing, climbing, and whitewater boating; but I can only plan to experience those among the fine natural resources we have within our own country for the time being.
Abbie takes a well deserved Raspberry Waffle break from the saddle to summit Mount Babadag (3,629 m) in Azerbaijan.
That’s such a cool and unique area of study, Outdoor Adventure & Expedition Leadership. What do you suppose you’ll do with your degree from SOU?
I wish I knew! I guess that’s the “adventure” part…