This 5047m extinct volcano (also called Mkinvartsveri or Mt Kazbegi), towering west of Kazbegi, has much folk history. The Greek Prometheus was supposedly chained up here for stealing fire from the gods, as was the Georgian Amirani, for challenging God’s omnipotence. The Betlemi (Bethlehem) cave, 4000m above sea level, was believed to be the abode of many very sacred objects – Christ’s manger, Abraham’s tent and a dove-rocked golden cradle whose sight would blind a human being. There were taboos against hunting on the mountain and climbing it. Not surprisingly, the first to conquer Kazbek’s peak were foreigners: Freshfield, Tucker and Moore of the London Alpine Club in 1868.
Today many thousands of people attempt to reach Kazbek’s summit each year (it's especially popular with Poles), but this is a serious mountaineering challenge that requires fitness and acclimatisation to altitude: perhaps half of those who try do not reach the top. Unless you're suitably experienced, it's highly advisable to take a guide, which you can organise through agencies in Tbilisi or locally, including Mountain Travel Agency. Climbers should register at the Emergency Management Department building at the bottom of the Gergeti road, on their way up to the mountain.
The ascent is technically straightforward, though there is some danger in crevasses. It takes three or four days from Kazbegi, with the first day hiking up from Kazbegi and over the Gergeti Glacier to the Betlemi Hut, a former weather station at 3650m altitude where you can sleep. The hut accommodates around 50 people indoors, which is often far from enough: in the busiest climbing season (late June to mid-September) there can be hundreds of people there. You can reserve places through Mountain Travel Agency in Kazbegi or Geoland in Tbilisi. Bring food, a warm sleeping bag and cooking gear. The wind can be fierce.
The second day is usually spent acclimatising, often with a climb to the Maili Plateau (4500m). On day three you start for the summit from Betlemi Hut around 2am. The ascent takes up to six hours, with the final 150m involving about three rope lengths of 35° to 40° ice. The descent to Betlemi Hut for the third night takes up to another six hours.
Packhorses can reach the Betlemi Hut from about July to mid-September.