Published on Issue 139 (Jan/Feb) of Adventure Travel Magazine
A single picture of Mt Kazbek was enough to set our hearts racing, our imagination free. Alone, the mountain rises imposingly above everything else, its summit crowning the East side of the Central Caucasus. Everybody’s eyes are inevitably drawn to its peak; it’s a majestic view. In plain sight yet so mysterious, Mt Kazbek stands there, fuelling dreams of possibility.
It presented a good challenge; standing in the border between Georgia and Russia, Mt Kazbek is taller than Mont Blanc, at 5,047m. Yet reaching the summit, whilst obviously physically challenging, isn’t necessarily technically difficult.
Our backpacks, now equipped with mountain boots, ice axes, crampons, warm sleeping bags, rope, food and everything else necessary for the four-day expedition, were heavier than they had ever been. The straps squeaked in protest as we put them on that morning. It was 6:30am.
Hiking up, my childhood friend Teresa and I made our way to the old Meteorological Station that now serves as Base Camp. The landscape was surreal: red mountains grew tall to our right, blue skies shone above and, reaching the Gergeti Galcier, icy whites glittered around us.
Swapping trail running shoes for mountain boots, we put our crampons on and followed horse poo as signs of safe passage through the glacier. Bright blue rivers cut across the ice, carving their way down the glacier. Our crampons crunched the ice beneath us, creating a soothing melody as we walked on.
The Meteo Station sat in its own world, secluded from the busy lives below the mountain face. Its lifeblood consisted of people moved by the same goal: to climb Mt Kazbek. We had been told not to get our hopes up, base camp here was no mountain hut in the Alps. Yet in its decaying state, the Meteo Station had its own character, build in with time. One could physically see its history, the names and messages of previous climbers scribbled on every wall.
Traces of their history could also be found on the station’s loos, which sat alone a couple of hundred meters below. People would go down there to mind their own business and leave as fast as their stomach would allow them. I, however, appreciated the art. The cubicle walls told a story. And a pretty comical story that was, to the ones who took the time to appreciate it. Not necessarily a pleasant task, but one definitely worth the while. And seeing as one had to go in anyway…
So, I witnessed the trails of one unfortunate soul who, by the looks of it, had never come across an Eastern-style toilet before and had somehow managed to unload his (or her) load vertically onto the back wall of the cubicle, instead of aiming downwards at the hole on the ground. Another sad person’s dinner hadn’t agreed with them in the slightest, and the remnants of the fight stuck proud all over the floor, thoughtlessly sharing their grief with the soles of my mountain boots.
“Every time you head to the mountains you have to be ready to die.” We were having dinner and practising knot techniques one last time the night before our summit attempt. The statement had come from Nikita, a usually cheerful Russian guy who, like us, had wandered up to the Meteo Station alone hoping to find people to rope up with. He was to lead our way.
This felt like an overstatement, an intense exaggeration, and I told him that. “It’s true though. You might be the best mountaineer there ever was and still, out in the mountains there are so many things happening out of your control there is only so much you can do to try and reduce the risk. To try and stay safe.
“Yes, most accidents happen because people were unprepared, didn’t know enough or weren’t equal to the challenge. But there’s circumstances you have no control of. When you head out there, you must be ready to die,” he repeated. Reluctantly, I agreed.
It was with those thoughts in my head that I left the Meteo Station a couple of hours later, just after half past two in the morning. I had messaged my family, told my boyfriend I loved him. Was there anything else I wanted to say? Anyone else I wanted to talk to should anything happen? Or were all these thoughts irrational? Was I worrying too much about climbing a mountain thousands have climbed before me?
The feeling was real nonetheless; it felt like I was leaving things. Time and again I wondered at the ‘Why’ of my actions, the risks involved in my selfish pursuits. But I am naturally curious and have to try. The excitement of possibility is greater than the fear of the unknown. Sometimes, doing something despite the irrationality of it is exactly what makes it exciting.
So, I stepped into the night; Teresa, Nikita and I rushing to catch up with the trail of headlamps ahead of us, the only lights visible on the dark face of the mountain. There was no thunder that night, yet the stars shone without witnesses, guarded by a thick layer of clouds. The wind had died down a little, allowing us to open the door of the Meteo Station with relative ease for the first time since our arrival.
We entered the night and all its mysteries, a part of the world we rarely see. My heart raced with excitement; I was finally there, finally about to attempt my fist 5,000er – my first alpine summit as it stood. This was it. The early start made it feel even more real.
It was still dark when we reached the Khmaura Wall. Aided by our head torches we put our crampons on and roped up. As if walking next to a strange waterfall, the sound of rolling stones, distinct and clear in the night, accompanied us as we walked along the wall. Rocks of all shapes and sizes littered the ground like vestiges from a long-forgotten fight. The wind, with its unflagging force, had carved stems under some of them, displaying the reddish rocks on thin icy pedestals that seemed to defy the laws of nature.
Dawn broke as we reached the glacier at the end of the Khmaura Wall. Looking back, we could see its thin glow fight through the clouds. From now on, our surroundings would be white.
The snow at the glacier had been hardened by the strong winds. We jumped over crevasses, half hidden by the recent snow falls. Wide, irregular crags opened parallel to us. The wind danced fiercely around us, picking up snowflakes from the ground and sending them flying angry in inconceivable patterns. Shades of white was all we could see. The water we carried with us froze solid.
The stinging snowflakes settled where the wind stopped, where the face of the mountain was caressed instead of stoked. Instead of hard ice, we were faced with soft, dry snow. Almost comically, we would step on it just to be swallowed into the ground’s soft embrace. Our progress became painfully slow.
The figure of the three of us roped up against the white mountain, walking on this alien landscape, made me feel like one of the subjects of the pictures I like to admire in adventure magazines. We stood out against the white. Always surrounded by white.
A group turned around. Dachi, their guide, had made the call to retreat, uncomfortable with the weather conditions. The right-hand side of my body was covered in white at this stage.
“Turn around now, it’s too bad up there,” he told us. “It’s not worth it. Don’t follow other groups. Please turn around.” His words were silenced by the wind but notes of concern hung in the air. His dark eyes, framed by miniature icicles growing from his eyelashes, implored us to listen to him.
The early morning thoughts echoed in my mind again. Was this worth the risk? Did we know better? As the wind picked up and threatened to freeze my right cheek, I realised we had to try. The summit seemed graspable, conditions weren’t ideal, but the shadow of possibility lingered around us. Fear has very seldom stopped me from trying. The question was there, it was down to us to chase the answer.
So, we continued. For hours. Without a break. Against the wind, against the cold, always walking up, edging closer to the summit. Miserable. Vitaliy and his flapping Ukrainian flag a familiar sight ahead of us by now, his dark shape moving slowly. He was the happiest Ukrainian guy you could have ever met. Didn’t speak a word of English, but as soon as he found out Teresa and I were from Mexico he would smile the biggest smile every time he saw us and shout “Mexica, Mexica!” in the most cheerful manner.
Seeing him barely lift his feet with every step, struggling against the wind, walking so slowly, was a huge contrast to what we were used to seeing him like, and in a way demoralised me further.
I tried to draw force from the thought that it was too late to turn around now. We were so close. Relatively. There was no ‘tomorrow’, there was no ‘next year’. We had already pushed so hard, come so far.
It was not until a month later that I understood exactly why I carried on; in a way, it was easier to keep fighting than to give up. The idea of putting an end to it lingered on my mind continuously, I could have easily turned around. Except it wasn’t easy to turn around. It was easier to be miserable, cold and exhausted than to be faced with failure.
The clouds dispersed for a second. After eight hours of white reality we were finally able to see the summit, have a look around us. We were high, very high. The mighty Caucasus range around us, a sea of snowy mountains extending until the end of the horizon, its peaks forming one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever witnessed. And us, we stood on the highest mountain, the mightiest one. We looked down at the landscape below us – everything was below us.
In the time it takes to sigh, the clouds closed in again, as if protective of what they had just disclosed. Insinuating that these views were not worthy of our mortal eyes. Yet the memory of the blue sky was real; the life, the colours, the cry of the eagle that flew through our field of vision in that very moment. Infinitely sublime.
With renewed energy we climbed up, walking past a bright blue ice wall, replacing walking poles for ice axes. Steep. The last leg to the summit was steep and a real push. The snow under our feet was soft and unstable. Every meter upwards took its toll.
Standing on that summit felt a little like an anti-climax, a huge effort with an apparent lack of reward. The summit, apart from its flatness, was the same as everything else around us had been for the last eight hours. We had come all this way so see, nothing. We were still surrounded by grey clouds, and now on the summit the glacial wind battered us even harder.
Overcoming the challenge hadn’t brought us to an amazing place. But how would we know if we hadn’t tried? I thrive on challenge, I was attracted by the uncertainty, I needed to know if it could be done. I had followed a desire to go higher than I ever had before, believed in the possibility.
I smiled for the pictures, even the horrible weather couldn’t take away the fact that we had climbed to 5,047m, that we had succeeded. We had just overcome a limit, and the simple fact of achieving was enough to make the moment worth it.
We made our delirious walk back after two minutes on the summit, unable to fight the ferocious wind any longer. That night, after a long nap, we had dinner with the Polish Mountain Rescue Team. Laughter filled the room as we recounted our time out there. Why? Why did we do this to ourselves? But everyone there knew the answer, even if they couldn’t quite put it into words. Everyone there understood.
We had set out with the excitement of possibility, with the prospect of climbing higher than we had before. With determination we had headed into the unknown, risking so much, unsure of what we would find. We might not have ended in a place with magnificent views, yet I know now that we weren’t wrong to try.