The second day started early as we planned, we woke up 2h30 AM and at 3 o’clock the taxi was already waiting for us. Without a hesitation, we went to Tbilisi Airport to pick up our fourth and final member of the expedition.
A tough night
Though I feel very tired due to lack of sleep, I am in a very good mood nevertheless. It feels like all the time I slept I kept having nightmares. That was so strange, the other person in the room made a few noisy movements during the night as well, probably, was not having the best sleep either. Hypnotized by the nightmares, I even dreamed that our host, which was a nice old lady, was a witch and cursed me to this damnation, and later, that someone before I was going to sleep, put some mushrooms into my food or drink, which caused all of these hallucinations.
One could say “Oh, the place is cursed!” or “Someone died there”, but even though I somewhat agnostic about almost everything, a few things I really don’t believe in curses and spirits. Even if spirits/or ghost were real, I cannot see how they could do any harm to anyone. Let’s imagine a typical ghost or spirit which for some reason can pass walls, but still stands or floats above the ground. Let’s assume that ghosts are not affected by physics, which would make it very hard for them to keep themselves in the same orbit by which the Earth travels through the Universe. If spirits need to answer to the physics, which apply in the mortal world, one can just lock the door and be safe. If they are somehow affected by the gravity, but not by the strong nuclear force, which would, technically, allow walking through the walls, the force of gravity would pull of the spirits and ghost to the center of the Earth, where they would be trapped forever. All of them in one place, like some kind of Bose-Einstein condensate of ghosts and spirits.
Anyway, I should probably stop concerning you with my practical understanding of how ghost mechanics would work in a reality and get back to the story of an expedition to Mount Kazbek, so, the journey continues. Even after a terrible and a short night like this, the yesterday still energizes me and I cannot wait to see what this day brings.
We had to wait over an hour at the airport before we could move, a bit annoying, but far from destroying our spirits. It was nice to see other people from Lithuania who will be doing the same trip as we do, just in a bit slower manner. The reasoning behind trying to do it without a certain leader and in a small group was simply to get more days of waiting for a good weather. We are planning to start the trip a day before they do, walk twice as much a day and to descend earlier as two of the crew has their flights 4 days earlier than everyone else. We have supplies for 7 days and in the worst case scenario we should still have about 4 days of exploring Sakartvelo together.
To understand what kind of people, have nerves to try to climb a mountain as high as Mount Kazbek I’ll provide some information about myself and my comrades. There is only one girl in our crew, but she is the fittest and seems to run instead of a walk compared to us, men. And it is not a surprise as she is orienteer and ultra marathoner, which goes to distances above the traditional marathon 42km. For comparison, my current running record is mere 15 km. Also as an orienteer, she has great navigation skills.
Half of our group are two old friends, who though doesn’t seem to look like a high-end sportsman, but they have experience in the mountains. Anyone who tried climbing high mountains knows that fitness is far from being the main thing. These guys seem to take it as a vacation as they already have seen the world from a similar height. They know what is ahead, so they are psychologically prepared, also their bodies are used to lack of oxygen in the higher altitudes. Having in their iron will and experience, without a doubt, they are the most likely people to make it to the top. Also, without their knowledge, we couldn’t even get there.
Photo made by a fellow crew member Neringa
The last one is, obviously, me. All of my experience in the high mountains is my last attempt to climb the same Mount Kazbek, the trip I mentioned before. Even though I run and exercise quite a bit, my fitness is no match for the one, the girl has. And my psychological mindset and experience are far from two other guys. One way or another, they probably could easily do it without me, as my biggest advantage is better English knowledge and being willing to wake up earlier than everyone else. Also, I know I have problems with heights as my body doesn’t react well in altitudes higher than 3.500 m.
I’m not a climber nor mountaineer, I’m seeker and explorer, thus I’m closer to any regular person than my comrades are. Having that in mind I want to tell you that it is doable for anyone willing to do that with some extra preparation.
Tbilisi – Stepantsminda
As we passed an ancient Jvari Monastery from 6th century, driver introduced it like it wasn’t something special. Georgian culture reaches deep bottoms of the history of civilized mankind, at least, back to the 4th century, when St. Nino brought Christianity to the region.
Though Tbilisi has 2 million inhabitants at every place we stopped our driver seemed to know everyone. It seems that people always bring you to the places of their relatives or close friends. I guess it is normal here to watch each others’ back.
The distance in front us from Tbilisi to Stepantsminda is around 100 km, though it will probably going to take some time as road quality, driving ethics and walking animals on roads don’t help at all. I don’t understand much Russian, but from what I hear everyone talking, we might stop at few vistas as well.
The Caucasus is a region between Black and Caspian Seas, it is at the border between Europe and Asia. The region is divided between several independent states: Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkey. The Caucasus is known for it’s cultural and linguistic diversity, it is a home to many conflicts so it’s not a surprise that you can find here quite a few partially recognized countries or autonomous republics in other states.
The beauty of the Great Caucasus
Mount Kazbek is located at the Central Greater Caucasus mountains, which is a part of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. The Great Caucasus mountains is a mountain range located in the Caucasus region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. It is a natural border between Sakartvelo, Azerbaijan, and Russia. There are very few passages through the Greater Caucasus mountains, these passages have a great strategic valley to any Nation in this region. Our journey from Tbilisi to Stepantsminda leads through one of those roads.
The Georgian Military Road
It is an ancient road used by traders and invaders for many centuries, it's current form was started to be built in 1799 by Russian troops. It was named as 'one of the most beautiful mountains roads in the world' by the 1914 edition of Baedeker's Russia. And being on the road, you can clearly see why, the road itself is a spectacular one, surrounded by mountains and valleys. The early rising sun and still present low morning clouds gifted us with picturesque views. The lower green peaks of Caucasus mountains kept impressing me, while I’ve been on this road, it is the first time for me being awake and within a daytime. I cannot wait to see the higher peaks, standing out of the lower ones, covered in snow, especially, the highest one around – Mount Kazbek.
Georgian-Russian friendship monument
On our way, just before the highest point of the road, near a deep valley, stands Georgian-Russian friendship monument. Or should I call a joke monument as the Russian and Georgian relationship is far from being good? More seriously, it was built in 1983 to celebrate 200 years of the Treaty of Georgievsk and the overall friendly relationship between the Soviet Union and Sakartvelo.
To say if you are nearby, you should stop here to look around, is way too soft. Overlooking the Devil’s valley, the views here are insanely beautiful at any direction you look, even without the monument itself, which has many observation points to increase the depth of the viewpoint.
Located just after the Georgian-Russian friendship monument, Jvari pass is the highest point of the Georgian Military Road, reaching as high as 2379m above the sea level, which is way higher than our starting location of the expedition at Stepantsminda.
Beautiful as it is, the road can be closed any time to various natural disasters. For a crazy people like us, the beauty of landscape made us forget where we are, but a repeating crossing of the driver kindly reminded us of that. Amazed by the Greater Caucasus mountains and their environment we slowly reached Stepantsminda.
We got to Stepantsminda without any major problems, sadly the weather up in the skies is not as nice as it is down here. Mount Kazbek is covered in clouds as are my hopes to make it to the top. Still, it is surreal to understand that I’m sitting here again in a local restaurant observing the heavens and knowing that I’m going to attempt to climb it.
The town itself is small but pretty nice, the food here is a bit more suited for tourists than in Tbilisi. It has less local spices and the meat is nicer. Also, you can find probably anything required for an expedition if you forgot anything back at home.
Getting to Gergeti Trinity Church
The climb to Mount Kazbek starts with getting to picturesque Gergeti Trinity Church. It stands near Stepasminda at 2160 m. elevation and is widely visited the place. There are a few ways to get there depending on one’s needs. For lazy, injured or people who want to preserve the energy, you can take a 4x4 taxi from the center of Stepantsminda, for those who want to save energy, but still enjoy the walk, you can just pay to the driver to carry your stuff up, while taking a hike up there yourself, and, of course, you can walk up will all the stuff you have.
If you are here just for an easy walk, be sure to climb yourself as you will pass beautiful ruins surrounded by an exceptional landscape, if you are here to attempt to get on the top of Mount Kazbek, take the taxi, you’ll need that energy later.
I will not talk about the church too much, we didn’t have time to visit it and you can find plenty of information online anyway. I’ve been there two years ago, it is nicer than the most you’ll see around, but just because it is so remote. From there opens a beautiful panorama to the other side of the Great Caucasus mountains. If you are into churches, be sure to visit this picturesque place.
Gergeti Trinity Church – The passage
Though this day was supposed to be easiest in terms of climbing, it is very challenging anyway. I can easily feel the tiredness of my body, I’m definitely not used to these harsh conditions, climbing the steps on the rocks with extra 25kg on my back. The Sun is burning you alive and the wind chills you. It is very hard to find the balance of the tempo, so I wouldn’t get too cold or too hot. The key part is not to move too fast, if you sweat too much the wind will kill you, if you get cold, well, you get cold. Luckily for me, one member of our group doesn’t seem to want to rush too much so I am able to walk in a tempo without sweating and keeping my breath relatively stable.
We made to the passage
After all the struggle of this part, getting to the passage, where the roads start to descend before starting to ascend to the peak, it only looks like the walk will be just harder. At this point the wind started to feel really strong, afraid of getting cold, I had to dress up a bit. We are taking a long break before starting the second part of this days’ distance up the last meadow.
We were supposed to eat here, but couldn’t wait for so long. Instead, we are taking plenty of pictures, because the surrounding panorama is truly amazing.
The passage - the Campsite
The further road has a lot of rocks on it, I remember it was the first place where I felt down two years ago and hit my knee. Putting your feet stably between these huge rocks is not as easy and I’m still not used to the trekking poles because I haven’t used them normally probably since the last climb. Overall, I feel very clumsy and ashamed at the moment. When I tried to sit down on a rock to take a rest I slipped, and the weight of my backpack brought me down. I even couldn’t stand up on my own.
This probably made an impression to the others that I’m no good here, I bet everyone has doubts, it is only four of us and I’m starting to lose confidence in myself even after 3 months of increased training.
After slipping down I tried to focus more and stop multi-tasking to which I’m so used to. When I walk, I watch down every single step, when I want to look around or take a picture, I stop and do that, otherwise, this can end pretty bad.
Walking in this manner it looked like I’m lagging a lot even after the slowest of us, nevertheless I couldn’t risk, plus this is conserving the energy I’ll need later.
The last meadow campsite
When I got to one of the hills, I could finally see the final destination – the last meadow around, located at 2950m elevation, surrounded by two mountain creeks and far away from the slopes of the mountain, where the rocks fall down.
Instantly, I could notice that there is something new, the only problem of this place last time was that there were no walls to hide behind when nature calls you, but now on a hill stood a hut and a toilet. The hut seems to be still under construction, but I bet that the toilet should be usable already.
As slowly we were descending to mountain creek, I am listening to every single tip I get, if I cannot make it to the top, at least, I must learn as much as I can. I must use every opportunity because finding someone willing to do the journey with newbies and getting here is not as simple as one might think.
Another new thing to my surprise – a bridge over the mountain creek. Last time we had to do some real jumping gymnastics to cross it and now it is relatively easy, though one still needs to watch his/her feet not to make mistake. It was way scarier than I expected.
Learning from your own mistakes
When I got to the camp, I understood a major reason for the hardship of my walking. In my backpack, I was carrying a lot of food and I put it in a manner, so it would survive the flight, but I never rearranged my backpack for walking. Heavy stuff should be at the bottom and close to your back, this lowers your center of weight and gives you more stability, but in my case, everything was random. When I walked, my backpack was swinging all the way, I rearranged my backpack in a way it should work better for tomorrow.
A transition to tomorrow
After putting a tent up and preparing the sleeping places we started cooking food and making some tea. I was taught how to use all the stuff required to prepare the food because I want to wake up tomorrow early anyway. The Sun rises really beautifully here and I want to observe it, so it was not hard for me to make breakfast and a cup of coffee as well. Also, we really want to start walking tomorrow first, because while here, on the meadow, space is plenty, the situation up there, at the base camp, near the meteo station or currently called betlemi hut, is totally different. There are limited spots to place your tent because you need a wall out of rock to protect the tent from the wind which can get really strong there. Building a wall yourself is a pretty long process and overall finding a good spot on the rocks to put a tent and be able to sleep there is a pretty tough task. So getting there first would make our lives way easier as we might be sleeping there for the next few days.
The road ahead
Since it is our first camp, we still had quite a lot of alcohol with us, sitting together, drinking and talking made me feel more comfortable because I was getting to know everybody better which helped me to evaluate the chances of ascending better. While we were talking one after another people went to sleep, my turn came as well. The impressions of the first day, though harsh, but those moments when you sit down for a rest to smoke a cigarette and enjoy the greatness of the silent mountains’ landscape, those moments make you feel elevated. Everything disappears, all that remains is here and now, slowly you start getting further and further from everyday’ problems, which starts to feel completely irrelevant compared to what is ahead.
To be continued on next Monday, 08.06
This article is a part of the bigger series of my trip to Georgia 2018, Summer. Follow me for an entry on every Monday.**
Author: Mantas Ališauskas
Photography: Mantas Ališauskas and Neringa
Design: Mantas Ališauskas