08h00 AM, I woke up early as promised. Though usually, I need a lot of time to roll out of a bed, my memories of incredible views in the mornings, from the trip in 2016, motivated me a lot. I really wanted to try my luck of seeing something similar, but, apparently, nothing here is ever the same.
I look like I woke up first in the whole campsite, I see some people walking, but they are just passengers from a tent to a toilet and vice versa. Happy with my own determination to wake up first I did some shots as I was asked of Mount Kazbek and the whole campsite with only one flag standing, it was, of course, our tent with the Lithuanian flag.
After enjoying the beautiful morning and a cigarette, I didn’t waste my time and started making coffee with breakfast. The food one eats in mountains is far from what I eat at home. My beloved meat and vegetables are exchanged for sugars and refined carbs. While it is a good food to provide one with an energy fast, it is really bad for you in mid to long terms. Sadly, there is not much of a choice, even if you have time to prepare the food, it must be something which takes a small amount of space, can hold without a refrigerator and gives you energy ASAP.
Today we are eating white rice with raisins and condensate milk. I hate raisins, I don’t eat sugar, I have exchanged white rice to brown rice a year ago, but here in the mountains, I have to play by the rules. I am eating everything, though first, I have to make it and it turned out to be harder than I expected, gas burner seems to be missing a part, I can’t get the gas flowing. Ashamed I had to wake up the owner of it and ask her if I’m stupid or something is actually missing. Good for me, but the latter was true.
Packing the stuff up
As we were drinking a coffee, eating and talking, somehow people around started to pack and move on. Our plan to wake up first is not working out as we expected. Nevertheless, we have to leave the camp as soon as possible, which proved to be not as easy too. Someone needs to pack item A before packing Item B, but Item A cannot be packed until another person packed item C.
Even though slow, but somehow, we packed faster than the half of the people in the campsite and started moving on. From what I remember today’s distance is the easiest one, or at least it was two years ago for me. From the campsite, it leads through a relatively flat road, near a valley eroded by the river flowing out of the Gergeti Glacier, until you reach its tongue. The next part might seem difficult because you need to put on your crampons and walk with them, but if you watch your every step it is relatively easy. The last part is the hardest, once you cross the glacier you need to climb to Betlemi hut, also called old meteo station, it is not that far, but the road is very steep and widely used, so climbing it is like climbing a huge pile of sand.
Second day on the road
The funny thing is that when we packed, everyone seemed not willing to put their backpacks on, but when we finally did it, everyone looked relieved as it is not as painful as yesterday. Of course, I don’t know how exactly the others feel, but for me carrying the backpack, which I reordered yesterday in a correct way, is way-way easier now. Also, after having good sleep, as good as one can get sleeping with 3 other people in a tent which was designed for a total of 3 people, I feel way more energetic. After all, I didn’t sleep much yesterday and the day before that. I finally feel that I feel the way I thought I’m going to feel here. If yesterday was slightly easier than expected, today, at least for now, looks easy.
Running VS enjoying
During the first couple hundreds of meters, we even kept up the pace with the other two, but soon, with every extra second of enjoying the panorama, every cigarette, every taken photo it started to change. When we saw a large group of people catching up with us, we asked for the other two to go on their tempo and not wait for us. At least, we need to try to reach Betlemi hut faster than them, otherwise, finding a good spot for a tent might difficult or even impossible.
While a good pace gives you an amazing strategic advantage in terms of ease of camping and finding a window for a climb, it reduces your safety and the time on the trail. Of course, some people might prefer getting rid of their backpack as soon as possible, but for me, I want to enjoy the changing scenery. That suits my strengths and weaknesses perfectly as well, my body can hold the backpack, but my breath gets fcuked up really fast if I rush too much.
Later I learned that our runners didn’t even use their crampons on the glacier. I’ve seen many people doing the same two years ago, but I must add that most of them were mountain rescuers. From my own experience, I would always recommend using the crampons once you get on a glacier unless you really know what you are doing.
Uplifted by all the energy I feel, I no longer doubt my strength. This is a pure enjoyment. I walk confidently up the mountain of my life, I get, from time to time, a good moment to sit down and enjoy a scenery of immense natural beauty. Of course, I’ve seen it yesterday as well, but back then it felt like I didn’t deserve it, or to put it more simply like I don’t belong here. Now I feel like I am in the exact place I need to be, consciously fighting my demons of the past, deep in my subconsciousness and even enjoying it. I chose to go back to this mountain, I was afraid to come here again and now I feel nothing, but my increasing confidence with every step I take, with every moment I stop to enjoy these ancient spaces of the Great Caucasus mountains.
I can actually do this.
What a story it would be.
These and similar thoughts are running through my head. I’m not entirely sure how I should act, from one perspective - the increasing confidence will give me a strength to summit Mount Kazbek, from the other, I am afraid that I could get over-confident and start making mistakes which would decrease my safety. One way or another, at least, now I have means to try and balance the situation while following the narrative I created for this journey.
Onto Gergeti glacier
When we reached Gergeti glacier, the big group was still slightly behind us and our runners were already far onto the glacier. Calmly we sat down to put on our crampons. This process, if you are not used to it, might be a bit tricky. That proved to be true for me as well as I was struggling to make a sense out of it. I guess two years without a practice is too big of a gap, at least for my memory. I had to ask for a help, which, of course, was embarrassing, but this way it will be safer. Plus, no matter how confident in my physical abilities I’m right now, I still haven’t forgotten my plan/goal B – to take away from this journey as much as possible.
I knew one example will be enough for the rest of the trip. I made sure my both crampons are tied to my shoe as good as it gets. Of course, that squeezes my feet, which is already damaged by my heavy shoes. It is very hard to find a balance between feeling comfy and stable with these shoes which I got really cheap two years ago from my charming group leader. She, as well as the shoes, was old, but very reliable.
Though the landscape changes gradually from Gergeti Trinity Church, which is surrounded by greenness, to Mount Kazbek plateau, which is basically looks nothing more than a snow desert, stepping on the glacier changes the game instantly. I’m no longer vulnerable only to my own stupidity, but to all the other natural factors which can occur high in the mountains. Of course, at these temperatures at this altitude, the glacier itself is naked and I can see all of the cracks. With crampons, it is close to impossible to slide down, unless you fall yourself. So technically, today is not that dangerous, but the change of the ground holds a significant symbolic power, it is no longer a mere hike.
Getting lost on a glacier
Walking with crampons makes your feet feel heavier and the walking itself has to change in order to keep your feet far enough from another so the crampons don’t touch each other. Nevertheless, it can still be pretty easy depending on the angle you walk. Gergeti glacier at Its tongue is pretty steep, so you want to walk almost straight, but after some time it gets flatter, it is when we started to move towards the other shore of the glacier.
It is hard to describe the feeling once you for the first time turn around on a glacier. Since it is hard to do that while you are walking, which, generally, not recommended throughout your entire time in the mountains, the first time I got to see the scenery was the first stop for a rest. The phrase my colleague is saying a lot since the start of the climb, seem to fit really well right now:
“Not a bad ascend since the last stop”.
With every ascended meter the vastness of panorama gets bigger and bigger, but once you see it from an ice cap, it feels like you are watching upon the Earth from another planet. And it is closer to the truth than one might think. Being here does feel alien, humans have not evolved in these conditions, or, at least, most of us.
Betlemi hut can be seen from really far away, but finding the way is not as easy as you might think. As I told before, walking on a glacier can be easy, but it won’t if you pick a bad terrain or angle. Trying to avoid the first we ended up with a pretty rough trajectory toward the hut, which resulted in both and all I can tell, it was not easy. For that moment I was thinking that maybe I got happy too soon and all of my joy was only an oasis of easiness on a hard journey.
First encounters with crevasses
When the things got rough, I noticed that I actually fcuked up putting on the crampons. From time to time I had to kick the glacier to push them back in order. Apparently, I didn’t set the size correctly for my shoe, so even though tightly attached to it, after some time they started to move to the south.
After a walk, which looked longer than it supposed to be, we finally got to the shore, where we saw a few people on the ground taking off their crampons, but they didn’t answer to our shouting. Though we were really close, there were quite a few crevasses in front of us. Left with no choice we decided to jump through them. I didn’t expect to face something like this so soon, it is hard to describe the things which happen in your head once you know that if you make a mistake in the next 5 seconds, it might end up with your death.
No matter how you jump, it is way more important how you land. You must lean forward or the 25 kg backpack might pull you down to the abyss. Remember In the last article, I mentioned that when I fell off a 40cm rock on which I tried to sit, I couldn’t get up due to the weight of the backpack. This is no joke, even if you survive the fall, your backpack might immobilize you.
Anyway, all I thought of after the jump that it was easy, a few less complex jumps and we were on the ground taking off our crampons and enjoying the scenery. It really took a while until we started to move, we knew that the most annoying part of the day is just in front of us.
The Basecamp of Mount Kazbek
It is really annoying when you have to climb a steep pile of gravel with some very unstable bigger rocks mixed-in. I even had to increase the gap between us for safety reasons. To add to all of the annoyance we were having climbing this pile, our runner colleagues were standing on the top, waving to us. While the path is no fun to walk, it is doable and we got the top to my surprise 1h30 slower than our friends. But after all, here we are at 3,653m. elevation nearBetlemi hut – the base camp of Mount Kazbek.
Setting up a camp on rocks
Luckily, our colleagues got there fast enough to get us a quite nice spot. At least in terms of a standing rock wall next to it, to protect the tent from a wind. The ground itself had one or a few nasty rocks which we had to take out with our pickaxes. Sleeping on rocks might sound rough, but it is even harder to build something on it. Luckily, there was no wind, so it was possible. With a hard ground, one needs to use rocks and ropes to make the tent stable. A good thing that this is probably our last camping site, so it really worth investing the time into it.
While we were building our tent we were surprised by the number of drones flying around us. It is not that hard to understand, why people would fly a drone in a place like this, but carrying it might be quite a challenge and they seemed to have a lot of batteries. The owners of drones must have used horses to carry their stuff for them. Another group of people took a boombox and provided a music throughout the camp, it doesn’t feel as distant from civilization as it felt 2 years ago. Next, to meteo station, we could even catch the internet, which is, of course, my own fault, because I decided to buy the 4G card once I landed in this country.
After putting up the Lithuanian flag, we started to attract people, mainly from Ukraine. We were looking for a group, to which we can attach to, on the summit day. The last couple of hundred of meters needs some safety ropes installed, how it is supposed to be set up we only know in theory. But every person we met was either a guide or a person who paid for a guide to get to the top. Guides have too many responsibilities with a bunch of newbies and the latter one can hardly help us anyway.
Acclimatization trip to a small Orthodox church
We were too lazy to make an acclimatization trip yesterday, but today at these heights, it is vital for a better a better sleep tonight. There is a perfect place for it – a small Orthodox Church at around 3900 m. elevation, which makes it the highest located Orthodox Church in the world
Due to different paces, there is no need for all of us going there at the same time. We let the runners go first, while we, smokers, resumed our rest. It is the moments like these when I fill this journal the most. And so I did while enjoying the views of moving clouds over Mount Kazbek.
After some time we decided to move as well and the timing was perfect because we met our colleagues at the edge of the camp. We asked them to start cooking after the same time it took them to go up and down since we will definitely going to take longer.
To my surprise the last time I did the same path, it was a climb through a snow, now it is a climb through gravel and rocks, which is far from being my favorite. Somehow I started to get slower again and couldn’t keep up with my colleague, but I really didn’t want to make any mistakes because a fall would belong in this steep place.
During the walk, I heard the first falling rocks, though without glasses I couldn’t see them, only tell the direction of the sound.
Climbing through clouds, with some openings to our campsite below our feet, we made it to the church in around an hour, slightly slower than our colleagues. There were only a few other people at the moment, but after the symbolic ringing of a bell attached to the church and a prayer to the mountain, my colleague started talking to them. Not interested in listening to talks in the Russian language, I found a big stone and sat down there. Soon I found myself traveling deep in my thoughts. This is the only part of the day which I filled in real time, sitting there, near the highest located Orthodox church in the world.
As I sit near this little lonely church, in the shadow of Mount Kazbek, somehow it feels right now like it is a correct place to be. Though it was visited by many mountaineers, it was seen by a relatively small amount of people. It inspires, it is not a vacation, it is a challenge and every reached checkpoint gives me the strength to move forward.
Just in two days, I climbed over 2 km and my head still feels in place. Can’t describe how happy I am about that. Maybe this time Mount Kazbek will allow me and my comrades to stand on Its crown.
From Betlemi church to the base camp
Finally, my colleague came to me for a cigarette in front of this spectacular landscape. Apparently, he met another guide and tried to deal him to team up for the final day. Most of the people we met will try summiting tonight, but for us, we have to wait another day. Our bodies need to get used to this lack of oxygen and believe me, it is no joke. A walk to a toilet from a tent, at the base camp, is causing an increased breathing almost as of you just climbed a big hill.
Responsibilities of mountain guides
It looks like guides have a strict diet for the people they try to take to the top of the mountain. Optimized, it light drugs, energizes them to the top. According to them, the main problem is when the effects of foods finish too soon and people start to give up. That would seem normal, but some of them after that blame the guides for the unsuccessful summiting attempt. The responsibility must be tough on them, seeing mountain guides training people on a snowy slope how to break correctly with your pickaxe, once someone from your rope team starts to drag you down, looked like an often occasion.
Back to Betlemi hut
Climbing down, back to the base camp proved to be another learning opportunity. After being taught how to brake yourself from ever-affecting gravity, I had around 30 minutes to practice it. Better now than later, even though at this moment I felt quite tired and all I wanted was to get down, eat and go to sleep.
It is a pleasure when after a hard workout you get back and a dinner is waiting for you, still warm and tasty. After such an exhausting day, everything, excluding sweets, feels like your favorite meal.
What holds the future?
Without a doubt, we don’t need to wake early tomorrow as we did today. Our tent is not moving an inch before we decide that we are climbing down. It means we don’t need to carry everything with us, only the necessary food, water and gear. That, of course, greatly eases the walking, which should not be that hard anyway. It is just an acclimatization trip to Mount Kazbek plateau at around 4,300m. elevation from Betlemi hut which is at 3,653m. Apparently, it is the highest located actual building in Georgia.
Everything combined, especially, good weather and high energy levels, uplifted everyone to high spirits. It looks like if we were ready today, we could have climbed the peak. The forecast shows good weather tomorrow, but a shaky one the day after tomorrow. Afraid that we might not get our chance we even considered the possibility of climbing it the next day. The idea seemed tempting, but it could be a big mistake and was quickly turned down.
From the whole atmosphere, it feels like we are starting to relax. Is it a good sign? Is our increasing over-confidence going to take us down? If so, how bad it is going to be? Or are we going end-up on the top of Mount Kazbek? These thoughts... they obsessed me, everything else seems to fade away. As my mind is no longer compatible with an option of turning back, one thing is for sure - I WILL TRY.
To be continued on next Monday, 08.13
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
Design: Mantas Ališauskas