Yes, this is related to walking and mountaineering. Today is the first day I can paint my big toe nail again after I lost the original one due to a steep bit and lack of skills when descending from the Kazbek summit in last August. I’m a lady again!
March 2017: A Different Time in Scotland
I travelled back to Scotland in the middle of March. The aim was to gather more technical winter mountaineering skills with the help of Rob Johnson Expedition Guide. Luckily, when I contacted him near the end of 2016, the group had just one space left. I was set to go!
What I absolutely had not planned on, was developing either a monster migraine or an uncanny sinus infection a couple of weeks before the start of the winter skills & mountaineering course. In my case, getting the train up to Fort William from London could have easily been taken for a road trip to Damascus, only with a difference that instead of a ruggedly holy calling I was starting to have doubts whether I could climb at all.
About that pain
There will be no cliffhanger in the middle of this story. Sorry! 🙂 All went well, albeit laboriously. The prescription drugs I was taking at the time lowered my walking heartbeat to 50 bpm. Even a single set of stairs became an accomplishment of sorts, not to mention a mountain. True story! The ascent of Stob Ban ended up the hardest walking experience of my life. I actually had to rest my head on my axe after every ten meters.
But when there’s a will (and the love for the mountains, and a truly patient mountain guide and one other patient climber), there’s always a way. I did end up:
- climbing/scrambling the quartzite North Buttress of Stob Ban in the Grey Corries (a borderline route between grade II and III, if my memory is not jig dancing);
- climbing my first Grade I winter gully in the Cairngorms (Jacob’s Ladder). A very gracious gully for learning, I have to say.
I also spent one of my climbing days in bed with vertigo, holding on to my mattress and ignoring the fiercely orange flashes the smoke alarm in my room was producing. I mean, you go out with many things, but you don’t go climbing with a vertigo.
So, this time it was a a slightly mixed bunch of feelings. And definitely the only time in my life I have felt less than flawlessly happy in the mountains. But still, I aaaaalmost got there, of course.
This year, man!
The beginning of 2017 has not been particularly lucky. Having been almost professionally lucky (and healthy) so far, it has been tremendously hard for me to accept the physical daily pain. I’m definitely better equipped to deal with years of high level mental strain (positive and the other shade) than even a week of physical discomfort. Not kidding.
When I can’t move, all my versions of the future lose their grounding and their zest. It’s as if someone has changed my light switch for a capriciously functioning dimmer. There are bursts of normality, but mostly I inhabit a space filled with thick, gooey air. In here, I need to refocus my eyes and my itinerary with every step I take.
I have no idea how people with chronical pain deal with it. Where do you find your projections of peace? Can everything be trainable?
Why you don’t always need the sun to be happy?
So, where on Earth is the only place to find peace when you are officially burnt out, over worked, over stressed and physically crumbling? In the Scottish Highlands, of course.
In here, you do not need the sun to be happy:
- The light and warmth often hide some of the smells eminating from the soil. Although warmth gives free reign to blossoms and such, it also takes the soil away from underneath your feet. You kind of stop noticing it. But sometimes you need to feel the ground the most.
- The sun is always about the present. The murky weather fixes your thoughts on possibilities instead.
- The grey weather gives you time to think. The sun is an action call. (In other words, the wolf-coloured weather makes for a great travel planner.)
- You notice more shades in colours in the hands of a dubious climate.
- As long as a snowstorm or a gale is not visiting the same place as you, you can still go forwards with your most loved activities.
- The dramatic (and the grand) scenes mostly welcome the traveller in the non-sunny landscapes.
- The murkiness makes you feel as being part of a story. You feel yourself and your itinerary in a specifically intense manner when hitting the road in proper dreary weather.
- The sunlessness makes you notice more allurement around you. It does.
- A tough weather brings strangers together.
- The gloom makes you move. The sun habitually traps you into the moment. (By no means a wicked trap, though!)
- The overcast weather works wonders for the imagination.
- A weather with an epic temper makes you feel like being on a journey the legends are made of.
And what else forms the core of a human heart than all of the above?!
Thursday, August 11. The summit day – reaching 5033 m in one piece!
The alarm went off at 1 a.m. I unzipped the tent door and looked outside. There was not a cloud in the sky. Only the craziest number of stars I had ever seen.
“Fuck!” I thought with bone piercing joy and a good amount of intimidation. It was actually going to happen.
After a quick pee and some sugary black tea, we geared up, checked our headlamps and left camp at 2 a.m.
I tried not to think about what lied on that part of the rubble path which the rays from my head lamp did not reach. Hint: sheer drops onto a glacier. (And no, I have no photos of this part of the journey.)
After 45 minutes of walking, we stopped for a change of clothes. Most of us had put on one layer too much and were feeling quite hot during the dark hours of the day when thousands of meters above the sea level. I was wearing a long top and fleece under my jacket, so I took the fleece away.
During that short break, I looked to where we had come from. I saw another group starting up that same path. Obviously, you don’t see a group of people in the distance but a slowly moving row of light dots in pitch darkness. In high altitude, people get turned into mythical glowworms slithering their way up. I then noticed another glowworm that was at least 45 minutes ahead of us. Under the star-studded sky, all the far-away mountaineers looked like stars on earth.
Our guide led us on well-chosen moraine paths on the dark glacier. During the first two hours,the terrain changed from scree to white snow, and also involved finding our way through a proper labyrinth. I have absolutely no idea what I would have done here alone, in the middle of the night! That aside, navigating strange labyrinths in darkness is video game level awesome.
Since the crevasses are constantly changing (because the glacier changes), the labyrinth’s paths also change with every year. This labyrinth of rocks has a great number of passes, but a lot of them are cut off by a crevasse, so navigating this part of the jouney in darkness without a guide would have been sheer madness.
It is amazing how quickly the sun comes up, although you actually trek hours in complete darkness. When it started getting light, we roped up for a white glacier crossing (at 4220 m). All went well and smoothly during this part of the journey. It was a beautiful time, nearing the plateau of Kazbek Pass. Silent, easy and at ease.
At the plateau edge (at 4600 m) we took another break while Sirxan was tentatively inspecting the cloud circling the summit. For me, it meant putting my fleece back on without exposing two arms to the cold at once. This was a stupid place to change. I should have put on more clothes earlier. (What if the weather had quickly turned?) Next time I won’t walk in fear, no!
Speaking of pros and cons of the gear and clothing, I did discover a negative side to my otherwise absolutely wonderful Berghaus rucksack (Expedition Lite 80) – carrying a 1 L water bottle in its side pocket is only possible up to a certain angle. When the ground gets steeper, the bottle starts falling out of the pocket. It slips out, jumps over your shoulder (kind of) and slides down the climbed path. When it happened for the second time, my team member caught it and placed in the snow to wait for my return. (Luckily, people had enough water and warmth of heart 🙂 to share their water with me during the rest of the ascent.)
We reached the saddle (at 4844 m) after a steep, zig-zagging climb. This is where we dropped the rope and our bags. There was 150 m to go. The main summit was in a cloud.
And this is how the final push started. The steepest part of the climb. 150 m to go, at up to a 45 degree angle (a bit icy at times). This is why we had come here.
The only thought I had during the summit push, was that I would not be anywhere else at this moment. Not anywhere else, not doing anything else. It does not matter that I could not take more than 10 steps without having to rest; it does not matter that I could not even see how long I had to keep going.
And then it just happened. Thanks to Sirxan and Emil (our two Azerbaijani mountain guides), and the near-perfect weather conditions, we summited Mount Kazbek at 9.30 a.m. that morning.
There was an Iranian group already on the top, sharing their cheers, jubilations and chocolate with us. There was also (Russian) cellular reception. (And I do love sending texts to my loved ones from the mountain tops. Sending texts to loved ones from mountain tops will be the name of my first indie album.)
This was it. It was actually happening! After having convincing myself to lift one of my legs in front and above the other for endless minutes in that white oblivion, I was feeling that kind of physical happiness that completely takes over the mind. Or vice versa. There’s no way to tell. And I don’t want to know.
I just hope there will be more moments like these in my future.
There just has to be.
Aaaand….. It was now time to face the other way.
But. Descending to the col was difficult. I had never descended in crampons on such a steep angle. It took me dozens of meters to even start trusting my feet. So, I first went down side first at least for one third of the journey. Not only side first, but also smashing my boot noses and crampons’ hooks into the icy snow. You know. Just in case. (* facepalm *) (But how do you learn?!)
Upon finally reaching the col again, the cloud lifted from around the summit. At this moment everyone saw where where we had just been. “I would never have gone up there, had I seen this view before!” got shouted by many of us. Climbing in the cloud, it had felt like a 20-35 m way up. It was higher, much, much higher. All the 150 m of it.
We roped up again and started our long descent back to base camp. It took me a while to start walking at a normal pace. Although the angle was steep, it was nothing like those final 150 m had been. Something in me (well, the fear!) wanted to go much slower than the group was going, but changing the pace was not an option. It was also not necessary. Eventually, I did start trusting my legs (well, the crampons!) a bit more, and by the end of the white glacier I had long ago stopped thinking about the pace at all.
For a while, everything continued to be white. Except for a heap of colourful gummy bears glistening in the snow.
Notes to self:
– obtain a longer ice axe (my current one is definitely better for ice climbing than alpine mountaineering)
– definitely go to that winter training in Scotland in winter 2016/2017
– find out whether there’s an official rule to the tightness of the rope during a rather easy glacier crossing. Some people said the connecting rope should be hanging loosely on the snow, just loosely enough so it would touch the surface (but not really tangle behind); some, that it should be hanging in the air.
We got back to the base camp by 3.38pm. The weather was sunny all the time. The Caucasian sheep dogs greeted us on our way. We already knew them.
The time to reflect (with passion!) had arrived. The trip organisers said it was the most difficult ascent of their lives. Our team members who had summited Elbrus and/or Island Peak in Nepal also placed the ascent of Mount Kazbek as their most strenuous to date. For me, it was the descent, that was really difficult. Both of my big toes had really started to hurt (from the excessive and absolutely unnecessary smashing back near the col).
And what is also only Level 2 fun? Running from falling rocks when your toes are spitting fire. Not. Fun. At. All. At. The. Time.
There’s Khmaura Wall between 4150 m and 4200 m: a steep moraine wall which’s purpose on Earth is to throw rocks at you. You need to pass quite close to it when climbing up or down Mount Kazbek (that’s the only way, otherwise you have to go too close to the crevasses). And soon as the sun is out, the rocks do start falling. So, in the afternoon there is a high risk at getting hit by falling rocks. Hence the running.
And this is just one of the reasons why Alpine start is always preferred on Mount Kazbek.
Things to note:
– the first and second time I used the toilet today were: 1:40 a.m. and then 5.30 p.m. Definitely the longest I’ve ever gone without peeing.
– for the first time ever, my underwear top had salty sweat stains on it (it was all white in parts).
– the rolled cherry tobacco cigarette tasted quite amazingly good after dinner.
– one my the socks was bloody.
– it is possible to fall asleep when getting used to the sound of the (very distant) rock avalanche.
It was our last evening at base camp. I was a little worried about the glacier tomorrow (the same we had come up on during Tuesday’s climb. It felt quite steep.) But worries never get you anywhere, so I stopped.
My sleep that night was sweet and deep. This was our third night at this altitude. Turning sides when asleep did not make me breathless any more.
→ Friday, August 12. From base camp at 3600 m to 2100 m.
This is what I remember from the day:
– my toes really hurt
– the way up had been quicker
– the glacier was not steep at all (apart from the mountain guides, we were all on crampons, still)
– blister plasters do let you walk even if semolina-like puss is oozing from underneath them
– the lower we got, the more I started craving for the ripe Georgian tomatoes and peaches
– the closer we got the church, the more trekkers we saw (more than one person asking us whether the glacier was reachable within 20 minutes)
– my toes really, really hurt (bruising under toenails, blisters, hurt skin).
It took a small forever to reach the Gergeti Trinity Church again. We set up camp and got greeted by cows and wild horses at our camp. The latter were specially interested in chewing through our sweaty clothing. Luckily, the faithful sheep dogs were not far away. The horses were soon escorted off our camp ground.
We gave some food to the dogs. They licked our hands and gave us their paws as a thank you. (I am NOT making this up.) We dreamt of washing ourselves in two days (first time in a week), and got our hands on some Kindzmarauli, fresh cucumbers and peaches. Raki and Allan made the best soup of the entire trip (with everything in it). All the food we ate that evening was extremely delicious.
Raki says he had spotted a raw plum at 4800 m on the previous day. “How do you know it was raw?” I inquired.
→ Couple of next days to follow.
The next morning we packed up our gear and descended to Kazbegi village (at 1700 m). My blisters were healing quickly, the toes obviously still hurt. Both of my ankles also looked a bit elephant-y.
Finally, we got our bags transported to a hostel. The door to the trunk of that car did not close (and we did not fit in), but the bags did get a lift. The fact that there was not water in the hostel for hours did not even count as a setback!
The next couple of days were spent walking around the Uplistsikhe cave city – a once-upon-a-time hub of Caucasian pagan worship and a legendary stop on the Silk Road; getting properly cleansed in a hammam in Tbilisi, counting 243 trucks in a Russian border queue, and spotting Georgian police ladies putting on make-up and smoking in the ladies toilet of the Tbilisi airport. And eating more of those peaches.
Things I learnt from the Kazbek summit expedition:
– In Georgia, large dogs often follow you ❤ ❤
– On the summit day with an Alpine start, do not eat before heading out (only drink tea)
– Drink water when you stop (otherwise minerals get lost immediately)
– Keep your toe nails as short as possible
– Use the resting step during ascent
– Breathe deeply with your belly every now and then
– Take magnesium powder/tablets with you
– Take some mineral tablets with you to mix into water at higher altitudes
– Adventure Clinic is probably the best travel agency in Estonia.
→ Tuesday, October 25.
It looks like the nail on my left big toe is actually loose.
Technically, I still made it to the top in one piece, even if a bit of me falls off because of that within 2016 after all.
Mount Kazbek 2016 summit expedition was organised and led by the Estonian adventure travel company Adventure Clinic with the help from Vertical Travel Azerbaijan.
Words will do no justice!
It happened on a Thursday morning, on August 11, 2016. The alarm went off at 1am. I unzipped the tent door and looked outside. There was not a cloud in the sky. Only the largest number of stars I had ever seen.
“Fuck!” I thought with bone piercing joy and a good amount of intimidation.
We were at the base camp on Mount Kazbek. In Georgia.
It was time.
→ Everything before Monday, August 8
For 10 years I dreamt of climbing a mountain in Georgia. But between a 24/7 drama school or 24/7 agency work, taking proper time off that was not spent writing seemed inconceivable. Then followed the years of getting settled as a freelance writer. This is not the time for investing in mountain gear. No.
Finally, in 2015, I joined a group of young mountaineers getting ready for Mount Elbrus. For the first time, my plans and reality were facing in the same direction. And then that expedition was called off due to fiscal reasons.
It started to dawn on me that I couldn’t wait for possible new groups to get formed. I needed to find people who were set on going.
This year, my waiting ended.
I had kept my eyes on Mount Elbrus – the highest mountain in Europe and Russia – for the most part of those last 10 years. But this year, a fully fresh perspective suddenly introduced itself: Mount Kazbek. A dormant stratovolcano situated on the border of Georgia and Russia. Third highest mountain in Georgia. Lower than Elbrus, but exactly as pretty and as famous. (Amongst other criteria.) The mountain Prometheus was chained to. And quite a legendary baseline for an adventure.
The decision was made. Some last minute injuries were survived. And the missing part of the kit gathered.
→ Monday, August 8. Getting used to the rucksak. From Tbilisi to 2100 m.
This is where it all started. When Turkish Airlines reunited me with my luggage after a 24-hour delay, I was finally ready. It felt like the past 10 years were nothing compared to those last weeks of haste and hectics. Finally, I could relax.
Our group of 11 climbers and 2 mountain guides packed themselves into a van in Tbilisi and headed off towards the mountains. It was warm. Both outside and inside the van. One of the van’s doors could only be opened with a screwdriver. Our bags were all tied to the roof. We were properly off!
We reached Kazbegi village (1700 m) in a couple of hours. After a lunch of salty meats and soft breads, we were ready to start walking. It took a bit of time to getting used to my rucksack. Mine weighed around 18 kg, if not more. Some people were carrying 23-25 kg loads. I was not carrying any ropes, hence the lightness of it all.
We reached the Gergeti Trinity Church (at 2100 m) nicely before the sundown. It was time to set up camp, eat and fall asleep. The sun was setting quickly. The massive Caucasian sheep dogs were curling up for the night between our tents. The adventure had begun.
→ Tuesday, August 9. Toughest day of the week. From 2100 m to 3600 m.
A day of many, many novelties!
Today, I stepped over my first crack in a glacier. I also walked up a glacier carrying my 18 kg rucksack. While occasionally stepping into little streams created by the melting glacier.
Almost without noticing, I became used to crossing mountain rivers while carrying a rucksack on my back. It was wild and exciting, and I could not believe I had not been doing this all my life. Also, the rivers were not 20 m wide.
Luckily, all river crossings happened after my period had started. It means that my period cramps did not disturb my balance while skipping on the “stepping” stones. Because of course the period started now – during the hardest rucksack carrying day of the entire trip. Otherwise, things would have been too easy.
But. Luckily again, all the river crossings started after the middle toes on my left foot had released their cramps. Never has a magnesium powder tasted sweeter than the one I obtained from Raki, one of the climbers and organisers of our trip.
This ascent gifted me with a well-timed moment of wonder: “Which hurts more? My period cramps or mytoe cramps?”. But before getting through with the analysis, a strong wave of nausea hit me as soon as we reached 3000 m. I forgot all about the cramps. (I still don’t know whether my nausea was caused by the change in altitude or by the 150 g nuts and raisins that I had just inhaled within 10 seconds.)
The nausea was the strongest I have ever felt. I wanted to lay down and not move for a long time.
Of course, I could not stay behind during this part of the journey. That was the *only* reason that made me pick up my trekking poles. (Together with the hope of reaching the base camp by the evening.) And even when doing so, I was certain I would not make it through the next 100 meters. I positioned myself near the end of the line, hoping that not everyone would have to witness my involuntary projectile spill.
But as suddenly as the nausea had picked up, it also abated. (Kind of like a storm in a Brontë novel). Either it was the sugar kicking in or my body deciding to reduce three pains to two, I do not know. All I know is that from this point onwards, it was easy to change tampons behind random boulders.
By the time we got to the edge of the Kolka glacier, I was fine again.
The rest of the climb to the base camp at 3600 m was relatively easy. From the distance, the old meteo station looked like a castle featured in a 1980s children’s movie that the EU is refusing to show on television.
And with our eyes on the growing outline of the meteo station, we all reached the base camp. There was almost no reception up here. There were horses, however. Upon reaching the camp, we learnt that one can also send their stuff up (and down) from the base camp on a horse. Later, we also found a specific area on a slope which shared some mobile reception with us as well. Today, the surprises never stopped.
Today, I climbed more than I have ever climbed (in altitute meters) – 1500 m straight up. Technically, also up and down in the middle of it. They say that one should rise 1000 m a day, and not more. Especially not at very high altitude. But our guides knew what they were doing. And Kazbek is funnily shaped like that, it really is. Mostly everyone felt fine when reaching the camp, with a single, light exception. It had been a good decision.
In the evening it was our tent’s turn to cook dinner. Buckwheat with canned meat it was, mmm, mmm, mmm.
→ Wednesday, August 10. Acclimatisation day. From 3600 – 4000 m.
A practice and a rest day.
After eating breakfast, we walked up to the edge of the white glacier to practice rope work. And to give our feet a reminder of what walking and jumping on crampons felt like. Our 400 m rise went really slowly, however. It felt proper heavy and difficult, even after a good night’s rest. This was the first time I really felt the change in altitude.
Our 400 m climb in new altitude lasted 2.5 hours. While up on the white glacier, we practiced rescue techniques and jumping over tiny glacier cracks at 4000 m. It was warm, sunny and felt like a practice-based holiday. Everyone was happy until our mountain guide Sirxan let us know that we had no chance of reaching the summit if we progressed that slowly also on the summit day. Eeeek!
Everyone gave their absolute best when descending later. To prove that all of us might be worth it. That we can actually move. And to hopefuly get a blessing from the mountain gods.
Later in the camp, Sirxan admitted that we might have a good chance after all. And not only because our foot work. The weather report was extremely benevolent for tomorrow as well.
We all knew that our good weather window was closing soon. Technically, we would need one more acclimatisation day, but since Kazbek is shaped funny like that (and with the not-so-favourable weather coming in), we made the decision. Tomorrow was going to be our summid day.
It was time to put everything on one card. To take all the sprats and chocolates with us.
We set our alarms to 1am (that’s 10pm back at home!) for tea drinking and gearing up. Our last 1400 m climb was to start at 2am, sharp. This would get us to the glacier after the coldest time of the morning had passed. And back to base camp around 4-6pm. Hopefully.
We talked through some basics and to double-checked our kits. It is a beautiful, quiet time: every climber going through their gear with focus and hope on their face.
PS. Tonight I popped my first blister on my foot sole. (With the sharp edge of my little toothpaste tube.) It is a scientific fact that I’m a proper outdoors person now.
Here goes nothing!
Today I took my bag for a walk. It is an old and broken bag which will not go far very often these days, but was perfect for checking the state of my leg 22 days post injury.
We walked a couple of kilometers. Apparently, it weighed 11 kg. I had aimed for 5. 🙂 No wonder I keep getting strange injuries. Seeing my osteopath tomorrow morning. I think it is final decision time.
Since this is my littil online diary I feel like wanting to stay true to all the goings-on in my wandering life on these pages as well.
In summer 2015 I missed out on my second chance to go to Elbrus in Georgia. With its magnificent 5642 meters, Mount Elbrus stands as the highest mountain in Europe and nothing really says I would have even summited (or gotten close or been lucky with the weather), but… It was a dream I had had for 9 years.
And that was it. Come 2016 and I promised myself that from now on I’d go after at least one big dream destination a year. I don’t like when they stay the same for too long. I need them fresh, young and alive. (And you just meet some of the best people on those roads.)
The decision was a clear one. I decided not miss out on a Caucasus Mountain trip this year. Let’s just call it an active celebration of a decade-long dream. Or a wordless longing that seems to take over my life when I’m not near or on a mountain in every couple of months. (And one day, in all of those one days to come, I will try to write about that feeling. I know that there are books written on that same thing, but they are written by others, not me.)
So, in early spring I signed myself up for a trip to Mount Kazbek. It is one of the major mountains of the Caucasus and the third highest in Georgia (5,033 m). Mount Kazbek lays on the border of Georgia and Russia, and looks stunningly inviting and seriously demanding (for me, at least) and just so perfect for a good… week in the thin air. It also looked like a spot-on location for having the mountain gods look over my first trip to a higher than a +3000 m altitude. The plan was made and approved. All the romantic mountaineers of my mind were swooning.
I started training. Not just doing my regular sports but consciously training. That included everything from running to strength training, from kettlebells to TRX. I wanted to increase my endurance while becoming a bit stronger. I was out there in the drizzle after a long day of podcast writing, travel copywriting or PhD thesis writing (just give it to me, I’ll write anything! 🙂 ), always making sure I’d stick to my hand-drawn schedule on my corkboard. You know how it is – train during daytime, read and dream about the region at night. Wake up with a smile.
And 2 weeks ago, today, I tore a muscle in my left calf. Days later, bruising also appeared. That means that the muscle fibers that got damaged were some pretty deep ones.
My trip to Georgia starts in 16 days from today. All in all, it would only be a month of healing for the littil calf. Which is looking to be too little indeed.
That’s all I know this afternoon. I’ll probably know more things in a couple of days, after my third physio session. But I’m getting myself ready to write a new number into that red circle on the paper.
That is life.
PS. What is amazing, though – are the people of the Central London Osteopathy and Sports Injury Clinic. Just saying.