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!