Tag Archives: never stop exploring

About that pan-Europan forest smell. Summer ramblings in Kent, England.

Where: Kent, England

When: Saturday, July 1st

What: Sevenoaks – Knole Estate – Ightham Mote – and back again

Who: E, E, N, R, K, R.

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The look of the primeval summer

I understood something a couple of days ago, on last Saturday when we set our course towards the Medieval-Tudor-Victorian Ightham Mote in Kent. I understood that many forests in Europe smell the same.

I also understood that summers are the most melancholy yet the most carefree seasons, and that for the second summer in a row I am not going kayaking or mountain biking as I had mused about. That’s the trouble with musings, however, they never get me anywhere. This makes them different from actual dreams/plans, of course, but it also works a nifty little beacon to any underlying dreams that might go untouched. It is good to know the undercurrents, I think.

Gentle, yet promising

Luckily, last Saturday also brought many lighter realisations. My leg has become stronger. Slowly I’m starting to feel like I can move again. And it is a good, satisfying, smile inducing feeling. Fair enough, running up little hills with R after a double pint of Hells Bells might have helped to get to obtain that positive outlook. But it was not only that.

There was a sweeter realisation at the top of those hills: nothing beats walking into the golden hour with your lover and your friends. (Technically, yes, fine, there are some things that beat this, but that is for the other blog.)

And also, most surprisingly – I understood that although I do not know what will be the next place or the next country where I shall be living in, I shall definitely miss English countryside when there. I shall miss it differently from the Welsh and the Scottish one which fall into a category totally of their own making! But the English countryside. The one that feels small and gentle, yet promising. The one that lacks the feel of the wilderness but that greets you as a friend. The one that can get so ridiculously pretty so fast that it feels like you should stop laughing at the way the sun is breaking through to the undergrowth.

See, the thing is, nature is beautiful everywhere. Yet there’s something about the English countryside that can’t be experienced anywhere else. It keeps a fine balance of alluring you in and then looking the other way for showing you its posh butt cheeks. And yet, you feel welcome. Somehow, it does feel like anold friend you meet again, again, and again.

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What does it really mean – to go walking with friends?

On the gorgeous Saturday of June 10th, I set out to walk the Chess Valley Way with three of my friends (N, E & L). It turned out to be one of the best days in months.

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However, it was not the gorgeousness of the Chilterns AONB nor the perfect walking weather nor even the shallow chalk rivers that allowed us to playfully wade through them that made that day into an acutely special one. After all, technically speaking, the entire last month has not been lacking in the special – I finally obtained my PhD (yup, I’m Doctor Marion now :)) and signed my first book contract (oooh yeaaah!). But none of those specific moments can now be compared with June 10th. Why?

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For starters, had I walked the Chess Valley Way alone, it would have still been a gorgeous day out. Also, had I taken the same friends into a pub – we would have most definitely had a good day out as well. But I would not be writing about this at the moment. So now I’ve been wondering for nearly three weeks… What renders walking with friends so special that it makes your heart sing with joy even 1.5 fortnights later?

 

Where does the walking joy come from?

There is enough research out there (without me having to repeat it) about the benefits of walking in nature. It lifts your mood, boosts creativity – and hence, helps to think outside any box and see new connections -, pimps your immune system, and generally makes you into a better person (fine, fine, meta tests are yet to prove this last one, but I don’t think I’m too far off the mark). But this is not all.

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People who undertake longer treks and walks seldom do it out of politeness. This means that all the people you meet during your walks are enjoying what they’re doing. Fully. I think this feel gets mirrored back into your micromuscles and neural networks. Also, lots of people come with dogs – so, even better. You can pet the dogs together with your friends. But even this does not fully explain the essence of that special joy to me. So, to properly figure it out for myself, I’m turning to my oldest friends: lists.

What does it really mean to go walking with friends?

  • It is a perfect combination of alone and together. Walking with friends allows you to fall silent for long periods of time with the knowledge of the bubbling word being right there, at your fingertips. It is the feeling of doing your own things in your room while overhearing all your friends having a party in the kitchen. My semi-silent version of a secret heaven.
  • It is old topics. It is new topics. The change of scenery acts as a catalyst for new ideas and for new connections. Suddenly, you are asking questions about your friend’s thoughts and feelings on topics you had not even worded to yourself yet. This is the time that showers you with ideas for new stories, games, services – you name it!
  • You let new people into your life. Better than a dinner at home or a pub visit – walks with good acquintances have a good chance of turning them into friends later.
  • The shared process of witnessing the new. This experience is richer than a bag of gulab jamuns dipped into clotted cream! This how life itself should unravel, being on the road with the people you love, not fully caring about reaching the destination or getting lost.
  • It pushes you into the present.
  • It feels like a micoradventure.
  • And you see your friends being happy.

 

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The peacock cries of North Yorkshire

I spent the three very last days of April in North Yorkshire, in the land of wild garlic, frolicking ewes and magnificently shaped rocks.

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Brimham Rocks of North Yorkshire.

Little brooks, arched bridges, slate roofs, trees that are still barely accepting the arrival of spring, private fancy bidges and light hearts – these are the keywords from one of the best weekends of the year. So far.

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My heart feels light in Yorkshire. Not because you can go trekking with llamas there and imagine yourself to be standing high on the Andes platoo. Not because it offers you the best little pies in the country, and shop keepers who literally say “Welcome to Yorkshire” in your face. 🙂 It’s actually not all romance and glory. On our circular walk from Pateley Bridge (via Brimham Rocks) we also saw large flags with the word “Brexit” written all over them. Fair enough, the flags were also half-burnt but… Even that could not take the lightness away. I do not know how to be a political person, really. And probably never will.

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North Yorkshire’s lightness seems to come from the wide open spaces, from the tiny brooks leading you to bigger rivers and bigger bridges. Yet, there’s no unnecessary quaintness (like sometimes in the Lake District, for me, sorry!). Spring always arrives much later in here. In fact, it’s almost like you get two springs in one year, just by travelling between Yorkshire and London.

The source of the lightness seems to be a mix of natural beauty (the land is never too flat), a certain sense of time (nothing is too compressed or too eternal or long) and from forgetting to complain. Completely. (A habit I picked up during last 6 months and am now dancing a slow departure walz with.)(Can’t wait for the music to end!)

And then there’s a sense of magic. Somehow, behind every corner, there’s a surprising view you just did not think or imagine to meet you. Everything is clean. So clean that is has an immediate effect on your mind. Something would almost suggest the presence of a monastery, of sorts, but all you can see are country lanes and daffodils. Maybe this it, though? Might as well be. The real reason why the heart becomes so light in here? Parts of North Yorkshire feel like a vast, outdoors monastery where walking is proof of your silent yet lively dedication. To life.

And it sure helps to hear the cry of a close-by yet unseen peacock just when you are crouching down to pick some of that long-awaited-for wild garlic. In your undefined and unnamed temple gardens.

New river. Old course. Walking the LOOP, 2/24: Cockfosters to Enfield.

Name: London Outer Orbital Path

Walk: 2 of 24

Route: Cockfosters to Enfield Lock (section 17)

Date & Distance: Tuesday, 25.04.2017; 18.2 km

Fellow walkers: K. & M.

The second walk from our series was framed by field edges. (This is not even a pun. Framed by edges… Ah, never mind.) When our first walk was formed by bench and forking path descriptions, then this one was definitely all about following the fields. Which is not bad, you know. I can definitely think of a worst thing than walking next to a field on a cool yet sunny day!

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Section 17 took a bit of time, although it was not very long and did not feel very long either. Once again, we chose the sunniest day of the week and hit the road. Arriving at Cockfosters was strange. Strange in a way reaching a final destination on yet another tube line is. It did not take long for the car parks to end and greener parks to start. Also, it still had not rained in London by that time. It was getting close to 5 weeks.

There was a lot of green happening that day. A lot. Spring is getting properly ready to turn into summer soon. With the blue skies in the background, it was a lot like walking around in alternative versions to Windows’ desktop wallpapers. K. also knows that you can use a word meaning “greener than green” in Turkish in occasions just like this.

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It was a walking day which did not enwrap me (or possibly us three?) in anything impossibly magical, but gave us many small surprises that were sweet in their own everyday way:

  • little fresh oak leaves
  • ivy-smothered forest signs in Enfield
  • cherry blossoms on the grass (up to this point I had only seen them on pavement)
  • the Railway Inn of Enfield that plays opera and smells of old cigarettes
  • two women nailing “Missing: Rooney” posters on trees (Rooney was a parakeet, there was also a photo)
  • the sweetest sign post, saying “New river. (Old course.)”

This one got me thinking. Life, literature and philosophy are brimming with the idea of the opposite: old river, new course. You know, the idea that you can always turn a new page however tired or alienated you have become. There’s also the idea of the opposite of this opposite – old course, new river – meaning that some things get discovered over and over again throughout our lives, in different situations. But new river, old course, exactly in this order, contains something devastatingly romantic, if not even unforgiving. It seems to either hint (in the unforgiving version) that life has certain patterns or ways of influencing us which no one can escape, no matter which century we’re living in – or – that were there has once been life, there will be life again (the romantic version). What I don’t like about this sign, however, is how it seems to rob the one who is living (the new river) from any other options. In a way, it almost makes it not trust itself, without even giving it an option.

And this is also the reason why I finally need to take a month off work for the first time in my life. Because I am so tired that I get offended by forest signs.

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Walking the London LOOP. Walk 1 of 24, Petts Woods to Hayes.

Name: London Outer Orbital Path

Walk: 1 of 24

Route: Petts Woods to Hayes (section 3)

Date & Distance: Tuesday, 11.04.2017; 27.23 km

Fellow walkers: K.

London Loop is a 240-km signed walking route that is created for the incurably curious. In other words, it makes it very easy to walk around London.

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I believe in the magic of streets, paths and roads. A city always feels like home when you know you have many streets to choose from and many ways to get to a location. The trouble finds you when you start running out of streets. I was thinking about this exact thing when looking down from the parapet in Malta’s Mdina: with a tiny squint in your eye, you could almost imagine a slice of Istanbul petting the soft edges of your horizon. But what makes Istanbul Istanbul is the feeling and the knowledge of the Possible. The same pleasant tingling you get before job interviews, exams and first dates. And Malta lacked that feeling. The streets were counted.

K. and I got the idea to walk the London Loop by an accident. I know that in my case, it is a path of solace (among other things) and a path that I slowly start building into my Denali preparations. It keeps me sane when away from the mountains and hanging low in mood. And gives me time to spend with my friends.

The other meaning of the loop

On our first walk already managed to direct us through a tiny trickster point as well. There was a parting of roads and benches whence we choose our itinerary only to end up at the very beginning of the original path at least a kilometer away. I guess this is just one of the meanings for the loop. When retracing our steps we were greeted by an elderly couple at that same trickster point who had also been mislaid from their path (yet coming from the opposite direction).

If I was free to roam forever (and immortal), I’d start mapping all the trickster points in this world. Hopefully, such cartographers are already out there, poking at the crossroads of possibilities.

When England gets DRY –> Epping Forest (Chingford, 09.04.2017).

Life is out there,  and I celebrate it, quietly

The older I get, the more I like spring. With every year. It was the only season I never noticed in my 20s. In my 30s, springs come with a sense of relief.

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Entering the Epping Forest in Chingford.

On Sunday, 9th of April, me and my lover set our course to Epping Forest (of the Chingford area). We had been there once before and we both remembered it for its luscious magical properties. READ: tense green foliage with foxes jumping onto forest glades and butterflies circling the air. The last and only time we visited this area, we walked out of it mesmerised and refreshed.

For the record, I don’t know Epping Forest very well. So far, I’ve been to:

  • Epping Forest in Chingford
  • Epping Forest in Epping
  • Epping Forest near Whipps Cross
  • Epping Forest in Aldersbrook (across the Wanstead Flats in E7)

Of these forest areas, the Chingford one was the fairy tale one, the Epping one the muddy one, the Whipps Cross one the wormhole one (you can end up where you started while thinking you have just reached the other shore of the lake) and the Aldersbrook one the cultural looking one.

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Silent walking made impossible by all the leaves on the forest floor.

Choking on expectations

But this time, Epping Forest was different. That’s because the spring is uncommon. How? It has not rained for weeks. For WEEKS. In England. In Spring. In London. On top of that, on that particular Sunday, I was not walking with my mind really at peace, so my steps were not always in the present but also falling into past memories and expectations of the forest. I think it was the only time I have expected the forest to be something. To show me something. To give me something. (How funny and stupid is that?)

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Life pressing through forest shadows.

But forests teach you good lessons. When you go looking for foliage magic, you will end up inside the landscape of Arizona. When you go looking for foxes, you’ll barely spot a squirrel. When you want to find moist moss, you end up staring at cracks in the dead bark. What is this, spring of death?!

Relaxing into it

There was nothing left to do than to give into the half-lifeless state of it. And just like any good story or a well-built moral structure would suggest – as soon as we accepted the New Arizona, bits of life started revealing itself to us. We even found grass to sit on.

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There is no moral to this sotry. Apart from not to expect things, from people or from nature.

Can bleakness be good for the soul? (A few words about that Norfolk visit…)

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So. I visited Norfolk for the first time this February. Norfolk has a skull-shaped coastline but I did not discover it all on my feet. We wandered around Hunstanton and the Holme Sande Dunes instead. And the biggest thing that happened to me in February is straightly related to that visit.

Namely, I came up with a new theory about human nature which answers the most spike-y and acute questions I’ve had about what makes us all so different. (Well, technically, what makes us all the same, but using different means to reach that sameness.)(Uhuh.)

Surely?!

Imagine you get an unplanned job project that suddenly leaves you with you a nice amount of extra money. What’s your first reaction?

I, being a slow thinker, spent the most of 2015 and 2016 pondering over the following question: is it possible that not all of us feel the same thing in that situation?


The answer: it is not only possible, but it also is the actual case. The actual life. With a perfect shock I discovered that not everyone is thinking about new routes, roads, mountains and destinations all the time. And that explains it. The difference of us all.

Yes, I have a job that’s my love and my hobby, and which I would also do it for free (for any clients reading this, only kidding). Yes, I’m reaching an end of a long academic road this year which just might leave me with a PhD degree. And yes, there is life, and a house renovation that is nearing its finish this year as well. But surely, SURELY, all one really thinks about is what unknown roads there are, just hours from their doorstep?!

 

New theory for human nature

Based on long hours of interviewing my friends, and on accounts heard from others, I am now convinced that humans fall into two large (and obviously not always straightforward) categories:

– people who get properly grounded, energised and refocused by visiting places they know well or where they have been before (visiting the same fells feels like visiting an old friend, a friend once said);

– people who get their soul back and reach their metaphorical home by going to places that are completely new.

 

How the theory really explains it all?

Here’s why and where it can be applied. It shreds light on:

  • why some people are not upset when an idea of a trip gets forgotten because no one really takes the lead in organising it;
  • why people have savings accounts that are actually savings accounts, and not cover-names for Travel Accounts;
  • why some people follow maps in new cities and others could not think of anything worse;
  • how certain work and living choices get made;
  • why it is not the most shared dream of all people throughout all times –> to sit around a map or a globe, dreaming of places you can’t yet pronounce;
  • why some of us have a need to return to certain places that give us back the sense of self (a ritual of sorts, technically);
  • why some people always choose the new dish from the menu or never cook the same dish twice, and why some do.

 

A ritual for relocating the self

Usually, humans need rituals to create a new space either physically or mentally. This is why we choose the same roads to walk on when feeling on the edge, and why we re-read the same books or visit theat same holiday spot. This is partially why meditation works, and why regular workouts keep us sane (apart from the funky hormones, of course). It is curiosity that’s been given a form. But there’s another way to handle curiosity.

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The ship skeleton on the Hunstanton Beach. Norfolk 2017.

Gaining security and strength from the new

The other way is the following: you are one of those people who feel most secure and yourself-like in places where you have never been. This makes a rucksack full of sense. In a new place, your idea of the self has no familiar triggers to bring on the feel of a certain image, so you can feel borderless and – in the lack of a better description – the most authentic version of yourself.

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River Great Ouse of King’s Lynn.

You probably belong to this category, if:

  • you’re willing to sit on a bus for 7 hours just to see a new place for one evening;
  • you feel like sleeping in the palm of your favourite god when sleeping in a new place (a bunkbed, an airport, a hotel, someone’s sofa, etc.);
  • you prefer hiking new trails to returning to a set of sweetly favourite ones:
  • your mind rests like crazy when having boarded a local bus or a train in a country you have never been in;
  • the unfamiliar makes you love and respect life and strangers more;
  • an amount of fear in the day renders the peace of your evening more serene;
  • it’s bliss to sit on trains for 12 hours withour internet or books;
  • you need the knowledge that you’ll never run out of streets to walk on. You need it for your daily sanity;
  • horizonless cities make you feel home;
  • mountaineous terrains make you feel home (ok, now I’m just talking about me, but mountains are some of the last areas of true wilderness left);
  • not having your things around you makes you feel creative again.

And this is why bleakness is good for the soul.

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Norfolk. February. Between Holme Sand Dunes and Old Hunstanton.

 

 

 

Arctic tundras and canal shores of Venice. Going after unstructured experiences.

A hunt for unstructured experiences is the easiest way to summarise my year of 2016. Yes, I did doctoral research on the topic but the theme was definitely prominent also in other areas of my life (in art, mountaineering training, etc.).

For a while now, I shall probably be posting about different ways to go after that specific type of experience. I will give my best to try to approach it from all angles, large or small, crooked or right angled, and see what makes it longed for, for me and for a lot of people of my time.

This post will focus on two very straightforward ways of achieving a completely fresh spatial experience without throwing yourself off a train without a map. It will focus on ways for designing surprises that work, for yourself.

1. Give someone permission to take you on a trip without telling you the destination.

Lessons learned from the Arctic Norway and Finnish Lapland in September 2016.

Let another person pack your clothes, choose the date and not tell you where you will be going. Destination awareness can be left for the check-in desk, train station or the boat mooring spot.

In September, I had a fabulous chance to experience that type of once again. It is definitely one of my most favourite modes of travelling. Of course, it is romantic to the core, but it also frees you from the philosophical task number 1: to know where you’re going.

And this is where the surprise design kicks in. If all you know is the return date, every following detail starts acting as a structural element of your adventure:

– not knowing when you have to wake up;

– not knowing whether there are plans for the next day;

– not knowing what is in the neighbourhood, near or far;

– not knowing what to take with you;

– not knowing which means of transport to use;

– not having to worry about reaching a place at a certain time;

– not knowing when and where you’ll be eating;

– not knowing which direction you’re going;

– not knowing what to expect.

Unstructuralism achieved!

2. Change the time and scope of your wanderings

Lessons learned on Venice canal shores in November 2016.

It is worth it. If you suddenly find yourself attracted to a city that is an object of admiration to the entire world … don’t go exploring it at the heels of it.

I am talking about these destinations that do not even have an off season, to use holiday parlance.

So, how to find your city inside everyone else’s?

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Night in San Marco, Venice. November 2016.

If possible, arrive very early or very late. This makes your first impression more personal.

Then, schedule your first longer wander outside the tourist hours. Yes, you are on a holiday (I only use the word “holiday” for city trips; outside of it, the concept does not even work), so setting the alarm for 3.30 AM may feel like the first signs of madness, but the sleepiness will lift as soon as you enter the empty maze that every new city is.

Imagination works better when left alone in an empty space. It is also easier to get a feel for a place that is uniquely meaningful only for you.

What else helps? Making a game of spotting a certain elements (like a weathered pattern on a wall) in every new street or square. This way you will end up looking into little side streets and courtyards more often.

Visiting cemeteries always helps. When a city is crowded, her cemeteries are usually less packed (well, depending how you’re counting). Cemeteries let you in on the spirit of the place (no pun intended) without having to fight the crowds.

For extra ideas, it is worth reading Microadventures by Alastair Humphreys or taking a an official city guide book and reversing everything that can be reversed.

Also, on the topic: “The rational flâneur is someone who, unlike a tourist, makes a decision at every step to revise his schedule, so he can imbibe things based on new information, what Nero was trying to practice in his travels, often guided by his sense of smell. The flâneur is not a prisoner of a plan. Tourism, actual or figurative, is imbued with the teleological illusion; it assumes completeness of vision and gets one locked into a hard-to-revise program, while the flâneur continuously – and, what is crucial, rationally – modifies his targets as he acquires information.” (From Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleeb)

 

 

Memoirs of the Mount Kazbek summit day. How I finally climbed a 5000+ m mountain in Georgia. Part 2 of 2.

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.

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Time for another well-deserved break on the ascent.

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.

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Getting higher and higher.

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.

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Our mountain guide Sirxan from Vertical Travel Azerbaijan on the summit of Mount Kazbek.

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.

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Remnants of past rock falls.

*

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.

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Relaxing view from the base camp.

Friday, August 12. From base camp at 3600 m to 2100 m.

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All cramponed up for the glacier. (Photo stolen from Siim.)

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)

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Ready to cross the glacier again. (Photo stolen from Siim.)
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Another group going up where we just descended from.

– 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).

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Our large friend who later escorted all the wild horses off our camp site.

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.

“Tasted it.”

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Good night.

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!

How does it feel to fulfil a 10-year-old dream? How I finally climbed a 5000+ m mountain in Georgia. Part 1 of 2.

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!

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The van that got us out of the capital.

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.

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View from the tent at sundown.

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.

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Our group members taking in the view during ascent.

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.

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Our group taking a break after river crossing.

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.

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Near the edge of the Kolka glacier.
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Getting closer to base camp (the tilted ship-like structure in the cloud on the right).

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.

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Evening view from base camp.

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.

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Early morning views from base camp.

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.

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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!

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Base camp life after descending from the white glacier