It is the last day of February. A day of thick snow. And sun.
It has been the sunniest February of my life.
And the harshest winter of my life. Perhaps every winter is.
This year, I spent a good third of my February in Portugal.
This means that now I can definitely say that you should walk to the ocean when in Porto and visit the Convento dos Capuchos when in or near Lisbon. This convent of the austere medieval brotherhood makes all that Scandi minimalism look like the lush landscape of a lucid dreamer.
But from the convent, you can walk through the forest of the Sintra-Cascais natural park. There is a man there, driving a small blue car, giving out homemade IPAs to travelers. The water comes from the local spring. The beer comes for free.
And after your walk you will reach a village. A village that is perhaps a 10-minute drive from the most westernmost point in the mainland Europe. But you don’t turn south but head north instead. Because there is a signpost to Praia da Ursa.
And to Praia da Ursa you should go. Not only to feel like a model in a Caspar David Friedrich painting and not only to witness a gang greedy seagulls keeping vigil over an odd dead fish on the sands. But to see weather beaten ladders attached to massive cliffs, to run from the ocean foam that asks you to dance whether you like it or not, or to just have a proper look at the wilderness next to which we are living.
To Praia da Ursa you should go. Everything else is optional.
August is ending. Summer is ending. New jobs are starting. Sounds like a perfect reason to walk from Rainham to Purfleet.
If I offered walking tours in all possible genres, I’d be crafting itineraries for London’s most industrial walks this week. Rainham to Purfleet is one of those little magical ways which perfectly combines the exploratory feel of your childhood with the quiet epicness of your 20s. But even more importantly, it really opens up an alternative route for flâneuring in London, giving you a chance to walk past pallet factories, odd black cats, concrete barges, soft mud rivershores and even Europe’s first wind turbine park. Not to mention the apocalyptic Rainham Marshes with the grazing cows and Eurostar trains speeding away in the background, through the pylon forests.
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.
Climbers dropping their bags at the saddle.
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.
The elegance of the summit joy.
The summit of Mount Kazbek at 5033 m. (Yes, that axe is way too short!)
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.
The summit of Mount Kazbek. (Photo stolen from Allan.)
Our group on the summit of Mount Kazbek.
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?!)
View from the col.
When the clouds lift at 5000 m.
Gearing up again to start the descent.
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.
Roping up for the white glacier descent.
The start of the return journey.
Descent on the white glacier.
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.
Looking back to where we came from.
Part of the Khmaura Wall.
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).
Reaching the dark glacier.
Navigating the dark glacier.
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.
Heel already looking almost fine.
Toes regaining their lady-likeness again.
Approaching base camp.
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).
These dogs – they do just appear from behind hills and rocks.
Break on the descent.
Caucasus, you glorious glorious bitch!
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.
Last camp of the journey.
Only taking selfies with mountains for background. (Also, wanted to see what I looked like. Had not seen a mirror for a week, after all.)
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.
Hallway in Uplistsikhe.
Another angle of Uplistsikhe.
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.