An apple a day keeps the doctor away. So they say.
I’d like to update this wisdom with:
– one hike per weeks keeps the doctor away
– a mountain a month keeps the doctor away
We are off to my birthday trip today!
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 was June. I travelled to Madeira with KJ, another dramaturge from Estonia who has an eye and a tooth for faraway places.
I’ll be honest – I only spent a week in Madeira. I have not hiked all of her levada trails, climbed all of her highest peaks or swam in all of her waves. But I have done portions of all of that.
Madeira makes you feel welcome. The atmosphere in here is so relaxed that every thing that your brain decides to distinguish gets interpreted as a greeting just for you. Maybe it’s that cute mongrel that is wagging its tail? Or maybe it’s that passionfruit mousse that has your first and (secret) middle name whipped into its fluffiness?
So, what are the ways Madeira greets you with even when you just have a week to explore?
1.The lounging rooftop dogs.
You know how cats usually rule lots of Mediterranean (or generally warm) towns? And how they can be seen curled up in flower pots and sunbathing on window sills? Madeira has dogs sleeping on shed and house roofs with their snouts hanging over the edge in the warm wind.
2. Never-silent lizard steps.
There’s an endemic lizard species on Madeira that can be seen everywhere. No, really, everywhere! Which means that the bushes and shrubberies are never silent. Whether walking in the interior of the island or passing flower beds in town parks, the constant littil rustling never stops.
3. Peaceful-looking ocean waves that still throw you onto the smooth but painful rocks.
In here, is better to jump in from a deeper place than try to approach the ocean on foot as you’d do on the shores of the Baltic Sea, for example. (You can trust my words or trust my bruises.)
A positive side to this is the sound of the receding waves over large pebbles and rocks. They sound like a rave where DJs play sped-up ice cracking recordings.
4. Blossoms. Everywhere.
Everything that can blossom, blossoms. The nickname ‘The Island of Eternal Spring’ really holds true. And if you haven’t breathed in the white Angel’s trumpets’ blossoms yet, you’re lacking a drug-like experience which will change your life forever. (Only a slight exaggeration.)
One man’s front yard really can be the other man’s botanical garden.
5. The demon ducks (?).
I mean, there are birds in the wide levadas that reach the ocean in different towns across the island that sound like demonic dog toys.
You can’t see the birds for the lush vegetation, but the sounds bear a resemblance to the common duck. Just be warned.
6. The post-rain eucalypt trees.
Yes, they smell nothing like pines. And they also look slightly magical. And being amongst those trees does feel like your lungs are getting clinically cleansed by a forest dentist.
7. Scarecrows of all sorts.
You will see the human lookalikes and the classic tin can men, but you’ll aslo see figures designed out of wood blocks shaped like bones. (Check point 5 again?)
8. Views from higher than cloud nine.
The highest part of the island lies away from its shores. For a superb view of mountain tops covered in clouds, head to Achada fo Teixeira in Santana. Only this is enough to give your horizons a stretch, but from here you can go for a pleasant hike to the top of Madeira’s highest peak, Pico Ruivo (1862 m). (It’s the descent at the other end of the trail that takes a bit more time.)
9. The rise of the vertical forest.
They say that Estonia is 50% covered in forest. The percentage must reach 85% in Madeira. (Actually, 85% of the island is a national park.) The shape of the landscape (let’s just say it: the mountains!) also offers you either Alpine or near-Hawaiian views. Many mountains in one, as they say.
10. Dolphins, dolphins, dolphins!
It will not be a beer commercial or an overpaid nature cruise. You just take literally any of the boat trips from Funchal’s harbour area and spend the next hours floating away on the Atlantic ocean, jump in if you want to, and of course, – seeing those littil friends come and accompany your boat for awhile. The spotted kind followed us, but there are others. (Ok, I’ve never seen dolphins in an ocean before, I’m still so so happy about this!)
11. Eye-catching sculptural works.
You know how in Europe you often come across the following sculptures: men on horses, a couple with one of the people lying in the other’s arms, little children wrestling fish and/or peeing, or men wearing funny hats while looking serious?
Not in Maderia. Here you see (a lot!) larger-than-life-size cogs and conveyor belt pieces, angels with fallen heads stranded in mid-air between apartment blocks or 2D farmers hugging 2D cows.
A very welcome addition to the first list, as I see it.
12. The Airport.
If you’re afraid of flying (I used to be), don’t look it up. Even if you already know that it has a motorway and a little boat harbour under its runway and that the latter * used * to be the shortest in Europe, just don’t look it up.
However, if you do like side-wind landings, this is your party time. (Only if you land on a blustery day, of course.)
13. Parasols made of palm tree branches on urban beaches.
Some of the parasols are older, so their branches are withered.(The branches are probably taken from the banana plantations, but I could be wrong.) And when the wind blows, they rustle in that classic tropical manner. And this is amazing, although it can probably feel like a catalogue-ordered amazement. I have never heard a withered palm tree branch rustling over me on a beach, though.
I’m from the north. All this is magic.
I returned to Istanbul at the very end of spring. And with that, Istanbul became a second city that I ever revisitied as a chosen destination. (London was the first one.) Because usually, it is still about new and new and new and new and new and new places. Still.
The walks from the first Istanbul trip are described in one of my favourite posts on Institute of Wander so far. (* pet pet pet *)
And this time it was all different.
Last September I travelled there with my lover, so Istanbul became a whirl of sweetness (from baklavas and otherwhere), of wandering steps, crazy shop keepers and blindly discovered alleyways. But this happens to places where we end up together – wormholes open into storybook illustrations of giant icecubes or dancing monkeys in the night. (Long stories, all of the private enough.)
This time, however, I still walked Istanbul with my lover but also with two of our friends. Istanbul being Istanbul, everything still became dressed in baklava honey.
But something new also took place.
As I’ve never felt full nostalgia in my life (blame it on the boogie, the youth-time weed pipes or an insensitively structured memory), I wasn’t quite sure what was happening when the first signs started popping up. There was also no single deail that would have unleashed a string of yearning. Somehow, it was all around me.
I have always thought of nostalgia as of something somewhat linear. It is something you feel when you go back in time through your chosen means: visiting an old school, looking at photos, entering your room in your parents’ house after having moved out, etc. Always back, always in the back of the head of Time. But! In Istanbul, nostalgia is alive at the same time with you. It does not point backwards but spreads iself out in a parallel fashion.
In here, nostalgia is not only personal.
One of the strangely beautiful things that starts happening in Istanbul is that you start seeing your childhood years as something less unique; of them having been spent inside less of an idiosyncratic structure – in a place that was somehow connected or still is connected to other places and cities of this world. Maybe this is where Istanbul’s magic comes from? (Yes, I’m still after its source.) It is a city that manages to hold all other cities and all other times inside it.
Fun Fact: we actually did try to keepa list of all places Istanbul reminded us of, and ended up with nearly 20 items listed, from Krakow at the end of the 1970s and Vilnius in the 1980s to the side streets of Montmartre and of Marrakech right now. And none of us has even lived out of the current centuries.
And I think there’s one more way for nostalgia to get born. It comes to life from the feeling of not having to prove yourself as a place, of embracing the past in full totality, of selling old photographs of the city to the locals and to the fresh-eyed wanderers instead of the newest design bric-a-brac. (Although, yes, yes, all that totally exists.) But what place offers authentic pieces of itself away to strangers so freely? You can only do that when you have near-endless amounts of yourself to give, and when by doing that, you feel like not giving away your past but sharing your very present. This is how nostalgia can be born and alive right in the same moment with you.
And since Istanbul seems to stand above and around time, I now know that my next trip there will be a (definitely baklava-fuelled) hunt for the future. Because – where else?