Expedition to Mount Kazbek: Day 5 – Ascending to the Heavens
It is cold, but also hot. I wonder where am I? I know I know, I’m on the mountain, but where am I? These conditions change everything, the way I move, the way I think.. Everything seems to be alien, I am floating between clouds above mountains’ peaks. Is it heaven, or is it hell? Certainly feels so, it is too much for me. My mind is dreaming, my body is trembling, but my legs are still moving. What is it? What keeps me going? Maybe, I should lay down just for a while, to rest, though I know it would be an eternity. Oh, I’m not alone, I’m tied to another human beings, if I cannot do it for myself, I must do it for them. Just another step will make the whole trip.
01h00 AM, I can clearly hear the alarm, but I won’t move too much, just to put it on the snooze. Let it be someone else who wakes up first. I won’t, why the fcuk should I? It is a stupid idea to even try anyway. I expected to get at least 2 hours of sleep, but I fell asleep 00h00 at best, every minute counts. With thoughts like these, I snoozed until 01h30 until I finally decided to wake up.
It is a stupid idea, but I must do everything so I would not regret later. It is a fcuk up situation I’m in, I don’t believe rationally that, with little to none technical preparation and without being able to recover from yesterday’s acclimatization trip, it is possible or, at least, wise to attempt the climb to the peak of Mount Kazbek. On the other hand, emotionally, I really want to do it, I must do it, or it will be a huge blow to my self-confidence. It is a high-risk high-reward game.
The good thing is that when I got out of the tent, to my surprise, it was not as cold as I expected, and my head was not hurting. The night was too short for the mountain sickness to kick in. My rationality during the mornings is not as loud, so when my sleepiness faded away, I felt pretty up for the whole thing compared to my recent moods.
Other people woke up almost instantly after me, everyone seemed to be waiting for someone else to wake up first. The girl from our group later even said that she thought that nobody is going anywhere when she saw that everyone is ignoring the alarm, but our ‘at least we should wake up and see’ mentality worked out. It is a small step after a small step. Dress, put on your shoes, somehow get out of the tent, drink a coffee. Actually, there was an offer to go out without coffee, but I said I’m not going anywhere without it. It is an important ritual, especially after close to none sleep.
The plan seems to be working
I’m smoking a cigarette after cigarette, the smoke of it contracts the guts and makes you want to go and lose some weight. After eating as much as I did yesterday, I really need to lose as much as I can. It is amazing, but, maybe, my plan worked, my legs feel relatively light, so maybe they were able to recover with all the food in such a short time, though this doesn’t make much sense. But who cares, let’s be pragmatic. If it works – it works, the reasoning doesn’t matter. Maybe with a lot of sugar products we could actually, at least, make a serious attempt? I wonder.
There is another problem, we don’t have enough water to fill our bottles. I saw the problem from yesterday, I kept boiling water, but it kept being used in one way or another. There was simply not enough time to boil enough of water for supplies and our needs. For myself, I was able to take only 1 l of water, which would have been enough for any other day, but not today.
Though yesterday looked like a lot of people were leaving the camp at night, today seemed relatively calm, but it is probably because we are really early. I don’t understand the reasoning for it, but maybe harder snow and less flowing water is a big advantage compared to a limited vision. I don’t know, I lack experience climbing at night.
Into the darkness
Since we got 30 minutes late, we move out late as well. At 1h30 after checking our gear and crossing our hands together for luck and self-confidence, we set out to the darkness. The only light, showing us a path, is LED head flashlights. The start of the journey is not very optimistic, we can’t even find a correct exit from the campsite. Only with GPS and GPX route, we were able with confidence start walking our trail.
This is it, this is the day where everything settles. I either make or not, all of my pasts fears spikes today. Today I have to have focus sharp as a knife, today my mistakes might cost me a life, today I fight, today we attempt to climb the mountain of my life.
Emotionally, I am in a good mindset, my legs don’t hurt from yesterday, my focus is high, I seem to be relatively calm, not too excited, not too afraid. But even though I know I can push myself on the top of the mountain no matter what, what disturbs me rationally is the safety of such an attempt. I can walk through pain like it ain’t nobody’s business, but it might and will disturb my focus. Less focus – less safety, that is the concern of mine. But for now it is not a problem and if it is going to be a problem, it will be, probably, during the daylight. For now I walk in a dark and I must forget everything else, because my life depends on it.
Though mentally I feel really good, physically, I could feel that my energy levels are far from top. At the start, the path was neither hard or easy. Most of it depends on the mistakes you make. If your steps are coordinated and decision making of where to put your feet is quick and good, it is a relatively easy walk, but every miss-step cost you some extra energy.
Today we cannot afford walking at a different pace, so two of us has to increase their pace and the other two to decrease. We want either to catch up another group or slow down and wait for one, it is safer to go near more people. After an hour of walking we achieved that as a big group overtook us and all we had to do was to keep up with them. They walked so fast that I hardly had time to do anything else than just to think about the next step. They don’t look like they are going to make pauses.
Dangers of walking during the night
It is hard to describe the feeling when I jumped over the glacier crevasses in darkness. I could enlight all of it, so I had to check everything first and then make the jump. Luckily, the people in front of us knew a really good path and there weren’t as many scary jumps as it was yesterday. Can’t say the same about falling rocks. The problem with it that you can hear them, but cannot see a thing. And as far as our flashlights can reach, it would be a very narrow window of dodging a rock considering their high speed.
To everybody’s surprise, we got to the point, where you need to put on crampons and tie-up to each other by a rope, really fast, just in 3 hours. We were 1 hour faster than yesterday, that really increased our spirits. It feels like I wasted close to none of my energy and I’m almost at the furthest point where I’ve ever been.
Walking in a rope team
Even climbing alone in these conditions might look difficult, but the real challenge starts once you tie up into a rope team. The key to it, of course, is to keep each other safe in case of some fall into a crevasse or slips down the mountain but walking with someone inexperienced might be a hell.
I’m no professional, but the basics here is to keep the rope safe, you don’t want to step on it as any damage on the rope might result in tearing it apart once given some tension, which in simple words is your life. One must keep walking at a pace where the person in front of you would be at the range of the rope between you, which is usually around 6-10m. In that way the rope never drags on the ground, therefore it is hard to step on it. The other thing is that it will give you more space to react to self-arrest with an ice axe once somebody falls. One must also keep in mind that completely straight rope will give virtually no time to react, so it might be a good idea to hold a meter of the rope in your hand. Having in mind that the axe is in your other hand, these tactics completely gets rid of trekking poles, which further increase the difficulty of climbing.
This track up to Mount Kazbek this time is kind of fortunate to learn the basics, the road from the place where you tie up together to the plateau, is not very steep and doesn’t seem to have a lot of snow either. One gets plenty of time to get used to holding a correct distance between members. This part flew pretty quickly for me as I was busy remembering and listening to any advice I could get. It is only a second time for me walking on a rope team, but it was way easier now than it was before. Once we got the plateau of Mount Kazbek, clouds started to be visible, the Sun is rising.
The bright side of the day
At this point, I finally started seeing again, I no longer require a guide in front of me and what is ahead is really exciting to me. It feels like Mount Kazbek had covered the sunlight and on the other side of it, you could see the Sun rising already. The whole picturesque contrast between the sides of the mountain, feels like the dark past is behind and the bright future is ahead. Though the peak of Mount Kazbek lies still in the clouds, it is finally reasonably close. Unknowingly and maybe unwillingly, I start to feel confident, probably, overconfident. Everything in front is an uncharted world for me and I can finally walk it. Whatever awaits in the future, the symbolic and visual nature of it makes all of it as one of the most beautiful moments in my life. This is what one always wants, a shot to improve and prove oneself, or the others, that one’s peak is still ahead.
Though, almost at the height of Mount Rainier, there is still 700m left to the peak of Mount Kazbek. Nature, combined with morning’s weather, creates a strange feeling of being somewhere else. The surrounding clouds, few peaks peeking out of them and the Sun shining from somewhere behind really makes you feel like you are in heaven.
Nevertheless, the technical difficulties, this part of the climb feels definitely easy, the road is not steep, and the rising Sun made it easy again to observe potential crevasses from afar. While enjoying this wonderful walk and, almost, already celebrating the summiting, I can’t help myself, but to focus more on my thoughts than on what is happening around. Only occasionally, I try to look around and take some pictures during the short breaks, while trying to spread my supplies as rationally as I can for the rest of the journey, all the other time I am thinking “what a great story this will be”. Sadly, easy walk on the flat ground hasn’t gained us a lot of elevation and all of this soon will be over.
300 against one man
Blinded by my arrogance, once I asked for elevation we are at, I was shocked that there are still 500m left to the peak of the mountain. It felt like we were walking for a really long time, and it should be way closer than it is. Suddenly, my confidence started to collapse, and it wasn’t too long until another shocker. The person who was walking the first, therefore, leading the group, started to shorten the gaps between the stops and it didin’t take long until he told that he can’t go on anymore. Obviously, we can’t just leave him here, or let him solo back to the campsite of the plateau, which left us with three options:
- Stopping the expedition and turning around.
- Separating into two groups, though two of us who wanted to continue, have no experience.
- Finding a descending group and asking them to lead our friend down.
There were no descending groups visible on the horizon yet, which kind of eliminates the third option. The second option won’t work out either as I was the only one, at this point, stupid enough to attempt the summit in a group of two inexperienced people. After some consideration, we decided to climb a bit more, maybe will see an option.
At this point, my demons started to take over me again and I just told everybody that there is no point of continuing the expedition, wasting energy, if we won’t be able to summit. Maybe, there won’t be any groups descending, maybe there is another path down the peak? The risk of summiting seemed reasonable, but the risk of just walking around in the mountains felt unbearable to me.
Things didn’t change, nobody was descending, except the road getting harder and my strength abandoning me as well. Elevation seemed not to be changing either, nevertheless, slowly, a dozen meters after dozen meters we continued our journey. I am lucky that we usually stop before I completely run out of my breath. Though the difference is probably only a few steps, this is what saves me from being the one wanting to climb down.
The whole situation, what I see here, the mental strength of the person who is affected by the mountain sickness, still climbing, meter after meter, not for himself, but for the whole group to continue the expedition, made me feel a great admiration and inspiration. I know from my own experience what it feels when you are affected by the mountain sickness, climbing the mountain is opposite of the recommended treatment and the last thing you, personally, want to do.
Somehow, meter after meter, this hero toppled the elevation of the highest mountain in the Alps, Mont Blanc at 4,810m. As we sat down at a beautiful snow formation where we could find a shelter from a wind, he had climbed the mountain 300 m upward through a pain and dizziness. Never I saw a mindset and a strength like that and it wouldn’t surprise me if I never see a person like this again. With 200m left to the highest peak of Mount Kazbek, he couldn’t go on anymore.
Higher than Mont Blanc
Even though he was offered to risk climbing the peak by his best friend, he continued to refuse it. He is probably, way above his limits and we can’t ask more of him anymore. There is still the same way back ahead of us and I keep reminding myself of it. Though now I feel that I just can’t stop walking when I am so close to the summit.
Time runs, and nobody is descending, or so it looks. We thought many times that we see somebody climbing down, but in the end, it turned out to be wrong. Everybody, except me, is getting cold. It looks like my cold tolerance starting to play out really well for me as I’m able to keep my current optimism. Still, I’m afraid that we might decide to go down altogether after all the struggle. We were offered climbing the peak in a group of two again, still, I’m the only one willing to do that. At this point, nothing, except summiting, is in my head. What we achieved already, is not enough.
We kept considering various plans, including going down and leaving a sick person at this wind shelter and walking further. You see, making a decision of this kind after you sacrificed so much to get here is not an easy task, nobody wants to bring their team down. The general proposition of how to solve the problem even before it occurs, just to play out all of the scenarios before the expedition, so there is no hesitation when something actually happens.
By the time it looked like we decided to walk a bit more, we finally saw the first group descending. Our colleague without a hesitation told that he’s going down with them, therefore not walking further with us. Sometimes, it is hard to understand how other people feel, but at this point, it was obvious to me that he really doesn’t feel very well. The group which was descending, was a guide with a bunch of mountains enthusiasts, varying from experienced to total newbies, from whom someone felt sick as well. The guide agreed to take our friend down without a hesitation and, just before we departed, he told that the clouds are coming with a possible storm and if we want to make it up and down safely, we should hurry. Also, that our wind shelter is just a big crevasse and staying here is extremely dangerous.
Climbing above the European Alps
I doubt changes are good at this elevation and getting a new Pathfinder changed the pace and all dynamic. I didn't feel like I can keep up with this pace, but luckily for me, the group was constantly stopped by the guy on my back. The wind is strong and there is no way they can hear each other, I had to do the messaging between them, but soon after the only means of communication became softly pulling a rope until the person in front stopped.
I don‘t remember much from this part, just those constant vitally required stops, anger, and tiredness. I‘m not sure with whom I was angry, in the moments like these everything looks like the snake. One thing is for sure, I must show as little as possible of my emotions, other group members are tired as well and I must not make this worse or else we might not reach the top. The mood changed for a while when we got to a flat ground between two peaks of Mount Kazbek, the sky is clear here and the place looks lively, filled with many people before or after the summiting.
Finishing the job
When we saw the last 150m of Mount Kazbek, it surprised us, there is no safety rail, instead, a traverse path, which is way longer than it looks from the first sight. Reaching this point really cheered us up and feels like it returned some of our lost strength, we are definitely going to summit now, right? After making some pictures we started climbing it and, oh boy, what a clusterfcuk it is. There are plenty of people walking the path and we cannot go at our pace, we are forced to make a break every three steps. What is worse, that after those three steps I feel completely out of breath. My brains just cannot handle the situation where my body from normal breathing goes to this in almost no time.
Soon after, physically, I feel completely done, and I only survive this by thinking that the time will solve it all. After an hour, I’ll be on the top of Mount Kazbek and after 8 more hours, somewhere warm with a full belly. Current moment has no interest to me, I have no strength left to face it. I’m not sure how long did it take, I even haven’t made a single picture during this stage, but one thing is for sure, now I understand why, with so few meters left, so many people stopped climbing the mountain yesterday.
The struggle itself [...] is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
The whole repetition of giving up and finding the strength again to somehow try the summiting feels like experiencing the Sisyphus myth itself. The only difference being, that somehow, after a long torture, together with two members of the original group, somehow, we pushed the stone to the peak of Mount Kazbek at 5,047m. It is the first 3,400m+ summit and the first successful multi-day expedition to me. After 4 days of climbing, I’ve done something which was impossible for me in twice as much time 2 years ago. MK 1:1 ME.
What does it feel to climb a mountain?
The more I think of it, the harder it gets to describe it. I believe that summiting the mountain experience is more or less unique person by person. To some of us it is important to get another people to the top, for others – the personal achievement or sports interest. To me, though I love mountains, physical experience of it doesn’t seem to matter too much. One could think that a moment like this should be inscribed in my memory, but I hardly remember the flashes of it and most of it are connected to the pictures I got. Nevertheless, I have a strong impression of how I felt inside my head once I got up there.
Naturally, first things firsts, everyone starts asking to take a picture of each other and taking pictures of other people was the last thing I wanted to do just after completing this exhausting trip uphill. Still, due to limited time and cold, there is not much of a choice. Personally, I don’t have my own picture up there, it never felt like I climbed the mountain alone, or that I could’ve done it if it was not for other people. I’m very happy to remember that moment of realistic summiting as it is in this photo.
Soon I got tired of all of this repetition of photos, waving our National flag, singing Lithuanian songs and other similar stuff of celebration. I know there are certain traditions and certain values, but this is not what I’m here for. After reminding everyone, including myself, that we are only a half way through it and we need to get back to our camp safely somehow, I pushed away everything and went to find my own corner on the peak of Mount Kazbek. The whole fight against myself during this trip, took a lot of me. All I want is to sit down and rest, just for a moment, let myself to be weak before going down.
And so I did, not caring about the cold, I just sat down, lit a cigarette and started contemplating what just happened. During the last few days, only occasionally I believed that this moment will come true. So many times I wanted to give up and I did, but somehow, some things kept me going.
As much as I hate the phrase, but everything looks surreal, I can’t believe I did. I’m so happy that I did it. Soon, I couldn’t help myself, but start crying. Of course, these are tears of joy. After a failed attempt in 2016, a lot of training, a lot of psychological preparation and all the struggle I had during this expedition, I still did it and it is such an overwhelming moment. I can still prove myself of being capable of doing things which I thought was impossible for me.
This beautiful moment in solitude took about ten minutes before I was called up for the last commemoration together, before going down back to the base camp.
The real battle
Though I kept insisting that only half of the job is done, in my mind, it was more metaphorical rather than a fact. The problem here is that people get relaxed too soon and therefore make more mistakes. The whole talk is to keep the mindset in the correct place. From my own experience, I know that descending should be easier than ascending. Never I have been so wrong in the mountains before.
To be continued on next Monday, 10.15
This article is a part of the bigger series of my trip to Georgia 2018, Summer. Follow me for an entry on every Monday.**
Author: Mantas Ališauskas
Photography: Mantas Ališauskas
Design: Mantas Ališauskas