Expedition to Mount Kazbek: Prelude
From the point when I started to write this sentence, it is a story without any certain ending. You don’t know how it is going to end, I don’t know how it is going to end, in a matter of a fact, nobody does. I can hardly foresee the future beyond the day I attempt to climb Mount Kazbek.
The forecast of the weather on the peak is very pessimistic, we might not even get an opening to try ascending the mountain.
We have supplies for 7 days, it is going to take at least 2 days to get to the base camp, one day for acclimatization, one day to ascend to the peak and another one to get down. Are we going to be back at Stepantsminda (nearest town to the mountain) in 5 days, I doubt that. It looks more like we are going to spend 4 days at the base camp, waiting for an opportunity, and after that, we will have to head down.
Maybe, I’m pessimistic, but with current forecast, this is how I feel it would end. Note, that you might experience quite a change of my mood during these series because I try to write everything more or less in a real-time. Today I’m very tired, I hardly had any sleep. Had to be at the Vilnius Airport at 5 Am and I rarely get any sleep before journey like this. The boarding was tense as well, everything was late, don’t like rushing during trips like this. I don’t want to be forced into making mistakes.
Let me tell you a little secret, before this journey I was really scared, but when it started, everything faded away. You might wonder what was that I am afraid of? It is really easy to explain. This is my second attempt to get on the top of Mount Kazbek. Exactly two years ago, I did the same trip, so I basically repeating it.
Expedition to Mount Kazbek 2016
Back then I made to the plateau at ~4,300 m. elevation out of 5,047 m. in total. I made it to the last day when we attempted climbing the peak, but I quit. Ironically, the day before that was the only day when I thought that I could actually make it. The trip was harsh and not to even mention that back then I was in a terrible physical shape.
Turkey coup d’etat 2016
The flight to Tbilisi went through Ataturk Airport in Istambul, though we had only 2 hours before changing the plane, it was the exact hours when the coup d’etat started. Obviously, all of the flights were canceled and most of the personnel fled the airport. Though nothing really happened in our sector of the airport, it was stressful enough to hit my mindset hard. Every massive panic attack of the people surrounding me, which occurred due to shootings outside, or jets flying above our heads, or a bad joke, or god knows what made my heart tremble really hard. That day I really thought that I’m going to die so I had to embrace it.
Ataturk Airport had a terrorist attack just two weeks before the coup and these conditions were perfect for another one. After one day of waiting in the airport, all I wanted was to get back home, but without a doubt, we moved forward.
Damaged mentally, with already having accepted my death, I had to climb the highest mountain I’ve ever seen. The task was no joke. 18 km distance might seem small, but 3,300 m ascent with a 20 kg on your back with a lack of oxygen is a tough challenge. Let me remind you that I was in a terrible shape and the trip destroyed my back and knees.
Just on a second day of climbing a heavy storm hit, which apparently killed someone who at that time was trying to ascend the peak. At that time, I was seriously scared, it seemed impossible to climb that mountain.
On the fifth day of the expedition, during an acclimatization trip, a debris landslide almost hit me and my friend. In a matter of fact, we were saved only by a big rock, behind which we were standing at that time. The landslide was immensely beautiful from that close but very dangerous. It took me some time to understand what, actually, really just happened. At that time, I was already affected by the mountain sickness and my coordination was far from being perfect.
The same day we had an opportunity to observe a rescue operation. Luckily, nobody got hurt but seeing the faces of the people who went down to ask for a help left a mark anyway.
The next day ascended to the plateau of Mount Kazbek at ~ 4,300 m. A problem with mountain sickness is that during a night, it hits you way harder. The reason for that being very simple, when a person sleeps, his/her breathing gets slower which reduces the amount of your oxygen intake.
Despite all the horrors of the mountain sickness, the amazing thing about it is that it shows, how we – humans are adapted only to a thin layer of the biosphere. This is what mountains do, makes you feel weak. Everybody is nobody in the front of them. One quickly understands that fighting their own shadow in a shadow of a mountain might be simply irrelevant. Memento Mori.
The night at 4,300 m height was the most terrible I’ve ever had, the symptoms of the mountain sickness got stronger and stronger. I’ve even had to swallow my own vomit to prevent the temperature inside of a tent from dropping. It was -14 °C outside, there was no escape from it, so I quit. I took strong painkillers which fade only 24 hours later, and they got me asleep in 15 minutes. I didn’t want to continue the journey without really feeling my own body.
All of this, combined with the danger of falling into a crevasse (a crack on the glacier), made me understand that climbing the mountain once you set your foot on a glacier, is absolutely no joke.
When I finally, climbed down from Gergeti glacier, it was hard for me to believe that I get to live further, and it haunted me for a quite some time. All of this probably leaves you with an impression that I’m a coward, but what I shared here was my deepest fears and thoughts. I fought and tried to remain calm until the last second I could.
The reasoning behind the return
Now, you might wonder, why I returned? First, the route to the peak of Mount Kazbek doesn’t require as many technical skills and is a good place for training. For my friend, it was the first trip to a mountain as big as Mount Kazbek, so it was a good opportunity for him to learn. Sadly, his father’s sickness got worse just before the journey and he decided to stay with him.
This left me with only one reason. Fighting demons of the past is no easy task, but it is something one must do in order to move on. That is exactly what I came here for, I want to move one, I want to feel alive again. Finishing the toughest journey, I’ve ever had, looks like the shortest way to achieve my goal.
Mu current pessimism proves that I still feel like I’m incapable of doing that, but I have no doubt, that when I get more sleep and start walking, it is going to be hard to stop me. If I’ll see an opening, I’ll pursue my goal at any price.
I told you at the beginning of this story that only time will show how it is going to end. Maybe… Hopefully, it will have a happy ending. Maybe, nobody will ever read this.
Expedition to Mount Kazbek: Day 1
After a landing, looks like the journey is accelerating really fast. One of my colleagues was sitting next to a Lithuanian and befriended him, he was a part of a group in a class meeting journey around Sakartvelo (Georgia). They were headed to Borjomi and told us that they could lift us. Their driver, a local Georgian, met us with lots of wine and food. To those who don’t know, Georgians are famous for their hospitality and this action is a very common one. Based on their traditions, it is an honor to have a guest.
On the road, we were sharing a cold Lithuanian beer and some good funny old stories. With an increasing mood, it starts to feel like a vacation and the mode slowly switches to here and now.
Somewhere in between Kutaisi and Tbilisi, not too far from Borjomi, our roads had to separate. The driver stopped at something what looked like a parking lot which apparently was a bus station as well. He convinced a minibus driver, headed towards the capital of Sakartvelo, to pick us up with our big backpacks. The road didn’t take too long as I quickly fell asleep. At the central station which was our last stop we took a taxi to our hotel. It costed us almost as much as getting from Kutaisi to Tbilisi, we tried to lover the price, but the driver didn’t want to negotiate.
The subtleties of the Georgian way of doing things struck us again when we tried to find our hotel, which is more like a guest house. The taxi driver didn’t know how to find the spot, so we started asking in streets and soon after it seemed like half of the neighbourhood tried to solve our problem. The story continued after we finally found the place, the host met us with a smile and kind words, but for some reason, her husband drove us to another place to a grandpa where we stayed for a half day.
We paid the same price for the accommodation, but after doing that, we were asked to cancel our booking, to open it up on the internet. Soon we were fed and treated with a bottle of home-made wine.
After eating and taking a shower to wash all of the day’s sweat (it is really hot for Lithuanian standards), we set out to the city of Tbilisi. Streets were interesting, people varied from trying to trick us, by telling that they are working for non-profit organizations and were asking for some money, to random people coming to us and offering us guidance. After being told that you shouldn’t pay more than 5 Gel for a taxi getting around in the center (local currency with exchange rate around 2.85 to 1€), we caught one to get us to Tbilisi funicular with which we got up to Mtatsminda park on the roof of the city.
In Mtatsminda park you can find plenty of attractions, from observation circle to anything you can imagine you can find in an amusement park, including free Wi-Fi and self-promoting free energy drinks. Water quality as in any mountainous region is super good and drinks tend to be really tasty and refreshing.
We stopped at one of many restaurants with an amazing panorama over night’s Tbilisi for a beer, but as you can imagine there is plenty of people and we had no time to wait for a slow service. Instead, we got a cab and grabbed a beer near our guest house to close the day with cheers. As much as it was interesting and fun to spend time in Tbilisi, we had to go to sleep. We must wake up in the middle of the night and go to pick up the fourth member of our crew from Tbilisi Airport.
We found a driver for a trip in the middle of the street during an evening and made a deal for 150 GEL, Tbilisi – Tbilisi Airport – Stepantsminda, but that is the story of tomorrow.
To be continued on next Monday, 07.30
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 2016 & 2018, Jonas Kryžanauskas 2016
Design: Mantas Ališauskas