Changing Plans in the Caucasus, Part 1

Posted by on Oct 29, 2017 in Abroad, Climb, Georgia, Travel | No Comments

Nothing went according to plan on this mountaineering trip to Georgia and Armenia.  Which is probably why it was so much fun.

The Caucasus have rarely been more prominent in the British consciousness. Two recent TV series have featured the region, Levison Wood’s “From Russia to Iran: Crossing the Wild Frontier” and “Russia with Simon Reeve”.  I watched Levison’s first episode with delight, for I knew that by the time the second episode aired a week later I would be in the Caucasus myself.

We’d booked flights to Tbilisi in Georgia, via Amsterdam. The plan was to cross the border into Armenia and climb Mt Aragats, a 4000 m volcano (not be be confused with Turkey’s Mt Ararat, famous among nonsense pedlars as the crash site of Noah’s Ark).

Things started to go wrong right from the start. Our party of four was almost reduced to just Dan and myself. Mike slept in and missed his flight. Colin, who was meant to share a taxi to the airport with him, only made the flight by the skin of his teeth.  In addition to depriving us of his sparkling company, Mike’s absence left us without a climbing rope, and with the administrative headache of changing the car paperwork, which was all in his name.

Tbilisi Old Town from the rooftop terrace of the Envoy Hostel

After a jolly night of beers, kebabs and hookah pipes in Tbilisi, we spent a slightly jaded morning rectifying these difficulties, then hit the road south to the Armenian border. The drive was dusty and depressing, the roadside settlements notable only for their stalls selling laundry washing products. Even the smallest village had eight stalls trading exclusively in powder and liquid.  Perhaps detergents are extremely expensive in Armenia, making it worthwhile to cross into Georgia to stock up.

I’ve crossed land borders plenty times before, but there was something slightly foreboding about this one.  Dan and I were obliged to dismount and pass through passport control on foot, while Colin stayed with the car. We waited for an ominously long half hour, then saw him turn the car round and point it back into Georgia. There was a problem was with the paperwork, and the only way to rectify it was to return to Tbilisi.  But Dan and I were now in no man’s land, neither here nor there. We had to enter and leave Armenia before we could return to Georgia. We walked across a bridge, had our passports stamped by a surly guard, then snapped a few selfies that would have been our only souvenirs of Armenia, had another surly guard not spotted us taking them. He demanded to see my phone and made me delete them before we were allowed to leave. The whole experience made us reluctant to try the border crossing again. Even if we got the paperwork sorted, we would be re-crossing the border the day before our flights home, when any delay could be disastrous.

We retreated and took stock in a miserable, litter-strewn town, where we ate a lunch of  sausage, bread and watermelon in the shade of a partially built building. A mangy but friendly dog with sagging udders loitered beside us, hoping for scraps.  A new plan crystallised.  We would drive back to Tbilisi, but rather than stopping to fix the car paperwork, we would continue north on the Georgian Military Highway to Kazbegi, the starting point for our new objective, Mt Kazbek, a 5000 metre peak on the Russo-Georgian border.

First view of Mt Kazbek from Kazbegi, with Tsminda Sameba Church on the left.

The drive north was spectacular, but it was dark, wet and horrible when we arrived in Kazbegi. We found accommodation in the centre of the village, a cheery establishment where we were dined on the local delicacy of kachapuri, a kind of bready cheese pie, and spoke with Polish climbers who had been forced to turn back from their summit attempt by snow and high winds.

We awoke first to kachapuri induced indigestion, then to the noise of rain lashing onto the tin roof above our heads. The weather forecast wasn’t encouraging. High on the mountain up to two feet of snow forecast was predicted for every day that week. Winds of up to 55 kph would give a -20C windchill. We hadn’t come equipped for such conditions. We’d planned to climb a much lower peak in a desert. It would be possible to hire ice axes and crampons, but there were other deficiencies in our gear. I was the only one who had brought thermal base layers, but I was not feeling smug. Colin and  Dan had nice warm gloves, whereas my own light summer ones wouldn’t be up to the job. Failure seemed the most likely outcome. But we were there now, so we would head up, have a poke around and see where it led.

The summit cleared as we ate a traditional Georgian breakfast of an open-topped kachapuri with a runny egg on top. The mountain was plastered with snow and looked fiendish and untouchable, rising 3300 m above the town.

Pack horses returning from Betlemi Hut

This is a popular area, with many trekkers going as far as the glacier or the Betlemi hut, and many inexperienced punters being guided up to the summit. We paused at a small shrine at the 2940 m Arsha pass, marvelling at the great plume of cloud stretching from the summit of Kazbek, drying our feet in the sun.

There wasn’t a big rush the next day, so I would have been happy to camp on the green grassy pitches  by the spring at 2990 m, but the others wanted to to push on to the hut, convinced that sleeping at 3600 m  would lead to significantly more acclimatisation. My view was sleeping higher might well lead to less sleep, negating any enhancement in acclimatisation.

We pressed on, cutting up the left side of the glacier to avoid crossing the river, swollen with meltwater in the  afternoon sun. Just when I thought we were committed to arriving at the hut near nightfall a perfect campsite appeared beside a small dirty stream, with flat gravel for camping and a small glacial pond in which the particulates had sedimented out of the water, allowing us to collect only slightly cloudy water.

Camp 1, 3300 m.

Just as we got into our tents there was a change in the weather, thunder and distant flashes of lightning. Soon the storms were upon us and we experienced the raw fear of a mountain thunderstorm. I assume that our tent poles would act as a Faraday cage, protecting us from electrocution, but doubted the fabric would survive a direct hit. I imagined how unpleasant it would be to suddenly find myself suddenly exposed to the elements, covered in charred tent fragments and being rapidly soaked by the rain.

These fears were short-lived, soon replaced by the equally unpleasant thought that my tent would instead be shredded by hailstones, which started small and increased to the size of bonbons, but thankfully no larger. We lay separately in our one man tents, feeling small and alone in the face of the storm.

Colin crossing the Gergeti glacier

The next day was a relatively short one, up the moraines, across the glacier, up to the hut and along to our camp at the Black Cross at 3900m, where we pitched behind stone-built windbreak walls. We prospected the route which we would have to tackle in the dark next day, and were glad to have done so for it took us through complex labyrinthine terrain on the dirty glacier, then past the Khaumra Wall, a horrendous crumbling affair that regularly rained rocks and strafed us with vast clouds of windblown gravelly dust. We identified the entry point onto the white glacier, which would involve running the crumbly gauntlet of the wall for a few hundred metres. In the morning all would hopefully be frozen securely into place. On the descent Colin found a tatty old pair of gloves and brought them back to camp for me. They fitted over the top of my thin gloves, saving me from the indignity of having to wear my spare socks on my hands.

 Dan at Camp 2, 3900 m

We retired at 2000 hrs, but I was still trying to drop off to sleep at 0100, when the torch beams of other parties started move through our camp. We rose into a beautiful, moonless morning, with clear skies and a grand view of the Milky Way.  The path through the glacier was straightforward after our reconnaissance, and we were soon gearing up on the white glacier, ready to negotiate the complex, yawning crevasses near its edge. At the gearing up point we had been enveloped in blown dust from the crumbly wall, and I looked forward to escaping the plume, which caught my torch beam, complicating navigation. But we didn’t leave the plume and after arguing about it with Colin for a bit I had to accept that it was actually cloud. The weather had turned on us, and we were now leading several parties up a glacier, in the dark, in cloud at 4300 m. It was bitterly cold and I had to wear every item of clothing, including my down jacket.

Less than ideal conditions on the summit day

A bit of smartphone micronavigation revealed that the route was off to our left. We located it and followed this faint path of crampon tracks up the glacier into the murk. By the time we reached the col and plateau area it was clear that the weather had changed completely. There were occasional breaks to the summit, and less frequent breaks below, revealing a lower world crammed with towering cumulus clouds. The one advantage of the poor visibility was that nobody would notice that we had illegally crossed the border into Russia.

The best (only) view of the summit day

The thin air provided a regular excuse to stop to catch our breath and discuss what to do. Quite a few parties were deciding to turn back , but not all. The ground steepened and I was blown off my feet by a sudden gust. Motivation hovered around the 50 % level and we repeatedly agreed to push on for another 100 m of ascent, hoping that it would clear. The big fear was that conditions would deteriorate further, if it started snowing heavily it could obscure the path.  And conditions were bad enough as they were, it would have been a bad day for skiing at Cairngorm, never mind bumbling around in the cloud at 5000 m.

Our high point at 4770 m, only about 250 m below the summit

At 4770 m – a new altitude record for all but Colin, eclipsing my 4565m on Tanzania’s Mt Meru many years ago – we conferred for the last time. Colin and Dan really wanted to descend, pointing out that even if we got to the summit we wouldn’t be able to see anything. Just at that point my own motivation had risen to 51 or 52 %. With everyone feeling strong and at least one party ahead and others behind, it struck me that another 100 m of ascent wouldn’t change our situation substantially, that we could just press on a little bit further to see if it might clear. But this line of reasoning didn’t stick, and we turned back with a heavy heart, passing many other parties who would most likely also turn around.

It was only when we got back to the foot of the glacier that the full shitness of the conditions became apparent. The crumby wall was rimed, the waterfalls of the previous afternoon frozen. We had made the right call, the summit wasn’t going to clear that day.

Though I was knackered, we did still have food for another night on the hill. We could sit it out and try again the next day. When I arrived back, spent, at the Black Cross, I spoke to other campers, who informed me that snow and high winds were forecast. Now the winds had been disturbingly high already, genuinely high winds would threaten the integrity of our tents despite their stone windbreaks. After bite to eat and a couple of hours lying down we struck camp and started the long descent, past the hut, down the glacier and back through living ground, with plants and grass, over the pass and down to the church. Raindrops began to spatter the dusty path and soon we were clad in waterproofs, racing a thunderstorm back to the car.

Our attempt had ended in failure, but we had got further than I had expected when we set out. I might have taken that outcome if it had been offered on the first morning in Kazbegi, when I was listening to the rain lashing off the roof and reading that awful weather forecast.

By the time we reached the car the rain was torrential and the mountain was wracked by thunderstorms even more intense than those that had terrified us at Camp 1.  I was intensely glad not to be sitting them out in a blizzard at 3900m. Beer, kachapuri and indigestion in the village below was a far more appealing prospect.

To be continued.

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