The mountaineering course didn’t start today after all. Apparently, I arrived a day before the rest of the group I’ll be training with. In spite of my previous mountaineering training and practice, I have decided to go for the ‘Beginners’ course – or ‘shift’ as it is called here – because I feel like I am, indeed, still a beginner. I’d like to start anew, to feel safe and natural making mistakes. The ‘shift’ will last for about 11 days and, if I pass, I will be allowed to take the next course directly.
The day has been a quiet one. I had breakfast alone at the large, near-empty dining hall. After that I talked to the director of training, and he agreed with my decision to start afresh with my climbing. I also made a couple of acquaintances among the camp staff: cooks, house-keepers, drivers… Although they have all received higher education and could have probably gotten better jobs in the city, they chose this frugal and hard life in the mountains. Why? They just want to see the white peaks every morning, to hear the river rush away from the cold of the glaciers, to walk on clouds when they descend into the camp in the evening. I am humbled by their dedication to this one thing, one love, one place which they call home and miss when they must leave for the winter; I am nothing like them.
With these and other thoughts chasing me, I left the camp for a trek uphill to help my body acclimate and to see how it would perform after six months of complete inactivity. It was an interesting experience – to feel that my muscles remembered the posture and exactly what they needed to do for me to move as quickly and efficiently as possible but that they did not have the strength to take me anywhere. I moved slowly upwards, following the river, stopping every other minute to catch my breath; my whole body ached, as if mourning the loss of the strength it had had just half a year ago – and had been taking for granted. Yet, I wanted to keep walking, and, whinging as I knew they would, my legs obeyed. When I finally turned back, I remembered that going downhill was always harder than ascending: steep mountain paths with large rocks embedded in them put a lot of strain on one’s knees and provide countless opportunities for twisting an ankle or falling facedown. My legs shook and wobbled but, eventually, managed to get me down safely.
When one of my new friends – the cook – saw my flushed, tired face back at the camp, she dragged me to the dining hall and, in spite of my attempts at convincing her that I wasn’t hungry, made me eat a big lunch and gave me oranges. Her severity and strictness about my nutrition were very endearing and reminded me about the many different ways different people express their affection.
I later took another walk to pick some berries with two university professors from Nalchik, on holiday at Bezengi. The two women, bright, kind and reserved, were a pleasure to talk to. Although most of my stories probably sounded untrue to them – as they do to many ‘traditionally-educated’ people – they listened with curiosity, regretting that their work at university in Russia could never provide them with enough money to travel more. It is a shame, since people like them would have made more of their opportunities, had they been given any, than I have made of mine.
In the evening the group I will do the course with arrived at the camp. I haven’t met anyone yet as my mind is still full of voices and thoughts of the people I’d met today. I wonder if I amaze them as much as they do me; but, more importantly, I wonder why such intelligent, kind-hearted, vivacious men and women should smile so rarely – should have so few reasons to smile. Their smiles almost look like scars to me – the ‘good’ kind of scars, the kind to be proud of.
Going to sleep now, I’m thinking of those smiles, and the mountains. I must, however, remind myself to expect nothing.