I’m sure you know one of those people, who, I believe, are commonly called ‘difficult’. They are annoying, are they not? They always have to argue with the leader of the group and unsettle further any fragile balance they may be part of; they are often right but rarely diplomatic; they tend to be moody, demanding and hard to please. All in all, ‘difficult’ people are not the most likeable or pleasant to be around – I would know as I am one of the ‘difficult’ people.
Our group headed out to Teplii Ugol early Tuesday morning, and Mila-the-Shrew (hi :)!) was the first to arrive after five hours of gruelling trekking, involving a gain of 1000 metres in altitude. As ‘zavhoz’, I immediately started working on getting our late lunch ready: fetching water and getting food out of the packs of my peers as they arrived and crashed, exhausted, at the campsite. Soon, the tents were set up and the lunch – ready. As everyone was affected by the rapid altitude gain, nausea prevented the boys, my three team-mates, from eating and they mostly focused on drinking strong black tea with lemon and dried white bread with raisins. The instructor, however, said he wouldn’t eat the ‘mess’ (mushroom soup with noodles) I’d cooked anyway. Then, the boys, perhaps, to support me, all had as much of the ‘mess’ as they could, and even pretended to enjoy themselves. I was grateful to them but seriously displeased with the group leader’s lack of… professionalism, in nothing else.
Everyone went to settle into the tents and get some sleep, while I went down to the little glacial spring to wash the pots and fetch some water for dinner. We would have buckwheat with canned meat, bread with cheese and some cookies for desert. While I was cooking, the boys and the instructor wandered out of their tents and sat around our stone table to chat. The conversation was about our training, and it turned out that the first mountain we were going to climb would not count towards certification for two people in our four-person group: one of the boys and, of course, Mila-the-Shrew, because we had already climbed it by the same route.
Two days before we left for Teplii Ugol, I’d asked the instructor to clarify if it would or would not count towards certification and, if not, I suggested we climb another mountain instead – which is what one of the other Bezengi groups was doing. He told me it would count. Now, by the stone table a day before the scheduled climb, it turned out that count it would not.
‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ the other boy, no less surprised than I, asked the instructor.
‘Because then you wouldn’t come here,’ he replied.
‘But how do we get certified now?’ the boy demanded.
‘Maybe we’ll climb something else after the end of the course or you can go climb something whenever you want,’ was the answer.
‘But aren’t we supposed to get certified at the end of this course?’ I asked, getting a little angry.
‘Are you here for the climbing or the certificate? If you need a certificate, go buy one – you can obviously afford it.’
That phrase right there was it. ‘I thought the course, like a good story, needed a good, solid ending: something to hold on to when all the details of the plot have long since slipped out of one’s memory,’ I said, pondering the possibility of leaving the course.
I didn’t look too happy, and the instructor started mocking me, with the boys looking on, increasingly uncomfortable. Soon, the dinner was ready and the instructor asked that I give him some buckwheat before putting in the canned meat because, as he said, ‘that stuff could give anyone food poisoning’. As he tasted the food, there wasn’t enough salt. The three boys ate quietly (nobody got food-poisoning), and after I’d washed the pots and got more water to make breakfast, we went to our tents to sleep.
This morning I woke up at 6.30 am to make breakfast. We would have porridge with sweet condensed milk and raisins, and for desert – black chocolate. The instructor looked at my porridge with a sour face and said he would only have a couple of spoonfuls of ‘that’.
‘This is terrible,’ said he, so loud the group camped next to us turned to look at him.
The boys ate and had tea. We then started preparing for the ice-climbing class at 8 am on the nearby glacier. Needless to say, I wasn’t in the mood for following any instructions whatsoever from the man, who was going to teach the class. I walked with the group for a bit and said I was turning back. The instructor walked me back to the campsite, shouted at me for a bit and said I wasn’t allowed to return to the main Bezengi camp. Everyone looked at me like I was a crazy person when I said I was leaving anyway. Luckily, a group of climbers was walking down to Bezengi, and they let me join them. Two and a half hours later, I was in my room, deeply disappointed.
The course and my stay in Caucasus are over; I should be leaving any day now. What’s the main lesson I’ve learnt? That I can give at least as much as I demand from others, which is, admittedly, a lot. Unfortunately, in the country where people are being taught to get by on as little as they are graciously given by those who hold the power, being demanding, ambitious and honest are all grounds for immigration. Nevertheless, none of this is really important because the mountains of Kabardino-Balkaria are eternal and beautiful and good, genuine people are many here. It is their rare and precious smiles, the glimmer of the snow and ice in the sun and the sound of the mountain river that I will take with me when I leave.