The Departure

The climb on Mount Brno left me completely drained: my knees reminded me of the heavy load I’d had to carry every time I had to bend or stretch them; my shoulders had bruises and blisters on them where the backpack straps had cut into the skin. Yet, I’d passed the test and was allowed to continue: climb 3 mountains in 4-5 days to get my certificate. As I met the team of three men I would be joining and talked to them, I sighed – I already knew I wasn’t comingwith them but wanted to keep deceiving myself, pretending I could make it. I packed, made several calls and paid an obligatory visit to the doctor…

‘On your fifth instructor already, are you Mila?’ the doc inquired judgementally, examining the names on the team list. I nodded, smiling.

‘I’ve never met anyone like that before,’ she added, looking at me with an expression of the deepest disapproval.

‘Mila,’ the other camp doctor called me when I left the first one’s office. I’d become good friends with him: whenever he had a moment to spare he would call me into his office for a chat about philosophy, or travel, or ‘difficult’ people, or Russian versus Western mountaineering, etc. ‘Well?’ he asked, grinning at me, ‘So you’ve managed to climb Brno?’ I told him about the climb briefly and the man, touched, embraced me, saying: ‘I’ve never met anyone like that before,’ You will understand why I had to laugh :).

Back in my room I tried on the backpack – it wasn’t particularly heavy, and I knew I could carry it comfortably to Teplii Ugol once again. However, I still had this strange feeling – I knew I wasn’t going there.

Later that evening I wandered out of my room for a cup of coffee only to find the bartender, Tonya, looking sick and distressed: someone had stolen the revenue from the day before – a sum equal to her two months’ salary, which she would have to replay.

‘There are three large groups coming down from the mountains tonight. I don’t know how I’ll manage on my own,’ she said grimly. I volunteered to help, hoping to cheer her up in the process – after all, her coffee and stories had made me smile many a time during my stay at Bezengi.

I swept the floors, cleaned the tables, washed the dishes, served food and repeatedly answered one and the same question: ‘What on Earth are you doing?’ Tonya was looking better by the end of the night, which made me truly happy, and I’d had a good time, too.

I went to sleep late and woke up at around 3 am with a fever. My knees, too, were swollen and hurting badly, but the sudden illness neither surprised nor upset me.  I lay in bed till morning, when I let the instructor, the team and the director know I was sick and not going anywhere: some people looked relieved to hear the news, others – upset, while I was actually happy: happy that something had stopped me before I would hurt myself even more. It was time to leave – my body and even my stubborn mind were telling me so.

My team left for Teplii Ugol, where they would climb their first mountain the next day, while I would be getting on the bus to Nalchik. When I left my room in the morning, I was surprised to see tens of people gathered around the old blue bus – I’d never before seen that many come out to say good-bye to those departing from the camp. To my astonishment, it was me they came to say good-bye to. The director, Tonya and all the kitchen staff were there, as were some of the mountaineers I’d only talked to a couple of times. They smiled and hugged me, wishing me well, asking me to promise that I would return next summer, while some were even trying to persuade me to stay. I was beyond surprised that they all seemed sincerely to… like me. Were they just happy I was leaving at the long last? Not those people, not with those smiles – one couldn’t doubt them.

As I was smiling to myself on the bus, halfway to Nalchik, somebody’s phone rang and the news came in that two girls from St. Petersburg, my home town, had had an accident near Teplii Ugol: one was fine but the other had broken both her legs. She would only be evacuated to the hospital two days later, one of her legs requiring partial amputation. It’s a silly, selfish thought, but I feel it would have been me had I stayed and pushed on stubbornly, in spite of my body’s signals and my mind’s intuition. I am deeply sorry for the girl and wish her to recover soon and completely; I wish her strength and luck.

As for me, I hope to have interesting news for my readers soon. I know, I know, I should be writing poetry and not… this – whatever this was :).

The ‘Difficult’ Person

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.

The Badges

My ‘Beginners’ Mountaineering Course ended several days ago: after descending from Mount Gidan, we had some classes on snow, and a day later were back in the main Bezengi Camp, following a rather unpleasant walk down a steep slope of rolling scree. At Bezengi we were welcomed by the staff, the rescue forces and some other mountaineers with a fun little show. We were then awarded our well-earned ‘Alpinist of Russia’ badges, and would from then on be called just that – ‘The Badges’.

The name of the intermediate mountaineering course following the ‘Beginners’ course or ‘shift’ is ‘The Badges’. This ‘shift’ lasts for twenty days and includes more training and much more climbing: in order to complete the Badges course one must summit at least four different peaks of varying degree of technical difficulty. Me being me, I couldn’t help staying on for the physical and psychological torture which the ‘shift’ promised to be.

Before plunging head down into it again, however, I had a couple of beautiful rest days, during which I did nothing but sleep, eat and read. While I was at it, new students arrived in Bezengi for the course, and we were divided into new, smaller groups; there are just five of us in mine: three gentlemen and two ladies :). We are a mixed bunch, more fun than my first group. Our instructor is a good climber from Ukraine named Igor.

We have been training and advancing our knowledge on rescue skills, moving on different types of terrain and use of ropes for the past four days. Not unexpectedly, it hasn’t been easy but I have been enjoying the challenges. Now the group is preparing to leave for Teplii Ugol again the day after tomorrow to complete two of the four climbs, mandatory for certification. Sadly, two of us are not in the best shape for the task at hand as altitude and strenuous exercise are taking their toll on our bodies. Although I am one of the more acclimated members of the group, even I am beginning to feel tired and uncertain of my body’s ability to get up and back down four mountains safely. As always, I will keep going until I can’t make another step, and then, onwards – until I can’t even imagine making another one.

I am once again ‘zavhoz’, in charge of the team’s food supplies and cooking. It is not an easy position to be in because one must determine the exact amount and kind of food the group will consume during approach, preparation and climbing. One can’t be too generous as all food is carried by the group, zavhoz included. Nutrition, however, must be adequate to provide the group with enough strength and energy to climb. The corresponding calculations and bargaining with the team took me all morning, but we seem to have finally agreed on what and how much to eat.

We are now off to do some rock-climbing and will be readying our backpacks for the upcoming climbs soon, too. Wish me luck – and a light backpack – on my way to the mountains ;)!

Mount Gidan – The Climb

The rigorous ice-climbing training of the previous day had left many tired. However, as we all knew, it was just the beginning: the peak of Mount Gidan at 4167 metres wasn’t even visible yet. I cooked some buckwheat and tea for breakfast, and just after 8 am we were ready to continue up the mountain. The climb to Mount Gidan base camp, known as Teplii Ugol, would be steep and long – an estimated three to five hours on a hot, sunny day. Looking up the near-vertical slope I could barely see the path, notorious for accidents with people falling down and injuring themselves. Fortunately, no such thing occurred in our group: panting, sweating, and swearing – as usual – we all arrived safely in Teplii Ugol at different times. To my surprise, I was among the first to reach base camp at noon.

We would relax and prepare for the climb for the rest of the day and would leave base camp at 3 am on our summit push. As we headed into our tents for a bit of sleep after dinner, a storm started. Thunder, lightning and heavy rain were not very promising signs, and I couldn’t sleep at all, diving deeper and deeper into my wet sleeping-bag, listening, hoping that the storm would end before our planned departure time. End it did not, not till 6 am, when we were finally able to leave for the summit. Crossing the wet scree and boulders of the two moraines which separated us from the mountain, we often slipped and doubted our ability to get even as far as the foot of the mountain, not to mention any further. Two other groups of climbers were behind and one, the least experienced, ahead of us – they’d left at 3 am, during the storm. At around 8.30 we were already high up Mt Gidan, at the spot where the first fixed ropes had to be placed. The weakest group, as the first up the mountain, took charge of the task and, refusing all offers of help, wasted as much as six hours in the process. It had snowed heavily, and we were advised to use crampons and fix more ropes than is usually necessary on Mt Gidan. We also had to pass the rock-climbing section all the way to the summit wearing crampons, which undoubtedly slowed us down further and felt rather clumsy. Our group hit the tiny summit of Mt Gidan just after two, exhausted and truly happy. As I looked around me, I couldn’t recognize the world I was looking at – it was entirely different: enormous and mighty, quiet and powerful. It’s into the mountains, I feel, where all the strength and vitality of the Earth has retreated from us, who fear it and evict it from our ever-growing cities and our little lives. It humbled me to see that that power was still there, and it scared me to think that one day it might be unleashed to grind us to dust.

The way down wasn’t easy as the other two groups were still coming up and the slowest group was coming down ahead of us – one fixed rope serving us all. Eventually, at 7 pm, we were back in Teplii Ugol, more dead than alive, our feet blistered and bleeding from the swift decent down the very steep slopes of the mountain. Yet, we’d done it, and when the fatigue finally left the group members’ faces, one could see the happiness, the confidence and the calm a successful climb always brings. After a relaxed, quiet dinner, we all slept beautifully in our wet tents, wet clothes, wet sleeping-bags, and with stupidly happy faces.

The Way to Mount Gidan – Day 1

I am happy to be back to civilization; namely, my shower – five bad hair days in the environs of Mount Gidan were really beginning to catch up to me.

Let me start by describing day one – the endless day one – of our Beginners’ group mini-expedition. We started walking towards the higher camp right after breakfast. The day was hot, our backpacks – heavy, and the plastic boots felt outrageously uncomfortable. As we progressed to higher elevations, our breathing got heavier and the rest stops grew more frequent. After two hours of walking uphill, we were all decidedly exhausted. Another hour of panting and cursing mentally at our decision to join the course and the climb, and we’d finally arrived and set up camp at the altitude of about 3200 metres. I would share a three-person tent with two men, one of which was all too willing and the other, on the contrary, reluctant, to have me sleeping with them. Luckily for all three of us, I was too tired to care.

We had some cheese, sausage and bread with tea for lunch, and some twenty minutes to get ourselves together as our day was far from over. With harnesses, crampons and some chocolate in our backpacks, we began to walk towards the glacier for three or four hours of ice-climbing practice. The ascent was difficult: oxygen content in air decreases as one gains altitude, and the brain, starved of its favourite ‘food’, begins to pull all sorts of tricks on one’s mental and physical processes. Fatigue, nausea, loss balance, clarity of thought or even consciousness are not uncommon at higher elevations – they are all symptoms of mountain sickness, which is an ailment that can be anything from uncomfortable to deadly if treated light-heartedly. Naturally, I had all the symptoms and had to disregard them if I wanted to stay on the team. I stumbled, falling occasionally, and walked on, and on, and on. On our way we had to cross a raging mountain river, where we all got wet and broke a couple of trekking poles. Two hours later we were facing the ice wall we were going to climb, while I was facing a wall of my own – of exhaustion, skull-crushing headache and despair; the only clear thought in my head was ‘I can’t make another step.’ It is when your body says ‘I can’t’ and your mind screams ‘I will’ that you really get to see how powerful sheer determination can be. I climbed with the rest of the group, played around with ice-screws and other gear relatively new to me, enjoying myself and the beautiful views in spite of the pain – or maybe, partly, because of it.

We headed back through the evening fog after 7 pm and had dinner after 9 pm in the dark: instant soup with bread and cheese had never tasted better. That night I slept marvellously, dreaming of the climb ahead, determined to make my body fully mine again.