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.

The Rocks – Days 3 & 4

Rock-climbing isn’t something I’m great at, and it’s exactly what days three and four were dedicated to.

On my third day here at Bezengi we took a two-hour walk up the moraine towards a mountain, the name of which our instructor didn’t know, that had a nice rock face to climb on. We worked with fixed ropes quite a lot, using jumars to ascend up the near-vertical wall and figure-eight’s to rappel. Given that the group is rather large and the ropes were two, we spent the whole day at the site, returning to camp at around 7 pm, just in time for dinner. The wonderful dining hall ladies, who always shake their heads at my pallor in severe disapproval, tried to put more food in front of me than they did before the military at the next table. Grateful as I was, I couldn’t eat much, since the combined effects of altitude and physical exhaustion always suppress my appetite.

The morning of day four, too, was spent in practice on a rock face near the camp. However, we didn’t have much time to spare as we needed to prepare for our five-day mini-expedition to a peak called Gidan. Arrangements for food and gear had to be made and discussed, and the weight evenly divided amongst the members of the group. It is always a long process, involving anger at having to carry all the group carabiners, ice-screws and/or rice, bargaining, denial, depression and, inevitably, acceptance: my backpack, for instance, weighs about 23kg – as the group’s slowest member, I get to carry ‘very little’ up the mountain.

 We are leaving this morning, in about an hour, and, fortunately for my readers, I haven’t got time to write about the past couple of days in any more detail. I hope to be back here, in front of my laptop, with more interesting stories and pictures to share.

Expect Nothing – Days 1 & 2

As you might have noticed, my mantra for the past couple of days has been ‘expect nothing’. Well, it doesn’t work for me. I usually expect less than nothing, and this attitude has spared me many a disappointment. I think I will be going back to it after the past two days.

The training finally started. My group seemed nice if apprehensive of me, as usual. We are eight people, everyone from different parts of Russia. I was surprised to hear that one of our group members, Andrew, was form the US; he works in Nalchik. The instructor is a lady from Ukraine. I was named ‘zavhoz’ and placed in charge of caring for the group’s nutrition during longer climbs of 2-3 days. Although I’m a vegan no more, I’m still a vegetarian, so the meat-eating boys have certainly made a mistake when they voted for me to be ‘zavhoz’ :).

After we’d dealt with the organizational side of the course, practice began. We started by reviewing knots and belaying techniques, which I’d forgotten all about. I was never great with ropes, but instead of practicing a forgotten skill, it felt like I was struggling to learn a new one – embarrassing and not a good start. It didn’t help that the instructor and I weren’t getting along too well because I have a tendency to block all information coming from a source I don’t trust.

I was surprisingly tired and disappointed in myself after those first couple of hours. We took a break to have lunch, and then headed up the moraine for an acclimatization hike. It was an exhausting walk uphill and, yet again, my body wasn’t living up to either my own or the group’s standards. Towards the end of the hike we practiced mountain rescue and shared a few laughs. However, on the way back to the camp everyone already knew who the weakest link was going to be for the duration of the course – me.

Day two started with a long hike towards a steep grassy slope with some boulders and scree where we would practice walking on these types of terrain as well as ice-axe use. In my ‘astronaut’ mountaineering boots – La Sportiva Spantik, which are normally used to climb at around 7000 metres – I was clumsy and sloppy with my technique. I wore the Spantik to get used to them as I will be wearing similar boots during the upcoming expedition: they have very thick soles and because of this one cannot ‘feel’ the ground under one’s feet very well. I couldn’t tell you how many times I slipped and fell; angry with the whole world, no less, for my own weakness and many, too many, technical shortcomings.

The training took us about four hours, after which we came back to the camp for a lunch break. The group then decided to take a walk to one of the nearby waterfalls. Although I initially followed, I had to stop halfway up – I was emotionally and physically spent. The ‘magical’ transformation from the strongest and fastest in any group to the slowest and least able in a group of beginners is not easy to deal with. What makes things worse is that I’m completely unable to connect with any of the members of my group, and it is not just my physical weakness, I’m afraid, which pushes people away – it’s my solitariness. One of the key lessons my parents wanted to teach me when I was still a young girl was independence, and in the course of my youth and early adulthood I might have learnt it all too well. Now I am not a team player at all: I trust myself to be my own leader, but not to take anyone else for the inevitably bumpy ride.

These past two days have exposed too much of me to me, and I saw little that I liked. Thus, when I repeat my mantra, ‘expect less than nothing’, I will remember that it’s mostly me that it applies to. We have eight days to go still before the course is over and I am not sure I can make it as I’ll have to face my worst enemy to do so – myself. And if I defeat her, what will I be left with?

Bezengi Day 0

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.

Nalchik and the Way to Bezingi

I arrived in Nalchik late in the evening and was picked up at the airport by one of the staff at the Bezengi Mountaineering Camp. He took me to the Alpinist Hotel, old and gloomy, smelling of the Soviet past. In the hot night – it was +27C – the shabby room felt oppressive and, realizing that sleep would never come to me in such a place, I left the bed for the terrace. As I was looking down at the quiet, seemingly peaceful street of small two-storey buildings, I was finding it hard to believe that Nalchik and the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria were as politically-troubled and unsafe as the media would have the world think. I wasn’t feeling any danger in the air nor noticing much aggression in the few faces I’d seen thus far;  I was glad I’d ignored the warnings from my friends and family against travelling to Caucasus.

The morning brought a little cool air from the mountains around Nalchik and, thus, I was able to get a couple of hours’ sleep. Waking up at 8 am, I waited till 10 before leaving the hotel, guessing that not many places would open before then. Since I would not have more than three hours before a mini-bus would take me to the camp in the mountains, I decided to go for a stroll without making any particular sightseeing plans. The town of Nalchik struck me as very green, alive and spacious. The streets in the centre are straight and wide, the architecture – unassuming and pleasant. A good morning coffee was hard to find but the people were happy to help me with advice as to where to try next. After four or five less-than-great cups of coffee, I gave up and headed back to the hotel, followed by the locals’ curious gazes. It never ceases to amaze me how often I am mistaken for a foreigner in my home country and how surprised people look when I open my mouth and speak their language. Upon hearing me, they usually get even more suspicious, while I begin to feel like a strange creature, fallen from the sky, which doesn’t have a home on Earth. I left Russia to study abroad – in the UK, The Netherlands, then, Spain – when I was seventeen and now, seven years later, I no longer know where home is. For the next month or so, it’s Caucasus.

The mini-bus to Bezengi picked me up at 2 pm. The funny grey vehicle was packed with people and food headed for the mountaineering camp.

‘Where are all the climbers?’ wondered one of the women.

‘There’s one,’ said her son, pointing at me.

‘Isn’t your backpack too small?’ another woman inquired, looking at my 46-litre Osprey. ‘When my husband goes to the mountains he usually carries a backpack almost as big and heavy as himself…’

A little annoyed, – at myself rather than the woman – I said my little Exos should do for a mountaineering course in Caucasus – it served me perfectly on climbs in the Himalayas. I knew I was wrong, however, to have brought a pack this small. With no porters to help carry food, tents, ropes and other gear, the load is usually evenly divided among the climbers in the group. For instance, when I was climbing in Tian Shan, with a non-commercial expedition, I was carrying about 70 pounds of weight, and my pack was the lightest. Now my injured spine simply couldn’t support that heavy a load so I brought a smaller pack to avoid the temptation of playing the tomboy and hurting myself again.

The mini-bus smelled of fresh bread, and gasoline, and ice-cream the locals were eating. The driver stopped often to buy more food and other necessities for the camp or to show us one picturesque place after another. At about 5 pm we crossed the border and entered the restricted area, with the road leading up to the camp so bumpy it took us an hour and a half to drive 18 kilometres.

The Bezengi Gorge looked stunning in the evening. Threads of fog, thickening as we ascended higher and higher, were spreading down the mountain river, running fast, boiling with white foam. The mountains were tall and green, their peaks in the clouds. The camp, too, was hidden from sight completely inside a cloud of mist. We drove right into it and soon discovered a small town at 2200 metres above sea level: cottages, tents, a tiny cafe and couple of shops – all full of climbers and Russian military undergoing training in the mountains.

I was welcomed by the accountant and the chief house-keeper of the camp as the director was not around at the time. I wanted to discuss my training with regards to the upcoming expedition with him but was too tempted by the prospect of a hot shower and a clean bed to wait. The house-keeper, exceedingly friendly, allowed me to stay in a single room instead of a six-person one I’d booked, and gifted me with a towel and clean linen. The room has a great private bathroom, hot shower and looks new and tidy; it is getting cold now that the sun has set.

Tomorrow’s the first training day for me and I can’t wait: I’m curious, excited, worried. There’s a phrase I read in Peter Mathiessen’s ‘The Snow Leopard’ today that I keep repeating to myself now that I’m about to go to sleep: ‘expect nothing.’