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 :).

Climbing Mount Brno

I’d already started planning my return trip to St. Petersburg when a knock on the door interrupted me. At the door was the director of the mountaineering camp, Ali, whom I’d told of my troubles with the instructor at Teplii Ugol. He came, he said, to suggest I give it another try, differently this time: I would have another instructor accompany me on a climb on Mt Brno (4110 metres) and, based on how I perform and my wish to continue with the course, I would either stay and do so or leave. I accepted the generous offer, appreciating the director’s flexibility and understanding, and later that day he introduced me to the instructor I would climb Brno with – a young woman from Ukraine named Zoya. We examined each other with mixed feelings and made arrangements to leave for Mt Brno base camp (called ‘Kursantskie Stoyanki’) the next day. I would carry almost all the heavy mountaineering gear and all the food for two days and nights, and our tent – my back and knees started hurting at the sole thought of that. Having fetched the food and the gear, I started stuffing my backpack with it; all our group gear fit but there was hardly any space left for my own things, so I took the bare minimum: my own gear, a light sleeping bag and a down jacket. Lifting the pack onto my back, I knew I would have a long, difficult walk – I’d never carried a backpack that heavy before.

With dark clouds from Georgia headed for Bezengi, the morning of our departure for Brno base camp was looking grim; it was starting to rain. In spite of the weather conditions, Zoya and I left the main camp just after 10 am. Under the weight of the pack I moved slowly up the mountain, ever mindful of the fact that ‘the walk’ would take at least 6 hours. Zoya was far ahead of me at all times – more often than not, I couldn’t even see her – but she waited for me at certain spots along the way, where we would stop and rest before continuing uphill. The sun soon came out and the weather cleared, making the trekking hot and even more difficult – I couldn’t tell you how any times the thought of giving up and turning back crossed my mind. At last, at about 4:30 pm, Zoya and I arrived at Brno base camp, situated by a murky mountain lake. We had crazy amounts of tea before making dinner and, after chatting for a while, went to sleep for a few hours. At 3:30 am we were up again, had some tea with sandwiches for breakfast and left for the peak just after 4 am. An hour later we hit the ice-climbing part of the route to the summit: I led, while Zoya followed. After another hour we took our crampons off and left all our ice-climbing gear behind to continue up the mountain. We found ourselves on the summit of Brno before 8 am, surprised, as we hadn’t thought we’d get there before 10 – the time by which we were already back at base camp, having tea. We were ready to leave for the Bezengi main camp at around 1 pm. As I always find walking down harder than ascending, I took my time and only got to the camp and the shower – oh, bliss! – by 4.30 pm. The camp staff were surprised to see ‘the princess’, as I hear I’m called (and I bet it’s the nicest of my local nicknames), happily back, and all congratulated me kindly. Phew…

Now it’s up to the director to decide whether or not I can continue with the course – I’m too exhausted to think for myself. All I know is that I if I can go back to the mountains, I will, my bruised shoulders, bleeding blisters and swollen knees notwithstanding.

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.