01 September 2010

Climbing Kazbegi

It's been a while...
The summer has been rather irregular for us. We had a great deal of fun being visited by family and showing them around the country, even though that primarily consisted of taking them to 20-30 churches. It became clear, relatively quickly, that most of the sites to see in Georgia are mountains which are difficult to reach for a day trip, or churches. So, apologies to our families if they were "churched out" by the time they left.

But, we had a great time hosting them! The rest of the summer consisted of Sora teaching English to kids at the American Academy in Tbilisi, and several small trips, including Nic going to DC for the Fulbright orientation, a trip to Istanbul to visit Sora's former research advisor, and several trips to the mountains, two to Kazbegi.

A few weeks ago, we went to Kazbegi to train. Nic had been planning to try to climb the mountain, and had spent the past year trying to recruit a team to climb with him. Unfortunately, a team never worked out, and the training trip was partially to plan a route, partially to see if Sora was up to the formidable challenge.

We had been on a short camping trip, past the church (but not to the glacier) earlier in the summer, and the trail is quite...steep. There is a 4-wheel-drive road from the town (seen in the picture) to the church (the two dots on the hill on the left). This portion is not too hard to walk, and is something of a pilgrimage for many visitors to the area. However, as soon as you continue past the church, things become steep, fast. I enjoy hiking, but this is a little too strenuous for me to enjoy. So, I was worried about running out of energy, or getting too sore to make it to the summit.

On our training trip two weeks ago, we went higher, to the meteo station which serves as a final camp for those wanting to climb Kazbegi. It's pretty depressing, with litter everywhere and a bit pile of trash behind one of the largest boulders in the camp site. When you arrive, the "manager" invites you in for tea, cookies, and will probably offer you vodka or moonshine, as well. It's ok, it's just that we're over 10,000 feet, no need to worry about alcohol consumption. We don't really know what the 5 lari/ night to put up our tent, goes, but we pay it. We went a little higher, up on the glacier, while training, but knew there was another 6-10 hours to the summit. I was exhausted and a little discouraged at the difficulty. I didn't want to drag Nic down, as my stamina is nothing like his. He can hike forever, it seems, while I become slower and slower as the day continues.

We decided to go for it.

Last Wednesday, we woke early to take the mashrutka to the town below Kazbegi, Stepantsminda. We reached the town around noon, bought sausages and bread, and started our ascent. The first night, we stayed halfway between meteo and the town, at a large creek and watched a spectacular full moon rise over the mountains.

Thursday, we trekked up over moraine fields to meet the glacier, cross part of it, and go up to the meteo station. The picture above is taken at the meteo station, with Kazbegi behind us. The Friday we took a rest/acclamation day, as is customary, to get used to the altitude. We laid low, read books, and stretched our already sore bodies. There were several other groups there, Georgians, Ukrainians, and groups from Poland or the Czech Republic were most common. Some hire Georgian guides, but we were told it was not necessary.

At 2am, Saturday morning, we peeked out of our tent to check the weather--a clear night with an almost full moon, so we set out on the trail. It was cold, but the moon was bright and the mud was easy to walk on. Later in the day, it became much more of a hassle.

The sun rose as we reached the plateau of the glacier. A beautiful sight to behold as the stars dissipated and rows of mountain peaks became visible. We weren't tired yet, but knew there was a long way to go. Another group, 8 people including guides, was also making a summit attempt that day and we were able to follow their route when we were uncertain. From the point where the above picture was taken, it was straight up the mountain. With the sun up, and everything heating, it became more tiring to trudge straight up the slope in the snow. I tried to keep a steady pace, to take few breaks and keep momentum, but it became harder as we went higher and the air became thinner. I started to sing songs in my head to keep a rhythm to my movements, but the songs became slower and slower.

Finally, the summit was in sight again, but our time was running short. We had decided to be heading down by noon, as the snow would be softer and harder to manage. It was almost noon, and we had to get up this:
I was a little terrified at first, but quickly found that with crampons (mountain climbing super-cleats) and my mountaineering axe, it was very manageable. It almost felt safer than some other walking we had done earlier, with the ability to sink all that metal into the ice and move slowly up.

Just after noon, we reached the summit. Sadly, clouds had begun to move in, so we couldn't see the sprawling terrain you would expect from an altitude of 5,033 m/16,512 ft. In the above picture you can see, in the far distance, 3 peaks. The widest of these is Mt. Elbrus in Russia, the tallest peak in Europe. We were quite proud of our accomplishment, however, and celebrated for a couple minutes with toasts of water before we had to start our descent.

As the snow was hotter, our descent took a long time, and we became more and more exhausted. We finally arrived at the meteo camp around 5:45pm, which means our whole day consisted of around 15.5 hours of hiking. This is a little longer than normal, which can be attributed to my slow speeds, but the other group climbing did not go too much faster than us, which was a comfort to me. We were so sore that we took Sunday as another rest day, and finally came down to town Monday morning, and had to fight locals for our spot on the mashrutka home.

Looking at the route down from the Meteo station

Overall, it took approximately 33.5 hours of hiking to reach the summit and return to town, over six days. We're very proud, feeling accomplished, but sore from poorly fitting boots and heavier-than-usual packs. Yesterday we spent the whole day washing clothes, sleeping bags, everything. Today, things are finally returning to normal, and we have a lot to catch up on, but we feel grateful for our good fortune, and that everything went smoothly and safely.

Now it's time to jump head first into graduate applications. Maybe this recent accomplishment will help us with our endurance.