Expedition to Mount Kazbek: Day 6 - Impressions after climbing Mount Kazbek

Expedition to Mount Kazbek: Day 4 - Acclimatization Trip

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And Horus looked; and he did not know that it was Seth, but thought it was a wild boar out of the thickets of the north, and he was not ready with a charm or a word of power to guard himself against the enemy.

Then Seth aimed a blow of fire at the eyes of Horus; and Horus shouted with the pain and was in a great rage. He knew now that it was Seth; but Seth had gone on the instant and could not be trapped.

Isis and Osiris myth, ancient Egypt

A night in camp

Almost 09h00 o’clock, though there is no rush, I am late to wake up. Tonight, I could hardly fall asleep, therefore it was hard to wake up. I feel like from the same moment we went to a bed, people from other expeditions started waking up for their summit attempt. Not only the noise and lighter lighting kept me from falling asleep, I was also ‘sleeping’ straight on a rock which we somehow missed and there was not much of a space to avoid it.

Even worse, right now, my head is exploding, it is hard to focus. Altitude sickness started to affect me again at the same height during the night as two years ago. Upset by it, somehow, I managed to keep myself from painkillers to try to understand how much of a time I need to recover naturally. I just simply can’t climb the mountain feeling like this, it is too dangerous not only for myself but I can put others into a danger as well. From my own experience, I know that easy walk is over and what lies ahead is not a joke.

A morning in mountains

My team is still asleep, so after trying to walk it out a bit and drinking some water, I had to serve myself a coffee somehow. While it is quite fast to boil the water, I need to get it first. We are out of stock and the water here comes from a melting glacier nearby. This water is seriously cold and filling bottles in the morning is not entirely a very fun thing to do. Though the Sun is shining, and the sky is completely clear, it is still cold and I’m shivering. If there is one moment when it is hard for me to deal with the cold it is the mornings.

Nevertheless, I had to torture myself to that first cup of coffee after which, though still in pain, I started to feel like at least I can function again. It took one hour and that is a lot, considering that the next day we’ll have to wake up at night, so getting up early might be harder than usual. Of course, there is always painkillers, but I would rather avoid it and keep them just in case for the later part of the summit day.

It took me two more hours, in a total of three, to fully recover after a night at this altitude. That was totally not a good sign. At this point, it is obvious that the first thing I do after I wake up the next day is to drink some painkillers, either preemptively or causally.

Altitude sickness

For those who don’t know what it is, altitude sickness, or mountain sickness, is your body reaction to the lower amount of an oxygen in the air. Depending on severity, there is multiple altitude sickness and I have never experienced anything else than AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), which is the mildest form of altitude sickness and by itself is not entirely dangerous to humans, until it evolves into more serious life-threatening versions of the mountain sickness. The symptoms of AMS can be described similarly to those of a heavy hangover, including a headache, physical weakness, vomiting, dizziness, and lack of coordination.

Courage VS Stupidity

Back in my more rationalistic days, it used to baffle me where to draw a line between courage and stupidity. If there is one thing I understand now, from all the lectures and myths I read about the heroes, is that they return alive from their adventures, therefore, they can judge the situation correctly and are not fighting the impossible, while fools just get killed. For all is to come, I know, tomorrow is the day when everything might get on a line and for that reason, I need to decide if I’m stupid or courageous.

Without hesitation, I told everybody how I feel so they would know that it might be a problem. It is a tricky thing, because there is only four of us and if somebody quits it might be quite difficult to attempt the summit without joining another group. The idea that our planned hour of waking up changes rapidly toward the midnight makes the whole problem even more difficult.

Failures of planning

The weather is so nice. For a second day in a row we talk quite a bit that today we would be able to summit the mountain if we could have been here sooner. I am quite upset because the forecast for tomorrow is not as good and all I could hope for that everything will shift tomorrow. In the end, the summit without an acclimatization would be a super tough challenge.

Knowing that today all we needed to do is just an acclimatization trip of 500m ascension to Mount Kazbek plateau, we somehow got relaxed. My teammates woke up quite late and we were not in a hurry to do all the stuff we had to do before going out.

My motivation is low because it seems like it is the last day with a nice weather and I have no wish, due to rain, to stay in a tent waiting for a few days without doing anything.

While taking a walk to a place where internet connection could reach my phone to recheck the forecast, I finally did some math and realized that we are out of time.

Now, it is 01h00 o`clock and if the acclimatization trip is going to take 4 to 5 hours, we’ll be in the camp around 06h00. At that time, we need to have a dinner, refill our bottles with boiled water, prepare our bags for the summit trip, teach the first timer how to use crampons and walk on a rope group, get enough rest and sleep for tomorrow’s trip. Even on an optimistic scenario where we get back at 05h00 o’clock and go to sleep instantly, we would sleep only for 7 hours before waking up at midnight to prepare for our summit attempt at 01h00. Having in mind, that I need to wake up even earlier to recollect myself from the mountain sickness, everything started to seem impossible.

This realization hit me hard, in the end, it seems, I guess, now it is impossible to do it? Everything is for nothing. I’ve started to blame everyone including myself, usually, I’m very time-self-aware. Though on the other hand, something inside of me felt relieved. Something inside of me wanted to give up and safely return to the comfort zone down the mountain. I know that voice pretty well and the fight against myself is the fight against that voice, the harder the fight – the harder it is to resist it.

The narrow hope

Nevertheless, I started to see a way to still do it, it is a narrow, risky one, but it could still work if we get a good weather window. And a window there is, apparently, I failed to refresh the forecast website for quite a while, and the weather conditions moved one day further, therefore, it shouldn’t start raining until the evening of the next day.

The plan

The key detail to the plan was to get to sleep until 09h00 o’clock. I don’t know the others, but for me when I go to sleep, I sleep like dead for 3 hours and then I wake up for the first time. So, I speculate that there is a sleeping cycle, and 3 hours gives me very minimum of the rest I can get from sleeping. Also, I have a theory, if I sleep less, maybe, my body will not be affected by the mountain sickness as much as during the sleep. I seem to feel OK, while breathing normally. Other details of the plan include:

• We have to practice walking in a rope team, show how to use crampons to first-timer and practice using an ice-axe during acclimatization trip.
• We need not to waste too much of energy today, so we could still summit without getting too much of a rest.
• Someone must refill water bottles while someone else is cooking a dinner.
• Prepare our bags in the morning while drinking a cup of coffee.
• And, of course, we need to move NOW.

So, I ran to my colleagues to talk about my recent realizations and the forecast. Apparently, they knew that the weather is good tomorrow from another source. My colleagues were quick to understand my simple reasoning that there is no time for being half on vacation, half on expedition. It took us some time to prepare, but finally we moved out up toward the peak of Mount Kazbek.

Shadows of the past

First thing which stroke me was the change of landscape. Of course there is less snow, but the path I remember was flatter than this. From time to time we need to climb really steep piles of gravel full of an unstable rocks. I feel that I got way better at climbing through these days, but climbing this is a pure energy waste. To put it in short – the path I remember is way less physically demanding than it used to be.

Of course, all of this is probably due to a lack of snow which has it’s upsides as well. Walking on a shallow snow might be easier than this, but it covers up the crevasses and now their very easy to spot, therefore they not as dangerous as they usually are.

Debris Avalanche

A huge downside of a warmer weather is streams flowing down from a mountain. Last time I’ve been here I remember only one stream crossing my road which I’ll probably remember for the rest of my life. As I passed it, I remember hearing a sound of falling objects. It was very cloudy back then, I couldn’t see that far. I was inexperienced and didn’t know what I am hearing, I knew it was not a single rock. I was facing the unknown and that time I was saved from a debris avalanche only by a chance by a huge rock which shifted the direction of it.

The problem with a flowing water is it’s erosive capabilities, it melt snow, ice and cleans gravel. After some time any structure will fall apart and everything starts to fall down including big rocks and ice pieces. This is what we call a debris avalanche.

Every stream I saw reminded me of this experience, though weather conditions were good therefore I would see it coming, if it was coming, seeing so many streams and potential places for debris avalanches was way more common than I expected. After some time as the Sun heated the snow, the sound of a debris avalanches was reaching my ears all the time. And I say avalanches, because far away, falling debris from a mountain was easily observable, though too far to cause any harm.

Falling rocks

A more serious danger was falling rocks, which as always were plenty. Though I never seen a single one reaching the road, I knew that the most rocks I see around the path couldn’t have a different source than eroding mountain cliffs nearby. The annoying part, due to obvious reasons, that if you hear a loud one, you must stop and observe it to see if it could reach you or not.

A tough day to summit

Just after a couple hundred of meters ascending we found some tents at what is probably supposed to be an advanced basecamp. In order to make summiting easier, we had plans to move our tent here as well, but since we got a really nice spot at the base main camp, we were afraid to do so.

Though really close, this camp is totally different, it feels like it is built on a mountain and not near it. No sound of laughter, music or drones, it is silent here. In a shadow of a mountain, dedicated mountaineers are waiting for their chance to summit or, probably, most of them are actually attempting it now. There is no point to put a tent here if you are not ascending tomorrow.

And soon after we passed remote tents of the campsite, we started meeting first people from their summit journey. At this point, I still have a lot of energy and feel enthusiastic, but when I saw them, I understood that those few hundred meters are even harder than I imagined. It was a couple, a man was hardly breathing and couldn’t speak at the start, but meanwhile, the woman when I asked them did they summit, answered my questions.

Apparently, they stopped and returned with only 50 meters left to the summit, it seemed crazy, but they said that the wind up there is insane, and it is very hard to keep going.

Baffled by what we heard we all wished each other a good luck and continued our journey. Soon, we started to meet more people and they all told a similar story. Strong winds stopped them from reaching the peak with less than 200 meters left. Even though from down basecamp, the weather seemed perfect, that day we met only one group who summited. They were a group of young Austrian men in their late 20s or early 30s, from their comments it seemed like they know what they are doing, so, probably it is not a surprise that they summited.

The key here is that the peak of Mount Kazbek which is observable from the Georgian side is not the highest point of Mount Kazbek. Nearby, looking to the Russian side stands a higher one, so maybe it is hard to understand what is actually happening up there from down here.

The problem to me, even though I’m highly tolerant to cold weather conditions is that I decided not to take a really warm and resistant jacket. Instead, I took a summer jacket which can resist only low to medium levels of wind and rain. If the wind up there can be so strong that people cannot take it, maybe I don’t have a proper gear to ascend.

The dangerous road towards the plateau

The further we go, the louder are avalanches, the bigger are crevasses, the closer rolls the stones. With every noise, with every jump, with every danger nearby, my emotions grew duller and duller until it reached a point where while jumping over a crevasse, looking into its deep abyss felt like I’m looking to my own soul. I couldn’t see anything.

To my surprise, once we reached a point where we had to start walking over a snowy glacier, a place where crampons and connecting with a rope is almost a must, somehow we decided to do neither of those. Snow was not deep, so it was possible to notice potential places for crevasses. Nevertheless, as I was walking this dangerous path and one of my legs sunk into the nothingness, without a thought I just stabbed my trekking poles to snow in front and pulled my leg out. Only after a few steps, I understood what just happened. Though it happens rather often, in a middle of a glacier, without a rope, is a slightly different feeling. Big crevasses can form here and falling into one without a rope is probably the last thing you’ll ever do in your life.

When we got to Mount Kazbek plateau, a woman from a different group was quick to call us crazy and told that recently nearby someone fell into a crevasse. Suddenly, one of our comrades started talking why nobody taught her how to use the crampons or walk in a rope group. It felt like a hike finally turned into the expedition, we started to talk about dangers etc etc. For the first time, I felt like I’m not the only one who is trying to be cautious of potential dangers.

Playing mountaineers

Do you imagine a better place to learn how to put on crampons than a plateau on a glacier at 4,300m+ elevation? Me neither, but this is how it went, though we still decided not to use a rope and to my shame, I must admit I was lazy to do it as it was not for my own and other people safety. I was not following my own plan, but at this time I was very apathetic to the situation because it took us so much to start talking about the safety. As I was sitting and observing when my comrade, first time with crampons, asking other people to take pictures of her, my thoughts sank deeper and deeper.

What the fcuk I’m doing here?

It was very fun to travel together and trek uphill, but the games are over. This is supposed to be taken seriously and I can’t imagine how we are going to climb the mountain and jump through all those crevasses during a night with an attitude like this. In places like these, I have a rule that rational decision making must overtake any emotional wishes and I seriously started thinking about quitting due to safety reasons.

Rational VS emotional

I still really want to summit Mount Kazbek, this is the reason why I ‘m here. But at this moment, attempting to do it, looked like a stupid idea. It is around 17h00 and all we ate besides breakfast is some sweets for energy. I can feel that this acclimatization trip will take more than a half of my strength and this is only 500m of 1,3000 of ascension. There are no chances I’ll have more energy tomorrow after 8 hours at 01h00, than I had today with 8 hours of sleep. The team seems to be ignoring my requests for a stop so we could eat something normal for a lunch. We need to eat something ASAP to start recovering some strength.

All of this starts to heavily frustrate me, I’m angry at my team, I’m angry at myself for deciding to separate together with my comrades from the whole expedition, which had plenty of very experienced people.

Knowing the name of your demon

Frustrated as fcuk, jumping through these crevasses, I start to dig deeper into myself. Rationally, I have all these concerns about the safety, but I no longer couldn’t even deny that not only I don’t feel much jumping over them, but that I might even enjoy putting myself into danger. Why am I emotionally so self-destructive? Why don’t I care much about my own safety? Of course, rational systems, work to a certain extent, but emotionally, what the fcuk is wrong with me? I think I know the name of the demon I came here to fight, I am it.

For a long time, I thought that my self-destruction comes as some kind of post-traumatic distress after the last trip to Mount Kazbek when I experienced 2016 coup d’etat of Turkey as well. I hoped that climbing this mountain will help to overcome this, but now it feels like by doing this I just put myself into a unnecessary danger. There is nothing to fix, the whole system is corrupted. I must get down from this mountain ASAP and never return to mountains again, or eventually, I’ll get myself killed. There are no chances that a system can contain enough energy to defeat itself. I must run.

Losing stuff in mountains

Finally, we found a nice place to sit down and eat a lunch. Talking to my comrades calmed me down a bit, but I was waiting for a good moment to tell that I will not climb tomorrow. I was hoping that someone else will bring up the topic. Without a good chance to speak up, I decided to tell it later.

After quite some minutes, the girl in a team understood that she lost her sunglasses, probably at the place where we ate. For inexperienced people, sunglasses might seem like a stupid thing in mountains, but it is absolutely a mandatory thing. The higher you go, the thinner is the atmosphere, the stronger radiation from the Sun is. High in mountains, walking on a snow might even blind you, as the snow reflects most of the Sun rays.

We were tired, but the girl said that we can do whatever we want, but she is going to look for it. There is no point of us going altogether, but someone must keep a sight of her in case something will happen. I wanted to volunteer because I thought that I won’t need the rest of my energy as much as the others, but I was asked first. At that moment I understood that they might even be more tired and physically, I’m not the weakest link. I, of course, agreed, left my bag and went after her. One colleague was following me from afar as well.

While we were walking I understood that I can use it as an excuse to quit, because we were wasting even more energy. Though we found the spot, we didn’t find the glasses. After some searching we had to return, the lesson is simple, once you leave a spot, check if you didn’t leave anything. Always do it.

The most experienced of us told that she can’t summit without glasses. Blinded by my own weakness I vilely used this moment to tell everyone that I’m not going to climb tomorrow, therefore I can give her mine. It seemed like everyone reacted as if I was not serious even after I explained my calculations. During that time I saw how the mood of everyone started to roll down like a rock from a mountain. Especially, the girl’s, suddenly, I remembered that it was her dream to ascend to a high peak at least once in her life. She seemed like crying, though I’m very self-destructive, seeing other people in pain affects me greatly. Obviously, I can’t do it for myself, but must I do it for others?

A new plan

We decided to try to get new glasses from mountain rescuers or, maybe, from other people who are not summiting tomorrow. I didn’t tell anyone, but I started to think of a way to restore as much energy as I can until tomorrow and maybe, give it a shot.

We got to the base camp around 18h00, it is 6 hours before we need to wake up for a summit attempt. The only way I can imagine how I can do this is eating as much various foods as I can and then go to sleep before 21h00. In the morning go to the toilet to ease myself up and maybe I’ll be good to go.

So I did, though two of us went to sleep instantly while the girl was trying to motivate me for the summit. Though being a mother, she didn’t understand my reasoning for safety and lack of energy. One must fight for their dreams, that was her stance. All was in my head that summiting the mountain itself is not my dream and it is impossible for me to defeat myself. Not to add that the whole idea is a stupid one.

Adding to all the problems, our campfire igniters started to malfunction and I couldn’t fill the bottles as fast as I hoped. Two of us was sleeping, after filling her own bottle, the girl was using boiled water as fast as she could, and I desperately trying to fill the rest of them. Though I was the only one who didn’t want summiting tomorrow, it felt like I was the only one trying to make it somehow happen.

After some time the girl started waking up the guys, telling that there is no point of resting without eating before. Finally, we could make a normal dinner and eat, it consumed a lot of boiled water because cleaning the dishes is way more important than preparing enough of it for a climb. In fcuking 4 hours before I gave up and went to sleep, we filled 2l of water, everything else was consumed during the evening.

We are almost out of energy, don’t have enough water, having only 2 hours to sleep, during the night, attempting the most difficult way to summit Mount Kazbek, straight from the base camp to the heavens, a total ascension of 1,396 meters. Am I really crazy to say that this is a stupid idea?