A personal account of my accent of Mt Kazbek during this years Kazbekiada.
Firstly a little background. Mt Kazbek is one of the highest mountain in Russia at 5033m (16512ft) and is located along the borders between the regions of North Ocetia (Russia) and South Ocetia (Georgia). Being on the border between 2 country’s special permission is need to enter the area from the Russian side, which normally takes 2 months to obtain.
However on a previous trek in Lago-naki we heard that the Alpinist federation of North Ocetia would be holding a Kazbek gathering (Kazbekiada) at the end of August, when permissions could easily be obtained. So shaking hands with my friend Inna, we decided permissions forth coming, we would find a group of our acquaintances and go for an ascent of Mt Kazbek. As I departed on another trek I left it to Inna to make the arrangements, unfortunately although all permissions were obtained this is where Inna’s part in the story ends, being late back from another trek she was unable to join us in time for the start and returned to Stavropol.
Saturday 20th August 2011
The 4 of us left Stavropol in the early hours to catch the overnight train to Vladikavkas, the capital of N Ocetia. Arriving at 9:20 in the morning rather tired after having had no sleep due to the snoring of some individual, we preceded to our meeting place for the bus into the mountains. Meetings, greetings, and paperwork over we boarded the bus and set off around lunch time on Saturday. As usual the old Russian made bus broke down on route, twice! A road side repair by our driver and after a 2 hour delay we arrived half way through the press and photo conference, before continuing onto the border control post and registration into the border regions. Despite the border guard being presented with almost 50 passports at once registration went quite smoothly and we were on our way proper around 17:30. The hike from the border post at Karmadon to the hot springs should take around 4 to 5 hours, but with our rucksacks weighing over 30kg we found it hard going. Despite the weight, whether is was exuberance or they just wanted to be first at the hot springs the guys set off at a blistering pace. Catching up to them at a small spring as dusk was closing in, I suggested we camped here. But they would have none of it and insisted we walked another hour, why I don’t know, as we were not half way to the springs and would never make it before dark. So before long, with Vova and Svyatoslav out of site, we committed the cardinal sin of walking in the dark on a route we don’t know, on an ill defined path. After a further 2,1/2hrs of stumbling around in the dark, the boys found an interim camp site and we set up the tents at 10:30 in the evening, we had only covered a further 2km since dark and gained no advantage, a wasted 3hrs as far as I was concerned.
We arose from our tents and watched the mist lift as we cooked our breakfast. Looking up the valley we could see our destination for the day only a further 2km up the valley, the camp site at the thermal springs, today should be an easy day then. Wanting to find good places for our tents at the hots springs, we tried to set off before the rest of the group, but upon arrival many of the best places had already been taken by groups on other expeditions. Still after a little survey of the area we soon found 2 good spots amongst the 20 or so places dug out of the mountainside. The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing in the hot pools and making plans for the days ahead. Although some members of our group insisted they could climb Kazbek in 2 days, after a little sobering advice from a very experienced Alpinist, much to my relief, we made our plans for a maximum of 5 days on the mountain. In the evening Svyatoslav and I took a walk up the path to the face of the glacier, trying to anticipate tomorrows problems. It was a worthwhile rece, noting that there was already a fixed rope in place up the lowest section of the glacier and although it was accompanied by a constant rain of stones from above, I was still feeling confident about the day ahead.
Monday 22/08/11 ascent to camp 3400m
Despite Vova’s talk of going to camp 4200m, leaving one tent as a base at the springs, we packed up our gear and headed off for camp 3400m. Crossing the river via the suspension bridge we soon climbed the path to within 50m of the glacier face. Here most of us had the common sense to put on our helmets and harnesses before continuing into to rock fall danger zone, still this being just a group of acquaintance’s and not commercial enterprise, we can only give advice, its up the the individuals to follow it. At the face we met another 2 men, Misha and Yasha, who being already kitted up, ascended first. Eugenii was first of our group to jumar up the fixed rope and as he checked the anchors we readied svyatoslav. Now I knew he had little experience of this sort of climbing so I concentrated on checking his harness and jumar arrangement and giving quick instructions, unfortunately I only give his crampons a quick glance assuming he had used them before. This was my mistake, now whether or not he had them fixed correctly or not we’ll never know, but half way up the slope they exploded and flew off his boots, I guess semi-ridged crampons on B0 rated boots don’t work after all. Now looking back on it, it was quite comical to see his feet moving at 20 to the dozen and nothing happening, but at the time it was a bit of a moment for him. Still once he had collected himself he was able to pull himself up to the top using the jumar alone. We fastened the broken crampons to Vova’s rucksack and I was next up the rope. Vova then followed electing to dispense with the jumar and just climb the rope hand over hand, hmm. Once at the top Vova exclaimed that part of Svyatoslav’s crampons was lying halfway down the face. So as we would need crampons later and I was still wearing my harness, I elected to abseil down the face and retrieve it. As I descended wary of the stones that all the time had been falling down the face, I reached down to pick up the part, Just at that second a large stone slammed into my outreached hand and knocked the part down to the bottom. Many blue expletives later I was back down on the bottom retrieving the part and having to jumar back up.
Now this small problem had delayed us a little and the 2 guys Misha and Yasha were out of sight. Striding out ahead Vova soon spotted them amongst the broken moraine’s and despite me wanting to stick with the ice and crampons, the guys decided to follow them across the rocks to a rendezvous at some large boulders. As I joined them it turned out to be a good decision as I found out Misha had been here last year and new the route across the Glacier. So gratefully accepting Misha as a guide, we followed him and Yasha across the moraine’s to the foot of the spur we would need to climb.
The climb up the spur of the mountain to camp 3400m is a 900m loose rock scramble, on an ill defined path with the danger of being hit by falling stones ever-present. With rucksacks weighing in excess of 20kg this is no easy task, but with Misha knowing the way and setting a steady pace we were happy to follow him in no particular order and reached camp 3400m by mid afternoon. As we were a bit tiered and the clouds were gathering it was a no brainer to camp here, so we quickly erected the tent and collected water from the icy streams. Once feed and watered we bedded down for the night, albeit a little cramped, 4 men in a 3 man tent.
Tuesday 23rd, climb to camp 4200m
There was no need for an early start today as it was only a 800m climb to the next camp. We arose to a frosty fog bound morning, but as we readied ourselves the clouds began to lift and we set off in fine weather with a good view of the route ahead. The overnight fog and frost had frozen the loose shale in place, making it good going on the path. With this good set of circumstances we were able to ascend quicker than predicted and we reached the rock Plato of camp 4200m in 3 hrs. By lunch time we had our tent set up in one of the best places and were cooking lunch. Our early starts of the previous days, deciding to take advantage of the good weather and miss out on an acclimatization day had all paid off. The weather on the top was perfect for surveying the route ahead and we had a good spot for our tent which would stand up to some rough weather if need be, if the weather held we would go for the summit in the early hrs of tomorrow. We all had a pleasant evening watching the clouds roll over the distant peaks and taking many photo’s in the process.
Wednesday 24th summit day.
I had volunteered to cook breakfast and survey the weather for the summit attempt, as the alarm went off at 3:00 and I opened the frozen zip of the tent I could see that it was on. I set to work boiling the 4L of water we had kept in the tent to stop it freezing and 30 minutes later we were having tea and porridge still in our sleeping bags. Readying ourself s one at a time in the cramped conditions we set of in the light of a quarter moon around 4:00 am. We had only moved 300m when Vova mentioned he had forgotten his sunglasses and had to go back. After waiting 20 minutes on the glacier Plato he returned having found them and we were off again.
The overnight snow had obscured the path that we had seen yesterday and it took some careful observations and navigation to keep on the right track in the darkness. Despite this by the time the sun was on the horizon we had made good progress and were past the rock outcrop and crossing the final part of the Plato underneath the western peak. Now in clear sky and daylight we rested for bite to eat where the paths from the Georgian and Russian routes meet.
After the short rest we started on the traverse across the north face of the western peak and up to the saddle. As the going became increasingly difficult we needed to fix the crampons but it was some way ahead before I, now in the lead, could find a safe spot. With the crampons now on our feet I felt more confident about the route ahead and we were soon off again. However my confidence was misplaced. Svyatoslav crampon problem had come back to haunt him as one of his crampons flew off, thanks to Eugenii’s quick actions he narrowly avoided a slip down the face. With the problem restricted to one crampon it was decided it was safer to carry on with just the one attached, until we reached the saddle were we could take a closer look. While we were attending to Svyatoslav problem, another couple on their ascent had past us and Vova decided to follow them up the traverse forging away with his poles.
By now I was at the rear and by the time I reached the saddle, summit fever had taken hold of Vova and Svyatoslav. Despite being on only one crampon Svyatoslav and Vova with his poles were off up the ice slope and no amount of shouting that the group should stick together was going to slow them down.
When balls take over from abilities its inevitable that something will happen. Of course it was Vova first to loose his footing, positioned between me and Svyatoslav up in front, he came hurtling down the icy slope. Although he had changed his poles for his axe, he seem to have no experience of its correct use. I don’t no if he had ever been taught ice axe arrest but I’m sure flying down the slope on your ass was not in the lesson. As his speed quickly increased and his eyes widened accompanied by various ramblings from his mouth, there was only one course of action to follow. I anticipated his line of decent and dug the pick of my axe into the ice as hard as I could. The impact came a split second later and knocked both of us down the ice a further 5m before we came to a stop. As we lay there puffing and panting we were joined by Eugenii who had also readied himself. With Eugenii’s axe in the ice below Vova’s feet, we were able to right ourselves and Vova set of again, without the expect “thank you for saving my live or I want to have your children”. Not very happy about my now destroyed expensive down jacket and leaving Vova in Eugenii’s hands, I tried to catch up to Svyatoslav who had been oblivious to the whole thing. Once more I set off up the slope surrounded by a cloud of feathers. By the time I was on the last section, Svyatoslav was on the summit punching the air with victory, I followed him to the summit marker flags, bleeding feathers as I went and we shook hands on the summit. I had just enough time to unpack the camera, flag and have a look around before Vova and Eugenii arrived to join us and the other couple on the summit.
A few photo’s later it was time to ready for the decent down the ice slope. This time Vova and Svyatoslav were not so keen to forge on ahead and I seem to be elected leader again. This time we tried to do things properly and although they took a lot of persuading I was able to safely lower Vova and Svyatoslav via rope down the steepest 40m section. Eugenii showing his experience was able to walk down a less steep section of the slope to join them at the saddle. By the time I had lowered myself, stowed the gear and joined them at the saddle they were wanting to get under way and vetoed my suggestion of a bite to eat.
Still puffing out feathers like a pigeon hit with a No 6 from both barrels, I wasn’t in the mood for further conversation so I set off down the Traverse with the group at the rear. By the time I had reached the bottom of the traverse and the joining of the 2 paths, Vova and Eugenii were a little behind and using the opportunity to get a drink and some sala (salted pork fat) down my neck I was able to collect my thoughts. It had been a hard few days and by now I had had enough of Kazbek and just wanted to get back to the hot springs for a bath and some victory drink down my neck. Once the group was together at the base of the traverse and Knowing the rest of the route was easy I set off with Svyatoslav across the plato for the camp at 4200m. I must have set quite a pace because before long we had left Vova and Eugenii far behind, not very professional I know but I wasn’t in the mood and Eugenii knew what he was doing. By the time a very tiered looking Vova accompanied by Eugenii reached the tent, I had the tea made and most of my rucksack packed for the decent to the valley floor. Vova then immediately retired to the tent and it was obvious he was going no further that day. After a brief chat, I managed to persuaded Svyatoslav to accompany me down to the valley while Eugenii and Vova elected to stay another night at 4200m.
The descent down to 3400 was more difficult and slower than I expected. Not only had the afternoon sun loosened the shale path, but we kept meeting a constant stream of other teams on their way up the mountain. Due to the amount of human traffic and the rock fall danger it presented, we had no option but to wait at appropriate spots to let them past. By the time we reached 3400 we were enveloped in the afternoon cloud which made finding the correct line down off the spur and onto the glacier ever more difficult.
Eventually we reached the bottom of the spur at the large rock and stepped onto the rock strewn glacier surrounded in thick fog just before 17:00. Initially we were able to find the correct route down the glacier, but as the visibility dropped to around 50m, it became increasingly difficult to find the correct path amongst the convoluted moraines and ice. Sticking to the rocky sections we made our way down, knowing that at some point we would have to cross the glacier ice at a narrowing to reach the moraine on the other side and the fixed rope off the glacier, problem was, in the fog I could find this short section. Not wanting to rope up for a full glacier crossing in fog, we had no choice but to retrace our steps back up the glacier to a known point and start again. As luck would have it, on our way back up we once again met Misha and Yasha on their way down. With Misha having travelled the route many times before and 8 eyes being better than 4 we were able to find the correct crossing point, thing is we’d been on the correct path all along, if we’d only gone another 200m I’d have seen it. Before long we were abseiling down the fixed rope and off the glacier, it was only a 30 minute walk back to the hot springs and our tiered legs arrived at our tent around 18:45. It had been a very long day from summit to floor but we were back safe and we very much enjoyed the relaxing feeling of bathing in the hot pools with some drink and food in our belly’s.
Here I will end the story although we had a few more adventures before we were back in Stavropol. Basically Eugenii and Vova joined us the next afternoon in fine weather after a snowy night on top. I spent the morning throwing up after drinking to much meths the night before and the next day we all left for Vladikavkas and a bus back to Stavropol.
Hope you have enjoyed reading about my little adventure, its my personal account, other members of the group may have different recollections, next year should go a bit more smoothly I hope.
“Pass and Peak”