Central Caucasus, Ushba: ascent from the North.
This project was supported by C.A.M.P. (Italy), manufacturer of high quality climbing equipment.
This is the end of the earth. The end of
Geology; the ultimate boundary.
The place exactly under the crown
Of the bodies ejected into the air:
Hiding in the cloud, God wanders,
Gnawing at the nail of the moon.
Like a landscape cannot move from its place
We cannot go crazy.
So, you really have not been there yet? Well, there's nothing to do there, believe me! I've been there already three times and am planning to go for the fourth. So I can declare with full certitude - keep away from this place! But if your urge is unbearable: sharpen your crampons, prepare your ice-axe and pray: - you might have a piece of luck and something may keep you in base camp - your friends, or a fortuitous love affair, or simply a heavy hangover. Or you may listen to the rescuers' wise advice and set off for some other place. Elsewise, if you turn out after all to be staunch and stubborn enough to begin this gamble, as well as lucky enough to complete it and stay alive: the same will happen to you as it did to me, the same against which I am now trying to warn you in this confused manner - you will be captured into slavery, your heart will be stolen and your most enchanting mountain of the Caucasus: you still cannot guess what I mean? That means that you truly have not been there!
The route starts by the Shkhelda rescuers' station, after the standard registration procedure. As a rule, the rescuers' mood regarding Ushba is always pessimistic.
- How is the icefall?
- Well, just as always. Not really good. They say that it's especially broken in the lower third, the upper part is fine, the middle you can walk through. But the lower part is all cracked up.
- Anybody been to Ushba this year?
- Three Czechs went a week ago, nobody has been there before them.
And so, we are already walking up the wide path along the Shkhelda gorge. We pass the sad ruins of the 'Sputnik' tourist camp - six semi-dilapidated buildings where only ghosts live now, and cows hide from the scorching sun during the day. Then the road goes up abruptly. The uncovered vigorous roots of centuries-old pine trees create something similar to a natural staircase - you walk up the interwoven roots like on steps. This is my most favourite part of the way: a clear coniferous forest, almost without underbrush, the smells of pine needles, tar and ozone freshness mingling into a unique aroma of mountain forests - a bright and joyful mood simply does not leave these places.
The frontier point. Document inspection.
- Where are you heading?
- Towards Ush..... to the Smile of Shkhelda - I remembered just in time that the ultimate goal of our route, Ushba, lies beyond the limits of our legitimate abilities, that is, it's located on the territory of Georgia, and the border guards don't really need to know about it.
- Your permits are OK, no problems, you may pass.
The improvised turnpike is made from a newly cut pine tree. Several large army tents under the branchy pine tree tops, a field-kitchen which nobody knows how (probably by helicopter) was hauled here - the frontier post. Once again our passports are thoroughly studied from all sides and compared with our faces. The permits are withdrawn. Everything is in order. It seems that, apart from checking the documents of the rare passer-by tourists and mountaineers, the border guards don't have much to amuse themselves with: everywhere the glade shows traces of typically military activities - the fallen pine needles are carefully swept into piles, the cones are laid out separately ('cleaning the territory'), all the paths are laid out along the edges with small stones of the same size.
But finally all the formalities are left behind, and the path leads us out to the Smile of Shkhelda. Here we can toss down our heavy backpacks, take off the plastic boots and walk barefoot on the soft sand mixed with pine needles. The Shkhelda river, having become free from the glacier's clutch, seems to rest by the edge of the forest before plunging down at breakneck speed with a roar into the narrow gorge, where in a fit of foamy fury it will meet with its elder sister - the Adyl-Su.
A clean and smooth sandy beach at the very edge of the pine forest, closed from the sides by moraines, a splendid view towards the austere rocks of Shkhelda - it is an ideal place for a picnic, for a family rest or just a halt on the way. From the nearby bushes the glasses of a hiding border guard's huge binoculars are flashing at us with curiosity. Poor fellow. He probably thinks himself well hidden.
Early to rise. We cook breakfast in the cozy crammed tent, by the light of our flashlights. It is frosty outside, the morning begins just like the morning of a lucky day should. When the rising sun coloured the summits of Elbrus pink, we, tied together with a rope and fully equipped, were already leaving the place of our overnight sleep and moving towards the Ushba icefall, crunchily crumbling with our crampons the thin ice which during the night had locked the little streamlets running along the glacier.
The icefall. This is the most dangerous and unpredictable part of the route. The glacier, slipping down from the Ushba plateau into the narrow orifice squeezed from two sides by sheer rock walls of Schurovsky peak and Shkhelda, breaks, forming a multitude of unstable huge ice lumps - seracs. The icefall is very mobile and constantly changes - correspondingly, each time the choices of passing through it change. Only one characteristic feature of the Ushba icefall remains invariable over the course of many years - its highest objective dangerousness. This time, just as the rescuers had warned us, the center was most broken, so we had to go left, under Schurovsky peak. This is not very good either, as stones are being pelted down from the flanks of the mountain on a regular basis. In a couple of places we had to fix ropes as it is very scary and oppressive. And the sooner you get out of there, the better. Still better not to go there at all.
In my sleep I hear large hail-stones battering against our tent. I resolve not to wake up because of such a trifle. The tent is durable and has been set up reliably. I sleep on serenely.
As always, the first one to wake up is that vermin of an alarm-clock. This parasite, with its heart-rending screeches, immediately transfers me from the idyll of a peaceful dream to the harsh and ruthless reality.
Truly, humans are strange creatures! It would seem: one sleeps in a cozy tent with lots of provisions, a warm sleeping-bag and all the necessary conditions for a full-value rest. But no. He sets the alarm-clock for 5 am, scrambles out into the darkness of the surrounding environment, cold and full of dangers, he climbs somewhere upwards, where there's neither any food nor any conditions fit for life. At the same time he cannot explain distinctly why he is doing this.
So, the alarm-clock bellows shrilly. And what happens next? My neighbour in the tent pretends very plausibly that he does not hear anything. Perhaps he is more of a sapiens than me, as for me - some internal force does make me sit up: maybe an incomprehensible call of duty, maybe the natural morning desire to visit the outhouse, which is, naturally, located outside... or maybe all of these together. After a brief and non-distant walk I return to the tent.
- Well, what is it like out there? - my partner asks me.
- Everything is just super. You can go on sleeping, there's no mountain to be seen.
I crawl back into the warm sleeping-bag with a feeling of cowardly relief.
The weather outside does not leave any doubts - we can easily go on sleeping, everything around is covered by dense clouds, it is barely possible to see the nearby tent situated only five metres from ours. In a couple of hours I wake up again, aroused by yells from the other tent. I poke my nose outside - it has become lighter, but there is still nothing to be seen. A familiar situation. Starting out is cancelled. In a few brief unprintable expressions I discuss this issue with the other tent. We decide to have breakfast and to go back to sleep.
But suddenly a gust of the wind breaks up the clouds, and the Mountain opens up for a few seconds. This looks like an undisguised invitation. And even though it is already very late to begin the ascent - about ten in the morning - we decide to give it a try. The main thing is to reach the Nastenko rocks, after that there won't be any chances to get lost, you just walk up the ridge to the Summit. But finding the exit towards the 'Pillow', and then getting to the rocks from it - that's quite a tough task. Shall we take a risk? At first I thought to ascend to the 'Pillow' straightly from the side of the plateau, but on coming up closer I changed my mind and took more to the right - the slope there is much more gentle and the belaying is safer. Also in this place there is a bergshrund, crossing which is easier from the Shkhelda side. It is exactly fifty metres from the bergshrund to the plateau part of the 'Pillow'.
Having thrust the ice-axe in deeper and hung the rope over it, I sat on top of it for extra reliability and began to wait for the other participants of the ascent to catch up, at the same time looking around and trying to chase away the uneasy doubts regarding the continuation of the ascent. Despite the fact that below us the clouds had more or less dispersed, a sinister-looking dark grey cloud was hanging above the 'Pillow'. On the other hand, further on the route went along the crest, where it would be hard to get lost.
Nothing to be seen! The darned cloud had caught a firm hold of Ushba, as if throwing a challenge to our obstinacy. But obstinacy is the chief characteristic feature of mountaineers, and so we continue the movement along the 'Pillow' in the direction where, as I remember, there should be a steep ice ascent - the way towards the Nastenko rocks. Right, there is it. The rope loop intended for descent and dangling above proves that we are on the right way.
Further on the route can be found even without visibility - it's just straight ahead and upwards, no other options. How good it is to be obstinate! As if yielding to our push, the cloud rises, opening part of the way which lies ahead of us - a snow slab and the beginning of the crest: Yeah, and here is another sign that we have not strayed off the route - the tattered remains of an old tent, shreds of fabric frazzled by the wind literally into separate threads: the mute witnesses of somebody's bygone tragedy. I remembered this detail of the route since the times of my first Ushba ascent.
I go upwards over easy rocks and organize belaying on the last rocky island curtained with rope loops for descent - further on all the belaying will be done with icescrews. I wait for the others to catch up and go off upwards again. Next there are five rope lengths of forty-degree snow slope. This is the so-called 'Ushba slab'. The safety of passing it depends largely on the condition and amount of snow on it. We were lucky, and under a thirty-degree layer of snow there was firm ice which provided us with safe belaying.
Approaching the exit towards the crest, the snow slab becomes steeper. Right by the crest desolate rocks begin, having passed which we find ourselves on the 'homestretch' - the pre-summit crest. This crest is quite long and not very safe, large cornices are hanging down towards the south side, the belaying is purely symbolical - firn (granulated snow) and loose snow.
And so, after a monotonous sequence of ups and downs along the 'saw' of the crest, I recognize the summit in the next snowy dome. Here it is, the northern summit of Ushba! It gave in to us surprisingly easy this time. Having walked around the snowy drift on the peak of the summit, we traverse to the rocky island to the side of the saddle - here is the gabion, the
note and a well-deserved rest for all our company.
I take out the photo camera and try to capture a moment to take a picture of the Southern summit which can be glimpsed fleetingly through the clouds. Periodically Svanetia appears down there, in the gaps between the clouds. From out here on the top nothing hinders the eye from evaluating the scale and feeling all the tremendousness of this huge mountain, involuntarily comparing its size with the pitiful attempts at tremendousness in human creations. The geometric accuracy of the forms is especially overwhelming: which humans consider to be their prerogative in monumentality, not having encountered the real monumentality - that of nature. Thus a human being can sense all the depth of his error and get an opportunity to assess his own insignificance in comparison. And at the same time there is pride from the fact that he, the human being, despite negligible size and power, nevertheless is a criterion for the evaluation of the grandeur of the eternal creation.
We sit and drink tea on the top of this devilishly beautiful and difficult mountain. The most beautiful. And one of the most difficult.
"Nice enough place for drinking tea", - you may say. And I will reply - "Sure, no doubt, an excellent place". We have some chocolate and grated lemon with sugar to have with our tea. And around us there is an apotheosis of space, a triumph of depth, a symphony of height... And the wind. Free, not tamed by anything: How unlike a traditional tea-party in a cramped walled-in box, accompanied by the monotonous melody of the television gibberish, it is.
At the Nastenko rocks we bade farewell to the Sun. The enchanting sight of the sunset over the whole Caucasus as if crowned the success of this day and fortified inside me the feeling of a holiday which has been so graciously bestowed upon us by Ushba. This was the first time that I ascended this Mountain under conditions which were so favourable for the ascent - both from the point of view of weather and also at a more subtle level. You know, this feeling when under the austere and somber appearance of the host, suddenly and intangibly for the observer, there appears and remains a warm wave of an internal smile, which cannot be seen with the eyes but is very well felt by the heart.
We came down to the camp already after nightfall, by the light of our flashlights, tired but happy. Apart from me, all the participants of this ascent had summated Ushba for the first time.
Next morning the sad necessity of having to climb into the icefall again awaited us. No way of avoiding that - there is no other way down. The wind howls in the icefall, the sounds wafting from the Ushba pass resemble those of tarpaulin being shredded into pieces - there the dense fabric of the air current is torn against the sharp saw of the Shkhelda ridge. Periodically huge pieces of rocks, broken off by the wind, fly out of the wind tunnel. Luckily our way passes at a distance from the trajectory of their fall. How pleasant that we were able to reach the summit yesterday and now the only remaining necessity is to get down sooner, to reach the mountain camp and thus to secure the success obtained by hard labour.
But for a rather unpleasant fall down a crevasse, it could be said that the descent went if not quite smoothly, then at least quite safely. A ceremonious meeting at the Smile of Shkhelda, tea with lingonberries, the way back to mountain camp through the forest illuminated by lightning flashes. The mountains were seeing us off with a thunderstorm.
It seems to be quite standard - up we climbed, down we went. But something very serious again escapes understanding - like a shadow on the borders of conscience, there flashes by the feeling of encountering something that far exceeds the limits of commonness, that changes sharply the very notion of life, of the world, of happiness. Of course, we will be sure to return here, to live again through these moments of true joy, compared to which all the rest of life seems to be just a blurred image in a dusty glass.....
To the bustle of cities, and to the torrents of cars
We always return, there's no way to avoid it:
And descend from the conquered summits
Leaving our heart behind in the mountains: