But we had loads of fun on the rock and Aleks, confident with the way we moved around, declared us ready to meet “The Great Bison”, which is the proper translation of the name Dombaj-Ul’gen.
We later found out that Aleks was a K2 summiteer. He was part of a Russian climbing expedition in 2007 who climbed on the two 8.000 meter giants Broad Peak and K2 in the Karakoram. If Aleks was lacking something, it was not alpine climbing experience. Needless to say, we felt we were in very good hands.
As always in the mountains, my obsession of the weather gets worse and worse as closer to D day. The weather in the Caucasus can be rather unpredictable and the forecast for our three days was not too good. Taking this into account we of course had one extra day in reserve in case of bad weather, but still we were in need of two consecutive days of good weather for a safe climb. We both knew that the technical summit ridge would become a very nasty and dangerous business if we were to be caught in a thunder storm or a severe snow blizzard.
Going to high camp
And suddenly it was time to break up. We woke up to a grey and cloudy sky and stashed our heavy backpacks in the vehicle which would take us a couple of kilometers up to the trail head in the neighboring valley called Ptyš where our long hike to the base camp would begin.
It was rather obvious that not many people hiked in this part of the valley as our hiking trail was more or less overgrown by wild vegetation.
The rain was drizzling and our gore tex jackets went on and off as its usually goes when the weather plays tricks up in the mountains.
At around 2800 meter when the grass was ending and the slope became steeper, we watched a thick layer of grey clouds stubbornly clinging to the rugged summits of the nearby raging peaks.
As reinforcement to our team we also had Saša, acting as the assistant guide. Saša was a senior climber in his early sixties and only spoke Russian.
He looked sturdy and strong as a bull. Not very surprising to us, he was of course a USSR Snow Leopard. Also he had Everest South Col experience.
At the time all four of us reached the base of the glacier and Aleks placed his first ice screw in the moderately steep icy slope, the weather seemed to clear up and the annoying drizzle stopped.
Further up the glacier flattened out and we climbed unroped up to a little rocky saddle with some sharp gendarmes. What a great place for rock climbing practice, I said to myself.
At this point we got a good look at our objective. Now the north ridge pf Dombaj-Ul’gen did not look as vertical as it looked before. Our ridge did not look less forceful because of that though. Immediately to our right we saw the enormous east wall, which looked totally impossible to climb.
Although we knew from the Russian climbing literature that there were more than one TD route up that great wall.
The almost vertical icefields further up the wall looked terrifying and I was glad that we did not choose one of those routes!
Approaching the glacier.
After the saddle the terrain flattened out and we made our way towards our bivouac place. We scrambled up a steep gully with loose rocks in various size. With our heavy backpacks this became a challenging act of balance. In the late afternoon we arrived to our camp site just below the Fisher Saddle at around 3.500 meter. Here we pitched our two Redfox tents and began to collect water from a nearby stream in order to get some
hot tea and try the Russian mountaineering food. After having supper in the most remarkable of surroundings, we sorted our gear, prepared our packs, checked our clothing and settled in for the night.
To the saddle
Full of excitement I lay awake for a long part of the night listening to all the sounds. At one time rain poured down which of course made me doubt of tomorrows conditions. Aleks planned to get up at 04:00 AM. However, before our alarm went off, I have already peaked out in the dark between the damp nylon walls of our tent.
In the far I heard some light thunder. Aleks came by our tent and told us to go to sleep one more hour since he feared that a thunderstorm might head our direction.
Both Andi and me are big fans of extremely early alpine starts, but here we did not complain about our guides decision.
When we got up later in the break of dawn and sipped on a hot cup of tea, the threatening thunderstorm seemed to have diverted and the sky did not look too bad. Total happiness.
Along the north ridge
Night on high camp
At around 07:00 AM we began scrambling up in the direction of the saddle and the beginning of the north ridge. We stepped over huge blocks of rock and soon it became warm underneath my gore tex jacket. The metallic sound of carabiners, nuts and other hardware clinging together increased the more steep it became.
In the beginning there was walking terrain and we gained elevation rather rapidly.
After half an hour it was time to take out the rope since the ridge had become steeper and a fall would have had a serious impact. Aleks and me formed the first rope team and Andi and Saša the second. In the lower sections we went on a running belay and we moved rather quickly over the rocks in classic II-terrain. After around 3 pitches we came to a crux which contained of a vertical wall. This part was fairly exposed but I recall that I never really took a good look at the void underneath me.
I was fully concentrated in belaying Aleks who slowly but persistently climbed the crux and athletically pressed himself up the section of IV- rock. As a belay hold we used one of the few bolts that was fixed on the route. Although many of these bolts were of disputable quality and required a thorough testing before use. Meanwhile Aleks placed a nut as an intermediate belay and swiftly continued around the corner, leaving me feeding him with the 10 mm rope.
When Aleks gave me a signal to follow him, he started to take in rope and I immediately negotiated the crux as there was no time for hesitation. Half way up I was forced to perform a quick and airy shift of hands in the dry and solid rock. Before my move, I made sure I had good tension in the climbing rope above me. Falling was not an option.
According to the route description Andi had dug out from several Russian climbing sites, we knew there were at least 2 crux sections to be mastered. In between, the terrain was of various grade I-II.
Our progress was good and safe and I think we kept a good pace. The last crux offered a little chimney which required some extra strength. The rock was generally in great shape and due to the improved weather with some occasional sunshine, the rock was dry too. It was a pleasure to climb, I was thrilled and enjoyed every single pitch.
Aleks knowledge of the route helped a lot. During the climb our party climbed faster so we soon lost contact with Andi and Saša. For Saša it was his first time on this mountain so he was not familiar with all the twists and turns of the route.
After three hours on the ridge we stood on the main summit of Dombaj-Ul’gen. The summit consisted out of a few large rocks and to the east a couple of meters lower, there was a small plateau, large enough for a small tent. Here Aleks and me sat and drank some tea and ate some cookies. I was trying to take in the breathtaking scenery around me. To the north I saw the village of Dombaj deep down in the green valley. To the south I looked into Abkhazia. To the east I was looking down into the abyss of the Buul’gen valley and to the west I saw the ridge which continued towards the western summit which is 4.036 meter.