This expedition was the first experience of climbing at altitude for me, as all my previous trips were in Tatra Mountains with summits below 2500m. I tried to describe extencively my feeling and thoughts in this article rather then technical details, as it is aimed to reflect an authentic impressions of a person, who is trekking and climbing at the altitude for the first time.
While thinking about going to higher mountains I found two main alternatives: Caucasus and Alps, so after studying pros and cons of both regions I decided to go to exotic Caucasus this time rather then to civilized Alps. This decision doesn't mean that I wouldn't like to go to Alps in future, I just found possibility to experience completely different Caucasus culture more tempting this time, then going to familiar Europe again.
Well, decision was made, agreement with my employer was arranged too, so I was free for three weeks in July to enjoy mountains.
Now it was time for organizational problems. I was sure, that I am going to join the trip to the popular climbing area Bezengi in Kabardino-Balkaria offered by mountaineering instructor Sigizmund Grohowsky, as I was very satisfied by my Tatra trips with him. When I talked to Sigizmund, he told me, that few jacks I know were going to join the trip too, but they were planning to climb other routes independently from the main group. I had spoken to some of them and we made an agreement, that I could join their team.
So, now I could check my gear list and wait for the departure date: Friday, the 6th of July…
At last, Friday, the 6th of July have come. First part of a day I spent in the office finishing all duties before leaving. About 14.00 one of couriers was going to the direction of central station, so he gave me a lift. Riga - Moscow part of the way was arranged by bus. I met a part of our group, which was starting from Riga - Anton, Alexey and Eduard. Our club-mate Tolik Sukov came to say goodbye and to wish us good luck. He had made photos just before leaving, then we loaded into the bus and hit the road.
After few hours we were in Daugavpils city, which is close to the border with Russia, where two more people of our team - Vatslav and Igor - joined us. Roman - one more guy, who decided to join our team - was already in Bezengi with his group.
The other part of Grohowsky's group (about 20 people) was starting three hours later, taking the next bus.
Trip went fine, we had crossed the Russian border without any problems and about 8.00 came to Moscow. We went to subway and quickly got to the railway station, where an express-train to Domodedovo airport could be taken. There was an optional check-in too. We decided to check-in and left our luggage there paying extra price (about 12 USD). While we were checking-in and paying for overweighed luggage all other people came with Sigizmund.
Guys decided to have a walk in Moscow, but I went directly to the airport together with others. So, we all met again after few hours, soon before departure to Mineralnye Vodi.
The flight was operated by Dagestan Airlines and airplane's interior was in quiet suspicious condition, but in spite of my worst expectations flight was ok and after about two hours we left the plane at Mineralnye Vodi airport. Two buses from Bezengi Alpine Base were already waiting to get us to the Base Camp at 2200 m.
The way to the BC is not too long, but it took about 6 hours to get there, as the route goes by an old complicated mountain road. We came to BC at about 3 o'clock in the night. In spite of late time we were greeted by friends, who came to Bezengi two weeks earlier and were already getting ready to leave. Thanks for the warm welcome, guys! The entire group was placed in some kind of hall for the first night. People packed out sleeping bags and quickly fallen asleep after a tiring day of traveling.
Next morning we woke up at 8.00, as breakfast was served at the base at this time. After having some food we were shown to our shelters - large fixed tents on the territory of base. This was the day of preparations, as it was planned to leave tomorrow. Vatslav, who was responsible for supplies, went to warehouse to get all needed food and gas. Anton with the support of Sigizmund went to rescue Headquarters to register the plan of our movements and routes we are going to attempt. Soon the party was ready, and we spent the rest of day resting and talking to friends. Wake-up was planned at 7 a.m.
The First Out09.07.2007 - 14.07.2007
The plan was such:
We were going to move slowly by the left side of Mizhirgi glacier finally passing the infamous second icefall and reaching the legendary Bivy 3900.
Day 1 - Move to Popovsky bivy site (2700m)
Day 2 - Move to Krumkolsky bivy site (3200m)
Day 3 - Move to Bivy 3900 (actually between 3800 and 3900m)
Day 4 - Attempt Panoramny Peak (4200m, East Rib, 2B Rus)
Day 5 - Attempt Ullu-Auz Peak (4676m, South-East Rib, 3A Rus)
Day 6 - Return to BC
Approach, Acclimatization And First AMSFirst Day - Popovsky Bivy
So, here we started. We left at 11.00 a.m. after breakfast and a bit of additional checking. The route followed a clearly definable track, which started right after the bridge over the river near the BC.
Being the first time out for such mountain trip and not having an extensive experience in camping I was wondering how I am going to feel moving up with a heavy backpack. At the beginning it went hard, but I knew, that it is normal for me - I always needed bit more time to warm up - and that normal breathing was going to return after about an hour. I went slowly, holding personal tempo, so all the party got far forward soon, except for Igor, who went behind me. Path was clear all the way long, so it was OK to split.
Setting up tents at Popovsky Bivy, 2700 m
The first part of the way went up the valley and up the moraine then. After crossing a small stream for two times the track followed the edge and turned left leading along the side of the moraine. Before the turn there was an impressive view on an ice wall - the beginning of the Mizhirgi glacier. Older people told that many years ago glacier was almost reaching the Base Camp, but nowadays it was about an hour away.
After a bit of moving along the left side of moraine track became flatter and then went down. Quickly it lead to a beautiful meadow, where the turn to the Warm Corner bivy site was marked with a big cross on a boulder. There was a party aiming for the Warm Corner, so they went left while I kept going forward.
Morning clouds over the glacier
Next part of the way was enjoyable. Track led through green meadows with a bit of altitude gain. After few minutes I have noticed our party having rest near a boulder group far away. When I reached them I found out that they were waiting near the strong stream with not too comfortable path over it. I joined them in rest and Roman, who started later, reached us in few minutes. Anton wondered about Igor and Roman told that everything was OK and that Igor was calmly moving and soon would be here. We started forward, while Roman stayed to wait for Igor. I crossed the stream balancing with tracking poles and followed others. After about twenty minutes we reached the Popovsky bivy site. The way from BC took about 3 hours.
The bivy site was situated on a meadow surrounded by rocks with a great view on the Northern Massif, the high ridge including such remarkable summits, as (from West to East) Dychtau (5204m), Peak Pushkin (5047m), Peak Mizhirgi (5018m) and Koshtantau (5152m). All 5000m mountain of Bezengi area are well known as hard and dangerous aims, as there are no easy routes to their summits, all of them are technical. Unfortunately, this impressive wall was covered by clouds very soon, which quickly came to the bivy site bringing conditions close to white-out.
While we were having rest I began to feel bad. Roman measured my pulse, and it appeared to be 110 bpm during the rest. I got quiet nervous. I was scared if I could keep forward when my heart behaved this way at 2700m only. I discussed the problem with the team and common advice was that there was no use to sit at the place. So we decided, that I would have a walk down to reduce altitude and then back up, while others would go up to the glacier to train ice technique. Alexey gave me a walkie-talkie and we agreed about control times to come on-air.
I went down and very quickly felt quiet better. I kept down for about half of the way and measured my pulse. It was the same, while I was feeling almost OK. We made a control connection and decided, that everybody would come back to bivy now. When I came back all the team was already there. We ate and went to sit and talk in the biggest tent. I felt much better now. Soon we went to sleep.
Second Day - Krumkolsky Bivy
Krumkolsky Bivy on a crest of a moraine
Next morning I felt fine. We made a breakfast, packed our tents and went out. The beginning was a nice track in the grass. We passed few small streams and got close to moraine. Soon the track went up and we had to step on its slope. It wasn't as nice as meadows we left behind, but we had just started our way and were enjoying every moment.
The first icefall
After about an hour we reached the first step of a glacier. By the information from route description and experienced friends It could be passed keeping to the left side, where we were now, and it was definitely logical way, as it was walking all the time with just a bit of scrambling.
Soon we were on the top of the first step and passing a small snow bridge went onto the scree. By definition, it wasn't exactly scree - this formation was defined by the Wikipedia as talus, a slope formed by bigger stones. I went over such terrain for the first time, but it didn't take long to feel and understand what kind of pleasure this process is. Great thanks to my friend and club-mate Nikolay, who had strongly recommended me to use trekking poles and given me a pair for the trip before leaving to Riga. I have never used them before and honestly speaking was skeptical about this technique, but my opinion changed very quickly while balancing on sliding stones with a heavy backpack.
This part of the way was exhausting physically and emotionally either, as after about two hours I've had feeling that this slope is not going to end. The slope formed a huge curve, following the turn of the valley. After one turn I saw another, again and again. All the party was far in front, as we moved rather slowly together with Igor.
Looking back over the Mizhirgi glacier
I felt quiet excited when I saw a campsite at last. It was situated on a narrow flat ground on the crest of the moraine. The crest was wide enough just to set up a tent, so all the tents were placed in a line. Feeling much better at once I went faster and soon was delighted by taking off my backpack. I reached the Krumkolsky bivy at 3200m at last. All the way took me about four hours.
An altitude was clearly sensible. I couldn't say I felt bad, but I didn't feel good either. Strong pulse, heavier breathing and lack of concentration - that was what I felt a bit after coming up. I felt better while moving, so I took my camera and walked around taking pictures. Two hours later I was almost fine.
After having some rest all the party except for me and Roman went bit higher to take a look at the crux of the route to Bivy 3900 - the second step of the glacier, but we stayed to make food. After an hour they returned and told that there was only the beginning of a route visible. We had food and went to sleep. Wake-up was planned at four o'clock, as the icefall had to be passed before the Sun would be up.
Third Day - Bivy 3900
Bivy 3900 on the edge of a cliff
The clock had rang... Of course, it took some time to wake up, but breakfast was quckly prepared and our team began to pack the camp. I had a bit of time to take some night shots. Dychtau looked very impressive in the first rays of Sun. One more team was leaving too this morning, but they had planned to start bit later.
We went over the scree again, but quckly reached the slope of the glacier, which lead up to the walls and ceracs of the second icefall. It looked realy stunning with its cracks, overhanging blocks and sharp teeth-looking formations. At first sight it looked like it would be possible to keep moving in boots, but when I came closer it appeared that all that stone dust on the glacier was cover with a thin layer of water-ice. No alternatives, we had to put on the crampons. Everybody kept moving up with trekking poles and the icefall was reached in a very short time.
Cooking breakfast before leaving to Bivy 3900
It was definitely time to change the poles to an ice-axe. We had rest, fixed our poles to backpacks and prepared the gear. Now it was time to navigate in the labiryth of crevases. After some progress we reached the first wall without any visible way around. So, it was time for the first action. The wall wasn't high, about 2.5m only, but almost vertical. Anton climbed first and belayed us one after another.
While our team was climbing, the second team had reached the point. Alexey fixed another screw and belayed them. After passing this step we kept moving all together fixing lines by queue when they were needed. The tempo was fine, we were passing step after step - walls, slopes, ice and snow bridges, but after climbing next obstacle, we saw one or two next steps in front of us. It wasn't clear how long was left to go, but while we were still in shadow, sunrays were already shining over the highest visible ice wall, making me bit nervous.
We kept moving gaining altitude and behind the excitement of the process I didn't feel, that I am getting tired, while exhaustion was slowly getting me. At once I understood, that I have problems breathing. I had to rest after passsing each small step, had to move slower and slower, while obstacles were becoming harder. Probably I looked not too good, as jacks began to ask me how I feel... We were at about 3500m and it wasn't like a normal tireness, so I've understood, that I am experiencing my first AMS sympthoms and I wondered how I was going to feel further...
The beginning of the main obstacle - the second icefall of Mizhirgi glacier
We reached a small snow plate and I sat to have some rest. By the data from altimeter it seemed that we had to do the push over the last step of the icefall. While waiting in queue to a fixed line I suddenly felt a headache. "So, that's the way it comes" - I thought. Very strange and specific headache, feels like it was very deep inside my head. I was waiting and headache was getting stronger. The main problem was that I completely lost ability to concentrate on anything and was acting like in haze.
The last obstacle before Bivy 3900 - a long scree slope
I remember myself asking somebody for jumar. Roman had given me his one and went up, I waited for some more people to go and followed. After about five meter of jumaring I felt totaly done, while headache was rising... I don't clearely remember how I passed the last obstacle, but it seemed not to be complicated. Then I reached a big crevassed ice-plate. Seeing Roman and Eduard at the other side I went to them straight ahead half-couciousless and without any sence of situation. After few moments I had understoon, that they were shouting at me: "Turn right here!". Not even thinking of the reason, I just turned right. After few meters they screamed: "Turn left now!". I followed the command. And so on... They navigated me through crevassed field this way until I reached them.
Passing a step in the second icefall
When I came, Roman told me to take of my backpack and to lye on it while waiting for all other people. I did as he suggested and after a bit of time I felt better. When almost everybody came I felt completely good at once. Headache went away as quickly as it came, breathing became normal, head became clear and I felt strength in my body again. The whole period of my "black-out" have lasted about an hour.
Everybody were up to the ice plate and it was time to think about the last problem of the icefall - the huge crevasse without any easy way to cross it. At this point we had split again, as jacks from other team decided to go over an ice bridge, which was to the right hand, and then to pass the big snowfield with plenty of hidden crevasses (as everybody supposed). Our leaders have decided to go over another ice-bridge and then move along the rocks.
Alexey went first and fixed the rope along the bridge. We carefully went one by one, and when Eduard, Roman and me were on the other side, we kept moving. Other took off the line and followed. After about thirty minutes we reached the last obstacle of the day - a long scree slope. We came approximately at the same time, as team, who went another way.
Our tents at Bivy 3900
Everybody were having rest and waiting for coming friends. Soon some guys started up and immediately we felt like in a shooting range - the scree was moving after each small step, stones were flying down, and as higher people got as more time stones had to gain speed. Some guys were hiding behind a big stone, but there was limited space, so some others and me had covered with our backpacks. It was fine, as stones were not big - about half of a fist in average.
Pathfinding in the labiryth of crevasses
Eduard and me went another way - not following the others, but straight up with the traverse of a chain of huge boulders, which were lying higher up on a slope. This last part of a route was exhausting, we were out of water, Sun was burning and we were completely done. After a bit of time walking had turned into a crawling. Step by step, stone by stone we reached a piece of solid rock. Eduard lied in a shadow and said that he was not going to move for the next fifteen minutes. I didn't mind to rest too.
One more little push and we reached the rock at last. After a bit of scrambling I was up. There was a guy standing on a cliff and watching us all the way we were moving up the scree. I asked him for water. He went and came with cup. After a moment Eduard came too, and we had water together. I was exhausted, but feeling was indescribably great - I was there, at Bivy 3900… The way from Krumkolsky Bivy took me about eight hours.
The rest of day we had rested. After a couple of hours I felt much better and went to have a walk (it was scrambling walk actually). I scrambled the cliff over the bivy-site to take some photos and found a symbolic grave of a mountaineer up there. Old metal sledge and shining memorial plate were fixed to the rock in the memory of somebody, who had perished attempting Tihonova Peak long time ago. I took photos, than came back and rested until the end of the day. The attempt of Panoramny Peak (4200m) was planned for tomorrow.
Panoramny Peak. Bezengi giants in background - Mizhirgi Peak and Dychtau
Roman and me on the summit of Panoramny Peak
We went out at five o'clock next morning. The first part of a route led over the snowfields of Kundyum-Mizhirgi glacier. It is used to be rather safe, so we didn't rope up. We were moving while sky was getting lighter, Sun was about to rise. Snow got steeper and we aimed for the pass, which has to be crossed on the approach to Panoramny Peak. We were at the top of a snowfield soon and started climbing over the scree and simple rock. The top of the pass was reached very quickly and we saw the beautiful South-East face of Panoramny Peak in all its majesty, with two giants of Bezengi in background - Mizhirgi Peak and Dychtau. The route we were going to attempt was clearly visible too.
From the first sight the other side of the pass didn't look so pretty - 150m high steep slope of hard firn with fragments of ice. We were already roped up, so we started down carefully. Anton have taken a fall, but quickly arrested himself. After a moment the same happened to Eduard. After a while we finally were on a snowfield below Panoramny Peak. The route started here.
We quickly climbed first snow slope. Then it was a bit of scree again, but right after the scree the route followed a very steep snow slope, which we climbed like a ladders - using both, feet and hands. On the top of this slope there was a nice place to have rest. Route went round a corner. Alexey and Anton went bit forward to take a look at conditions. They quickly came back and told us, that there is only bare rock in front, so we took of crampons and kept moving.
Downclimbing the summit of Panoramny Peak
The climbing part was easy and enjoyable - Sun was shining, and rock was warm. We were simulclimbing, using elements of a relief for belaying. This way we reached the summit quickly and without any problems. The moment, when we came and discovered, that Panoramny Peak has two summits, was surprising, as we didn't know about it. Some of us climbed both, but Roman, Eduard and me summited one of them. We had some rest, guys had written a summit note, and we went down.
Downclimbing went without any problems too, but the awful part was to climb back up to the pass, when everybody was already tired. Anyway, step by step, rest by rest, it was reached. There was another problem on the other side - the snowfield had melted on the Sun and I was falling into the snow down to but sometimes. My leg completely stuck in the wet snow one time, I couldn't take it out any way, so I had to dig my leg out by hands.
The bivy-site was reached anyway, so we had rest and food. After the diner there was discussion of a day. We all decided, that I shouldn't attempt Allu-Auz tomorrow, as I had problems with altitude - I completely couldn't move fast, while the route to Allu-Auz wasn't very technical, but long, where party should move rapidly. Eduard was offered to decide himself, but was suggested not go. Roman told that he is not going on the route tomorrow. Don't know the reason - maybe he was tired, but maybe he stayed with us because of solidarity, as Eduard, Roman and me are club-mates. So, we decided to have rest and some snow training tomorrow.
Rest day (for Roman, Eduard and me)
Anatoly, Alexey, Vatslav and Igor went out on the route early in the morning, while we were happily sleeping until 10 a.m. We knew that one more team lead by Adylby (rescue jack, who also works as a guide) started out this morning on the same route. It was almost 100% rest day. Nobody hurried anywhere, until Roman has reminded, that we were going to go to have snow training. I didn't have mood to go, but as we were team, joined Roman and Eduard.
When I went out on the glacier and walker on the pleasant hard snow my mood completely changed. I felt great and wanted to run and jump around. I quickly got up the slope, which Roman offered to jump and slide down from. The training itself was very fun. We were jumping, rolling and falling backwards before performing self-arrest. I suppose we spent about two hours there and went back to continue our rest.
The Adylby's team was already at bivy-site. We very surprised, as it is very short time for this route. Asking about our teammates we found out, that they were about six ropes behind, but looked quiet fine. The only business left for us was to wait for them. Time was going, but they didn't show up. The party who went this route yesterday came back at five o'clock. It was already six, but there was no info from our jacks.
I went up the cliff to take a look and met Adylby there. He recommended me to wake up friends and to go out to meet our team on descend. We started out, but when we were half way through the snowfield they appeared on the top of the icefall. They screamed, that everything was fine, so we went back, to make food. It was later, then seven in the evening.
Back To BC
Passing an ice bridge
Next day was the day of returning to BC. We woke up early and moved on. We passed the scree slope, where we spent about two hours during ascend, in about fifteen minutes and came to the snowfield. The Sun was burning pretty hard last days, everything was melting, and there were wet ice and dirt, where the snow was before. We reached the icefall and were quiet surprised, everyone could hardly see the route we followed on the way here - the icefall had dramatically changed in these three days. Ice bridges got much thinner, crevasses got much wider and huge overhanging ice blocks completely didn't seem to be stable… While we were moving on it was getting warmer, we heart nasty cracking sounds now and then.
The cerracs of the senond icefall
Roman went froward on the first ice bridge and fixed the rope. Everybody carefully followed. When I was passing this obstacle, it seemed so soft and unstable, that I was even afraid to hit the ice with an axe, I had feeling that any minor hit could crash it down. I understood with my clear mind, that my instincts hyperbolized the dramatism, but I couldn't get this feeling away anyhow.
Vatslav slipped and fell into crevasse on this ice bridge, while Roman was belaying him. It was the first fall, which I've seen in the real obstacles. Can't say, that I was shocked, but I got stunned. Roman immediately shouted at me, it helped me to return to reality and to get into action. Vatslav wasn't hurt, so Roman, Eduard and me hauled him up, while Igor and Anton were belaying and Alexey was filming. In fact, an order to film was also given by Roman - he was the calmest person in all situations. Vatslav's first words after getting out were: "Man, it is so beautiful down there!", which were followed by the nervous laughs of the party.
Crevasses of the icefall. Looking for the easiest way
Then it was hard and unpleasant way down. We were moving, looking for bridges, crossing them, looking for route, climbing and rappelling… The icefall was so cracked, that we had to make four rappels. The cold water of melting ice was dropping on us together with sand and dirt, while we were moving down the ropes. All the team was dirty, wet and cold.
The most unpleasant moment during all way down was when Roman and Vatslav were making stance for one of rappels. We were standing on a big ice plate, when we heart the loud sound of crashing ice right below us… Our plate didn't even move, but the sound was enough for me to realize how fragile we are in the hands of a chance. I had the only thought in my head then, and I bet, that everyone else had the same one - to get out of this ass, as fast as possible!
One little push and we were sitting on a stones of a slope and looking back at the icefall, which we crossed. Everybody kept scielence for bit of time. Then it went to some lazy relaxed discussions, but in general, there was no need to talk. I suppose we all shared the same feeling.
The last part of the way was a routine. We went over the glacier instead of talus. The glacier was totaly open, so there was no danger, everybody went in his own tempo. After few more hour we all were sitting in the bar and resting of this day's stress.
Discussions of plans about the next out were left until tomorrow...
Part 2 - Elbrus. Comming soon...
I am working at the sequel now. The second part of the TR about my Elbrus attempt is comming soon!