I would much prefer to open dramatically with tales of adrenaline and fear but a chronological tale of mountaineering more than often starts with obscene amounts of time spent canned up in airports, aeroplanes and other vehicles. And so it started for us. Our destination was Bezengi mountaineering camp, which lies within the great Caucasus mountain range between Russia and Georgia. It was a return to the Caucasus for us having entered from the Georgian side previously and been awe struck at the sheer scale, shape and beauty of these mountains.
We had been led to believe that the internal Russian flights may involve push start aeroplanes held together by hopes and prayers. I had images in my head of a vodka wielding pilot kicking stray dogs out of the cockpit then setting off down a cobbled runway. The internal section of the flight out on the contrary turned out to be the most comfortable section of the trip, landing down on the only slightly weedy Mineralyne vody strip in good time. The terminal was full of Elbrus hopefuls who were whisked off in a cloud of dust leaving us squinting for our lift to the hills in the 30 degree heat. The standard white knuckle taxi drive to Nalchik ensued as the driver overtook, undertook and swore at an old women trying to get across the road in front of him. But not like a passing swear; he stopped, rolled down his window, ushered her over, said something to her I’m glad I couldn’t understand, then sped off before she could clout him round the head with her shopping bags.
Nalchik is home to around 240,000 people and waaaaay more stray dogs. The list of ‘things to do in Nalchik’ brought up by Google searches mostly involve leaving the city. It’s big and industrial but importantly lies in the foothills of the Caucasus. From here we jumped into a jeep and took off again at great speed to Bezengi. The drivers eclectic taste in music ranging from death metal to james blunt did little to sooth our travelling hangovers as the road steadily deteriorated.
We arrived at Bezengi camp just as the first drops of rain began hitting the jeeps windscreen, the steep valley sides serving to amplify the rumbles of thunder to the point that you could almost feel the sound. We were given a quick tour of the camp which was remarkably well kitted out considering its isolated location offering basic rooms, a communal canteen, showers and a wee shop. That night we enjoyed our first meal in the canteen, a typically simple but hearty meal of tattie and meat soup with some weird donut type pastries filled with meat. It quickly became obvious that we would have to improve our Russian. The ladies in the camp would rattle off questions and queries leaving us staring at them blank faced and feckless, food dropping from our gormless open mouths. Ewan, in a blinding flash of initiative, had bought a Russian phrase book for the trip which was to become our bible.
The camp website describes Bezengi as the ‘Presidium of the Caucasus Mountains’. The Northern Massiv and the Bezengi Wall are the two defining ranges in the area. Of the 8 summits over five thousand meters high in the main Caucasus range, 6 are located in the Bezengi area (leaving Elbrus and Kazbek outwith). The Northern Massif is a huge 15-km-long horseshoe consisting of nine main summits, five of which are higher than five thousand metres. One of these is called Koshtan tau (5151m), this was the peak which attracted us to Bezengi. Photos of its steep, snow flanked sides with ice-falls, sharp rock conglomerations and ridgelines were too much to pass by.
After logging in with the camp rescue services – a requirement for safety/tracking where foreigners go purposes, we set off with bags weighed down with 5 days worth of provisions. The reporting system is actually really good, they give you a walkie-talkie which you report back on at 3 hour intervals through out the day. The only issue being everyone talks Russian so we couldn’t understand much of the information being batted back and forth. We had given ourselves plenty time and a relatively relaxed approach schedule to allow time for acclimatisation. The first day was spent pushing up through alpine meadows to the first step of the Mizhirgi Glacier, and from there scrambling up to a camp spot on the second level glacial moraine (Krumkolsky camp, roughly 3200 m).
The scale of the challenge was slowly becoming obvious to us. The second ice-fall loomed at the end of the valley, forcing steeply upwards in a contortion of crevasses, seracs and ice slopes. Beyond this a final 3rd ice fall exists which people often refer to as “The Bezengi’s Khumbu”. As stated online: “Being inferior to its Nepalese brother in length and area, the Bezengi ice-fall is as chaotic, unpredictable, and dangerous as Khumbu. In some years, it has been impossible to cross”. The huge summit pyramid of Koshtan constantly looms overhead. Sitting on our little tent ledge we would watch avalanches sweeping the walls of the Northern Massiv and listen to rocks cracking and smashing their way down gullies. This is the territory of early starts where you hope to get as much climbing done as you can before the mountain starts throwing its toys at you.
With a relatively short second day planned we brewed up and made a relaxed start at around 7 am. The intention was to get to ‘Camp 3900’ which lies at the top of the ice-falls and provides an advanced base for summit attempts. 9 am found us donning crampons, harnesses, ropes and axes midway up the second ice fall. We had been weaselling our way up the rocky left hand side of the glacier but were now met with a vertical ice pitch. We hadn’t expected to encounter this sort of difficulty until the 3rd ice fall, so thought the immediate climbing would be relatively short lived. Not so. What perhaps didn’t help was approaching such an ice-fall without knowledge of the easiest passage through. It meant we would spend time climbing one route only to meet a gapping chasm and have to retreat in search of an alternative. There are of course screeds of route information in the main camp, but in Russian, with no interpreter to hand. As time crept on the sun began to lift over the valley walls and warm our surroundings. Great crashing and rushing sounds could be heard, rocks began to whir past from above. A bit more climbing and the source of the noise could be seen. The large seracs which calve off from the upper steps of the glacier as it flows over steep ground were falling. These things are big. Imagine a double decker bus up on its end then falling over but made of ice, so in summary nothing like a double decker bus, apart for maybe its size, hmm yea..anyway. The surface of the glacier here was so crevassed that the resulting avalanches didn’t flow far but the sound and proximity was un-nerving. As mid-day came around we stared at the top of the second ice-field as more rocks, now football sized, fell away and down our path of retreat.
Without many words passing between us we were increasingly exchanging those ‘we’ve bitten off more than we can chew haven’t we?’ looks. Blowing our cheeks out and furrowing our brows we looked anxiously at our watches and the map. If we had cigarettes with us they would have been out. We had left too late in the day given our pace and relative lack of experience in such territory. A short distance later we made the heart wrenching decision to turn back. Remember the feeling you got as a child when you dropped your ice-cream? or when you’re an adult and realise that party bags apparently have an age limit? Aye, gutted, that was us.
After numerous abseils we returned heavy heartedly to the previous nights camp. As is often the case with these things your mind is filled with the “what ifs”, what if we had left earlier? what if we had just continued on? what if we tried again the next day? My hands were bruised and bloodied from the climbing, I had smashed my sunglasses under my bag, our re-hydrated food had given me excessive wind, negatives.
My bad mood was however short-lived. As we brewed up some coffee on the stove the first clouds began to appear around Koshtan’s summit and the wind began to flutter the fly sheet of the tent. The weather forecast had been variable and for the next couple of days the peak was to be cloaked in cloud with thunder storms erupting in the evenings. No wet bivvys or freezing belays for these boys. On return to the camp we enjoyed the highest of simple luxuries – home cooked food, showers (freezing or boiling) and mattresses to sleep on. We also began looking at alternative peaks on our well thumbed map. We decided on two shorter trips of 3 days each to a couple of 4000m+ peaks in the area.
At the base of the first we swam in a glacial tarn as the cheeky mountain goats of the Bezengi area raided our stuff. The next morning started early, properly early this time, with a 3 am ice climb up the nose of a glacier. After a few nice pitches we reached the crevassed knuckle of the glacier and took coils of rope instead of belaying each other. I moved off to reach a better position, weaving up, over and between crevasses. At 8 am I dropped into one. Squeaky bum time indeed, if my boxers cost £1.00 my arse had swallowed 80p. During the summer most crevasses at the altitude we were at in the area are open, that is to say not hidden by a layer of snow. I dropped between two ice ridges to a lane I thought was solid ice. Taking a step forward I found myself chest deep in one of the bloody things with blocks of snow disappearing into the dark rift beneath me. The snow must have accumulated in the thunder storms of the previous nights. I spent some time swearing about my knee as I felt my trousers adhering to blood. Ewan soon had the mars bars out which righted the situation. The rest of the mountain was a mixture of scree and rock and happily we summited around 9 am. We got back to our tent in good time and were treated to another night of severe thunder. I tried to take a video of it lighting up the inside of our tent, but in all honestly the footage is weeeaaak.
Our final peak was over near the Bezengi Wall necessitating a 6-7 hour walk in with laden bags, through an obligatory military checkpoint due to the proximity of the Georgian border. The camp spot consisted of a range of levelled stone ledges surrounding a wooden alpine hut. Boulders were peppered with memorial plaques to less fortunate mountaineers. Shkhara marks the eastern end of the Bezengi Wall and is an impressive sight from the camp. Unfortunately for us the Bezengi camp guides were well set up in the hut prior to the arrival of the military for training. We laughed with them as they tried to attract the attention of their colleagues down on the glacier using explosives.
The following morning we stepped out of our tent at 3 am to a perfectly clear starry sky. Following the obligatory coffee and muesli we set off for another successful, and this time relatively uneventful, peak. Check out the photos below – some steep snowy gullies leading to a rocky summit where the cloud unfortunately prevented good photographs. The climbing was nerve-racking on shattered rock. As we returned to camp the first of the soldiers began arriving, 3 hours later they were still arriving until every possible tent spot was taken and the peace and tranquillity was replaced by the squabble of bantering troops.
We made the long trek back to camp in time for an ‘offaly’ good lunch the following day. It was with heavy hearts but rumbling stomachs we left the camp to return to civilisation. Our return journey took us via Nalchik where we spent a mosquito infested night on a wooden sleeping platform, then on to Mineralyne vody airport.
It was as this point we got our first and final taste of Russian corruption. Passing through security, in a modern airport, the big security guard demanded to see our ‘registration form’. Now I’ve no idea if we should have completed this document or not, and frankly I don’t give a shit. Looking particularly smug, the chubby young security guard opened a translation app on his iphone typing in: “you have a problem“….. The next line was:”I can help you, if you help me, OK?“, aye big man, sounds about right. He directed Ewan to go and have a seat, probably because I look a much more flimsy human being, then proceeded with the following patter: “you have violated the law and will have to pay a fine. Either you will have to come with me and pay the official fine (get battered), or I can help you”. OK ok, lets go for the official fine big yin I replied: “No you don’t understand. Go out the front of the airport to where no-one can see you, put 3000 roubles the back of your passport and I’ll gesture you to come back inside. Then you can fly back to England no problems (I’m from Scotland you fat prick)“. My eye line met roughly with his not insignificant bust. On account of him being significantly bigger than me, and the fact we needed to catch a flight and he wouldn’t let us through the airport otherwise, I agreed to pay. I passed once again through the scanner as he flicked the money under his monitor. “Good, gooooood my friend, you have a safe journey, no problems from here“, I neglected his offer of a hand shake and went to own up to Ewan red faced.