Monday, July 23, 2007

Mt Kazbek

Mt. Kazbek: 7/21-24/2007

We arrived in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi at 4PM. Picked up by a climber-looking guy at the airport. Driving through the city, we were struck by the contrast between beautiful old building and Soviet-looking newer buildings. Most old buildings were restored, and Tbilisi has an air of prosperity. We were told later that a lot of aid is pouring into Georgia. The US embassy is huge here. What for, is hard to imagine. There must be room for over 500 employees there, all this for a county of a few Million people?? Anyway, Georgian food (and wine) is great, something we've known from Russia. (Contrast this to Russian food- mayonnaise with this and that). A day later we started the drive to Mt. Kazbek. Visited a beautiful, XVth century church, built with the distinctive roof seen so often in Georgia.Further, we drove over a high pass, just past a ski resort. As we started down from the pass, we admired the covered section of the road (against avalanches, which are quite frequent here). This is the Georgian Military highway, linking Georgia to Russia. Of course, the border is closed now and Georgian wines were smashed in Russian winestores last year to "protect Russian consumers against inferior quality Georgian wine", a good joke if I ever heard one. Russia flexing its muscle.

On our way down from the pass, we stopped at a stream of carbonated mineral water, flowing over a tan mineral/rock formation. They say it has great healing and restorative power. We filled up our water bottles, tried some, weird taste. Georgians love it though. I guess we didn't really give it enough of a chance. The next morning we started our assent of Mt Kazbek, hiking from the village of Kazbek (1,700 M)...

... through the forest... the hut on the glacier(3,700 M). Loooooong slog. Got a little interesting crossing a raging river, OK very interesting, but nobody fell in, so well is well.

We finally get to the hut, beautiful stone building dating to the 1930's. It was originally the Meteorological station and was later converted to an alpine hut. Time for tea; when we discovered how dirty a kitchen can really be. No cockroaches, but only because of the altitude. We were certain we were going to get sick, and we did. Our guide is nowhere to be seen and we wonder what we are going to eat. Finally he shows up with a few tins of liverwurst (but worse(t)) and bread. Oh well. We met two guys from Belgium who were waiting for their guide (and for the crampons and ice axes included in their "guided trip". By the time we left, two days later, the axes still did not show up). But they were really nice and gave us some of the pasta they made for dinner and some of their powdered milk. Digressing, but it seems that the former Soviet Union still has not fully embraced the concept of customer service- a fact observed in Russia in 2003 and 04, and later in Kyrgyz and Kazakhstan.

It took a while, but we finally convinced our guide that we needed to get up early for the summit attempt. So we started at 3:30 Am. Immediately our guide started at a blistering pace. We were seeing his headlamp off in the distance only occasionally, but we somehow managed to stay on the 'trail' while fumbling through talus fields (thanks only to Shelly's superior trail/tracking skill). We have 1,400 vertical meters to go!!! Digression No. 2. We observed this in many places: people (including guides who should know better) would start at a fast pace, leaving us behind, but within an hour or so they would slow way down, basically never recovering for the day.

Hmmm! Now roped up, we make our way through crevasse fields (I partially fell into one on the way down) as the sun begins to rise. And sure enough, when it gets steeper, our guide is hurting. He is going so slow, we decide to unrope and make our way without him. We were worried about the 6 inches of fresh snow
sliding later in the day, and wanted to be long gone by that time. An hour later, and 6 hours after we started, we are on the summit, 5,047 m!! The last 1,000 ft or so was hard, 45 degree snow slope, with some tracks, but basically wallowing through deep, fresh snow.

Beautiful views! But Kazbek has a gruesome legend. This is the place where Prometheus was chained down by Zeus to have his liver torn out by an eagle every day. Zeus knew that Prometheus was immortal, his liver would grow back everyday, he would have to endure the pain again and again and again.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus is one of the Titans. He is the supreme trickster, and considered the god of fire. His intellectual side is emphasized by the meaning of his name, Forethinker. Because he foresaw the defeat of the Titans by the Olympians (unlike Atlas), he sided with Zeus and was spared the punishment of the other Titans. Prometheus became a great benefactor of humankind. When Zeus mistreated humankind, Prometheus stole the secret of fire from the gods, and gave it to the humans. His sympathy with humankind roused the anger of Zeus, who then plagued him for an eternity of torture atop Mt Kazbek (Caucasus mountains).

After half an hour on the summit, we started down, collected our tired guide, and started the long (it was only 4 hours, but it sure felt longer) descent. Passed some Polish climbers who were going up. Team Poland (of which there was one on every mountain in Africa and Asia) ended up summiting and getting back to the hut around 9 PM, a 17 hour day. If anyone earned their summit, they did! Yeah for Team Poland!!!

Another night in the hut, which, hard to believe, is even dirtier than last night. We hear from a German group how wonderful the huts in Switzerland are... we need to check them up soon.
How much loooonger? We are descending back to town, 4 hours into it, with 55 pound packs. Managed again not to fall in the river, though was a lot closer for me this time. And we see the Monastery! On the way up we were looking forward to seeing it, but now it took now a lot of convincing on Shelly's part to walk the 10 minutes out of our way to visit it.

Of course was beautiful, and of course we would've felt stupid for not seeing it, but tired is tired. The Sameba monastery was built of beautiful, local rock with basorelief carvings on the outside. At the door, they hand Shelly a skirt to wear over her pants, and we go in. Very tall ceiling, and very austere inside. A few paintings, a few St. George icons, but you get the feeling that life used to be hard here.
Still, this church survived intact since the XIVth century, even the Soviet occupation did not put a dent in it.

Two hours later, we are driving back to Tbilisi. But first, a 3 Pm lunch, with home made wine (goes down easily) and potstickers.

Back in Tbilisi, we had dinner at a great restaurant , Kala, our second time there. Highly recommended. Finished the dinner with sour cherry liquor, which is a lot better than it sounds.

If only Prometheus could join have joined us.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Mt Ararat

Mt Ararat: 7/13-17/2007

... coming soon ...

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Mt Nemrut Dag

Nemrut Dag: 7/11-13/2007

... coming soon ...

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Mt Olympus

Mt Olympus: 7/8/2007

We are in the Greek village of Lithochoro, at the base of Mt. Olympus and 10 km from the sea.

Rare view of Mt. Olympus. Mytikos is the tallest peak, right in the middle

A 5AM start (thank you Bob for driving us) takes us to the end of the mountain road; the trailhead to Mt. Olympus.

We start with headlamps on, but within 15 minutes the sunlight comes on. Beautiful electric colors spill through the trees. We admire, but we still have 2,000 M to go (UP!!).

Nobody on the trail, which we are not complaining about. Most people that climb Olympus do it in two days, overnighting at the hut (2,000M) or Refuge A, as it is signed.

Beautiful, clean place. We talked to the people at the refuge about skiing in the spring. We were informed that there are lots of avalanches above us, but not to the right, which had the same aspect (??). This is definitely a place to come in March or April. Very steep couloirs, somewhat reminiscent of Dana Plateau, about 1,000-1,500 foot long. You can probably camp here for a week and be thoroughly entertained.

After a 45 minute tea break at the refuge, we start on the final 1,000 M. Low elevation (by comparison to where we've been this year), so we go pretty fast.

We end up at the junction between Skala and Mytikos. Myticos is the highest peak at 2,918M. The path to it is very exposed, portions of it 3th class with pretty slick rock.

After less than an hour, we finally make it to the top, where there are a few people sunning themselves.

The views are spectacular. Mt. Olympus is renowned for being in the clouds all the time, so we are really lucky to see it basking in the sun.

To the South, we see the top of the ski resort, to the East the Aegean sea. And to NE, a grassy plateau where you can imagine the Greek Gods gathering and plotting against one another. The Mytikos peak is really too small (a few meters at most) and too jagged to be their gathering place.

We are plotting our next trip: take the ski lift up, traverse a few Kilometers, and set up camp. Maybe next year.

We start descending, pole-pole (this is slowly-slowly in Swahili- something we heard all the time on Kilimanjaro). We take it easy (and very carefully) on the exposed section,
then we get back to the Skala-Mytikos junction.

Loose talus makes the descent a chore. With sore knees, we arrive at the hut, where we see about 100 athletic students from Croatia. We rest and manage to leave right after them. This makes even slower going, though we were not exactly complaining.

4:30, and we finally make it to the trailhead.
"Why are we doing this to ourselves?" is the foremost question on our minds. 12,000 vertical feet in one day? I guess it's the trade-off between this and spending 3 days on the mountain, sleeping in a nice, but noisy hut.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Mt Parnassus

Mt Parnassus: 7/1-2/2007

It was awesome. My parents met us in Athens and hung out with us while we were in Greece. It was great to see them, especially because this is the longest time i have spent without seeing them in my life! It was kind of like a rest, or break, from the trip being back with family, and being in relatively familiar and comfortable Europe.
We spent a couple days in Athens running errons and gathering essential, yet hard to find, things like zip-lock bags, face moisturizer with SPF, and cotton socks. And of course we visited the Parthenon, drank great wine, and ate too much food. Our first, of two, mountains to climb in Greece was Parnassus, site of the legendary oracle of Delphi. We drove to Arahova, a great mountain ski town on the slopes of Parnassus, and about 8km from Delphi. According to Greek mythology, this mountain was sacred to Apollo, the Corycian nymphs and was the home of the Muses. The Oracle of Delphi was sacred to the god Apollo. As the home of the Muses, Parnassus became known as the home of poetry, music, and learning. Just down the slope from Delphi, is the sanctuary of Athena. Athena is the companion of heroes and the goddess of heroic endeavor. She also became the goddess of wisdom and philosophy (the Parthenon and Athens are devoted to her as well). And lying between these two powerful monuments is the Castalian Spring. The sacred spring of Delphi lies in the ravine of the Phaedriades. The preserved remains of two monumental fountains that received the water from the spring can be visited today. We visited the oracle, then the sanctuary of Athena, then collected water from the sacred spring to carry to the summit of Mt Parnassus.

Sacred Delphi has it origins in prehistoric times and the worship of Gaia, the Earth Goddess. Only later did it become the religious and spiritual center of the acient Greek world. The legond says that Apollo made it his by killing the Python that guarded the oracle of Gaia. The way the oracle worked was classic... A priestess of the oracle, a Pythia, sat on a tripod seat over an active geologic vent on the side of the mountain. Fumes would rise out the vent (fumes containing who knows what kind of gasses...) and intoxicate the Pythia. She would fall into trance, allowing Apollo to possess her spirit, and make prophesies. Usually this came out as mumbled gibberish, so a priest would interpret what she said into something understandable. People consulted her on everything from important matters of public policy to personal affairs.

The day after visiting Delphi (and trying to inhale as much oracle air as possible :), we set out early in the morning to climb to the summit of Parnassus. Many thanks to my dad for driving us to the ski resort where we would begin the climb. My mom, dad, rod and I all started up the ski runs, heading to the top ridge of the resort. Gun shots rang out periodically, and we were all a bit worried about who was shooting and weather they saw us coming up or not. At the mid lodge, my dad turned around and went back to the car to wait for us to return, and the 3 of us continued up the ridge.
At the top, the gun shots were louder! We started walking along the well marked trail off the top the resort and into the deeper mountain. We reached a small fissure in the rock where the trail went and were stunned to find a air powered cannon shooting into the fissure. After some careful inspection, we decided it wasn't shooting anything but air. Still, it was still scary walking in its range and through the fissure as it fired at us.

At the base of the final pitch to the summit, we stopped for some lunch. We brought cheese, bread, some tomatoes, and 1.5 L of local white wine. We ate and drank a little too much (considering we are still in the middle of a long hike), and then started the slog to the top. Hurray!! We summitted!! And, even better... My totally Awesome Mom just charged up here! She was leaving me behind on the way up! Yeahhh Mom!!
We offered the water from the Castilian spring to the mountain and hung out a bit, then headed down. It was long walk down. Especially walking the last part through the ski resort. When we finally reached the gravel road that would take us to the parking lot, we composed the road song...

"We are on the Road, Yeah!
We are on the Road.
Walking on the Road, Yeah!
Walking on the Road.
No more stumbling, no more fumbling
We are on the Road!"

My Dad was waiting with the car. Yea Dad! We headed back to town tired and hungry, but in good spirits, having enjoyed our time with the beautiful Mt Parnassus (we didn't see any Nymphs though).