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.