Summit Date, July 1, 2014. Should be said with the appropriate Captain Kirk, Star Trek inflection.
We all awoke about 1:20 am, dressed, and had breakfast at 2. Yes, it really does take that long to get all the gear on. By 3 we were in the snow cat going up to the Rocks where we had climbed the day before – we had already rejected, as a group, the notion of taking the snow cat to a higher elevation. Alec, always the gentleman, felt compelled to ask me if I wanted to ride in the enclosed cab, but that held no appeal to me. The ride up was gorgeous – the Milky Way clearly visible, stars strung against the black velvet sky like the diamonds and pearls adorning the intricate gowns we had seen at the Armory museum in Moscow.
Once off the snow cat, our skiers broke off fairly soon to zoom up the mountain – or zoom as fast as you can uphill with skies. The rest of us – three climbers including myself and my husband, Alec (our Russian guide), and Alec’s friend (who spoke no English, had never climbed the mountain, and had accompanied us in the various acclimatization hikes) – plodded on up, along the snow cat trail to the higher drop point. Always a little disheartening to walk along what is essentially a road. Finally passed that point, and started up steeper and steeper hills. The sun started to rise behind us – streaks of pink wafting over the tops of the mountain, but I was so busy following Alec’s footsteps in front of me I could barely look up to see it.
After one particularly steep area, we emerged onto the traverse. This is a flatter area that runs along the side of the east peak. It is a relatively narrow path with a steep drop to the left. Needless to say, foot placement is important – and we had been using various of the steps we had worked on the day before. By this time, the altitude was kicking in. I had been using the rest step – step, all weight on one leg to let the other rest, breathe out, breathe out, breathe out, and step again – on the steep sections. Like some slow wedding march up the mountain. The traverse, for all its potential for slipping and falling, was a relief.
The traverse took us down to the saddle – the area between the east and west peak. We had been resting every hour; in fact, Alec had take our guide’s instruction so seriously he had set his phone to ring every hour. We had a longer break at the saddle, as that was the point to ready for the final push. There were a number of other large groups, and one area off the track seemed to have unofficially evolved as the place all the women went to the bathroom, and another for the men. This is also the spot where I should have done a much better job applying zinc to my face and lips.
We left our packs In the saddle, as did nearly all the other groups, taking with us only our ice axes, a hiking pole, and some water. After the saddle came what our guide said could only generously be called a “head wall,” the part of the mountain right below the ridge that takes you to the summit. My standards being much lower than our guide’s, I will willingly call it a head wall! At this point, Alec roped us all together, since this is the steepest part of mountain, and we started to use our ice axes to climb up.
Now a quick digression on the ice axe. You do not use the hatchet part to claw your way up in some sort of Spiderman position (unless you are climbing the Matterhorn). Instead, you use it like a short walking stick – it is always in your uphill hand – you plant the point at the bottom of the ice axe handle, plant your pole, which is in your downhill hand, and step. It provides way more stability than poles alone.
Although the weather was absolutely perfect, little wind and azure blue skies, it was still very cold. Yet we were all sweating from the exertion. We made our way up the head wall to the exposed ridge, and after a certain point, Alec unroped us. There the mountain taught more of its lessons. Any number of rises appeared before us, each of which looked as though it could be the summit. And each time it wasn’t. So, we just went on and on until finally we reached what was indisputably the top.
I don’t want to minimize the effort this was taking by now. We had made good time and reached the summit only half an hour later than our guide predicted as the standard time, which I felt was an achievement in and of itself. Every single step I was taking, though, required each of those flights of stairs, that extra mile of running, and those final few pounds of weight to lift. I didn’t feel any of my training was a waste.
A lot of it, for me at least, was psychological. Just keep going forward, living in your own head in the moment. My thoughts ranged from deep metaphors about what I was doing to reciting the entire Bikram dialogue to myself. Which reminds me to give special kudos to my various yoga teachers for teaching me to breathe and control my heart rate.
Immediately below the summit is one last extremely steep section, almost like one last tease from the mountain, just to see if you can do it. But with the summit within feet, there’s no debate.
We reached the summit at 12:30 pm, 18,510 feet, about 8 1/2 hours after we started. It was cold and windy and blue, a few puffy clouds below. All beneath us was laid out the tremendous jigsaw puzzle of the Caucasus, each ridge and valley fitted into each other, seamed together with white ice and snow. The feeling at the top is pure euphoria – the culmination not just of that day’s work, but the months of training leading up to it, and the sheer bliss of being only in that moment, at that time, in that space.
I’m inserting the one summit photo I currently have access to. Once my teammate gets his photos up, I’ll post them. My phone, which had earlier died, reawakened itself just enough for one summit snap.
But the cardinal rule of climbing mountains is that everything that goes up must come down, and so we did. After retracing our way along the ridge, we got back to the head wall. To my utter amazement, Alec handed me the end of the rope and clipped me in. I somehow just assumed more rope would appear ahead of me – but no, I was indeed to be the first person to pick our way down the very steep section. Despite the altitude, I mustered enough brain cells and energy to pick out the correct footsteps to follow and gradually wend our way down. I really enjoyed doing his – it was like solving a maze and. gave me something to think about besides being tired and burned and cold.
It took us 5 1/2 hours to get down – 1 1/2 hours beyond what it should have. It’s a long slog down, the hardest part of which was trudging through the by now very slushy snow cat tracks. Moreover, starting at the Rocks, snowmobile drivers are waiting, tempting you with the promise of a ride, albeit expensive, back to the barrels. But not being ones to give in to temptation we struggled on down. I hadn’t hydrated enough and had to keep stopping to drink, which slowed our progress. Also, by then it was becoming apparent that my lack of appropriate lip protection had resulted in something resembling third degree burns, which didn’t help matters either. I’m convinced that if I had a do-over I could get it right!
Around 6 we were back at the barrel, and never has a barrel looked more welcoming. Our third climber had gone ahead of us, so it was just my husband, Alec and myself, and it was great to rejoin our team. After a 7 pm dinner we collapsed into bed – although I must admit I awakened in the night feeling that my mouth was on fire.
But it turns out summits aren’t the end – they are just the beginning of other adventures. Our trip wasn’t over, and with an extra day in the valley there were still some things waiting that amaze, and bewilder. Next up – horses, trout fishing, and a tour of the airport runways.