Day 2: Betlemi Hut to High Camp, 4500m
The First Section: Starting the Climb from Betlemi Hut
After the acclimatization hike the past evening, I was feeling so much better and even got some proper sleep at 3600m. The next morning, putting in my contacts, I was quite surprised looking into the small mirror I had borrowed from one of the cooks at the Meteo Camp. My face was big and round, water retention due to altitude and a lack of minerals in the melted glacier water. At least my wrinkles were gone, I thought 🙂
I headed outside the Betlemi Hut to see what the weather was like. Looking out of the small, fogged up window in my cold bedroom, I could tell already that the sun must be shining. Never did I expect that weather had completely cleared up. Stepping out of the hut’s rusty metal door onto the volcanic sand, rising my sight to the skies, the snowy slopes of Kazbek were shining brightly in the morning sun. Blue birds day. A few layers of fog remained, but they were about to clear up now as well.
After breakfast, Shota and I decided to skip another acclimatization hike and rather pack our gear to climb directly to 4500m to set up our high camp, planning to reach the summit the next day. I have to admit, three days are a short amount of time to climb a 5000m peak, but if the weather’s so good, there’s no time to hesitate. Glaciers and snow, here we come.
We started the climb to High Camp. Because there’s no infrastructure up there, we had to carry all necessary gear ourselves, like a big expedition tent, stove, gas, food. The weight of my backpack was pulling on my shoulders, in addition, I was already wearing my Scarpa Phantoms 6000, heavy duty boots for cold weather. It’s been warm, also weather forecast was looking good, but still you never know. Especially at high altitude, weather is unpredictable and storms can hit anytime. Minimizing risk as much as possible is key to have a successful and, even more important, safe climb.
The Second Section: Rolling Stones Couloir
We hiked through alien like landscapes, white snow mixed with red sand and picturesque yet extraordinary rock formations gave the impression of rather being on a distant planet, out in space, than on a volcano on earth. I felt like I was roaming through the barren, extraterrestrial landscapes of our neighboring planet Mars and in fact, schedules, responsibilities, regular life, it all felt so far away, like I left it behind on a far away planet, it appeared so surreal and unreachable from where I was now. The red sand was easy to walk in, yet didn’t allow a good grip on steep sections. Shota’s friend, Ira, was so kind and helped us carrying the heavy gear for the first half of the climb. We had to hurry a bit, the particular section we crossed is called Rolling Stones. It’s an immense couloir, falling rocks are common and in fact, every minute, a big rock made it’s way from the upper plateaus, down the couloir. Helmets are mandatory, yet probably offer little protection from the huge debris. After a couple of hours, we reached the beginning of the glacier at almost 4000m ASL and got ready to put on our crampons. Now the interesting part shall start 🙂
The Third Section: Climbing on the Glacier
Leaving the rocky, solid ground behind, we ventured out into the barren glacial lands. We put our crampons on fast, the number of falling rocks in the Rolling Stones couloir was increasing significantly as the afternoon approached and temperatures rose. The first steps on ice felt comfortable, the more distance we gained from the massive couloir, the better. But also the glacier was a large area of traps and treacherous passages. Carved into its surface were huge crevasses. Like scars they were lingering on the immense ice field, some visible, most of them, though, hidden under thin layers of snow. Those created the most dangerous obstacles of the climb. A wrong step and the glacier would swallow you unconditionally. We roped up. If either one of us would fall, that braided string of nylon yarn would be the lifeline. We navigated around the crevasses, until one of them blocked the way. There was no other way to continue, we had to descend into the glacier’s icy belly. Shota went first. I was holding the rope tight, leaning slightly backwards. Carefully he walked towards the unforgiving world of ice, moving deeper into a hostile, cold environment. For a moment, Shota was gone, I pulled the rope, held it close to feel the resistance, making sure he was still there. Then he reappeared, climbing up the blue, icy wall on the upper site of the crevasse. He made it. A feeling of relieve. But now it was my turn. I waited until Shota was in a safe spot before approaching the blue abyss. Slowly, using my ice axe and crampons, I climbed into the crack, focusing on every move. Each step was carefully set only when I was sure that I was secured, either by my own actions or climbing partner. After a few meters, I reached a bridge created by a thin layer of snow, about 50cm thick, which had formed a temporary connection between both sides of the crevasse, below, nothingness. Iceacles trembled and broke, falling into the deep blue gap, while I was walking on the naturally formed bridge. It was only a matter of seconds until I reached safety. We continued, the skies cleared up with every meter of altitude gain, allowing amazing views.
The Fourth Section: Reaching the Plateau
We reached the plateau at 4300m, both doing amazing. Even though I was carrying a heavy backpack at high altitude, I was extremely motivated, curious to see more and felt like I could continue forever. We decided to take advantage of the good weather as well as our physical condition and climb to the upper saddle at 4500m to set up our camp. Following a path of footprints, we slowly continued moving up the next steep section, which was the last remaining obstacle on the way to our preferred camp spot. Little did we know. I was wondering, why I felt so exceptional. Of course, I trained a lot, was equipped with amazing gear, but still I had an incident on my mind which terrified me for a long time. About five years ago, I traveled to the Andes in order to climb a volcano. I was young, dumb, not experienced, didn’t allow my body a single day to acclimatize coming straight from sea level. At about 3900m, I started to feel dizzy which resulted in a mild condition of altitude sickness. The group of people I joined including our guide abandoned me, left me alone on a dirty mattress in a house with a single room and no windows. I was scared, couldn’t stand up because my heart rate increased with every minor movement. Then a french couple and their guide found me, they instantly realized what was going on, carried me to their car and drove me back to 2000m which immediately improved the way I felt. Even though it’s been years ago, I still think about that day a lot. It was scary. But it’s so important to face fears, not let them control you. This is the proof.
And in fact, I was feeling so good now on this climb. The landscapes were amazing, the glacier, though, full of crevasses. I wanted to take a video, didn’t pay attention. All of a sudden, the snowy surface beneath my crampons collapsed, I was falling, but the rope I was attached to immediately stopped me. Shota pulled me back up. A bit scared, I was laughing away the danger of the situation. Somehow, indeed, it was a bit hilarious. I’m probably the only person who falls into a crevasse laughing. If there’s something you can’t change, you can also smile.
The Fifth Section: Camping at 4500m
We set up our camp as planned at 4500m ASL. The saddle was the perfect spot, protected from rockfall and avalanches. It was still a very exposed section, storms are common at that part of the mountain, but the snow walls built around the tent shall provide protection. I was happy to finally take off the heavy backpack. It’s been hours of carrying and navigating on different terrains.
While Shota was setting up the yellow heavy duty tent, I was collecting snow in a rather big bag. We would use that snow later to prepare tea or hot water bottles on our gas stove.
The weather was still exceptional, not even a slight breeze, warm, sunny. Once we had finished setting up the tent it was already dusk, the skies were lighting up the most beautiful shades of orange and yellow. I was watching in awe, while the mountain peaks in nearby Russia were covered in a golden glow, the clouds still entangled in their rocky faces. In fact, our camping spot was set up on the Russian side of the border, but we didn’t expect passport checks at that altitude.
After everything was taken care of, we roped up again and did another, rather short acclimatization hike. The glacier didn’t get less dangerous, in fact, there were crevasses, hidden and visible, all around the tent. I didn’t dare to go even one meter away from the snow wall, without being attached to the rope, after my experiences earlier that day.
When the sun was about to set, we crawled in our tent. While preparing dinner, we told each other stories of great adventures all around the world. Serenity.
The night crawled in slowly as the sun set behind the distant mountain peaks. We decided to go to sleep early, by 7pm the latest, because we planned to do the summit push at sunrise the next day.
There was still some daylight left when I closed my eyes, trying not to think too much, focusing on my breath. I fell asleep for an hour, then woke up with an immense headache, feeling nauseous, my heart was racing. My smart watch triggered an alarm, whenever the hear rate would go above 115bpm. It happened every 5min. Altitude finally got me, I thought, remembering all those painful details about my experience in Colombia. I woke up Shota, he looked at me, instantly telling me it’s normal, everything will be fine. After an hour of suffering, my headache had increased, I felt like I would have to throw up. Shota recommended to go for a walk. I couldn’t believe it? I felt like I was falling apart, why going for a walk? But I trusted him. He helped me getting in my big boots, took my hand and gently pulled me out of the tent. I couldn’t stand up on my own. We walked around the camp, carefully checking for crevasses. It was new moon but the landscapes were well recognizable, it was bright outside. I wondered why. Then I looked up to the sky and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The stars were shining so bright, brighter than I had ever seen them before. The milky way was stretching like a big ray of light across the night sky. There was no wind, it was quiet, a quietness, I hadn’t experienced yet. In that moment I felt eternity. Everything was limitless, the universe, views, possibilities. Standing among a billion stars.
Then I threw up for an hour. If I wouldn’t have felt so nauseous, I would have missed that incredible view.
I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make the summit, but I was happy already. I was starting to feel better now. Two sides of a coin.
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