You’re going to pay a price for everything you do and everything you don’t do. You don’t get to choose to not pay a price. You get to choose which poison you’re going to take. That’s it.
– Jordan Peterson
The game I chose to play
Every journey, as it was a story, has its heroes and villains, its triumphs and downfalls. There is a price for facing any of those and I’ve seen it all during this expedition. I chose to tell this story in a way not to make it profitable to me, but in a way to tell anyone willing to listen before taking a similar challenge. There is a price for everything, and sometimes you have to be willing to take the price, or it will take you.
Before this expedition, I was in position without any doors, but it is not like I never tried to find them. Everything burned and failed. I lacked the will to execute the plan to the end, I felt unworthy and too weak. The only possible solution left to me was to strike the problem to its core. Try to roll the same rock to the same mountain where I failed before.
As far as I remember, I never was the same after failing my summit in 2016. Though back then, I thought I was doing the same thing I think I’m doing now, but too many things collapsed on me and I got back with fatal psychological wounds. I started drinking even more, to the point where I had to run from everybody just to stay alive. At the start, it didn’t help much either, but slowly I started to build myself back, not even knowing for what purpose. In the end, it didn’t matter much as I was not ready to face anything monstrous yet. All that counted was every step I make toward somewhere more comfortable than I am at now.
Slowly I regained my confidence and once I was able to see again, making this trip to Sakartvelo(Georgia) seemed like the only possible cure left to me. So I started to work even harder, to prepare myself facing whatever I might face this time. I was hoping that if I could face the same dragon and defeat it, I might even be able to take some of its gold.
So far I faced many hardships in this trip, but apparently, I’m not sure if I was prepared for what is to come at this stage. Ironically, it was to come only after I rolled the rock to the top of the mountain. After all, even when the dragon is defeated there is still a big price to pay. The whole game is poisonous.
Remembering many stories from my fellow adventurers during the years, I was aware that half of the work is still ahead, nevertheless, it wouldn’t be even close if I told that I have half of my energy left within me. It didn’t take long to realize that climbing down in a rope team through that much of snow is a freaking hell.
My head started to feel dizzy soon after I started climbing down. It was hard to focus, and I could hardly walk in a straight line where the path was 30cm wide at best. Big shoes with crampons made the trip close to impossible. The Sun is shining for a while now and the hard-stepped path is changed by a slippery ice or a squashy snow. It is very hard to keep my legs from mixing up in these conditions and every mistake causing me a lot of strength to keep the balance. One misstep and I would slide far far down taking my team with myself. But what scared me the most is that I have no freaking idea how I’ll descend off the glacier.
The theory of failure
The first idea which hit me was that my breathing patterns changed too much. Once I ascended, due to the difficulty of climbing, I was breathing like a horse and now, descending does not require such a rapid breathing. Sadly, this idea came to me too late to test it at the correct altitude.
Of course, once I got close to the peak, summiting obsessed me at any cost and obviously I used most of my strength climbing it. This fact, combined with my wrong calculations of how hard it is going to be to climb down the mountain, is probably the main reason for this condition.
I think I took enough food, so low energy levels weren’t caused by it, though the low amount of water might be. Anybody who knows this business laughed at me for taking only one liter of water supplies to a journey like this. During the climb down, I wished that I just took another liter of unboiled water and the reality is that for the closest melted ice stream, we have to descend 700m.
Three people, three problems
I was even asked to save my water because ultramarathoner in our group declared first that she is not feeling very well due to dehydration. Her symptoms looked similar to mine, but she insisted that this is the case. And for a reason. In the past, she dealt with dehydration a lot of times and she knows her body way better than any of us. It might be that the same thing is happening to me, or that the symptoms of mountain sickness are just similar to those of dehydration.
Our de facto group leader, though was fine with the low amount of water or altitude, had some problems too. He is way more experienced than I am, but he was born in another decade and the climb took a lot from him as well. His knees started to refuse to work.
Naturally, hearing all those problems, unless I was asked, I tried to keep as silent as I can. We all are walking through a hell and nobody is here to help us, except us. One must stay strong even though it looks impossible. That was the toughest battle of my life, not only I was struggling with the mountain, but I had to keep myself in some focus, at least, to be able to walk.
It was one those games which in order to keep playing, you have to all-in. Finally, I was about to learn my limits, which are way further than I even dreamed of. There is a hero in all of us, who comes out when he is needed the most. Though at that moment, it felt more like a monster crawling for his life.
Hanging for life
The worst part of the pain is the fear that soon it might hurt even more. Can I walk further if it is going to get worse? Would it be it? At this part of the journey, I kept cursing myself most of the time for making the decision of climbing up with so little rest. I felt so stupid, that in the end, I got greedy and now the risk of something bad happening does almost seem inevitable.
At some points, I kept thinking of a scene in the movie ‘Everest’, which is actually based on actual events, remembered now as 1996 Mount Everest disaster, when 8 people died trying to summit it, making it the most deadly season for this mountain during that time. The scene which kept boggling me was the culmination of the movie when the mail-guy character goes nuts in the end, undresses and falls into the abyss. All of this because of the altitude sickness. From time to time my body felt like burning, sometimes I wanted to take a nap, that movie actually provided me with the information that these feelings are normal during these conditions. Overall, it was hard to manage my sanity, sometimes it felt like life is not worth the struggle, anything just to end it.
It took me some time to find a way to fight the situation, only God knows who kept me walking, my legs seemed to be moving on their own. My mind was drifting somewhere else. During the rare windows when I could concentrate myself, I tried to look for a solution. Luckily for me, after a while, I found it. It was the same thing which kept me fighting before. This is the only part of this blog entry I wrote that day:
It is cold, but also hot. I wonder where am I? I know I know, I’m on the mountain, but where am I? These conditions change everything. The way I move, the way I think.. Everything seems to be alien, I floating between clouds above mountains’ peaks. Is heaven, or is it hell? Certainly feels so, it is too much for me. My mind is dreaming, my body is trembling, but my legs are still moving. What is it? What keeps me going? Maybe, I should lay down just for a while, to rest, though I know it would be an eternity. Oh, I’m not alone, I’m tied to another human beings, if I cannot do it for myself, I must do it for them. Just another step will make the whole trip.
The situation we found ourselves at
As you can imagine, people at these conditions are on a verge of their nerves, it is very easy to be annoyed by another person. Our de facto leader, being a good teacher, started giving us some tips. I’ve tried to listen to it because it gets my mind away from the pain, but executing it must have look pathetically funny from a side. In the end, what is the point of trying to hold the rope off the road with your ice axe when you barely can walk in a straight line on a path which is on one side — a pile of snow uphill and a pile of snow downhill to the other.
The other person in the group didn’t tolerate it as much as I did and shouted at our leader to quit talking these things because it is the least concern of hers right now. It is when we learned that she is feeling not very well as well. Understanding our poor conditions, we asked her to take out her ice axe, but she refused, telling us that it is easier to walk with trekking poles. I couldn’t agree more with her, except for the fact that the ice axes are here for the safety to all of us.
In the end, unable to walk straight, I took out one trekking pole and used it on the side which was down the hill and an ice axe on the other which was uphill. This provided me with a better balance, but I couldn’t control the rope as much as I wanted.
Sometimes it felt like we needed a big break just to keep moving, sometimes we had to move in order not to get frozen. Water supplies were running lower and lower, and the only way to melt the ice surrounding us is to use our own body temperature, which is, needless to say, a stupid idea. I was just kept repeating myself that I need to endure it to the plateau and then I’ll manage the rest of it. It feels like those words slowly turned into a prayer until it went to a total blackout. I don’t remember much of what went after until we successfully climbed down 700m to Mount Kazbek plateau.
The last stand
Once we got there, I just collapsed into a wind shelter, which was built before, in order to protect a tent during the night for the people who attempted to the summit from this point. I used my last water to drink some painkillers and after that, I ate everything I got left. I was hoping that it would help me endure what is left. Though the path ahead is not easier, I really got sick of the snow and wanted to get rid of some layers.
While our de facto leader went around the camp, looking for a friend we sent down the hill a few hours before, the other member of the group was doing similar things as me. We couldn’t find our friend, and after a long break, we moved down through Gergeti glacier towards the rocky part of the trip.
I can’t describe what a relieve it was once we got from the glacier. Crampons and a rope made this journey way harder than it could be. Exchanging an ice axe to trekking poles was a huge relieve as well. My hands are now doing the bigger part of the balancing on the terrain, while my feet are barely moving where I want to. Every rock seemed like an unpassable obstacle, what can I tell about crevasses?
It was still very hard to focus, I was walking like a drunk person, I only had the strength to focus for a few seconds to make a jump. Somehow it worked out, though it was way closer than I can express in words. Sometimes I had to stand for a long while before I felt like I could coordinate my body to get off the ground the right amount I want and after landing, to fix my position with body weight center leaning to opposite direction of the crevasse.
There was a very scary place on the road, which was hard enough yesterday and should have been impossible today, where I had to jump through a crevasse walk around a big rock on a very narrow path from which I had to jump through another crevasse. I’m not sure what was protecting me, but I made it safely through all of them. If I ever experienced a miracle, that was it.
Resupplying & recovering
Slowly we climbed down to a place where the melted snow mountain streams start to appear. I’m feeling a bit better, but it is still hard to fill a bottle of water myself. My brain couldn’t function well enough to fill it in shallow waters. It probably looked like I’m just sitting there and holding a bottle on a surface of a stream. After some time I was offered a help. At this point, even handing things to each other is a challenge. We simply threw them to each other. And once I got passed a full bottle of ice cold water, I started consuming it as fast as the temperature let me.
The dehydrated girl felt better really fast after consuming the water, but for me, it was only a minor improvement, which was still a big relieve. The same fear of things getting worse, was, finally, fading away from me. And as my mind got more and more reasons to finally relax, an amazing feeling of achievement fulfilled me. I could hardly comprehend what just happened in the last 24 hours, I expected it to be tough, but this was way beyond what I could even imagine. Nevertheless, I did it, we did it.
Crawling down the road
At this part, I was mostly walking last, as my mind was getting relieved, my body started to hurt really bad. I could hardly feel my feet and some of my toes recovered only three months after the event. Willingly or unwillingly, I had to walk further no matter what.
The girl of our group seemed to be recovered already and we kept her waiting a lot on our long stop refilling our self with ice-cold water and cigarettes (yeah, right). She kept insisting to let her go alone, but she had to stick around as the golden rule of the day: we keep together.
We were so tired that our bodies made mistakes left and right. I even had a privilege to see my comrade just falling down on the rocks straight on his head. Luckily, he had his helmet on and I quickly tighten mine after seeing that. His knees were hurting so bad, that he just couldn‘t stop himself from falling after he misstepped.
I made mistakes as well. I totally couldn‘t walk in a straight line, therefore, it felt like I had to hit every single rock on the ground. Once I was descending a steep gravel path, I misstepped so bad that my solution to avoid falling was simply to jump into a snow few meters below.
The variety of mountains‘ terrain
I remember thinking of how I‘m going to explain how hard it was to maintain these various terrains. It kept changing rapidly from snow and ice to water and debris of moraines. I came up with an idea of taking pictures of every single one of them and describing the advantages and disadvantages of it.
First, you need to understand that glacier is surrounded by lateral moraines, which is basically debris leftovers where the glacier melted after its glacial maximum. This debris is what, throughout these articles, I called gravel with rocks. Though the reality is different, the feeling is more or less is the same. It is super annoying terrain to go through as it is usually steep and not stable. You can‘t put your trust on rocks either, because they are usually loose. I go through the terrain really slow, one mistake can cause me a lot of strength or even injury.
Inbetween moraines most of the time you find snow, which is super easy to walk when it is below freezing temperature, but very annoying when it is warm. It becomes a squishy mash and any misstep from the path might result in sinking your leg to it. For the same reason, you can hardly use your trekking poles to keep the balance. In my opinion, the best way to go through this is like a soldier, hitting the ground hard and forming a staircase for yourself.
At some places, you simply go through big rocks, which is relatively easy if you are sober and have energy. This is my favorite path as it is really fun to cross, you have to constantly think where to put your feet in order to keep the balance and save as much energy as you can. Sadly, right now, I couldn‘t enjoy it as much as I usually do because I was totally exhausted. I was just tanking it.
Ice terrain with small debris particles is very annoying to walk, but sometimes, depending on the slope, it is very fun just to slide on it. This is the only terrain where I fell down at these altitudes and for obvious reasons. Usually, I try to put as much weight as I can on trekking poles as their sharp tips anchor me better to the ice. Walking slowly also helps, but at some point, you just put your legs where you can find a lot of small debris struck on the ice.
Melted ice streams
During the second part of the day, you can see melted ice stream flowing almost everywhere. Its powerful erosion power further deepens the path where they are going through. These are very beautiful formations, but somewhat scary to get nearby as I don’t trust the ice surrounding it. Once you have to cross one, you just find the biggest stones to pass it.
A game worth playing
There is not much left to tell as nothing really major happened until we reached the base camp, near Bethlemi hut, where we found our fourth member descended safe and sound. Probably the best number to describe how hard it was climbing down, is 7h it took us. In contrast, we toppled the mountain in almost the same time at 8h. Combined, 15h of some of the best and the toughest moments in my life. Despite that, the main realization of the trip was just about to appear to my head.
Remembering the fear and the time it took me to prepare to jump through these crevasses.. In a contrast of yesterday, when I actually felt nothing jumping over them. It made me realize, that I appreciate my life again. That I finally see the meaning, that I’m no longer blind. I really want to get back home safely, fall in love, have children and live a full life. I feel alive again.. My plan worked.
Don’t stop imagining possibilities and you won’t stop seeing choices — Tamar Kushnir
Author: Mantas Ališauskas
Photography: Mantas Ališauskas
Design: Mantas Ališauskas
This is the seventh part of the series. Check out older articles:
Expedition to Mount Kazbek: Day 5 — Ascending to the Heavens
It is cold, but also hot. I wonder where am I? I know I know, I’m on the mountain, but where am I? These conditions…
Expedition to Mount Kazbek: Day 4 — Knowing your Enemy
And Horus looked; and he did not know that it was Seth, but thought it was a wild boar out of the thickets of the…