It is not the universe giving the meaning to us, it is us giving the meaning to the universe. — Max Tegmark
What can I say? It was a tough journey, but one of the types worth enduring through. Contemplating the memories of it, or the story I wrote about it, I can’t help myself, but to think of the contrast of the person who came in and came out of it. While I was a bit careful at the start, blind to the future and lacking self-confidence, in the parts which I wrote post-event, I am way more open and not afraid to discuss my weaknesses. After all, describing the past with a known ending is way easier than owing to the future based on your own words.
During an adventure like this, one can easily see the difference between the reality and a tale. Just a few hours after descending from Mount Kazbek, a thunderstorm engulfed the mountain. I couldn’t get much sleep while it was present, not from a fear, but from an excitement. I turn out to be a person who gets energized by the thunder and the lightning, as by many other powerful events produced by the majestic Mother Nature.
If it was a tale, one expects, after defeating the darkness, for the Sun to shine upon the realm, but the opposite had happened. And in some sense, it is even more meta-real than a typical tale. I think our culture, or at least I was, confused by a simple story ‘.. And they lived happily ever after.. ‘, wheni n reality, it is more like ‘.. And they lived happily after until.. ‘. Life is never so simple. Even if you do something impossible, the whole world will never remain to circle around you. Things change, and new problems arise.
The problem of the problems is never going away — Jordan B. Peterson
Weakened by a naivety of false security, one gets easily crushed by the first encountered obstacle. It might sound counter-intuitive, but as much as an unhappy person seeks a potential happiness, a happy person must look out for a potential tragedy and build the walls to protect the paradise, which she/he worked so hard to create. For something beautiful to exist, one must defend it viciously. In the end, the state of equilibrium is not all sunshine and butterflies, it is a balanced state between happiness and tragedy.
The first morning after a tough challenge
Yesterday I woke up thinking that if I make a mistake it might be the last time I wake up, but now, looking at it from a perspective, it looks like the next day after summiting Mount Kazbek was the day when I actually started waking up. Today, all the bad thoughts went away, suddenly, instead of all the fears and missteps occurred in the past two days, I feel proud of what I did. I couldn’t ask for more out of this trip. The challenge was way tougher than I expected, but I still, did it. Climbing a mountain, when the odds seem to be against you, was no easy task, but in the, it was very rewarding.
Soon after I woke up, I had a coffee and a breakfast, the weather seems to have calmed down. Without a hesitation, I went to Bethlemi hut where my phone can connect to the rest of the world. The feeling was surreal, I dreamed of making to the top so much, but so many times I was thinking about giving up, I can’t even count. I don’t know if posting online that I made it to the top of Mount Kazbek was more of showing off or simply telling all the people who were worried that I’m alive and I had reached my goal. After doing that, just a few minutes later, I got a word from my best friend that his father has passed away last night.
Climbing your mountain
One thing I understood that day, sometimes it is not required to travel through a whole continent to face an impossible challenge. While I had a tough time fighting with myself while climbing the mountain, some people encounter even harder battles every day, and back at their homes. The more and more I think about it, the word mountain becomes rather a metaphor than an actual thing.
To this moment, every time I face something of a challenge, I remember those two days when I was climbing the mountain against all the odds, and it gives me the strength and self-confidence to fight anything. The reason I’m sharing this adventure in a way I did it, was to tell a story of the sacrifice required to achieve one’s goals. There are tough decisions due to even tougher circumstances in everyone’s life which need to be addressed without a hesitation. A problem will become a bigger problem just because of ignorance and you’ll never know when the next one is around the corner. Everybody has their weaknesses, everybody bleeds, but you need to climb that mountain before it gets too tall.
The time is always right to do what is right. — Martin Luther King, Jr.
Even though I didn’t know my comrades before I signed for the adventure, we still met a few times in order to prepare for the journey and so did my friend. All of them knew the reason for his absence in this expedition as he signed-off just a week before the flight for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, I had no intentions of telling them the news right now, as I was not willing to ruin the current mood of our accomplishment. I came back as nothing had happened to continue our celebration together with the team. It didn’t take long until it started raining again.
Being stuck in the mountains
We got scared a bit because nobody wanted to stay in the campsite for one more day. One thing is to wait for an opportunity to summit the mountain, totally another to be stuck after a successful attempt. All we could think of was a celebration in a form of warm delicious foods, warmer temperatures, a shower, new clothes, a fresh bed, and a cold beer. One thing is usually missed by many of the people, who try to talk with me about going to a similar expedition, is the lack of comfort and everyday stuff. Everybody thinks only of a physical challenge, not the psychological one followed by the lack of comfort.
The rain keeps relatively low, but we can’t risk the possibility of it getting stronger. Water is the most powerful erosive force and it can move anything from a single rock to a debris avalanche. All we can do is to stay in a tent and wait for a window of better weather conditions to descend from the main base camp, 3864m to Stepantsminda town, 1740m, or at least down from glacier to the point where we could the tent on a green meadow at somewhere around 2990m.
As you probably could have guessed, there is not much to do in a tent. At this point, unless you took a battery charger, your phone is dead, besides talking or sleeping, you are lucky if you decided to take some extra weight in a form of a book, or that somebody has cards or some other game. The cards did it for us, though I easily could’ve read or written the blog on my phone, as I always try to keep it alive in order to take some pictures.
As the time passed, playing the games and talking about everything we will do once we get down, I started to realize how lucky and focused on the mountain we were. The window of good weather was so small, it is almost miraculous that we made it to the top. There was so much rushing and pushing ourselves that we simply forgot about the reality of mountain climbing when you simply have to wait days before your attempt to the peak. After some raining, the luck turned to our side again, and a window for descension had opened.
Meeting fellow Lithuanian alpinists
The first thing we noticed once we got out of the tent was fellow faces from our Lithuanian travel club. Haven’t heard or talked in our mother tongue with anyone else, except in-between, for five days, made it a real pleasure to meet them. I know it sounds like a really small duration of time, but there is a big difference between traveling somewhere in foreign lands and doing something dangerous at the same place. When the things go south it is very easy to get home-sick and meeting somebody relating to that is a big relieve.
Being home-sick in mountains
I imagine that I experienced only a small fraction of homesickness. Being single without any children let me focus more on the current mission and myself. I only took a few minutes to write some friends and hear from them just to remind myself that there is the whole world besides this expedition, therefore it might be not the wisest idea to go all-in on this one.
But it was not the case for my comrades, all of them had children and somebody who they really cared about. Sometimes they spent hours texting them, sometimes they looked like daydreaming, and sometimes they just shared stories or showed pictures of their loved ones. I truly felt like an outcast when it came to this topic and for a good reason, I just simply can’t understand what it means to not only endanger your own life but also the future of your own family. But the thing I truly didn’t understand, why risk then?
The adventurer’s curiosity
The fellow Lithuanians seem to have even more interest in us than we did in them. After all, the crown jewel of this expedition is still in front of them and they want to get any tip or spark of motivation possible. We shared anything we could, even tasty resources, which we don’t need anymore and don’t want to carry anyway. We even found some good luck charms which we brought from the top, like spare energy bars, cigarettes, and any other light stuff we could spare, just for a sake of symbolism.
The sad part of this meeting was the feeling that everyone seemed to understand that our comrades from Lithuania won’t make it to the top. All the happy talk from both sides had a silent regretful, yet sympathetic tone. There is no sign of the weather getting any better any time soon, or at least, in any of those days they have planned for summiting. After all, we rushed like madmen to the top of Mount Kazbek without any major actions to reduce our hardship, because we didn’t see another opportunity to do it.
Smiling and wishing all the best luck to our fellow alpinists we had to say goodbye before it the rain started again. There is a long road ahead, nevertheless, it was sad to tell our farewells to the people, who even without knowing you were so friendly. Something in common means a universe up here. Hopefully, they’ll get lucky and the mountain will open a window to summit.
The experienced one’s refuge
Besides the curious ones, who were mostly newcomers, there was a second group of fellow Lithuanian alpinists — experienced ones. It is clear, they came to this place with not so much of a fire to peak it, as they probably done it a few times, but rather just to be in mountains. They looked like they understand that there is close to zero chances to topple the mountain. All they did was congratulating us for successfully fulfilling a risky plan, shared some stories from their past and wished us a good road, just after taking a picture together to commemorate a beautiful moment. Everything was done in a calm peaceful manner, leaving me with a feeling that that is the way it is supposed to be.
The more time I spend here in the mountains the more I understand what a peaceful refuge, from a maddening modern society and its irrelevant pace, it is. Maybe it could be the reason why my colleagues’ risk everything they have just to escape from all that stuff?
Back to civilization
If climbing down from the peak to the base camp was walking to live another day, today’s walking is to live the day today. It is hard to describe how much after a few days you want to rip-off all of your clothes together with dirty skin and put on light shoes. The feeling of easiness and cleanliness is almost haunting you in the mountains, but the good part that once you get to the lower altitudes you are rewarded a big time. After torturing your body in the air with a low density of oxygen, walking in normal conditions feels like flying even with 20kg on your back.
Finishing the job
Too bad there is still around 2,000 meters of descending to that point and my legs feel like they made a peace-out of this equation. Though I can’t blame them, they brought me back down safely yesterday, so today is my turn.
Any road you can find here high in the mountains, after a rain, is very hard to walk. Every rock seems to fall once you get in touch with it, small rocks become like snow and snow soaks everything as it was water. The main motivation is that the first part of the descend is the most annoying, a steep road leads through a gravel mixed with bigger stones, everything is super unstable and from time to time you have to give a pass not only to other climbers but to horses as well.
Melting glacier after a rain
One way or another as the time passes, everything passes and somehow, we got to the glacier where our adventure was far from over. This is the first time I’ve seen this glacier in a beautiful shape like this. The rain cleaned its usual dirty face and meltwater streams were flowing down it. I was happy to take as many pictures of this beautiful landscape as I wanted as it is the first time on a glacier when I felt totally comfortable doing whatever I want to.
The downside of this was that those meltwater streams made scary erosions which were hard to separate from actual crevasses. And it is easy to find your way up the glacier as the hut of the basecamp could be observed from far apart, but going down, feels like going towards a cliff. It took us quite some time to find the path to the tongue of the glacier where scary cracks seemed have opened up while we were up in the mountain. Stepping off the glacier is a symbolic place to me, this when I told myself with a surprise two years ago, after all the struggle I barely handled back then:
I guess I have to live the rest of my life.
The easy part
Climbing down from glacier to the place where we slept on the first night of the expedition was a piece of a cake. The road is almost flat, the views are amazing and only wider than usual mountains streams made some parts more difficult. But the fear of getting wet going down the hill is nothing compared to the fear you have going uphill. No matter what, tonight I sleep in a warm bed after a warm shower and a warm meal. And for a sake of an argument, I could even ignore that, jumping through a stream of water after jumping through an abyss is nothing less, but fun.
Last meadow campsite, 2990m.
It was such a pleasure to see a grass again, I suddenly started to remember that it is actually a summer period and for the next below zero conditions I’ll have to wait probably for a half year. As it was about at the middle of the road it was a good place to eat. Dreaming of a warm food, still, we ate as much as we could, trying to push as much food from our own bags just to carry less. We even started giving the goods to passing climbers, knowing that none of this needed anymore anyway. At this point, we are really enjoying each other’s company and it is hard to believe that just yesterday everyone seemed to be annoyed by everybody to their limits.
After walking for a while, I stopped, turned around and for the last time tried to get a glimpse of the mountain which without a doubt irreversibly has changed my life twice. None of it was visible, neither the glacier, everything was covered by thick clouds, invisible. Nevertheless, it felt like I saw it through; the face of Mount Kazbek, all those memories throughout these years, all the people I met there, all the comrades we left waiting for an opportunity to see it the way we did. Some of those moments will be inscribed forever in my memory, some of them will be forgotten.
Down to Earth
Despite the aching legs, the rest of the journey downhill felt more like a hike than an expedition to the peak of a mountain. We were surrounded by green fields, filled with flowers, sheep and other fauna. It is hard to describe how it feels experiencing it after getting off a cold and wet rock on the same day.
As we were descending from the heavens, the heavens started to descend on us. At this point we just made countless stops, as it was required to rest our knees, observing some of the most beautiful sights I ever saw.
From time to time, when I was totally consumed by the beauty of the moment, during a stop, I took two cigarettes instead of one, letting my comrades walk ahead as I felt I can walk faster anyway. These moments were probably the most emotional throughout the whole trip, expect being at the peak. I started to realize what a wonderful journey it was and that it is going to an end.
The reason to climb the mountains
Sitting down here on a rock on this hill, observing the clouds, which feels like a thick fog, the one you can smell or even taste if you wanted, with all the mountains, as opportunities, appearing and disappearing from my sight, made me wonder. The reason for this kind of trips started to become clear to me. You need to put something on the line in order to truly appreciate it. We take too many things for granted and often we forget how fragile everything is. During my journeys, I often repeat to myself that I can’t die if I don’t live, but maybe I can’t live if I don’t learn to appreciate it.
To this day that trip left a big impact on me, I try to look at things differently, everything is an opportunity, a mountain. It is your choice alone to either work for it or sit back and let the world unfold in front of your eyes without including you. Nothing is granted, nothing is given, you need to work, and work hard, for anything you want. You can’t ask for anything from anybody, as they are not obliged to. And if something wonderful happens, and somebody decides that you deserve something, take it and appreciate as it was a miracle. Once you grasp that, you’ll understand that giving is a way more rewarding than taking.
Back on wheels
After contemplating a bit, I almost ran to catch up with my team, they were already down the hill where the taxis bring the people to Gergeti Trinity Church. It was relatively late, nobody was coming, we were sitting ducks. From time to time we got covered by a thick fog making us invisible to any outside observer. I was not complaining much, the views of the church surrounded by clouds were absolutely amazing. If I ever saw a live postcard, this is it.
Losing our patience, we started to consider alternative plans, nobody seemed to be coming. Of course, there was not much to do, either we build a tent and spend a night here, or we walk down the rest of the road down to Stepantsminda. As always, we came to compromise with a solution something in-between, two of us were supposed to go down and get a taxi, and two of us to rest their legs. I was willing to do anything, but to sleep in a tent another night.
Luckily, down from the church, we saw a rider, who else was to save the day than a prince on a white horse. I can’t believe I didn’t take picture a picture of him, it was quite a sight. He was quick to solve all of our problems. Within no time we got a taxi driver and a place to sleep.
I won’t share the details of the rest of the day, talking about the details of the lifestyle and hospitality of Kartvelian people will be the focus of my next series where I talk about the rest of my journey in Sakartvelo (Georgia). One thing I can tell that we were meet with a heart and had a great time together relaxing after a tough journey.
Nevertheless, a strange feeling started to overcome me, just yesterday I wanted to get out of this, now it is sad that there is only a week or so left for us together. The change of heart baffled me for a while and even though I wrote the next part of this entry back in the days, I’m still not sure if I have a better answer.
After all, emotionally, it is very hard to explain how I feel, though, scientifically, it is absolutely clear to me what had just happened. Most of the things we experience emotionally can be described by the theory of evolution. We, humans, had evolved in small societies where a big evolutionary advantage for survival was being a team player, therefore our ancestors possessed those altruistic genes.
Modern society of the western world is based on productivity and profitability and while we are still working as a group of people, the gaps between us increased together with the amount of the people in a society. The fact that cleaning the dishes makes me happier than profiting from work can simply be explained by the fact that we evolved doing something good for the sake of the others and not by making money.
In harsh conditions like mountain climbing, people get closer, because we have a common goal and we all know that without the others there is no way of doing it. This creates a small group of people working in the same direction which is way closer to our natural habitat than living in a big city. There is countless of recordings of people feeling nostalgic toward the roughest days they ever faced, like bombings of the cities, being in a war zone, or any other close to death group situation. The reason is simple, when it is hard, people tend to take care of each other which makes them happy.
It is funny that you have to climb a mountain and risk your life to feel human again. In the end, one probably needs to really get out of the comfort zone to start thinking and appreciating things. Sadly, as the comfort zone increases, so does the ability of people to take control of their own lives. Looking from this perspective there is something that truly scares me… Based on some definitions of life, one can call the Economy a life form, which would make us comparable to a colony of bacteria in a gut, without knowing, doing their stuff for the sake of a bigger organism. That sounds depressing, but probably it should be. There is no-one else to blame for we have lost our way of living.
After some time, when I got back home, I learned that out of all the people from the traveler club, only three of us had made it to the top. An orthodox decision, to break from the rest of the expedition, which would count probably to a total of 30–40 people, led us to achieve our goal. With some luck, we made it fast enough to the point where the weather let us attempt peaking Mount Kazbek, before it all gone to hell. You never know, which decision will lead to your goal and which one will lead to a tragedy, but one thing is for sure, living a life where you actively make those decisions on your own is less regrettable.
Before I finish this story, I want to share something of a great value to me. I don’t remember how I became aware of it, but it was something that helped me throughout my life.
You can’t change the past, but you can change the future by changing the present.
Author: Mantas Ališauskas
Photography: Mantas Ališauskas
Design: Mantas Ališauskas