KATY PARROTT: MT KAZBEK
As an Army Reservist, it’s not all camouflage, crawling through mud and press ups. Of course, there is a lot of that, but there are also opportunities to develop yourself through adventurous training – something we call AT (everything has an acronym in the military). During my 2 years serving as a reservist I have been fortunate enough to wangle myself on to 4 mountaineering trips already; ski-touring in the French Alps, trekking in the Caucasus Mountains, winter mountaineering skills in the Scottish Highlands, and most recently a high-altitude expedition in Georgia. I was lucky enough to be 1 of 3 soldiers selected to join the expedition leader, making us a close-knit team of 4. Our objective was to summit Mount Kazbek. The mountain stands 5047m high and sits right on the border of Georgia and Russia in the Caucasus Mountains.
Mount Kazbek in the distance from Juta Valley – an area we used for training and acclimatisation days.
I’m going to rewind quickly. Before arriving in Georgia, I was on a short term deployment in Armenia. Like most people, I knew nothing about the country and had no idea where it was before I volunteered to go. (FYI, it borders Georgia to the South). This was the first time I had ever been to a country without knowing anything about it, and I’ll be honest, it was a totally refreshing experience. It meant I entered without any preconceptions, no judgement and an open mind to embrace the unexpected. Which believe me, I did!
Looking up toward Mount Khustup (3206m), southern Armenia during sunset. Wearing the Phoenix Flight insulation jacket.
While off duty, I took the opportunity to head to the mountains in southern Armenia with some locals. The 6 hours of winding roads and 2 hours in the back of a truck on quite possibly the bumpiest mountain road in the world, meant I got to experience a side of Armenia that tourists don’t. The group didn’t speak much English so I didn’t know what was going on most of the time. Although that didn’t stop me joining in with the Armenians singing and dancing round the camp fire. When I say I was singing, I really mean yodelling. The next morning we set off at 0300 so we could complete a round trip to the summit of Mount Khustup (3206m) and back into the trucks to civilisation again which took around 10 hours. The endless mountain views at sunrise were definitely worth the 0230 wake up. It was one of those moments that I could have just sat and watched for hours. I was in a place I never knew existed, with people I didn’t know yet I was so content.
0600 – sunrise during the ascent of Mount Khustup, Armenia. Wearing the Phoenix Flight insulation jacket and the Featherlite 30 pack.
The Featherlite 30 is the perfect pack for a day or a short weekend hike/climb. It’s simple, no fuss and very lightweight, but also has the features to secure an ice axe (which I did in Georgia). The 1500m ascent wasn’t technical – a couple of hundred metres of steep scrambling to the peak – but the panoramic mountain views from the summit were mind-blowing. It also served as an excellent acclimatisation day for the main event – Kazbek!
The week after I then took a lovely 35-minute flight from Yerevan to Tbilisi in Georgia, to meet the other 3 members of the expedition team. From Tbilisi we headed north for a few hours to near the border with Russia. Before the main expedition we undertook a few days of training and prep in the beautiful Juta Valley (I’m hoping to get back to this region one winter for some ski touring!). Based out of a hut we took day trips to get some good climbing and scrambling in and also help with acclimatisation. We then took an epic mountain valley road to Kazbegi, the town that sits at the bottom on Mount Kazbek and prepped our kit for the expedition phase.
On day 1 we had a 1650m trekking ascent from the church at the base of the mountains, up to the Bethlemi Hut at 3653m, which would act as our base camp. The climb involved crossing the lower region of the Gergeti glacier. The key to avoiding rock fall and crevasses is to follow the horse poop! Horses are often used to carry supplies and kit to and from the hut so they know the safest route like the back of their hooves! I could feel the temperature drop considerably as we gained altitude. We had gone from blazing sunshine and mid-20 degrees in Kazbegi to near zero degrees at basecamp within a matter of 6 hours! The hut is positioned above the lower region of the glacier meaning we had stunning views as we ate our ration pack dinners on the edge of the mountain (unless we were engulfed in a cloud – which happened quite frequently). We listened to the continual rock fall across the glacier as we tried to sleep, snuggled like sardines on our wooden shelf.
Dinner with a view from Bethlemi Hut basecamp (3653m). Wearing Phoenix Flight jacket, Skyline Pants and Power Stretch® Pro™ Grippy Glove.
Dinner without the view… with the Top Out Bobble Beanie.
The hut was also a harsh reminder of how fragile we are and how powerful the mountain can be. The communal room walls had quite a few missing person posters on, of those who had attempted the mountain on their own or without appropriate equipment. The mountain isn’t a particularly technical climb but it can be very dangerous one with hidden crevasses and huge amounts of rock fall. With this in mind, day 2 was an important day of training and acclimatisation on the glacier. We climbed up to 4200m on the upper region of the glacier and practised important skills such as crevasse rescues. A bad weather front then approached and we got caught in snowfall. Luckily, I was well equipped with the Ajax Gore-Tex shell jacket over the Dyno Stretch softshell which kept me both warm and dry, especially as the hood could fit over my helmet. On my legs, I wore the Skyline pants (mid-weight softshell technical trousers) which performed amazingly well in those conditions. The reinforced bottoms are great with crampons as they help prevent tearing if you get a bit overexcited with your feet!
After a day of rest/kit prep we then had the day we had been looking forward to – summit day! We had a 1500m final ascent to the summit from basecamp and set off at 3am local time with the aim of reaching the summit between 9 and 10 am. The first couple of hours of the ascent were straightforward on rocky paths which was lucky as we were in pitch black. We headed on to the upper region of the glacier just before the sun began to rise but were faced with thick cloud so had to wait out for it to lift slightly before continuing with the ascent for safety reasons.
After half an hour of body-popping in the sub-zero temperatures the cloud began to lift, and we roped up together to continue up on to the north face of the peak. We had a brief moment of feeling the sunshine of on faces then as we continued to climb, we inevitably ended up back in the damn cloud!
Peak of sunshine just after sunrise on summit day at 0630.
BOTTOM: An hour later.
The final few hundred meters of the climb was quite tough. We faced high speed -20°c winds, pretty terrible visibility and very steep ground, meaning we had to take extra care making sure our crampons and axes were secure as we took a sharp traverse route! We could also notice the air getting thinner. Usually bursting with energy, each step took a little more effort than usual. After some awesome teamwork and words of encouragement, at 0950 we reached the summit and were rewarded with a 3-minute break of blue sky amongst the thick cloud! It felt like an epic achievement – we were stood on the highest peak around for miles.
Standing on the summit of Mount Kazbek (5047m) at 0955 on 5th Sept 2018.
The descent back down to the hut was fairly rapid and straightforward, meaning we completed a strong 10-hour round trip. However, the descent to civilisation the following day was fairly eventful. It involved thunder and lightning storms, locals, drinking homebrew from a goat horn, and puppies. But I’ll save that story for another time.