Location: Kazbegi, Georgia
Rousing myself out of bed, I stood up and walked over to the window. Many clouds blotted the sky but I was still just able to make out the sun peering over the horizon. It was 7:00 in the morning and I was about to do something I never ever could have imagined. I had arrived in the town Stepansminda (formerly Kazbegi) Georgia just yesterday by a rickety old Soviet-era minibus (marshrutka) to a clear sky and warm sun. But yesterday was irrelevant because today was my day to climb the town's namesake, Mt. Kazbek.
The few people I had mentioned this to thought I was completely nuts, seeing as I didn't have any mountain climbing experience or equipment, and my shoes were cheap black and white slip-ons that I'd bought at a Russian thrift shop. But I dismissed this negativity. Kazbek, standing approximately 5100 meters (17,000ft), was the biggest mountain I had ever seen, and even though I probably could not make it all the way to the top of its snow-capped peak, I was determined to climb as high as I possibly could and nothing, come hell or high water, was going to stop me.
After a quick breakfast consisting of a banana, porridge and three hefty cups of coffee, I left the guesthouse and set out for the mountain with a fourth coffee in hand. I checked my watch, and despite my caffeine tremors, I was able to still my hand enough to read 8:00. The forecast had called for a chance of rain, but the mostly clear sky seemed to suggest that it would hold off for the time being.
Downing the fourth cup, I passed by a few stone houses and a shepherd wearing a Nike backpack. Normally, I would have stopped to photograph the picturesque area and absorb my surroundings, but in order to climb at least up to the beginning of the icecap, I could not waste any time. I figured there would be at least nine or ten hours of climbing alone, without any stopping, so I needed to get into a rhythm from the very start, and I had to make every second count.
Like spider powered by chemically induced adrenaline pulsating through my body, I climbed directly up the steepest face of the mountain, ignoring the gradual, winding walking paths that had been laid out for the cautious, standard hiker. For some people, those paths could make for a pleasant stroll and a nice day out, but not me. I wanted to pierce the clouds and tower over the green planet below. I wanted to go beyond the point where any plant could grow, where snow remains in June. And god damn it, I was going to do it in light-blue shorts, a t-shirt and Russian thrift shoes!
After a little while of slopes practically staring me in the face and trees so green they would make Ireland blush, I reached an old stone church that had stood on the mountain for centuries. This church, to this day, remains the most iconic feature on the mountain, and again, felt the desire to stop, explore, and marvel in the architecture, but still I resisted. The sky was turning slightly darker and more clouds appeared overhead, adding to my already ever present sense of urgency. Quickly, I snapped a few pictures and continued my pursuit upward.
Another hour and I was above the tree line. My view of the landscape opened up, revealing the mountain and all it's glory. I'm coming for you, I thought to myself as my nose started to drip from my excessive caffeine intake. The air seemed fresh, the grass was so vibrant and untouched everywhere I looked, and the church was now barely visible in the distant background. This was my moment. I was a man in the rugged nature, and I wanted more. I wanted it all. I wanted to face the wildest elements the mountain had to offer and laugh as I thwarted danger.
Four hours of climbing now and I began to see snow. First, there were just a few patches here and there, but soon there was just was snow and rock everywhere I stepped. The grass had called it quits by this point and refused to keep growing. I literally felt I was on top of the world. I couldn't even see civilization down below anymore, and I was up in the clouds. I was unstoppable… I thought.
As I arrogantly took a picture of myself in the snow, I heard something off in the distance: thunder. Quickly, the sky began to darken and the winds grew stronger. The temperature plummeted and the previously mild air now sent a terrible chill down my spine. All the while, the thunder grew louder and louder.
I was torn. my caffeine fueled heart wanted to keep going and romantically challenge my body against the elements. Maybe this will all pass and be sunny again soon, it tried to convince me. My brain on the other hand, was adamant I head down instantly, taking notice that I was entirely alone on a large mountain several hours from civilization in a country where I could not speak the language.
The two vital organs battled valiantly. Romanticized ideals fought tooth and nail with logical intellect. Then the rain started. Thrown by the wind, stinging droplets pelted me from all directions and my previously comfortable clothes now soggily clung to my body. The brain won. I needed to get off the mountain. Fast.
I turned and ran down with all the speed my legs could muster. The snowy, rocky ground I had marveled upon only a few moments ago now turned into a dirt soup, causing me to slip and fall face-first. I got up. My light blue shorts were now unrecognizable, caked in mud. Lightning bolts flashed all around me while the thunder claps shook the earth.
Could this be the end? With every flash, now seemingly right on top of me, I thought the next one could be it and some unfortunate hiker would come across my sizzling corpse a few days later. No. I couldn’t think like that. I had to focus and use everything I had to get down. Again I fell and even more globs of mud clung to my legs.
Soon I reached the trees again. I could not tell if it had been ten minutes or two hours since I turned, but that did not matter. I was getting closer and I needed to persist. The storm, still ever present, hung overhead and spouted water and electricity. I continued.
A bit more time passed and I saw the church. More importantly, I saw something I could barely believe, cars. There was a poorly maintained dirt road that went from the village to the church, and for some odd reason, somebody had actually made the journey in these conditions.
I ran over to the car hoping for a friendly, understanding stranger. I knocked on the window which lowered to reveal a man of about 40 with graying stubble and a missing tooth. To the best of my abilities, I explained my situation in Russian, hoping he would understand. He paused.
“I do not have and space in the car.” He replied. “But maybe… here?
He opened the trunk and motioned for me to get in. I had a choice: either get in the trunk of this unknown man’s van and hopefully ride back to town, or continue running down the mountain in the freezing cold rain for another hour. I chose the van.
I hopped in, relieved to finally have some shelter from the elements, and looked up to see kids of about 13 looking down over the seats back at me. Struggling to move in the tightly cramped trunk, I, the hairy, muddy, soaking wet foreigner, waved and attempted a smile. They laughed, and one even introduced himself in English. But none of that bothered me. Neither did it bother me that I didn’t get as high as planned. I was out of the storm and had not been struck by lightning. I made it back, and that was enough for me.