Camp 4 Journal—Friday, Sept. 18, 2015
Summit attempt day. 3am. I awake from fitful sleep still living in the nightmare I had just been having; a death dream, again.
This time in the dream I was sliding off the summit ridge, my ice axe pawing uselessly at the slick ice under my hurtling body—the third of such dreams since we started. Groggily, I acknowledge that this climb has me pretty keyed-up.
Petko, my Bulgarian friend and number one climbing partner from my life in Munich, gets ready slowly. I unzip the tent door and check the conditions outside. A perfectly crisp and starry night stares back at me; no wind. Great.
We start the stove and begin melting enough snow for a Mountain House freeze-dried breakfast (our one creature comfort out here in the cold), then proceed to reenact the bundling-up scene from A Christmas Story in our cramped quarters. We eat and venture out.
Once again I am overwhelmed by the beauty of the spot we have chosen for Camp 3. We are perched atop a small snowy hill on the upper third of the Tetnuldi Glacier, in the Svaneti region of the Caucasus Mountains on the northern part of Georgia, sharing a border with Russia—gazing up at our harrowing mountain, Tetnuldi.
Related: A Glimpse from the Tallest Mountain in the Americas
The first time we caught a glimpse of Tetnuldi was 3 days ago in the Adishi valley. We had been walking (well, make that hacking) our way through the dense forest along despicable cow trails, when all of the sudden we crested a hill and saw her bright icy shark fin peak shooting up over the rocky hills cowering below. For some time Petko and I stood in awe, both simultaneously inspired and terrified.
In the same moonlight that shrouds Tetnuldi now, we put on our harnesses and begin to rope up. Above us the shark’s fin of the Tetnuldi massif looms eerily. The moon is bright enough to cast a serpentine shadow on the surrounding snow from the rope stretching between us. The tension in the rope resembles that in our minds as we contemplate the lack of rescue operations on this mountain.
The state in which we find the ice on Tetnuldi immediately informs us that something is severely wrong with either the mountain or the route information we had secured beforehand.
Whereas we expected to climb a 2-mile long sloping glacier over exposed rocks to the base of the glacier on the second day, we instead find a ‘glacier’ the size of a backyard pool (and almost as liquid) below a sea of loose rocks and precariously balanced boulders. What should have been a brisk walk up a snowy hill turns out to be an all-out rock scramble over miles of talus.
After hours of switchbacking steep ice and snow faces, we finally reach the SW ridge as the full magnitude of the frozen peak looming over us comes into view in the early morning sunlight. Our line of sight now gives us a direct vantage of the ridge line from where we stand to the tip of the summit pyramid.
From A to B lies a 1,800-foot straight shot along the ridge of 45 degree angled ice on either side, a casual 2,600-foot drop-off down one side and a boring 4,000-foot drop-off down the other. Roped up, our method for safety will be that if one person slips down one side of the ridge the partner will simply jump the other way with the rope catching between. It is definitely not a system you ever want to test!
We proceed this way up the ridge with painful slowness. The ice we walk on is pure polished and our crampons only bite in a millimeter with each step—no snow. I am in the lead and skirt precariously around an ice serac jutting dangerously over the edge of our ridge. The sun is now shining in all its morning glory over us and the ice.
Related: Inside the Mind of an Ice Climber
Petko passes over the serac and we both hear a rumbling crack emit from somewhere under the depth of his feet as he reaches the upper side. The sound sends shivers down our spines; these features are notorious for breaking off and we have at least five more to cross—some as big as houses! Deeply disturbed we proceed.
We reach an outcropping of rock only to encounter more issues. From far away the rocks look solid, like big boulders frozen in place—easy to climb. Up close we find a different situation; fist to body sized rocks all on loose granite ball bearings, and steep.
In order to save time we leave our crampons on and start navigating up this minefield. I peer cautiously over the edge down into the valley. A bad step accidentally kicks a rock loose and I watch it sail effortlessly over the edge into the thousand foot abyss. The falling rock may as well be in my stomach, the feeling in my gut prompts me to stop. Something about this situation is not right.
How are you feeling Petko?
Fine. My head feels good, no signs of altitude.
This is a good sign, and I am in the same boat. I comment,
These rocks are kind of sketchy …
I voice my concerns about the route; the rocks, the polished ice, the cracking sound we heard from before deep within the serac we had to cross.
We converse for maybe five minutes, but all the emotion from six months of prep and the last four days of physically and mentally exhausting climbing come out in our exchange.
It is not a long or wordy conversation, but I am sure I have never said more in so few sentences. I mention that it seems there should be more snow up here. Petko concurs. Snow on ice gives your crampons something to compact before they bite the ice. Without any snow you cannot get more than a spec of purchase with each precarious step.
We discuss how important the summit is to us—VERY. But the unspoken agreement is that our lives are more important.
Related: Learning the Language of the Mountains
With our lives in question and after much deliberation we decide to resign. Yet the massive sigh of relief we both exhale upon turning away from the summit removes all doubt that we have made the right decision.
Reminiscing back on all the time we spent training and preparing for this trip I think to myself how many painful limit-pushing workouts I endured. In those moments of dire toil, I remember thinking that if I had to die doing one thing I love, mountaineering might just be it.
Now that I am here with my life in my own hands, physically fit yet at my limits of safety—all I can think of is how nice a burger and a six-pack sound, and in that moment I laugh at just how motivational those savory items seem to be in getting us down from here alive.
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