Page 40 - SA Mountain Issue 64
P. 40

                                 The trail started from beside a 14th century church, Gergeti Sameba, perched on a hill at 2 200 metres. A revered national landmark, this simple, weathered building concealed a soulful interior – rather like the Georgians themselves. Our arriero was waiting there with a train of horses, reluctantly detaching himself from his mobile phone to load our bags. We were also joined by our expedition chef, George who, in shiny black boots, jeans, a T-shirt and straw hat, and carrying a hefty paunch, looked ill-prepared for the 20-kilometre hike to base camp. As it was, within 100 metres of setting off, he was 75 metres behind us. And before we got halfway, he’d resigned and headed down.
reclusive warden, Petr commandeered one of the dorms and Timur persuaded the other residents to leave.
approaching the col. Photo mandy ramSden
 The hike in took us through  owery meadows and a knee-deep, glacial river, and then up the Gergeti Glacier to the Bethlemi Hut. Located on a promontory at 3 670 metres, beneath Kazbek’s southeast face, the former meteorological station de ed its natural setting with brutal architecture and lurid graf ti. The interior was far worse: with a dark warren of semi-inhabitable bunk rooms; a  lthy kitchen which was the personal  efdom of two large ogresses; and a staircase which possibly led to another  oor, but was impassable due to people camping on it. After negotiating with the
It was a busy, untidy community, serviced by just two long drops, which hadn’t been cleaned since the collapse of the Soviet Union and were so over owing you could barely open the doors. Consequently, the area around camp was a mine eld of human waste and, though the surrounding peaks offered alluring vistas, it was unwise to lift your gaze from your feet.
Watching him being roughly man- hauled on a sled across the moraine and then sent down the glacier strapped to a horse, forti ed my health. Meantime, our replacement cook – also called George – arrived at camp, with a GoPro strapped to his head and an alarming armoury of knives.
Since Kazbek’s existence was a relatively recent discovery for me, I presumed we’d have it largely to ourselves. It was therefore a surprise to  nd several hundred other climbers in situ, especially Poles and Russians, mostly camping outside the hut. The Polish Mountain Rescue had a team based there for the season; there were representatives from the intriguingly- named Russian Ministry of Special Situations (we never discovered why); and there were several rangy mongrel dogs who’d come up for the company and scraps.
danger, chacha. Photo mandy ramSden
We spent two days at the hut, which was good for acclimatisation, if not for our senses. During this time, we witnessed the emergency services in action when a climber collapsed not far above camp.
Though summit day wasn’t technical, it was a long haul, involving a 30-kilometre round trip, with nearly 1 400 metres of ascent. We left the hut at 2 am, picking our way over boulders, frozen streams and iron-hard snow. Several other teams were also heading up and the procession of headlamps looked like a string of fairy lights draped across the moraine. An hour in, we reached the open glacier, where Mandy and I roped up with Petr. As we

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