Shkhara – 17,037ft
Attempt via NE Ridge “Crab Route” (Russian Grade 5A) to 15,000ft
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
July 24-31, 2016
Day 1 – Drive from Mt Elbrus to Bezingi Camp
Day 2 – Hike to Djongi Kosh camp (10,000ft)
Day 3 – Climb glacier to camp 2 at 13,500ft on shoulder of NE ridge
Day 4 – Ice climb 18 pitches up NE ridge to camp 3 at 15,000ft at 3am
Day 5 – Bad weather day, stay at camp 3.
Day 6 – Descend to camp 2 at 13,500ft.
Day 7 – Hike back to Bezingi Camp.
“I bet we could hack out a tent platform right here,” Matthew said, punching one of his ice axes through a cornice. “It’s almost level, we just have to dig the cornice off enough to be wide enough.”
It was a desperate spot, on the sharp part of a knife-edge snow/ice ridge with 3,000ft+ drops on both sides, but our situation was starting to get desperate. There was supposed to be a broad flat spot higher up on the ridge just 7 hours from our previous camp, but we’d been climbing for 17 hours and hadn’t come across a remotely campable spot yet. It was 10pm now, and the ice climbing was getting less and less fun. We both just wanted to fall asleep and be done with the day.
“Yeah, that might work,” I replied, “but I’d really like to find a spot where I don’t have to be on belay to go to the bathroom at night. Why don’t we try to push on a little farther?”
It looked like the ridge might start leveling out above us, though it was hard to tell in the dark. We agreed to keep climbing and hope for the best.
We were high up at 15,000ft on the Northeast ridge of Shkhara, the tallest mountain in the country of Georgia, trying to get to our last camp before our summit day. Our journey started four days earlier at the base of Mt Elbrus. We had summited on the morning of July 23, and eventually made our way back to a hotel room in Terksol.
Tired out from our long day, we weren’t really sure we wanted to immediately start going up another 17,000ft+ mountain without a little resting. We considered doing something else with our remaining week in Russia, but there weren’t really many backpacking opportunities around Terskol, and it would be logistically difficult to somehow get to Georgia to hike for the week.
We decided that the best option would be to go to Bezingi camp at the base of Shkhara, as planned, and if we weren’t feeling like high altitude technical mountaineering we could just backpack around there.
The rest of the afternoon we lounged around the hotel, and the next day got a ride from Terskol to Bezingi camp. Bezingi camp arranged for the ride, and a young kid from Nalchik drove up to pick us up. He drove really fast, without his seat belt on, and got pulled over by the police once for speeding.
Luckily we made it to Nalchik without further incident, and from there switched over to an old soviet van loaded up with fruit and vegetables. It looked like we would be riding one of regular resupply trips for the camp.
I sat in the back next to a few boxes full of plums and tomatoes, while Matthew sat up front with the driver. Matthew tried to make some brief conversation, but the driver unfortunately didn’t speak any Russian. We could communicate that we wanted to go to Bezingi Camp, though, and he nodded that that was indeed our destination.
We drove through the flat farmland of southern Russia, then turned up into the mountains. The road gradually deteriorated as we passed through smaller and smaller villages. Somehow it seemed like our driver knew almost everyone we passed and greeted them with a wave or stopped to chat. We picked up a few passengers at one village and dropped them off at the next. I bet this driver goes back and forth between Bezengi and Nalchik pretty often, and because that road doesn’t see much traffic he gets to know quite a lot of the locals.
Soon we reached a military checkpoint, and had to get out and talk to a few Russian military men. This was a border zone checkpoint, for which we needed special permission to pass. Luckily 3 months earlier I had contacted Bezingi camp and they applied for and received permission for us to enter the border zone. We picked up our permit in Nalchik and presented it to the border guards. One of them spoke excellent English, and he was surprised to see two Americans in that part of Russia. As we would find out, very few Americans ever make it to that area of the Caucasus. I think most of the tourist interest is in the Elbrus region, while the mountains where we were headed were all much more technical, and not visited as much by foreigners.
The guards approved our paperwork and let us through. From here the road deteriorated even more, and we definitely needed 4wd in at least one spot. We soon made it to Bezingi camp, though. I was amazed how much infrastructure was that deep in the mountains. Bezingi was like a small village completely devoted to mountaineers – there was a small hotel-like building with sleeping corridors, a dining hall, a gift shop, houses for the employees, and a small tent-city.
Bezingi camp and the surrounding mountains are basically the training grounds for Russia’s best technical mountaineers. Russia takes mountaineering pretty seriously, and there are training programs based out of Bezingi where climbers work their way up progressively more difficult mountains. They get special books to record what skills they’ve mastered and what routes they’ve climbed. It’s a lot like the Mountaineers program in the Seattle area, but shifted up several notches in difficulty.
It turned out the mountain Matthew and I wanted to climb, Shkhara, was graded 5A, which would usually take several years of tough training in the program before one would be allowed to attempt it.
We actually didn’t know too much about the route, other than it involved some ice climbing and some knife-edge ridge traverses. This wasn’t because we hadn’t done our homework, just that not a lot of English-speakers climb the mountain, and thus it was difficult for us to find much detailed information on it. We had discovered that the northeast ridge was the normal route, the first-ascent route, and most likely the easiest route up the mountain. Some reports said it was grade 5A and some 4B, but given that the first ascent was in the 1800s we believed that it couldn’t be too technical.
When we entered Bezingi Camp we immediately met with the manager, Ali, an extremely friendly Russian mountaineer who has been running the camp for at least the last 30 years. He spoke enough English that we could agree on how many days to stay in the camp, and what our plan was for the week. We decided to spend the night in one of the guest rooms, attempt Shkara over the next 7 days, then stay one more night at Bezingi camp before heading out.
That night we ate dinner for $5 in the huge dining hall, and we realized that the dining system has been optimized for hungry mountaineers. Everyone enters the big room at 8pm every night, sits down wherever they want, and can start eating from a big basket full of bread. The main meal is the same for everyone, usually some sort of meat dish, and is brought out by servers who also bring tea. No matter how hungry you are, there will be enough bread to fill you up. At the end you bring your plate to the washing sink and hand it to the washers. It’s a very streamlined process, and everyone leaves happy, full, and ready for their expedition the next morning.
After dinner we unpacked in our room, took showers and went to sleep.
At 9am the next morning we went to a small ground-floor room for the morning safety briefing. Ali told us this was where we would [hopefully] receive permission to do the climb we wanted, and learn about the safety procedures in the area.
The safety system at Bezingi has been refined over the years, presumably after quite a few rescue efforts. Any mountaineers wanting to attempt a route graded 5A or harder must seek approval from the two veteran mountaineers in charge at the camp. The veteran mountaineers question the prospective mountaineers about their experience, plans, and knowledge of the route, and make a yes or no decision to grant or not grant permission. Even if permission is granted, only one party is allowed on a route at a time (to minimize risk of ice/rock fall danger). The Russian grade system goes from 1 to 6, with subdivisions of A or B. For reference, the standard route up K2 is grade 6B, so anything 5A, 5B, 6A, or 6B is quite serious.
Once granted permission, the mountaineering team is given a radio and required to check in with base camp every 3hrs between 9am and 6pm. If you miss two check-in attempts, a rescue team will be sent out.
At 9am the small safety briefing room fills up every morning, as everyone in camp wants to hear the latest news over the radio of how the mountaineers up on the routes are doing. The veteran mountaineer in charge (his name was Stefanov) individually calls out each team to ask their status. All correspondence is in Russian, but usually the response is “Krashov” (meaning very good), followed by a few more details about the team’s position.
This whole process was pretty mysterious to me and Matthew until we happened to meet another English-speaker in the room, possibly one of the only other English-speakers besides us and Ali. She was a girl named Sarah that had gone to Wellesley College and was now married to a Russian climbing guide. I think she may have been a guide as well. She said she’d actually been on an MIT Outing Club trip back in 2004, and may have crossed paths with us!
When the radio check-ins were over we went over to Stefanov and, with help from Sarah, described our plan. We learned that two parties had attempted to climb Shkara this year, both by the northeast ridge. One was successful, and the other turned back from weather just a week earlier. Sarah explained to Stefanov that we had just climbed Mt Elbrus to acclimate and that we were experienced mountaineers. I think the fact that she was sort of vouching for us counted a lot towards us getting approval for the climb. Stefanov agreed to give us permission, and then proceeded over to a picture of Shkhara on the wall to point out the route details.
He used a stick to trace out our route up a steep ice headwall to the crest of the northeast ridge. There were two potential bivy locations on the ridge, from which we should make our summit attempt. Stefanov said, with a chuckle, that a pair of German mountaineering guides once climbed Shkhara in 18 hours round trip from the Djongi Kosh hut (at the base of the route), but most mountaineers should count on three days.
He said the headwall was around 7 pitches of ice, but that wasn’t the dangerous part. The steep corniced ridge above the headwall was where we needed to be the most careful. We carefully remembered what he said, and Sarah helped us fill out an itinerary written in Russian to leave at Bezingi camp.
Finally, we needed a call name for the radio. Sarah said “Gilbertson” would be too difficult for Russian speakers to pronounce, but “Boston” would be perfect. So our call name was officially Boston. In practice, as we would later find out, we would often simply be referred to as “the Americans,” since we were the only Americans climbing in the area.
With official permission granted, we took our radio and went back to our room to pack up. Ali wished us good luck as we headed out of camp. We were loaded with a week of food, two ice axes each, and lots of other mountaineering gear.
About ten minutes outside of camp we passed the final border zone security checkpoint, where a young Russian soldier checked our border zone permit documents and passports, then let us proceed. It’s surprising Russia would even bother to guard the border here. The only possible way to cross here from Georgia into Russia would involve scaling the enormous Bezingi Wall, one of the most technical high-altitude mountaineering feats in the Caucasus. If one were to pick any spot to sneak across the border, this would certainly be the most difficult.
We hiked up a climbers trail past the checkpoint, then soon traversed onto a huge glacier. It was late July, so all the surface snow had melted and the lower section of the glacier was just ice and rocks, with all crevasses clearly visible. So we continued hiking without needing to rope up.
As we walked farther up the glacier, the clouds began clearing and we got our first view of the massive Bezingi Wall. This wall is an enormous 5,000ft+ tall mass of rock, ice, and snow spanning a width of several miles. There are no easy ways up it, and one of the greatest mountaineering feats in Russia is to traverse across the top of the wall. One trip report I’ve read described an 11-day traverse, almost completely on high-altitude technical terrain.
Our objective, Shkhara, happened to be the highest point on the Bezingi Wall, though Shkhara was located on the southeastern end of the wall so we wouldn’t have to traverse quite as far to reach it.
The wall passed in and out of the clouds, and eventually we reached a point where the glacier made a sharp 90-degree turn to the left. Here we noticed a small waterfall on the hillside to our left, and left the glacier to scramble up a small climbers trail. The trail crested a rocky promontory sticking into the glacier, and we were met with beautiful campsites in a grassy meadow, with Caucasian turs (like
mountain goats) grazing below us.
If we had merely been backpacking this would have been an amazing place to stop, but our objective for the day was the Djongi Kosh camp, a small flat area at 10,000ft near the base of our climbing route.
We continued following the trail on the rocky moraine at the edge of the glacier, and reached Djongi Kosh an hour later. There was a small hut here, big enough to sleep five people, and a few tents were set
up outside. A group of Russian mountaineers were drinking tea outside the hut, and offered some to us.
One of them spoke English, and it turned out they had come there from St Petersburg, Russia, and were planning to climb Cela, a mountain just above camp. They were impressed that we would be attempting Shkhara, and warned us that it was a very serious route.
That evening we set up our tent a little ways away from the hut, and ate a filling meal of Ramen noodles before going to bed.
We awoke at sunrise around 4:45am the next morning, just as the Russian team was leaving camp hiking up towards Cela. It was cool out, but the sky was clear and we were eager to get moving. We quickly packed up, left a few unnecessary items stored in the hut, and started hiking.
Our plan was to climb up to a small shoulder at 13,500ft on our route, just below the start of the
technical ice climbing. Stefanov had recommended camping here even though it was only a half-day trip from Djongi Kosh, since it would help with acclimation.
We had carefully planned our mountaineering trips this summer to give us the best chance to be acclimated for Shkhara: we climbed a 14,500ft mountain, Tavan Bogd, in Mongolia two weeks earlier, then climbed the 18,500ft Mt Elbrus the previous week, so would hopefully already be mostly acclimated to climb to just over 17,000ft on Shkhara. However, Matthew tends to be affected a bit more than I am by the altitude, so we decided it was still a good idea to ascend gradually.
Leaving Djongi Kosh we traversed a rocky screes slope, then dropped onto the glacier. The snow hadn’t completely melted off up here, so we roped up and started heading towards the Northeast ridge. Shkhara loomed above us, clearly visible now that the clouds were gone, giving us our first good view. It was definitely one of the most intimidating mountains I’d ever seen. The summit looks like a nice gently-sloping snow dome for the top few hundred feet, but everything lower is very technical. There are three sharp ridges emanating from the snow dome, and between the ridges are massive overhanging ice cliffs that threaten to let loose at any moment. Indeed, we would hear avalanches daily, many coming from beneath these cliffs.
The north ridge is a very steep rock rib covered in snow and ice, extending all the way from the glacier at 10,000ft to the start of the snow dome summit around 16,500ft. The west ridge extends across the top of the Bezingi Wall, and from below looks terribly corniced. To reach this ridge one would have to traverse the entire length of the Bezingi Wall from the west, or find a way up the middle of the Bezingi Wall. The ridge coming from the east extends on snow to the slightly shorter East Shkhara summit, then wraps around to the northeast before dropping precipitously several thousand feet down to the glacier on a long ice and snow headwall. This entire ridge is covered with cornices visible from below, and looked incredibly steep on our side. Undoubtedly it was a very sharp knife-edge ridge, and indeed Stefanov had warned that that knife-edge ridge was the most difficult and dangerous part of the route.
We couldn’t see the south face of Shkhara, but had seen pictures of it as an enormous 5,000ft tall rock cliff, with just the very top covered in snow. There was a rock route up the south side graded 5B, which would also be quite difficult.
Our main challenge of the day was to find a way through a huge ice-fall up to the 13,500ft shoulder. This
was a steep section of the glacier that was extremely broken up, directly below the hanging glacier of the summit cap. We thought we remembered Stefanov recommending to go right through the crevasses, but it looked a little more passable to go left. There were no tracks to follow, so I led the way trying to go left.
I weaved through some small crevasses, then traversed a snow slope above a huge gaping chasm. I pounded a picket in here and clipped the rope for protection, then continued higher. Eventually the snow got steep enough that I pounded another picket in, then belayed Matthew to a small flat area.
Ahead of us was a huge ice canyon filled with a jumble of car- and house-sized ice chunks. A headwall on the opposite side looked difficult, but we saw one ice/snow arete that might be climbable. We jumped across a small gap to a snowy peninsula and weaved through the ice boulders. Below the ice arête Matthew put me on belay, and I took out both ice axes for the short bit of technical climbing.
I belayed Matthew up, and from here the slope eased. We were past the crux for the day, at least. Matthew led the way marching up the next snow slope, and we actually stumbled across what looked like a very faint boot track. It must have been from the climbers who attempted Shkhara the previous week.
About this time we stopped for our first radio check-in of the day at 9am. We turned on the radio, and of all the parties in the Bezingi area we were somehow the first one Stefanov chose to address.
“Boston?” we heard.
“Boston is very good, krashov,” Matthew replied. “We are at 4,000m, almost to the snow shoulder camp.”
“Ok ok,” Stefanov replied after a brief pause. We suspected another person at camp was translating for him. Stefanov then continued calling out to the other groups, before going silent at 9:08am. It turned out for most of our trip we were the first party called, and we suspected this was because they were a bit more concerned about our trip than the others. We were on perhaps one of the more difficult routes being attempted, and we were not Russian, which meant there was more uncertainty in how we would do.
After putting the radio away we followed the tracks up a final steep snow slope, until we reached the
shoulder at 13,500ft. The shoulder still wasn’t actually flat, but we found the remains of a small tent platform dug into the slope, and dropped our packs here.
Above us we saw the steep ice headwall we would have to climb to gain the northeast ridge. It looked like 60-70 degree ice and snow above a bergschrund, with rock bands on the right and left most of the way. One of the Russian climbers had told us there were some old piton anchors in the rocks we could use, and I hoped this would be true. I hadn’t known there would be any rock or mixed climbing on the route, and had only brought a set of ice screws and pickets for protection. In hindsight a little bit of rock gear would have been helpful also.
We had reached our campsite for the night after just 6 hours of hiking, and spent the rest of the afternoon improving the tent platform and melting snow. The one route description we had found estimated a 5-7 hour trip from Djongi Kosh camp to this shoulder, so we were consistent with this prediction. The description then estimated another 5-7 hours to the next camp high on the Northeast ridge the next day, so we figured that time would also be fairly accurate. I was a little skeptical would could do it that quickly given Stefanov had told us the headwall was around 7 pitches of ice climbing, but I figured maybe they would be fast pitches and the ridge above may be much easier.
We went to bed early that night, mentally preparing for the start of our technical climbing the next day.
The next morning we packed up and headed out of camp by 6am. I led the way to the bergschrund,
pounded in a picket, and belayed Matthew up. The technical climbing was about to begin.
I squirmed over the bergschrund on the right side, then clipped a rusty piton in the rock above me. The headwall was at times solid ice, and at other times ice with a few inches of snow on top. The snow was never deep enough to kick a step, but just deep enough to be difficult to clear off before putting a screw in. It was pretty sustained at 60-70 degrees, and was quite a calf workout. I was using one technical ice axe and one straight shafted ice ax, and fortunately this was sufficient.
I put in occasional ice screws until I came across a rappel anchor in the rocks on the right. I stopped here, backed up the anchor, and belayed Matthew up. We would continue this process for the next six rope lengths. In general I tried to stay close to the rocks to look for good anchors, but for much of the time I was climbing directly up the ice. By the end of the seventh rope length I crested the top of the rock rib to the right and found a small flat area just big enough for two people to stand.
It was noon now, and we stopped to check in on the radio. We had been climbing for six hours, so assumed we were pretty close to the next campsite. Above us the headwall looked like it continued a few more rope lengths on ice and snow before, perhaps, leveling out.
I continued leading up a brief snow ridge, then up another ice slope. At one point I belayed Matthew up on an ice-screw anchor when there were no intermittent rock bands.
When we crested what we thought must be the edge of the campsite, we were dismayed to see the steep ridge keep continuing upwards. It was 4pm by now, and I had hardly eaten or drunk any water all day. This
tends to happen to me when I’m on a very technical climb – it’s too inconvenient to stop, take off my pack, and eat or drink, so I don’t do it. I guess I’m always holding out for the perfect belay ledge that’s big and flat enough to sit down and rest, but I never really find one.
We stopped briefly to eat and drink, then continued climbing. The terrain varied between snow-covered rock, ice, snow-covered ice, and occasionally snow deep enough to kick a step in. If it had been all snow, like we hoped, we would have easily marched up, but the ice slowed us down considerably.
By 6pm at our last radio checkin we optimistically told Stefanov we were probably just a few hours from camp. At this point the ridge had finally decreased in steepness, but now required a very exposed traverse. Matthew belayed me from a slung rock horn as I kicked steps traversing below a cornice. The slope to the left of the cornice was very steep and icy, while the slope to the right was slightly less steep, and the snow was a bit softer as it was facing the setting sun.
I didn’t want to go directly on the cornice because it might break off from my body weight.
As I traversed I put in a screw or picket occasionally, mindful of the 4,000ft steep ice cliff just below me to my right. Halfway across we ran out of rope, and simulclimbed to the next rock I could sling. By this time the sun was setting, and we were getting desperate to find camp.
Matthew suggested hacking out a platform from the corniced ridge, but it would have been a pretty precarious place. I really didn’t want to have to be on belay walking around camp to go to the bathroom.
I continued leading, up another steep snow ridge, then traversing another slope of ice covered in a few inches of snow. If there had just been a few more inches of snow we could have kicked steps and proceeded confidently, but in those conditions we still had to frontpoint into the ice and put in ice screws.
By 10pm we were still simulclimbing up the steep ice/snow slopes. We couldn’t see exactly where our route was taking us, but we knew if we kept following the ridge it would eventually reach the flat camping spot Stefanov had pointed out in the picture. In the distance to the east we were treated with a pretty amazing lighting storm, though luckily too far away to be of any concern.
Finally, at 11pm, the slope in front of me went up no more, and I had reached the broad flat campsite we had been aiming for. Somehow what our route description said was a 5-7 hour climb had taken us 17 hours. And the route description was referring to the next campsite along the ridge, which we still hadn’t made it to. We weren’t even moving that slowly. Each roped pitch took about 45 minutes, and we were doing plenty of simul-climbing in between. My only thought is that the conditions we encountered were much icier than normal, requiring much more careful climbing. If there had been 8 inches of snow on top of much of the ice instead of 0 inches or 2 inches we encountered, we could have kicked steps instead of frontpointing and made much faster progress.
Our main concern at that time was just getting the tent up and getting to sleep. I belayed Matthew up, and then we looked around to assess our campsite. The flat area was pretty enormous – it extended about 100ft along the ridge, and was perfectly flat along the top, bordered by a corniced cliff to the east, and an increasingly steep snow slope to the west. We found the remains of a tent platform and some snow walls in the middle, and pitched our tent right there.
I whipped out the stove to melt snow and cook up some cous cous while Matthew set up the tent. We carefully anchored it out with ice axes and pickets, threw all our stuff inside, and were in our sleeping bags by 2:30am. Our plans now needed to change for the rest of our climb.
Our original plan had been to summit the next day, but that assumed we would reach the high camp at the edge of the East Shkhara summit. We were still at the campsite before that, a long ways from the summit. It would be conceivable to try for the summit the next day, but with us getting to bed so late, that sounded like a bad idea. We would need to get started after just a few hours of sleep in order to have enough time to get to the summit and back before dark, but were so tired out that we really needed the sleep.
Moreover, we now knew we couldn’t trust the time predictions from our route description. The description said it would be another 5 hours from the East Shkhara camp to the summit, but if the conditions there were as icy as we had already encountered, which was likely, that might very well take us all day.
It looked like our best bet to summit might be to try to merely reach the East Shkhara camp the next day, then try to summit the following day. We went to bed with the plan of waking up whenever we got up, to be sure we were well rested.
The morning dawned sunny, and we got up to eat breakfast around 8am. Katie sent a weather forecast
over the Delorme satellite-texting device calling for 9 inches of snow on the summit starting that afternoon.
As we got out of the tent to walk around, we got our first good look at the rest of the route ahead of us. What had looked like an easy snowy ridge from a few pictures we had seen online now looked considerably scarier. The ridge south of our camp was very steep – probably 70 degrees on both sides, with cornices top. It was likely as icy as the ridge we had climbed up, meaning we would have to traverse on our front points the entire way, putting in screws as we went. The exposure was still intense – 4000ft drops on both sides. That was definitely an area where you wouldn’t want to fall.
A little farther along the ridge looked like a brief rock climbing section to get over a small intermediate peak, then more knife-edge corniced ridge all the way to the next campsite.
“I have about a 20% desire to continue and 80% desire to turn back,” Matthew noted.
The weather forecast was pretty troubling too. I really didn’t want to be stuck on that ridge in a whiteout, and it would be tough to make it to the next campsite before noon when the snow was supposed to start. We could wait around at camp and proceed up higher the next day, but that delay would be cutting it too close for us to catch our flight out on August 1.
It was disappointing, but we both concluded that the best idea was to turn back. We’ve never really turned back on such a big mountain. Usually we plan carefully enough and give ourselves enough of a weather window to succeed. But Shkhara was definitely the toughest mountain we’d ever attempted, and the conditions and weather weren’t really cooperating.
We briefly considered rappelling down the route that morning, but decided there was too much risk of getting caught in a whiteout that afternoon and not finding the way down. I knew the descent would take a while since we only had a single 60m rope, meaning we could only rappel 30m at a time. So the 18 pitches we climbed up would potentially be many more rappels.
The rest of the day we hung out in the tent, resting and listening to a few science podcasts Matthew had loaded on his phone. The views outside were pretty amazing of Elbrus in the distance to the northwest, and innumerable other big snow mountains to the east. By 12:30pm, as predicted, a storm rolled in and it snowed for the next 5 hours. We got a few inches in camp, but higher up on the summit probably got more. I was definitely happy to be curled up inside my sleeping bag instead of hanging precariously on an ice cliff during that storm.
That night we cooked up some tasty mountain house meals with powdered mashed potatoes, and went to sleep early.
The next morning we got up early, and broke down camp under sunny skies. It was still tempting to climb higher, but we both knew we didn’t have enough time. We simul-downclimbed the snowy-icy traverse just below camp, until the ridge got steep enough to require rappelling.
Luckily this route had quite a few slung horns and other rappel anchors left over from previous climbers, though they usually needed backed up with my own gear. I found a good rock horn at the end of our traverse, and added my own sling to a small, shoe-string sized cord already there. It’s amazing that other climbers will rappel off such minimal gear. I always like my rappel anchor to be bomber, and am happy to leave gear on the mountain if it means getting back safely.
I rappelled off the slung horn, aiming for another set of rocks below. At the end of the rope I searched around and found another rock suitable to put a sling around. I built an anchor, clipped it, and then Matthew rapped down to me. We continued this process all morning – I would rap down, build an anchor, then Matthew rapped down, we pulled the rope, and repeated.
Only one time the ropes would not reach any rocks, and I had to build an ice screw anchor. For rappelling I carefully made a V-thread by drilling two intersecting holes in the ice with an ice screw, then threading a sling through this. By using this as an anchor I could avoid needing to leave an expensive ice screw on the mountain. The V-thread is just as strong as the ice screw, so was still safe.
By late afternoon we were finally back down to the snow shoulder at 13,500ft and off the technical part of the mountain. It was a big relief not to get stuck on the ice cliff with another snow storm coming in. I had left a few slings and an ice screw on the mountain as rappel anchors, but we had made it down safely.
We walked back to our old tent platform, set up camp, and soon went to sleep.
The next morning we quickly left camp back down the snow slope, and stopped at the icefall to belay each other down. I was surprised to see two other mountaineers climbing up the icefall, heading up towards the northeast ridge of Shkhara. Apparently they had been waiting at Djongi Kosh camp, monitoring the radio until they heard we were off the route and had permission to start climbing.
One of the climbers spoke some English, and asked me what the conditions were like on the route.
“Very icy,” I replied, “with a few centimeters of snow on top.”
“Bottle ice?” he asked.
“Yes, hard ice” I replied.
He seemed not to be concerned, and he and his partner continued up quickly. We would later watch them climbing up the headwall that afternoon, probably aiming for the high camp that day. It looked like they were simulclimbing the route, which is probably the only feasible way to make enough progress each day to successfully reach the summit.
We belayed each other, downclimbing into the ice fall, then weaving through the ice boulders to the other side. I found an improved descent route that allowed us to simulclimb the rest of the way, and we were soon off the glacier.
It felt good to no longer need to be roped up, and we easily hiked across the scree slopes back to Djongi Kosh camp. It was only 11am now, and we figured we had enough time to hike all the way back to Bezingi Camp that day.
After a short rest, and a final look up at Shkhara, we continued hiking down the trail. By now we passed a few other hikers and mountaineers hiking up. Most politely said “spaceba” (hello in Russian) and continued on, but one fellow stopped to talk to us.
“Boston?” he asked curiously, apparently referring to our call sign.
“Yes, we’re team Boston,” I replied.
“I’ve been listening to you on the radio as you tried to climb Shkhara,” he started. He said he was from Belarus, and had actually himself attempted the northeast ridge of Shkhara twice, but had to turn around each time. One time was because of the weather, and the other time because of bad conditions.
“That is a very scary route,” he said. “I tried a third time and climbed the north riB to the summit. It is steeper, but much less scary because you are not on the corniced knife-edge ridge the whole time.”
“How did you descend then?” I asked.
“I descended the northeast ridge,” he replied, smiling, “but at least I only had to do it once, not on both the ascent and the descent.”
This time he was planning to climb Cela, the mountain the other Russians we met had climbed. We wished him luck, and continued hiking down.
We soon dropped back onto the glacier, and then hiked back down towards Bezingi. Matthew had thought ahead and brought a small pair of hiking boots for this part of the hike, while I had just brought my big mountaineering boots, trying to save weight with only one set of footwear. My feet definitely paid the price for this decision. Mountaineering boots are great for ice climbing and short hikes on snow, but hiking all day on dirt trails and the glacier is difficult. I ended up getting pretty bad blisters, and had to stop to take some advil so I could continue walking through the pain.
By 5pm we staggered back to Bezingi Camp, just as it started raining, and we dropped our gear off in another guest room. I quickly got out of my boots, and bought a pair of flip flops at the gear shop for $3. Ali was happy to see we’d made it back safely, and we filled up on a big dinner of meat and bread that night in the dining hall.
The next morning we caught a ride on a scheduled bus shuttle back to Nalchik, and then split a taxi to the airport in Mineralnye Vody. Matthew would fly back to the US that evening, while I would continue hitting country highpoints. My next destination was Mt Aragats, the Armenia highpoint.