Summer of climbing in Europe

This year I was lucky enough to join two UIAA youth meets. Youth rock climbing in Catalonia, organised by the FEEC, and the Kazbek mountaineering expedition, organised by the Mountaineering & Climbing Association of Georgia. They were both incredible experiences, with all the fun and excitement of long multi-pitch trad climbing, and then the fantastic highs and lows and dreary boredom one expects from a seven-day mountaineering expedition.

# Catalunya

I was already headed to Spain this June to do some hiking in the Pyrenees with a good Spanish friend. As soon as I heard about the UIAA Global Youth Summit trip to Catalunya to do rock climbing on Montserrat and Pedraforca, it was clear my stars had aligned. I do a lot of rock climbing, but hadn’t yet had the gear or connections to do any multi-pitch trad climbing. The steep conglomerate of Montserrat and the cracked limestone of Pedraforca promised a great trip.

The tour was organised by the Federació d’Entitats Excursionistes de Catalunya (FEEC)and the group consisted of two great Catalunyan guides, five young guys from the Montserrat area, a Serbian climber, and me. We stayed in beautiful refugios at both climbing spots, and were treated to massive dinners of simple but delicious Spanish food.

We started in Montserrat, where the maze of needles and spires makes finding one’s way extremely difficult. We spent a day doing shorter slabby sport routes to get an idea of everyone’s abilities, and re-convened back at the refugio to pore over the guidebook and make plans for the next day. I joined for the more difficult route, six classic pitches up CADE (200m, 6a/Ae), a perfect crack between two spires. I seconded the whole way, and got to enjoy the fun route without much stress, especially enjoying the more difficult overhanging section near the top. Climbing with 150 metres of fresh air underneath my bum was a new experience for me.

After another day of climbing, we tumbled back into the kombi and drove to Pedraforca, now in the Pyrenean foothills. It’s a stunning mountain, which gets its name from its resemblance to a giant fork. We would be climbing only the north face, to keep out of the harsh Spanish summer sun. A group of us decided to climb the massive Gran Diedre route. Unfortunately, we were limited with time and people, so I had to climb second the whole way again. Nonetheless it was an incredible climb, rising for about ten pitches above the surrounding landscape. Most of the route follows a huge dihedral, and the climbing was easy and fun, up to grade V for a few pitches.

It was a great experience and I can’t wait to get my hands on some more long trad routes. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to lead any of the long routes, so I still feel some big gaps in my experience. I was also hoping for a more varied and international group of climbers - I’m lucky enough to speak Spanish, but still would have enjoyed the chance to meet more like-minded climbers from further afield. Well done to FEEC, our awesome guides Pau and Faust, and the UIAA Youth Commission for making the trip happen.

# Kazbek

Rock climbing aside, Europe for the summer meant one thing was uppermost in my thoughts: alpinism. The UIAA had a number of youth expeditions planned, and I looked into all of them. Matterhorn - too daunting. Damavand - a bit pedestrian. Kazbek? Just right. I spoke to some more experienced friends and fellow MCSA members, and Kazbek seemed like just the place to have my next alpine experience. Steep and high and icy enough to be a challenge and a serious mountain, but straight-forward and well-trodden enough to offer some comfort to a relatively new mountaineer. My only experience before this was a guided ascent of the 6 088 metre Huayna Potosí in Bolivia, which had sealed my devotion to mountaineering.

I flew to Georgia’s capital and, after some much-needed sleep under a staircase, met up with the team outside a shopping centre. Most were like me - keen to climb a mountain, but either lacking experience or willing partners. Then seven Koreans in matching shirts and hats came out of the supermarket with bundles of food and confused smiles. The trip organiser, Zura Kutchava, bundled us all into a rented minibus and soon we were pitching our tents near a beautiful old monastery, with the majestic Kazbek dominating the skyline.

The haphazard start - the Koreans had way too much gear, and didn’t seem in a rush to make a plan - foreshadowed the dominant theme for the rest of the trip. We trickled out of camp as and when we were ready, and made our way to the camp at 3 000 metres, just across a torrential river of glacial melt-water. After this, things sped up a bit, but we still spent a few hours every day waiting for everyone to be ready. I never figured out what the delays were. This was my first climb that could be described as an expedition, with horses carrying a load to the first camp, and we later descended from 3 800 metres to pick up more supplies from that camp. It was interesting (and exhausting) to see how this was done. We camped at 2 000, 3 000, 3 800 (twice) and then at 4 200 metres before the summit push to 5 047 metres. This was a lot more than most groups on the mountain, but we wanted to maximise the chances for everyone to have a successful summit. It also meant spending two nights on the frigid glacier at 4 200 metres, where I was unable to sleep in my otherwise trusty K-Way summer bag, and not helped by the fact that my tent-mates were snoring happily in their puffy expedition bags.

This unsympathetic pair were Javier and Izidor, from Spain and Slovenia. They were both a lot more experienced than me, with experience above 7 000 metres, and summits on many of the major ranges around the world. My tent-mates were extremely helpful and I learnt so much from spending time with them (hours and hours in the tent, avoiding the sun and then the cold) and being roped in with them while crossing the frightening glacier, and for the summit. Eager and excited, but with a well-honed respect for safety, they were good teachers and I hope to do more mountaineering trips with them soon. The Koreans spoke limited English so our interactions with them didn’t get far. The group of Georgians of various experience levels provided great company every day and night, confirming time and again the Georgian reputation for kindness and hospitality.

The trip was physically demanding, with heavy packs and many metres to climb, but we had an easy pace and it wasn’t a struggle. After crossing the low glacier (simple enough that there were horses crossing it) and checking in with border control at the ‘meteo station’, one can camp on the rugged moraine covering the glacier. From there it was a treacherous hike across the moraine, with crumbling rocks and deep crevasses, and one eye on the rock fall to the right, as helmet-sized boulders came speeding down and stopped just short of an unwelcome surprise. Then came the glacier proper – Gergeti, with cavernous crevasses and treacherous snow bridges.

After that the snow covering got thicker where we made our high camp. We planned to leave at six the next morning, but six o’clock came and went, and most in the group were still inside their tents. This frustrated my one tent-mate past his breaking point, and after walking around agitating everyone to get going, he eventually gave up and set off by himself. This catalysed a bit of group movement and we set off not too far behind him. It was a sad moment, and reflected a brewing problem in the group dynamic. It’s a straightforward hike to the summit, with a relatively steep section at the end. We had a stunning view of the Caucasus from the shoulder, with Elbrus visible in the distance, but unfortunately the clouds came in as we did the last hundred metres, and we had a very white scene at the top. Still an awesome feeling to stand atop a mountain as imposing as Kazbek.

We hiked in teams of five and, apart from some tired-out Koreans stumbling on the descent, everything went smoothly. For me, the most tiring part of the entire trip was probably digging in and building walls for our tents on the glacier. My tent-mates decided they’d had enough and left the beginner to do the job. Luckily I was having fun and continued working on our fortification, because about an hour later a huge Georgian search-and-rescue helicopter landed a stone’s throw away and tried its best to send our camp tumbling along the glacier.

This helicopter revealed a very sad and real side to mountaineering. Two girls we’d befriended a few nights before at the lower camp, and who we’d seen coming down from the summit, had tried to descend the glacier without a rope. Although they were following the footsteps of a big roped team, a day of beating sun had made conditions precarious. One of the two made an unlucky step, and fell into a crevasse. She died quite soon after. This tragic event served as a sober reminder of the very real dangers in mountaineering. Their risky behaviour and the preventable nature of the accident only reinforced this lesson for me.

It was an amazing trip, and I learnt so much as a mountaineer and individual. My thanks go to Zura, the capable, lively and infinitely patient team leader, and the Mountaineering & Climbing Association of Georgia. Also to the UIAA for making the event possible, and the MCSA for making my participation possible.

All Kazbek photos by FJ Pascual.