Saturday, July 6, 2013

Climbing up to 4000

Written in a georgian car drunk with Svaneti wine with Natacha in front trying to debate with me, how can I understand a word you're saying I'm drunk
II am leaving the rainbow the rainbow leaves me. The best memories are behind me, I am on the road towards the highest peak in Armenia with my bag and my hope. I am underfed from the rainbow vegan food and I have a smile on my face. I have Nata's friendship bracelet and I should hurry into idealizing into a symbol because I will need a motivation to climb to the top.
Nata is an alpinist see, she climbed Elbrus so the coincidence carries a strong symbolic.With these things in mind I descend the rainbow mountain (the main camp is about 1500m high) with Ilona and Nikita, the guy from Ukraine who showed us the rainbow. They buy some stuff and I continue to Vanadzor. I have a piece of bread and a couple of tomatoes. I'm underfed from the vegan food from the rainbow, these are no conditions to climb that moutain.
Luckily, I am invited to a restaurant by some great guys and I also sleep at their place. I get apricot jam and bread. The daugther of the guy who invited me is a widow, she seems sad, I wonder if I couldn't marry her so she could get a passport to France. I continue towards Aragats.

Dinner before ascention
Next destination is Aragats. I just pick a random village on the bottom of the mountain. "Where exactly are you going", says the guy in the truck.
"What do I know, just leave me there, under the mountain."
He says there is no path upwards but he is a democrat, he'll let me try. But he insists on me having a decent dinner first. So I eat a mountainairing portion and I am on my way. The wheather is not ideal but I hurry because of Ilona. I promised her to be there in... I don't know when but soon. Some parts of the sky are blue, sometimes I hear the thunder.
So I try not to mind about the storm and I direct my way straight towards the giant mountain in front of me. I never saw any object this big before.I can also hear some automatic weapon fire some distance to my left but honestly, my worries are more directed towards the weather.
I stop as the last construction to collect water. I guess I will need avery drop I can get. The weapon shots are getting closer but since I have other things on my mind I kind of ignore them. I cannot ignore them when I hear them from another angle. Are they directed towards me or what?
I throw myself to the ground, half wondering if the world has gone crazy. Have I just been shot at? Probably not, but still, I don't need to stay here.
I double-check the border with Azerbaidjan on my map. Everyone knows they shoot at sight, better not get into their way. But no, the border is fine, everything seems allright.
I deviate my path to the left, away from the weapons fire. If you look at the GPS records, you'll see me making that detour. I also look for people to check what is going on. And where there are people there is less danger. Unless they are the ones shooting.
I meet two sheperds who tell me that these are indeed automatic weapon shots. Military is training on that side of the mountain and it is indeed possible to catch a bullet when going too much to the right.
Had I been in europe, my question would be: "Do they shoot?" In armenia, with military everywhere and complicated borders, there are people with guns probably on evry corner. So I settle for the more constrained question: "do they shoot at people?"
The sheperds say no. Just to be safe, I take off my military hat. I have lost my hat a few days before but luckily, a soldier gave me his hat at Sevan lake. So I am facing a dilemma: If I keep my hat off, maybe I won't be mistaken for a soldier and shot at. On the other hand, I will not last two hours under the shining mountain sun. I'm already at more than 2000 meters and it is noon. I hope I'll make it to 3000 today.
On my way, I run into several more shepperds.
"Are you alone?", they ask, "you cannot go alone on that mountain. You will not succeed"
But after a bit of debate in bad russian, they acknoledge my determination. I'll get to base camp at 3000 and hopefully find some tourists there. He tells me that there are no tourists but I can find some Kurds there. Not sure what he means by this. Kurds are in Kurdistan, what would they do here? Never mind.
"Good luck Filip-djan! May fortune guide you on your path"
2500 meters, I meet the last shepperd. He is on this way down. I cannot hear the shooting anymore and I'm glad about that. The guy stinks of vodka. He shows me a water source to replenish my water resources.
But his speech is different.
"Go down no! There is no way of climbing that mountain alone. They are shooting. You cannot go up."
I try to figure out if the main problem is the shooting or if he just thinks that the ascention is too difficult. Then he starts going into transe:
"They're shooting! You understand? Shooting! They have guns, rockets, grenades!"
That's it my friend, your babbling and the vodka that is just enough for today. I've had enough of your morals, I have Nata's bracelet for protection, what do I care about your Kalachnikovs? Just kidding, the truth is I don't believe a word of that guy said so I go.
I must admit I am a little scared and my fear grows when I decide to take a break in a little hole in the ground. Because that is not a hole, that is a crater. Grenade? Might be but let's not jump to conclusions.
My altimeter is climbing to 2700 and I start feeling the effect of altitude. Maybe a little sooner than expected but hey, at least I know when my body starts reacting to it. White clouds start forming when I reach 2800, the village is covered in them. Anyway the village is so small now.


The village is covered in clouds
I always kept that village as a psychological attractor, a way of turning back, as long as I see it everything is OK. But you can probably see Yerevan from the top of Aragats; does that mean that everything is fine. But you need to hold on to something, right?
3000 meters, the walk gets a little more tiring. I drink a lot and I walk with all the stuff in my backpack, that's why probably. I have almost reached the peak of that little mountain on the left. The shooting has definitly stopped. I will now traverse to the right. Where are these kurds?
I call Orianne one last time to confirm my position. The call is cut off by the weather. White clouds cover the sky in a matter of seconds. Mist is getting thicker. Storm is coming.


Storm is coming
I'm at 3200 meters and I have just time to descend to a valley. I throw my tent on the ground. There is a small lake there.
It's not really a lake, more likely a small pond fuelled by a snow patch above it. It flows down the mountain as a small stream which is getting bigger as the heavy rain falls. I have just the time to build my tent and jump into it with all my things. Lightnings start to fall all around. Thunder is louder than I have ever remembered. I count the seconds between lightning and sound. Three, two, is it one? That one is instantanious. Thunder must be hitting less than a kilometer from my tent. That's the high peak of Aragat and the neighbouring peaks.
I wonder if I should just pack my most important things and run to the village. How long could it take? Three hours? Two to the bottom if I run like crazy? But I also know that this isn't an option. In the dark of the night I would twist my ancle before I cover half of the distance. The ground will be slippery, I would fall multiple times. I could stay there, in the same position I'm in now but without my tent and without my equipement. I certainly do not want that. The rational choice is to stay there and wait. And that is what I do; that is the only thing I can do.
Last minute base camp

This lightning is scary, it doesn't have the same color. That one seems like fire. Do lightnings have a different feeling in high mountains or is it something else? If you had contact with me through facebook after the ascention then you know it was something else and what it was.
I guess Nata's bracelet wasn't enough of psychological protection anymore because I decided to calm myself down by messaging my friends. I got a reply from Alexandra, she was experiencing a nice wheather in the south of france. I don't know if that information calmed her down, maybe a little it was the contact which was important.
Then I watched an episode of game of thrones, you never know, if something happens to me, I'd better finish season 3 first! I didn't finish season 3 because the rain became so heavy that I just couldn't hear any other sound.
I survived to the other morning and the weather was OK again. I woke up Orianne at 5 AM to get information about my location and where the fuck is Aragats? There were some peaks in the reagion but the biggest one seemed to be only 300 meters higher than my current altitude. But what do I know, it's difficult to estimate heights. Orianne confirmed where was Aragats, thanks a lot for that, I wouldn't like to be woken up at 5.
Meanwhile I lost my two only warm clothes. I tried to find them because I've never heard any mountainair climbing to 4000 in a t-shirt.
Search unsuccessful, the wind must have blown my clothes away. Let's climb in a t-shirt then. I's 9 AM now, I have to hurry. And what the fuck is there? Another shepperd? At 3200? Where does he come from?
Anyhow, I am so glad to see a human being after yesterday's storm. When did that guy wake up? It took me the whole afternoon to make that ascention and he's there at 9 AM with his herd of sheep.
Over the hill, jezidi camp

"Od kuda, od kuda? Selo v nizu?"
"Nizu Nizu!" So yeah, he comes from downwards, how did he do that?
I look over the small hill just next to my tent. Oh my god, tents. Big, small, many. This is base camp!
I run down to the base camp like crazy, a wonder I didn't hurt myself in the process. Mountain climbers! People!
"Is anybody there?", I start in english. There is some woman who doesn't react so I change to Russian. Nobody speaks english here, even tourists probably. Russian also falls on death ears so, a little confused, I switch to my very limited armenian.
My surprise is complete when the lady does not understand armenian. These are no tourists. They must be the Kurds the shepperd told me about! I have no idea what kurds speak but I try turkish. Nope. Another woman comes in. She speaks russian.
"We are not Kurds." She seems a little offended. "We are the Jezidi people."
Jezidi tent under Aragats
Not Kurds, Jezidi, why the fuck not, I mean, I've been in a storm, shot at, a rocket has exploded next to my camp so yeah, why not a Jezidi tribe making cheese under Aragats mountain. Nothing can surprise me.
"Come and eat Filip-djan" they all invite me. They're so kind. They are full of encouragements. They have these buge tents, kind of yourts with wooden walls in some places and chemineys.
I tell them that I must hurry. The sun is already too high in the sky. One guy tells me to go from the left, there is no possible way from the right.
So I go. I manage to climb to almost 3600. It is not easy. Sometimes, I really have to climb. When I climb, I double check, triple check my climbing points. It's afternoon already and the weather is starting to get worse.No lightnings but big white clouds are gathering. No lightnings yet but where do you think they will strike first when they appear? I have to turn back at 3600, about 500m of altitude from the top. The wheather is deteriorating by the minute, I go back to my tent. It's further than expected, I am really tired. I pack it and go back to the Jezdis.
They welcome me with open arms and tons of food. My first failed attempt doesn't stop their encouragements. I'll try tomorro, morein the morning. They say the weather should be kind to me until 2PM, afterwards, they cannot guarantee anything.
In the evening, Baze, their big shepperd dog decided it doesn't like me too much. The beast jumped at me from behind and bit me hard into the leg. It' a big dog, the kind that scares wolves away so it hurt pretty bad but luckily, I had two layers of clothes on my leg so it was just scratches. The second bite hit my vaccination papers so no damage as well.
I have an amazing dinner. The husband of the russian speaking woman asks me if I have porn on my computer. I don't. I must say that in that Jezidi camp, the brains belonged to women. The russian speaking woman was very smart but her husband, though probably having a good heart and will was pretty dumb and by european standarts probably also an asshole. But you cannot apply european standarts to another population otherwise everyone would be an asshole except europeans.
Dinner at Julie's
The other couple I remember was Julie. I say Julie because I don't know who her husband is. Unlike the other Jezidis, Julie is Armenian and married a Jezidi. So me and her were probaby the only two strangers in the camp. The questions why am I not married came pretty fast as always. I tried to explain my situation with Ilona and Julie thought it was pretty sad. I think she really wanted us to be together.
In the night, the camp got attacked by wolves. Nobody got hurt but I still couldn't watch game of thrones because of the very strong wind which completly deformed my tent.
The next day one of the shepperd goes with me until 3400. The jezidis gave me warm clothes and food for the road. I still have the apricot jam. It's delicious. She shepperd shows me the road which I already know. It is safe to continue alone. I make a bigger detour through the neighbouring peak. The path is easy and I reach 3600 in no time.The peak appears really close. I am afraid not to make it to 4000 because there simply is no 4000. Or do I have the wrong peak?
No I don't. And it really is way higher than it seems. After a while, the path stops, only razor sharp stones in front on me. I have to climb almost 90 degrees with a cliff underneath. I don't do that kind of climbs alone. I will lose time but I decide to make another detour,, go to the other side of the mountain.
At 3600
The terrain gets difficult, a lot of sliding stones, some climbing. I never climb over cliffs. I always double-check my climbing points; Nothing unexpected happened. At 3800 it becomes really hard to walk uphill. I rest often. I drink amazing amounts of water to compensate the sore throat due to heavy breathing. My altimeter indicates 4000 meters and I am almost on the top. The weather is degrading but I don't care at that point. On my side of the mountain, the sky is blue. On the other side, it is white. I can't see at 10 meters in that direction. 4080 meters, small top.
Crossing a difficult part
I stand in the mist. I am afraid of a storm, of lightnings, I don't want to stay here one more second. I am preparing to go down when I see a silouhette a few hundered meters, on the other side of the mountain. It's also climbing and resting every few meters. At least I'm not the only one having problems with the oxygen.
At the top, 4000!
I run down to him, I want to help him with his backpack. He's from Poland. Czech and Polaks, that's an ever repeating story. I would be surprised had he been of any other nationality. Except Armenian of course. Together we reach a second top, a few meters higher than I was waiting on. The highest top lies in front of us, in the mist. 4100 something. Polish guy doesn't watnt to go, it is pure climbing to get there.
That's when I notice that there is actually a path on the other side of the mountain. That is the regular path, that's where the tourists are. That's why the people from the village couldn't point me the exact way because there wasn't any. I was doing a free climb.
I climbed the rest of the way to the highest peak beacaus it wasn't so different from the rest of my improvised path. The Polish guy knew the weather, no storm ahead. I reached the cross, 4100 meters, highest top I've ever climbed.
At the top, we were joined by an Armenian guy who had climbed a lot of peaks. When I told him my itinerary towards the top of Aragats he thought that I was some kind of mountaind climber and that I've climbed Mont Blanc. I don't thnik I could climb Mont Blanc alone, I heard it's pretty difficult. Aragats is as easy as a 4000 can get if you take the conventional path. I have no idea what my path is worth.
At the top, messages in bottles. People who have climbed that peak wrote someting. No suprise there. Armenians, Czechs, Slovaks Polish. That's it. What else to expect really?
There is a very good phone signal at the top but of course I don't have any. I'm lucky if my phone operator knows that Czech republic exists, I can forget about most of Armenia.
Next thing that doesn't work too well are my shoes. I must say that I didn't expect Sylie Houdré's (my podologist) shoe implants to last more than a month. Surprisingly enough they resist very well to whatever condition I impose on them I am not a person to take of my stuff. The shoes, on the other hand are starting to fall apart a little and I my shoes may day way before the implants. It's a shame the implants are useless without the shoes.
I descended about 500 altitude meters in a couple of minutes. I used the snow patches lying everywhere accross the mountain to slide down on my shoes. It's easy, just select a good looking snow patch, imagine your shoes are skis and try to keep the balance. If you fall, sliding on your ass works as well. So I slided on a patch of small moving rocks, then a patch of snow and I was down.

Next morning I wake up insanely early and I hitchhike the road down towards Vanadzor and Dilijan.

I made it!
The Jezidis congratulate me and a giant dinner is waiting for me. I eat at Julie's place. I like Julie. I like one of the shepperd guys as well, especially one who speaks a little french but mostly I connect with women because they are the brains and the language of the settlement.
And the other russian speaking woman is very wise, I wonder if she finds happiness with her machist husband and family. The Jezidis, as I understood it, are wed by their parents. They don't choose their life partner, their parents do. This way, the Jezidi people keep their culture and their language.
I didn't think the husband was a bad match because he asked me for porn, I cannot even imagine the level of relationship exclusivity the Jezidi people have, no wonder he felt lonely and the wife frustrated. But as I talked to each of them I thought I really didn't see much compatibility even after god knows how many years of marriage.
It was 6PM already and I really and I was still at 3000 meters. If I want to meet Ilona before it is too late I better hurry. The children help me pack; they all carry my things around and pack them randomly, it's a wonder I didn't lose anything. I'm packed in like 5 minutes and I have to run. I have to cover about 6 kilometers of mountain terrain and 1000 meters of altitude difference before dark, that is in 3 hours, maybe 2:30.
I am not using a detour anymore, I'm going straight through the place where I heard the shooting two days ago. I's weekend, nobody should train there and anyway I don't hear any shooting.
Only a few hundered meters from the Jezidi camp I start discovering the first shells. They are unexploaded. Big rockets, small rockets, all sizes, some are new, some rusted, some are just bare pieces of torn metal. I wonder for a second if a place would not be evacuated in a country such as france had only one such unexploded shell been discovered. Who knows. Here there were hundereds. How is that possible, this is the main access road for the Jezidi people?
But as the Jezidis explained, nobody in Armenia cares about them, people even think they are Kurds so maybe they just don't care about casulties.
One of the many shells on my path
People get regularly sniped at borders here so what should they care about a few Jezidis?
I wonder if the place is mined so just in case, I try to avoid them like we always do in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Basically it's about avoiding high grass or middle-sized stones.
I arrive at the village at nighfall. I am greeted by two scary shepperd dogs. I manage to pick up some stones just in case I have to scare them off. I don't need another bite, the ones I have hurt enough already.
In the darkness I finally manage to find the place of the guy who brought me to the mountain. "Good fortune to you Filip-djan", he had told me as they all did, "if you come back, visit us here".
So I knock at his door at 10PM, his wife opens. She seems not to recognize me. Did I end up in another dimension or did I misinterpret their hospitality offering? Maybe it was just politness as Ilona says. Could it be?
Nope. The husband just woke up and invites me in. A place to stay and second dinner after the last descent. Yay! And a couch.
It takes an insane amount of time. I eat at Vanadzor at Anush's place. Anush is a woman who takes care of her mother. She is an english translator and her mother is an english teacher. But it doesn't mean anything here because there is no job for anyone so everyone just farms their own garden and Anush works at a ginormous garden, it's a wonder she manages it. Living here is really hard and she would have a better chance at life in europe. At that time I thought that I could just marry her for passport, why not?
Meanwhile, at the rainbow, Michael and Ljuba were worried because of my lack of answer my last SMS being something like "Lightnings everywhere, mountain lake running over to my tent. I'm scared."
My mother became crazy because she got a series of GPS signals, the last being at 4100 and no signal from there. And I just came back to sleep in my tent at the rainbow.