In recent months I've been struck by the growing willingness of climbers and mountaineers to admit to mistakes on social media. Earlier this year Jamie Barclay wrote about the decisions that led to him being caught in an avalanche on Ben Nevis. Importantly, the response on social media was overwelmingly supportive. It may sound a trite thing to say, but there's much to be learnt from failing and people should be encouraged to share their experiences as much as possible. Here's mountain guide Andrey Golovachev, describing his attempt on Mt Ulluauz and the emotions he felt on returning home...
"At 0100 on the 25th July 2020 my partner and I did NOT start on the north face of Mt Ulluauz – a prominent 4670m technical peak in the Caucasus – just 130m lower than Mt Blanc.
I’d never felt more prepared for a climbing route.
Yes, one and a half kilometres of ice, however gentle angled and soft, did not seem an easy win especially given the dubious and undoubtedly thin ice couloir at the very top. Yet we were mentally prepared to tie-off ice screws, to place pitons on the couloir’s sidewalls, to climb up the rock tower should the couloir turn out unclimbable, and even spend a night on the summit. We had plenty of time and no one was anxious about seeing us back home or at work. We carried enough spare cord to renew all the abseil stations – we anticipated at least ten rappels and we were about to be the first climbers of the season.
Camping at the base of Mt Ulluauz
We were armed with a reasonably encouraging forecast. The base camp radioed the following day that the weather was going to be usual, which in Bezengi essentially means clear morning and some showers in the afternoon. We expected neither thunderstorms nor lasting cyclones or any other dubious meteorological gifts from the Georgian side of the Greater Caucasus.
The route itself was in perfect condition. The last excesses of snow had avalanched down the face just a few days before when we descended Mt Ural – a sure and encouraging sign that we wouldn’t have to dig an arm’s depth snow pit to place a screw. Still the schrund was thoughtfully covered by a couple of snow bridges and the streaks of bare ice looked spongy enough to warrant cool calves.
And why would the climb be physically demanding for us? We both were perfectly acclimatized, with 2 nights recently spent at 4200m and another two at 3800m Prior to the trip I would regularly run uphill intervals with a 300-400m gain and as a result, I felt rather fit. We approached the route from the base camp in a little over 4 hours and spent the rest of the day napping and keeping an eye on the wall. Not a single rock fell, neither could we see any signs of recent rockfall or avalanche.
My partner and I are regulars of winter Ala-Archa, Kyrgystan – a place notorious for its bullet proof ice, that is better climbed along thin natural cracks, otherwise you risk dinner plating and your tools rebound back in your face. Consequently we were rather carefree on the summer ice of Bezengi. We had sharpened our picks and crampons the day before. The 16 screws we had would let us simul-climb fast for long stretches without having to stop for gear exchange.
Bezengi Base Camp
Also, it was crucial to follow the right couloir branches during the descent. To prevent any misinterpretation of the route description, I got advice from 4 people who climbed the route in previous years. Rather than reversing our route, we were going to abseil off the other side of the mountain in order to reach one of the most remote and inhospitable campgrounds of Bezengi – the famous “3900”. In order to descend further to the base camp we would have to spend the day after the climb wandering through the maze of a jagged icefall – not exactly a walk in the park. However, on that day a big party from a major climbing club was going to cross that same icefall on the way up to the campground – so we two got our backs covered in case of an accident.
We parked our single-wall tent literally five metres away from the edge of the central moraine and some 200m from the base of the route. Next morning we could rope up right by the tent and start crossing the bergschrund in the darkness. The ultralight “pancake” camera lens that I bought specifically for this ascent was ready to shoot my partner following up in the tender morning light – and then us both cheering on the summit with the enormous white pyramid of a five-thousander Koshtan-tau in the background.
Mt Shkhara (5193m) is the third highest peak in the Caucasus. It forms the eastern end of the Bezengi Wall
Long story short, we thought of everything. Lying in the tent, I led the entire route without breaking a sweat, finished off my pint at the base camp bar, got a record in my climbing log book, processed the photos and responded to ecstatic Instagram commentators. Then I crawled out of the tent, snapped a few photos of the glorious sunset and drifted back into sweet dreams lulled by the gurgling streams on the glacier. Our friends at base camp prepared the binoculars to watch us climbing in the morning: the north face of Uluauz towers above the valley and any climbers find themselves on a stage with many spectators.
The alarm went off at midnight. We sniffed the drizzle outside the tent – the black pyramid of the mountain loomed right in front of us. Alarmingly, the boulders around our tent were wet and the horizon was flashing and rumbling low.
-I’ve counted 10. Must be in 3 kilometres or so. Uh-oh. Let’s snooze it for an hour.
In an hour the flashes became notably less frequent but the thunder was still audible and a rather ominous cloud stuck to the middle of the peak. That very moment we became accomplices in ditching the climb. Warm sleeping bags were pulling us back into sweet dreams and we happily neglected the consequences.
At 0400 when the sky turned red and completely cleared of all the remaining clouds, I suddenly realized what was happening. I urged my partner to move on but he flatly refused to start so late. Oh yes, rocks might start falling around lunchtime. Which we did not see happening yesterday. Yes, they recommended starting at 0100 at the latest. Yes, standing on the summit at 1700 instead of 1300 would’ve felt rather unnerving. Yes, man, you are right…
Shamefaced, we turned up at the base camp to perfectly clear skies. Later that day we heard many prudent and compassionate comments like, “the mountain will still be there next year”. Amusing the superstitious, that day Bezengi saw THREE accidents – two guys with broken ankles and a femur fractured in a rockfall. Yet I’m not superstitious – there were absolutely no warning signs on the day of the accident I had back in 2017.
The lesson Mt Ulluasz taught us is to mind the consequences of inaction. Consider that this very moment – whilst your eyes are following the lines of my non-native English text – is not going to happen ever again. It is far too easy to let it slip through your fingers but it is utterly impossible to reverse it, to live it through in a different way. Despair and pain from recognizing this cast-in-stone fact tormented me for several days after this climbing non-attempt. Perhaps it has taught me to value my time after all.
Lastly, alpine climbing is all about risk management but true alpinism is unthinkable without some residue risk and luck. It cannot be chiseled into a trouble-free, tame and comfortable mainstream activity. Let it remain an intellectual and somewhat rebellious way of proving one’s existence through protest and suffering!
Thanks Andrey for sharing your fascinating account and agreeing to answer our questions. The Caucasus will be unfamiliar to many who'll read this post. Can you tell us a little bit about it. How long have you been visiting? What attracts you to the area?
There are many climbable mountain ranges in Russia: the mysterious Altay sitting along the borders of Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China; the polar range of Khibiny table-top mountains similar to Cairngorms with plenty of opportunities for mixed climbing; the Urals – an ancient range dividing Europe and Asia and stretching from the Arctic to mid latitudes; the Ergaki – the 'Siberian Yosemite' with its gigantic granite needles soaring above tranquil lakes; The Sayans and other mountains by Lake Baikal – the world's deepest and largest by volume lake Baikal located in East Siberia – with plenty of potential for first ascents; dramatic volcanoes of the remote Kamchatka peninsula by the Pacific Ocean – the place where I started climbing. Furthermore, you'll find many Russian climbers in the ranges of Central Asia, for example the mighty Pamirs with its numerous seven-thousanders including Lenin Peak or the frozen granite monoliths of Ala-Archa in Kyrgyzstan where I undertake my IFMGA guide certification.
However, the Caucasus is the only proper mountain range we have in the European part of Russia. Dominated by the two-headed ice giant of Elbrus, it stretches between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea and is shared between Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. These are old mountains and, sadly, rockfalls are becoming increasingly common, with the retreat of the glaciers.
Mt. Ulluauz – the objective of our epic non-attempt – is located in the most prominent area of Bezengi. There are eight five-thousanders in the Caucasus and six of them are located in Bezengi – except for Kazbek and the two volcanic domes of Elbrus. A few of them were first climbed by the Brits in the late 19th century. Bezengi Wall is the highest section of the main ridge stretching for some 12 kilometers at the awe-inspiring height of 2 vertical kilometers from the glacier – truly Himalayan scale! What's more, Bezengi boasts a summer basecamp at 2,200m with the best infrastructure so far, including several shops, bars, comfortable accommodation and heli search & rescue.
Being higher than the Alps, Bezengi requires longer acclimatization so my partner and I went in for 3 weeks. That was my third time in Bezengi.
Can I ask you what were your reasons for writing the article?
Upon return from the mountains, I was overwhelmed with annoyance and remorse – and I vented it in writing. It could also be my looming middle age crisis where every missed opportunity is seen as my last one – I hope that is not the case with Ulluauz! Actually, the ascent is rather trivial and is repeated several times every year so for me attempting it again is just the matter of finding a partner.
Do you feel you benefit from reading about the experiences of others - especially when things don't go to plan? Is there an example that stands out?
Of course, there is a lot to learn from. My favourite authors in English are Mark Twight, Steve House and Victor Saunders. I also flip through The Alpine Journal, although it is harder to focus on. In Russian there is a non-fiction journal analyzing climbing accidents – a fantastic effort by Sergey Shibaev - aiming to make our activity a bit safer.
Those who publish on social media can sometimes face criticism. Did you find that your read readers were supportive?
Yes – and actually seeing that much empathy in comments was rather unexpected for me. Quite a few pointed out that my hard feelings were unjustified and that we will certainly succeed next year. Which is way more encouraging than a suggestion to try table tennis!
Andrey Golovachev is a Russian mountain/ski guide, trek leader and photographer. He used to live in the UK for 4 years prior to becoming a full-time outdoor professional. Back in Russia, he founded Primalscapes, an adventure travel company that focuses on trekking, skiing and climbing trips to mountain ranges in Russia and neighbouring countries, undeservedly unknown to the Western public.
His personal mission is to connect outdoor enthusiasts of Russia and the West. He organizes non-commercial winter meets for the UK's Alpine Club in Ala-Archa, Kyrgyzstan and another in February 2022 on the ice cascades of North Ossetia.
The images used in this post were all taken by Andrey Golovachev.