Mount Ushba: The Irresistible Climb
Andranik Miribyan was stranded high up on Mt. Ushba, a peak in the Caucasus Mountains of Northern Georgia. Perched precariously on a ledge 150 meters below the summit, he had dug a small flat space, no more than 50 cm wide, on which to sleep. His tent poles were wedged in the snow above him, acting as lighting rods to protect him from the electric storm, and he was wrapped in his sleeping bag and tent to keep out the frostbite. The Armenian climber’s problem started when a heavy storm dropped so much snow around him that he could not move up or down the mountain; the snow was unstable and prone to an avalanche. It compounded when he broke his ice ax when clearing the ledge to sleep; the ax was his critical piece of equipment to stabilize movement along the glacier, and arrest his fall should he slip. Now Andranik could not descend the mountain. And he was alone.
50 kilometers away, in the mountain town of Mestia, Vitia Margiani’s phone gave a sharp ring. The captain of the search and rescue team answered the call gruffly, shook his head, and went off to assemble the other four members of his team. It was the second time they had been called to Ushba in three days.
It wasn’t a coincidence. Ushba is known as one of the most dangerous mountains in the region.
At 4,700 meters (15,400 ft), Mt. Ushba has been enticing climbers ever since it was first summited in 1888 by John Garford Cokkin. The mountain’s lonely twin peaks give off an air of majesty that is difficult to forget; their iconic outcropping against pale blue skies looks like the type of images pictured on the front of water bottles. Each of the mountain’s faces are colored with the deep brown of vertical rock walls, too steep and jagged to hold on to snow or the massive glacier that spans for miles below. Those parts that do shine white are equally impressive, packed with thick blankets of snow, and sitting on sleds of creviced ice.
But beneath Ushba’s beauty hides a treacherous history. Each year the mountain claims about five to a dozen climbers. The mountain had already felled four climbers in 2012, according to the search and rescue team, and those numbers were likely to increase. Without any required permits, however, there is no way to keep track of Ushba’s official statistics. Nobody knows exactly how many fall victim to the mountain’s spell.
What is apparent is how difficult it is to climb. When we arrived on the mountain in mid-August, nobody had stood on either peak in two weeks, despite more than a dozen attempts. Ushba is not a mountain that gives up its summit willingly, which is why it is considered a major achievement for any climber to reach its top.
The sobering facts are part of the thrill for those who dream of summiting. A dedicated community of climbers, who thrive in the challenge and the danger, keep coming back to attempt different routes on Ushba year after year. The peaks have become legendary, and their rugged beauty has captured the imaginations of climbers who simply will not give up.
The peaks are even known outside the climbing community, having become the namesake of a Georgian vodka brand, and inspired the nickname “The Matterhorn of the Caucasus”. But unlike the Matterhorn, there is no easy way up it.
Even the easiest way up the mountain, the “classic route,” is difficult. The route, which leads to the North peak, is marked a 4b by the Russian rating system. For the non-climbers among us, 4b still means ropes, massive exposure, and spending most of the time on a steep glacier, where technical equipment is needed to help push a climber up.
For those who feel that the classic route does not offer enough prestige or challenge, Ushba offers plenty of more difficult ways to the top. A select and experienced few attempt the most challenging routes, which have storied names like ‘Gabriel’s Route’, ‘Mirror of Ushba’, and ‘Mushilav’s Route’. Some of these have only been climbed successfully once or twice, and were named by the first climbers who conquered them. They take climbers away from the glacier, and up onto the rock walls of Ushba, where rock slides, gale force winds, and simple mistakes can take a life in the space of seconds.
No matter what route they take, each climber gunning for their trophy provides a real challenge to the search and rescue squad. It’s at least as hard to rescue someone on Ushba as to climb it, which became apparent as we watched the five man squad mill around the center square of town. They were trying to decide how they should help the stranded Armenian climber — whether to risk an ascent by foot or send a chopper into the high winds. But two hours went by, and they remained undecided on a course of action. Storms, winds, and avalanche danger would make the extraction of Andranik extremely difficult.
As the rescue squad debated, three separate expeditions were making their way up the mountain.
The first team was a small Russian expedition making an attempt on the mountain’s vertical rock faces to the South. They were experienced climbers, and were well-known by the local mountaineering community, including the members of the Georgian search and rescue team.
Then, of course, there was the Andranik — the Armenian stuck near the top. He had attempted the climb alone. But it was less out of desire for the solo experience than for the fact that he couldn’t find anyone to climb with him. No partner could be found in Yerevan, his home city, nor in Tblisi, where he had arrived without gear. He rented what he thought was ample—a short rope, four ice screws, an ice ax, and a helmet—and headed to the base of the mountain. At base camp, he asked several expeditions whether he could join them on the climb, but was flatly refused, as he had no log book to document his past climbs. He wanted to climb so badly he went up anyway.
The third group was the Zelenograd Alpine Club, the most prepared of the climbing expeditions.
The 20 man team had come to the mountain to attempt Mushilav’s route, in hopes of being the first to conquer it since its namesake. Zelenograd is a well-funded outfit based on the outskirts of Moscow, and had moved more than 600 kilos (1300 lbs) of equipment across multiple basecamps in preparation for the climb. The club’s climbers were experienced too, having bagged notable peaks from Italy to Kyrgyzstan. They were hoping to add Ushba to that list, and would not be stopped for lack of effort or equipment.
The energy that they put into their logistics made apparent their determination. First, their half ton of equipment had been shipped by train from Moscow to Tbilisi. Then it was freighted to Mazeri — the village at the base of the Mountain — and moved up the valley to basecamp with horses. From there, three trips were made with backpacks to camp 1, at the foot of the glacier, and two more trips were made to camp 2, further up the glacier, where the climb really began. Each climber had spent thousands of dollars on the expedition.
Even this was to no avail. Regardless of their expenses, preparation, and mountaineering experience, each of the three separate climbing groups on Ushba would all have one thing in common. None would summit.
To determine the outcome, we spent two days headed to the mountain’s basecamp to see how the teams would fare. During that time, the storms proved as fierce as predicted. They pounded the mountain, and our tent, with rain, soaking the landscape and our sleeping bags. Higher up, the thunderstorms were blanketing the mountains with meters of fresh snow, and pushing down temperatures to well below freezing. We knew the three teams would each be struggling in the harsh conditions.
Luckily for all, the next morning featured mercifully clear skies. We seized the break in the weather and made our final push up to camp 1, at the foot of the mountain’s glacier. The camp was small — a collection of ten or so bright yellow tents, scattered around a barren rock basin. There were several people gathered there when we arrived. But it wasn’t any of the climbers who were attempting the mountain. It was the Georgian search and rescue team.
Three days had passed since our last encounter, and they were still dealing with the stranded Armenian climber, Andranik.
George and Beso, two younger members of Vitia’s five man team, were leaning against a mattress pad and gazing up at the mountain intently, trading off fixing a pair of high-powered binoculars on the North peak. They looked even more grizzled and sunburned than they had in Mestia’s Tourist Information Center. They had arrived at the glacier a day before us, to see what they could do to help Andranik. The answer was not much, on account of the storms. The mountain had been packed with about four additional meters of snow. George told us they decided not to climb up to the Armenian for fear of creating avalanches.
But now that the weather was cooperating, another option was on the table. George pulled out his radio and started making rapid-fire dispatches in Georgian. His commands were soon answered by the distinct staccato of rotor blades in the thin mountain air. We saw the craft approaching in from the south. It was a behemoth, a soviet-style transport chopper that had been converted for rescue operations.
As the aircraft passed directly overhead, George raised his voice to shout into his radio above the roaring noise. The helicopter followed his cues and ascended directly ahead of us towards the North peak and circled there three times. But the aircraft could not offer help. The pilots had spotted the Armenian, but each time the craft started lowering, it shuddered and abruptly aborted its landing. George shook his head disappointedly. “The wind” he said, nodding towards the wisps of snow flittering off the peaks.
The Georgian military craft was too large and cumbersome to maneuver close to the mountain in extreme wind conditions. The rescue attempt was a failure. George said they’d try again later in the day if the winds allowed. In the meanwhile, he would stay in contact with the Armenian.
It’s Andranik’s saving grace that he is able to communicate. He has a cell phone, which he spends his nights charging with a hand cranked generator. Over the past three days, he had been running a minor call center from the top of the mountain, talking to the Armenian Rescue Ministry and the Embassy in Tbilisi. He had also been in contact with Armenian generals offering to send their own chopper teams to evacuate him, and representatives from the Georgian Climbing Federation. During the more difficult moments, he called his wife and daughter in Yerevan to pass news and comfort them. He was well aware of how dire his position was. Andranik was running low on food, and the cold was starting to bite. When the Georgian Climbing Federation offered to call in Mestia’s chopper to rescue him, he gave them the green light and offered to foot the bill.
The Russian Defeat
During the chopper’s scramble to try and pull Andranik off the mountain, four members of the Zelenograd expedition had pulled back into the basecamp. They told us that the other 16 members of their climbing party were still working their way up the slopes, now gunning to help the Armenian. All had abandoned their hopes of the summit.
Their failure came bitterly, in spite of their six months of preparations.
Ushba had vanquished the Zelenograd team almost before they started. When they arrived on the mountain the week before, the heavy snows and unstable weather had quickly made them shift their plan from the high technical and exposed Mushialv’s route, to the easier Classic Route. On their first day on the glacier, the thunderstorms kicked in.
The snow came in thick, and the climbers found themselves constantly digging ditches around their tents so that they wouldn’t be completely buried. They spent three days stuck on the glacier, unable to advance. Making pot after pot of tea, the expedition huddled together for warmth to keep up their body temperatures and spirits. By the time the storms had abated, no one had the energy or time left to make the summit. When they heard about the stranded Armenian, 16 climbers decided to switch their goal to a rescue.
The four climbers who returned to camp 1 looked disappointed about their failed attempt, but took it in stride. Konstantin Markevich, a north Ossetian who spends at least three months a year on climbing expeditions, explained that it came with the territory.
“It isn’t fun if it isn’t dangerous,” he said wryly.
As if to prove his point, a chopper thundered over the valley for the third time that day, this time to recover the body of a Russian climber from the three man expedition on the South Face. Two days earlier, the climber had fallen off the mountain when he stepped out of his tent for a moment, unattached to the rope. He slipped and fell off the cliff 200 meters to his death.
“They were very experienced climbers” George said, the rescuer himself seeming a little mystified at how it had happened. But he was also markedly nonchalant about it; there was nothing he could do now. For a search and rescue team member, deaths on Ushba are unpleasant statistics, to be expected.
George instead turned his focus back to the living, the climber stuck under the summit.
He was worried now. The Armenian had slipped outside the reach of his help. After multiple rescue attempts, the chopper had ordered Andranik to sit tight and wait for the winds to die down so they could make another pass.
Andranik disobeyed. He told the rescue team that he would start going down on his own. After multiple failed passes in relatively clear skies, he decided he was going to use the window of clear weather to help himself down. It was a dangerous move. Going further down the slope essentially put him out of reach of the chopper. It also meant descending down nearly vertical faces while trying not to slip off the ice patches, or start an avalanche from the meters of accumulated snow.
Andranik was on his own now, at the mercy of the mountain.
An Anxious Wait
By early the next morning, a nervous calm had settled over camp 1, as climbers anxiously awaited news about Andranik. Bursts of rain had started falling on the mountain.
The rest of the Zelenograd climbers were now coming off the glacier, in groups of three or four at a time. They hadn’t been able to reach the stranded Armenian climber, so they decided to descend the mountain before they themselves got stuck. They appeared dazed and beaten from sleepless nights on the ice, and promptly shed their packs and collapsed on coils of climbing rope in the mess tent, happy to get their wet bodies out of the rain. Someone fired up a pot of tea, and cups of hot chai were passed around to grateful expressions. It was but a small luxury on what had proved to be a tougher-than-usual trip.
While the climbers laughed off their fatigue and passed around the last of their chocolate bars, their thoughts were never far from the follow climber struggling down the mountain. A loud thunderclap impressed that Andranik was not out of danger yet; the slick rocks on the glacier could make the descent difficult.
Among the number of returning climbers was a bald Polish mountaineer named Mike. He wasn’t part of the Zeleograd excursion, but came to Ushba during his summer vacation from working as a P.E. teacher near Warsaw. Mike crowded next to us in the Russian’s mess tent. In the space of about an hour, the weather had intensified from a drizzle to a thunderstorm.
Mike had also been defeated by the mountain, when weather blocked his way up Ushba’s Classic Route. The story was becoming all too familiar.
“Any direction you look at it, this mountain is crazy” Mike exclaimed in half-awe. “People call it the Matterhorn of the Caucasus, but they’re mistaken. It’s way harder. Almost like mini K2. Just crazy, man.”
Mike said he decided to attempt Ushba’s North peak because it was new, challenging, and dangerous. He seeks the thrill – that spurt of adrenaline in climbing that that he can’t seem to get anywhere else. “Plus,” he added reasonably, “climbing in the Caucasus will prepare you for anything.” After Ushba, many other mountains seem like a piece of cake. It’s the ultimate training ground. But the Polish climber did have one caveat.
“At least I know when to stop,” he said sternly. Ushba had been no exception.
He first learned that lesson 14 years ago, when he climbed Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua and gotten frost bite on his thumb. “On the mountains, death can meet the experienced too” Mike said. He indicated that in the thrill of the climb, not all climbers exercise this kind of self-control. Even when signs suggest that a climber should turn back, many can’t resist the peak.
Outside the mess tent there was a commotion, and we looked up to see one of the Russians motioning that a few more people were coming down the trail from the glacier. The crowd emptied out into the rain, and watched the returning party’s deliberate descent down the rain-slicked rocks. Faces grew excited when they realized who it was.
It was the Armenian, with an honor guard of friends and rescuers.
Andranik Mirkyan was swarmed as soon as he stepped into the camp. People pattedhim on the back,hugged him, and shook his hand. He was congratulated in a cacophony of different languages — Russian, Polish, English, Georgian – to which he returned a meek smile. It seemed an odd sort of congratulations. Like, ‘Hey — congrats on surviving!’
After spending four nights up in freezing winds, rain, and snow, Andranik looked surprisingly good. His nose was peeling from sunburns, and his eyes had the glazed-over look of someone who hadn’t got any sleep for days, but he was still cracking lots of smiles. He didn’t hide his hunger, though. The climber wolfed down sausage, cheese, and black tea about as fast as the rescue team could give it to him.
One would think that Andranik would then have headed down to the valley immediately, where he could get a car that would take him back to the comforts of civilization. But he was uninjured, and wanted to recount his harrowing descent down Ushba’s glacier. He confessed that he hadn’t been sure he was going to make it, and that there were moments of deep doubt.
Andranik had spent two days lowering himself down on his back, painstaking checking every move he made, digging his crampons into the ice as far in as they would go. The spikes had slipped a couple times, but he managed to hang on.
“I wasn’t scared, I just had to focus on the work at hand,” he said. The climber had risked a 2000 vertical meter descent across ice crevices, scattered cliffs, and fragile snow banks. It was an impressive self-rescue.
In his decision to help himself, Andranik committed to a gamble that, this time at least, worked in his favor. But he knows he was lucky. The climbers gathered around him knew it as well; they showed it in the relief on their faces.
Despite their concerns and a challenging week for all of them, they knew they would be back to face the heights and the elements soon enough. The Zelenograd club would take on difficult routes in other distant parts of the world, and Mike would don his crampons again as soon as he could get the vacation days. They were too much in love with the freedom of the hills.
As for Andranik, he had not yet reached his goal. We half-jokingly asked if he would come back to climb Ushba again.
Andranik looked at us seriously.
I’m going to climb both the North and South peak.”