Bright and early the next morning, fuelled by a breakfast of strong coffee, cake, cheese, meat, pastries, stew, buckwheat, porridge and a few more slices of cake, we loaded up the minibus with our astonishing amount of baggage to start the drive from Pyatigorsk to base camp. It was pouring with rain and the plan was to leave early so we would reach the river before the water level rose and the vehicle couldn’t cross it…
The first stop was the gear rental shop. Fortunately the proprietor had agreed to open at 7am on a day he is normally closed so a few team members could change their hired boots to something more appropriate. It turned out only one of four who intended to swap their boots actually did so; the rest kept their original rental boots after all.
The next stop was at a hotel just outside Pyatigorsk where we picked up a guide and her client (we’ll call her Elena and him John). They were getting a ride with us to base camp in exchange for Elena’s company bringing our remaining team member to join us at camp when his flight landed (visa issues had him a day behind).
As we waited in the bus while Elena helped John sort out difficulties getting his papers and passport back from the hotel, it became clear there was no chance of getting to the river in time to cross it – we’d have to hike in. When we finally departed it transpired that John was a very interesting, intelligent, highly experienced mountaineer with a deep respect for the mountains and it was a pleasure to hear him share his experiences during the journey.
As the rain eased up the temperature dropped, the cloudy sky cleared and we got our first views of the mountain. What a beauty. We stopped at a view point where the guides told us the snowline was lower than they’d ever seen it before at that time in the summer, and waited for a 4×4 from base camp to arrive which would transport our baggage while we walked the rest of the way.
We set off on the 2 hour walk and almost immediately as we turned the corner we were faced with an enormous boulder which had just fallen from the cliff face into the middle of the road making it totally impassable for vehicles; we’d never have got to base camp by bus even if we’d been on time departing.
Continuing on the road which passed through what looked like a refugee camp, we reached the famous open-air spa where people come from all over Russia to bathe, to heal and to enjoy the mountain air. It smelt like sulphur and rusty brown mineral deposits from the earth made it appear as if people were bathing in muddy puddles of a disused quarry. The wooden shed that was being utilised as a changing room was rudimentary at best and the hiking trail ran through the middle of the spa. I am confident that the word spa in Russian has a different meaning than in English.
The remaining 30 minutes of the hike felt slightly less voyeuristic with the double peaks, “is like woman breasts, no?“, dominating the horizon. Before long we were greeted by a very comfortable base camp: for the next couple of nights we would be staying in huge platform tents with camp beds! At camp there were also three clean long drop toilets (toilet paper provided and on a holder!), an outdoor sink with running mineral water and antibacterial soap, and a warm, inviting dining hut where we would enjoy delicious meals, unlimited hot water, WiFi (at a fee), crap Russian music TV and where snacks/drinks/booze were available for purchase. The tiny lazy mountain cat, Yeva, who lived at base camp was my personal highlight. It was far better than we’d expected.
Arriving so late put paid to our acclimatization walk so with a hearty meal consumed, a briefing by the guides done, time getting to know the team better, and a first night under canvas in pretty luxurious surroundings things were looking up. Or were they?