Caucasian roulette in "Khergiani's Route" on Ushba. A game that you want to play only once
16. 06. 2020,
Martin "Lesko" Leskovjan
It’s like déjà vu. During the six years since our first attempt, the village of Mazeri has hardly changed. The only thing that changed was a few hundred meters of new asphalt road. Again, we are welcomed by low cloud cover and a heavy portion of precipitation, which slowly but surely keeps reducing the likelihood of our successful and safe ascent of the wall.
Slowly, we climb into the fog, and just outside the village, we meet a mountain rescuer on horseback, who is trying to break our already undermined morale: „Возвращайся. Условия не хорошие.“ We spend a while assessing our options. Should we try reaching the northern peak by the normal route? It’s a tricky snow ridge, at which Tom failed twice, Leon once, and various climbers from our club ten times in total. Moreover, we’ve only got three ice screws, two snow anchors and the conditions on Ushba Glacier keep getting worse year after year… It’s a dumb idea. After all, we decide to stick to our original plan – to climb the southern peak of Ushba by Gabriel Khergiani’s route (5B in Russian grading scale = several days of hacking and slashing through tough conditions).
The rain gets thicker, forcing us to bivouac in a shepherd’s shelter. With this delay, we reach the moraine under the south face the next day. The weather improves and so does our morale. The whole wall is plastered by a 30-centimeter layer of fresh snow but the forecast promises four to five days of relatively stable weather without much precipitation. Despite our enthusiasm, we decide to spend the next day resting and sunbathing, listening to the amazing performance of a local band The Avalanche, which drops one banger after another.
On the fourth day early in the morning, we’re finally leaving. We swiftly make our way through easy mixed climbing to the glacier and then wind between the crevasses straight under the wall. The path begins with a wide snow staircase followed by a more vertical wall onto a ramp. The rock is solid… as scattered Lego pieces but we expected that. We continue with a narrow rocky gutter that spits us out above a large snow plato.
We rappel a bit, climb through some relatively easy mixed parts and reach a blank water slide which sucks us up higher and higher. Around 1 p.m., we’re digging a tent platform. It went well, maybe too well. After all, we begin to feel the 1,200 altitude meters that we’ve climbed since the morning and the only thing to do now is to rest, enjoy the views and drink one tea after another. We crawl into the absurd Chinese tent and hope that the storm doesn’t come today.
In the morning, we start straight through the firn channel into the headwall, where we finally unpack our ropes. The first pitch brings us to the key corner. It’s leaning on one side, overhanging on the other and quite smooth – here and there, you can find a piton. This time, I’d rather be just a spectator and enjoy the views of somebody else fighting through the crux moves. After a few moments of hesitation and evaluating the blank wall above me, I arm myself with some iron and start. I freeclimb the first few meters and then I’m forced to start technical climbing. It’s easier than last time. There!’s no waterfall pouring straight onto my head, but it’s not a piece of cake either. As I continue up the crack, it slightly widens, so you can find some solid placements for the climbing axe in the last few meters. I make an anchor in a mess of old slings and pitons right in the spot, where we decided to back off last time.
“It looks easier further on. Let’s not waste time re-tying into the other ends of the rope,” the boys say, trying to weasel out of the leading. Well, what the hell… I lead on.
After a few meters, it’s clear it won’t get any easier. There’s nothing to hook on and certainly nothing to hold on to. Thanks to an old fixed sling in a stuck friend and the capillary elevation, I scramble a bit higher, step by step all the way across the loose rock (which finally comes down under Tom’s weight), a few meters of blank wall, and finally an anchor.
Leon, trying to spare his dislocating shoulder, performs a mental enema in the form of jumaring on one strand of 7,5-millimeter rope. He didn’t cut it. Somehow, we manage to fight our way up through the third pitch but then I feel I had enough. I climb slowly, my legs tremble, my forearms are spastic, and I barely manage to clip the loose piton in the final moves of the pitch. A few mentally demanding moves in the slab and then an anchor. Hurray! We got over the crux and I can finally tie onto the end of the train and follow the guys leading the rest. The ridge is endless, there’s still quite some climbing and the weather keeps changing all the time. Clear, fog, pure shit – repeat.
We pass the golden plaque, and at sunset, we stand at the summit of South Ushba. Eureka! We shake hands, take some pictures for Playboy and hurry up down.
We hike down for a while, looking for anything that could serve us as a bivouac. “Look, over there a perfect platform!” We rappel down two pitches from the main ridge into the southern slope. “Oh, well, nothing…“ we dig a snug three-person bench into the snow and secure ourselves using the ropes hanging from the last anchor. The weather calmed down. We’re almost asleep. (picture from bivouac)
At sunrise, we climb back to the ridge and rappel down into C1. Surprisingly enough, the headwall takes only 1 length of rope, however, just through the air. We reach our tent by evening and stay because it’s already too late to go all the way down. Tomorrow’s another day.
We get up quite early and rappel from the top of the water slide almost to the foot of the wall. The descent is for connoisseurs only. Following the lesson the mountain gave us last time, we had picked the best spots for our rappeling slings already during the ascent, which saves us a lot of time on our way down. As truly experienced climbers, we get repeatedly tangled into our ropes and spend the extra time trying to untangle them. As we go down, there’s, unfortunately, fewer anchors and less snow. The exposed bottom ramp turns out to be a system of washed-out slabs covered in loose scree. Every time we pull down a rope, it takes a down grapeshot of various-sized stones.
We play Sherlock Holmes searching for another rock or crack that could hold a piton, uncomfortably lengthening the time we are exposed to the shooting stones. We rather decide to ignore the tracks after a stone avalanche that crosses our descent route. After twelve hours of rappelling, we stand on the glacier. The snow’s gone, so we hurry up and leave this minefield. We arrive in BC completely exhausted. The descent from C1 took us more than twice the time of climbing to the same place.
We’re happy. We’re happy that we’ve made our way back and what more, we don’t need to climb the mountain again.
It’s over. Finally.
„Khergiani’s Route“ to Ushba 4710 m.a.s.l. (5B Russian classification, ED, 3–4 days, climbing in headwall M5+ A2, couloirs 65°, elevation difference 1700 m, objectively dangerous due to falling stones. In 1937, the first ascent took five days.)
Martin „Lesko“ Leskovjan, Tomáš „Tom“ Horský and Petr „Leon“ Novosad climbed the route in July 2019. Photo of the equipment.