South Caucasus Episodes, part II:
The Quest for Skiing
the SE face of Kazbek (Mkinvartsveri, 5034 m).
A Story about Skiing Ortsveri NE Face (3A), Mkinvartsveri (Mt. Kazbek) SE Face (3B), East Ramp (3B) & South Flank (2B) and Maili-Khok West Ridge (2B).
The Author during his 2-nd Attempt to ski the SE face (3B) of Mkinvartsveri (Mt. Kazbek)
How we came to Georgia, in a Nutshell.
I grew up in the Alps of Austria, and had climbed and skied a lot there and in the Andes of South America so I had seen many mountains.
In 2005 I visited the Caucasus the first time with a Canadian friend, Deon Louw, in seach for an exotic, yet not too far away ski touring destination for my university spring vacation. Back then we spend 2.5 weeks in Armenia - full report.
With a few days left we travelled to Georgia to have a look ourselves at a most beautiful route I remember seeing on photos of a beautiful mountain: The Southeast (SE) Face of Mkinvartsveri (Mt. Kazbek).
It had caught my attention, as it formed the left silhouette of the peak when seen from Kazbegi or Sno Valley , where the mountain presents itself as one of the most beautiful peaks anywhere.
We turned around because of bad weather, but back then, on this rainy April day below Kazbek, began a 4-year long quest to ski this 1000m high and up to 50° steep line. During this quest I would face more challenges that I was looking for, I would grow as alpinist and skier, learn about fear and how far I was willing to go, and about the true meaning of patience.
Kazbek (5034m), seen from Kazbegi. The left prominent snow face is the SE face (3B)
April 2006 – the Return and Almost-Disaster.
Hopes were high for Deon and me, when we met again in Kazbegi village (elevation: 1800m) in April 2006. Joining us were two Spaniards and a Norwegian, who would all attempt the normal route with skis.
After days of horrible storms Deon and I finally had a chance to climb the SE face in somewhat good weather. Snow conditions were not ideal, very variable, but at least there was only little ice in the route, which we could navigate around.
Storm on Kazbek, April 2006
Ortsveri from the summit of Kazbek
The Author dropping into the SE face of Kazbek
We summited, and as Deon and I ped with skis into the SE face, clouds roll in all of a sudden, sight deteriorates, making everything around us white and grey. In the variable snow this was a problem, since we could not see features on the snow surface, and when making a turn in the 55° steep terrain (we skied to the skier's left side of the face, along the rocks, to have orientation – this is a steeper variation of the 50° normal variation) we could not see where in what snow we would finish the turn. Only seconds passed before the – in our minds impossible – happened: Deon fell at about 4850m in bad snow, falling down to about 4300m before being able to stop.
Watching in horror Deon fall and disappear in the clouds, I skied on to 4700m to below a prominent rock gendarme, to a flat spot where it is finally safe to take off skis.
From here the route's steepness decreases to about 40°, so I had actually skied the difficult part of Kazbek's SE face, but conditions made me take off the skis regardless.
I climbed down Deon's fall line, collecting gear he had lost en route, expecting the worst. I heard him yell long before I saw him, and was later immensely relieved to see him alive and almost unharmed. We skied back to the meteorological station, descending two days later, saying good-bye to Kazbek again.
Again we were swearing again that we would come back. But something had changed: there was not only pure enthusiasm and fascination in the idea of skiing that face, but also fear.
Deon returned in May 2007 to the mountain again, this time without me (I had to be in university), but with his girlfriend Pascale. Bad weather kept them in the meteorological station, and they went down to Kazbegi without any attempts to climb Kazbek.
In May 2008 it was finally my time to return to the mountain. I had time off, but Deon had to work - then my Austrian mountain partner Andi Riesner agreed to join me, and my quest to ski what had become my “line of lines” continued.
May 2008 – A Good Start on Ortsveri and Success & Disappointment on Kazbek.
In the evening of May 22nd Andi and I arrive with heavy packs (food for 10 days, skis, snow/ice climbing equipment) at the former meteorological station (3680m), which now serves as shelter for climbers. Here the friendly administrator of the station, Levan, greets us with hot tea (he greatly hosted us the days we were up in the station). We talk with him about potential ski goals, and prepare our equipment for the next tours.
The former Meteorological Station (3680m)
Levan, Administrator of the Station
Entrance room of the Station
The following day (May 23rd) we climb the East Summit (Kupol) of Ortsveri in sunny, calm weather via its NE face (45°/3A), and traverse the ridge to the main summit (4350m). We ski down the same route directly from the main summit in excellent conditions. What a great start! Levan think that this was a first descent. Maybe?
The Author climbing the NE face
The Author on the ridge between Kupol (Dome) and Ortsveri Main summit
Andreas skiing the NE face
The Author skiing the NE face
Below the hanging glacier
Our tracks in the NE face
With the weather still being excellent, we decide to explore the east side of Kazbek, where I suspected an easy access to Kazbek's East Ramp that later joins the upper part of the Southeast Face.
This line was also on my mind for a long time too, and as a ski descent route an attractive alternative to the SE Face. I was hoping for good conditions to ski that line on that day, to give us an early big success on Kazbek. Climbing that line would also give us valuable information about conditions about the SE Face. So we set out at 3:30 in the morning of May 24 th to give this route a try. We climb with skis past the entry of the Southeast Face, and gain a pass at about 4380m that separates the south-eastern slopes of Kazbek from the east slopes above the Abano Glacier.
From here we easily access the East Ramp. We are able to go with skis to about 4600m (30-40°) before the ramp steepens to 40-45° and we have to switch to crampons. At 4800m, above the prominent gendarme, the east ramp meets the upper slopes of the Southeast Face. Here the inclination quickly steepens to 45-50°.
We climb on, and soon realized that we are moving on a very thin snow cover on rotten, brittle ice. Further to the left we can see large completely blank sections. So we decide to use our rope on the last 180m – we simul-climb with Tiblocs.
Andreas below the pass and the E. Ramp
Not what we want for skiing – thin snow on brittle ice.
The Author climbing the upper part of the E. Ramp
The East Ramp route
Climbing the upper part of the E. Ramp Route
Andreas exiting the route near the summit
The snow cover on the last 200m of the SE face to our left looks worse – the surface of large parts of the route is blank ice.
Seeing this, I realize disappointed that in these conditions a full ski descent of the SE face or of the East Ramp would also be impossible this year. Skiing on the thin snow cover over the ice would be too dangerous.
At noon we stand on top of Kazbek, with an amazing view towards to great mountains like Djimara, Bezengi region (Dykh-Tau, Koshtan) and Elbrus to the west (see summit photo from Maili-Khok, below), and Tebulos-Mta to the east.
Despite having reached the summit, I am a little disappointed – again it looks like I will have to return home without having done what I came here for.
The Author on the summit
The Author skiing down from the summit to the Saddle
Ascent (red; E. Ramp) and ski descent (blue; South Flank) routes
We ski down the 45° slope from the summit to the saddle between main and esummit, and then ski down via the south flank (35°/2B) back to the meteorological station, where we knew thanks to Levan's information that a skiable line exists between the crevasses zones.
Day three greets us with lowered air pressure and deteriorating weather – so we only go to the summit of the nearby Elektrozink (4250m). On day four the weather has become worse, and we finally get a rest day in the meteorological station.
Kazbek SE Face Attempt, Ski Descent East Ramp and Summit Success on Maili-Khok.
Still the SE Face was on my mind. With a slight weather improvement during the night we decide to climb up the SE face on May 27-th. The plan is to at least climb to where I put off my skis two years ago at 4700m, and ski down from there. Then I would at least have skied the route in two parts.
While climbing in the route, we soon realize that the snow conditions are not ideal even here in the lower parts – very variable snow with crusts, some good snow, and some parts with thin snow covering ice or a hard crust. The all of a sudden clouds roll in, we see nothing – memories from 2006 come back to my mind.
Being all-to-well aware that skiing back down the SE face is dangerous in these conditions, we climb higher to 4800m to above the gendarme, and ski down the East Ramp, where we know from our tour three days ago that better snow conditions can be found.
Our escape from the SE face to the East Ramp turns into an awesome ski run in very good snow down the 45-35° steep ramp and the gentler slopes below to the meteorological station.
Clouds over Mt. Shan (4451m)
Below the SE face of Kazbek
The Author on the SE face
Skiing the East Ramp
Skiing the East Ramp
Ascent to 4800m (red; SE face) and ski descent (blue; E. Ramp) routes
The next day (May 28-th) brings sunny, but windy and still unstable low-pressure weather.
We set out to climb Maili-Khok (4598m), the other significant 4000m peak in the area around the meteorological station besides Ortsveri. In sunny, but very windy weather we set out, and have a very nice ski tour that leads to the Kazbek Plateau, past Pik Gergeti (Spartak, 4517m) and on to the summit of Maili-Khok, where we again enjoy an awesome view to the mountains of the Caucasus. We ski down the West Ridge to the col (ca. 4400m) between Maili-Khok and Pik Gergeti and climb up the short ascent to the summit of Pik Gergeti, from where we have a very nice ski descent down to the meteorological station.
Maili-Khok seen from Kazbek. Visible the ascent route from the 4480m high plateau (red) and ski descent route via Spartak. Dzimara (4780m) and Shauk-hokh (4630m) are visible in the background
The Author near the summit of Spartak, Maili-Khok in the background
The Author approaching the summit
Andreas on the summit, Kazbek in the background
View to the West from the summit
Skiing down from Spartak (visible in the background)
A Raging Storm Turns the Tide on the SE Face.
Storm on Kazbek, May 2008
For the next two days we sat in the station watching a furious storm raging outside. I had buried my hopes for skiing the SE face already, but the storm brought back some hope – the storm might load enough snow into the face to change the conditions in our favour, and given the cold temperatures and general weather conditions (some sun after the storm) I did not expect significant avalanche hazard in the face despite the wind…was that optimism or naivety?
On May 31 st at 3:20 Andi and I we set out for the last time. We are not expecting much, but are hoping for the best.
This is my third time on this route overall. The storm has calmed down, the skies cleared, and the air pressure has risen slightly, but the west wind is still blowing and we keep a nervous look towards the thin clouds in the west. Will the weather hold?
The Author on the Lower Part of the SE face on Attempt Nr. 4 to ski the route
On the SE face
Andreas on the upper part of the SE face
Already in the lower part of the route we realize that there is quite a bit more snow than 4 days ago. Soon loose snow changes into well-settled snow, and we make fast progress up the face. Halfway up I dig a test snow profile to assess the snow stability, and I assess good stability – no slab formation or other significant hazards.
The upper 200 vertical meters we climb without rope this time, the new snow has made the snow cover above the ice/hard crust deeper and settled enough to hold our weight, and we hardly penetrate the ice below. But will the snow cover over the ice be sufficient to hold a skier?
After 6 hours we stand for the second time on the summit of Kazbek. The weather has held - we enjoy great views to Caucasus – but it is windy and cold, despite my thick gloves and down jacket.
We quickly ski down the short distance from the summit to the entry of the SE face. The weather is still sunny but cold, and there is still a constant wind blowing.
I look down into the SE face. The cold has crept into every part of my body by now, and has made my numb for any anxiousness or fear.
Andreas on the summit, his 2-nd time
The Author on the summit, his 3-rd time
A few minutes of relaxation before starting the SE face ski descent
I click into my skis, check the bindings and rest of my gear once again, put one ice tool between my shoulder and the backpack to have it handy, and slide into the SE face.
The first meters are not quite as steep and have good snow. I make the first turns, Andi follows. Then I quickly reach the 50°part of the face with the thinner snow cover over an ice/crust layer. Anxiety returns, and the awareness that two years ago an almost-catastrophe occurred at this place. But things are different this year. The snow conditions remain good, the edges of my skis grip well. I ski highly concentrated, expecting my skis to hit ice or a crust anytime but nothing like that happens.
The Author starting the ski descent
Andreas, the SE face visible below him
Turn for turn I work my way down, Andi following once I shout to him that conditions are OK.
After few turns more the conditions turn out to be almost perfect, the skiing becomes fluid. Turn, slide, turn again. Everything feels right. We reach the intersection of the SE Face and East Ramp above the gendarme at 4800m, where the angle starts to decrease slowly. A few turns later I pass by the place where I removed my skis two years ago after Deon had fallen.
This time there is no reason to remove skis. The angle kicks back to 45-40°, and the snow becomes even better. We relax, ski more aggressive, turn for turn it is more fun. Anxiety is replaced by shear joy. A dream is finally coming true!
The ascent and ski descent route through the SE face
2 hours after leaving the summit we stand at the meteorological station, with the SE Face looming above us. We skied the face, but for all I feel is relief that we arrived safely at the station, some satisfaction along with a strange emptiness that stays behind when you have achieved something big and nothing else remains to be achieved.
The next day we say farewell to Kazbek, the meteorological station and to Levan, and descent in sunny weather to Kazbegi. We manage to ski down to about 2400m in a river drainage. We stop at Tsminda Sameba for some photos, and 2:30hrs after leaving the station we are back in Kazbegi.
Descending. Tsminda Sameba (Trinity Church) in the background.
Kazbek from Tsminda Sameba
Later that day I sit at the porch of Nunu Maisuradze's (my favourite place in Kazbegi) house, I look at Kazbek, like I did so many times before. Now I truly realize that this quest has come to an end. We skied Kazbek's SE face, skied my line of lines. Skiing the route in such good conditions and weather was after all not that difficult, as the steepness does not exceed 50°.
But the accident two years ago, the bad conditions we often had encountered, the altitude and the bad weather with horrible storms gave the idea of a ski descent of the SE Face an aura of impossibility and fear for a long time.
Now I can finally close this chapter, this second episode of our Caucasus adventures.
In April 2006, when Deon and I skied off the easy slopes from the summit of Kazbek towards the SE face entry, Deon said “go first, it is your big line”. Over the time it became more than just my line, it was our line, and the Deon could not join our team was the only downer on this trip.
In two years Deon and I will travel together again eastwards. What episodes will start then?
Summary of Peaks Climbed and Skied.
Route and Difficulty
April 18 th
(climber's left side)
Abort of Ski Descent at ca. 4700m
May 23 rd 2008
May 24 th 2008
Ascent East Ramp
ca. 700m (from Pass)/50°/3B
Ski Descent South Flank
35° (45° Summit to Saddle)/2B