This experience was all to come, of course, and at the start of our journey we knew little beyond what a cursory read of our guidebooks could tell us. That would soon change. After five hours across two flights from London to Poland to Georgia, my Polish climbing partner Maciej and I had made our way across the country – first to the sprawling capital of Tbilisi and then directly north on the ever-climbing Georgian Military Road, past the vast Zhinvali reservoir and the Gudauri ski resort, towards the town of Stepantsminda. With a population of just 1,800 it’s a local place. So local that, as a Polish-born lady in the tourist information centre told us, new arrivals have to be interviewed and approved by the town elders if they hope to make their stay in the area permanent. It’s far from wealthy – most of the roads are uneven dirt tracks and most of the buildings incomplete or falling into disrepair – but still you’ll find a welcome as sincere as any in Georgia.
After a good night’s sleep and an extensive breakfast feast at our guesthouse, we started our ascent. It had been a long journey – two days with little food and less rest – and so we began slowly. We’d decided to hire a horse and rider to carry our heavy packs, containing tents, rucksacks and nearly a week’s supplies, two thirds of the way to the mountain’s established base camp. This left us with just light daypacks. The normal route to the summit starts at Stepantsminda (1,740m), winds up past the spectacularly-positioned Gergeti Trinity Church (2,170m), up to the Arsha Pass (2,940m) and on over the Gergeti Glacier to the Betlemi Hut and base camp (3,670m). Beyond that it leads up to an icy and glaciated pass (4,480m) and finally on to the 5,047m top. Throughout all of that there are some truly glorious mountainscapes rising all around.
Whether it’s the view up towards the great, soaring white dome of Kazebek itself, with the dwarfed speck of the Gergeti Trinity silhouetted against it, or the snow-capped spires of Mount Shani and surrounding peaks forming the steep wall on the other side of the valley, there’s enough natural beauty here to distract from even the most dull and painful of ascents – which thankfully the climb up Kazbek only very occasionally strays towards being. And then only if you overstretch yourself on the approach.
By 4pm we’d reached a popular and well-watered camping spot just past the Arsha Pass. A pleasant place to stay. But as we’d climbed in plenty of company up obvious paths and the base camp was just another 800m above us, we decided to continue on. It could take as little as two hours. In hindsight: not such a good idea. Fast-forward to 8pm and we’d only just passed the Gergeti glacier. Eventually we crawled up on to the rocky plateau surrounding the Betlemi Hut and somehow managed to put up the tent. We’d made great progress in a single day, but at a potentially great cost: we’d exhausted ourselves.