Experiences of an inexperienced hiker

 The path to the highest mountain in Altai  09/9/2011, 06:02
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Experiences of an inexperienced hiker
Photos by Pavel Yukechev

I decided to become a hiker one day before our trip to the mountains. Not a very promising start, I know. However, the ten-day walking route (a phrase I couldn’t fully comprehend at the first time of asking) to the Altai Mountains had already been drawn up, so I had no choice but to keep the promise I made to Pasha in a merciless dive bar. Below is a chaotic description of what the path to Belukha, the most important Altai hiking trail of all time, looks like today.

There aren’t that many ways to get to Belukha, but I’m sure none of them leave people indifferent, seeing as they have to carry a man-sized rucksack for 8 hours a day. The three of us, loaded down, set off from Tungur village, along the Kucherla and Tekelyushka rivers, before heading for the Karatyurek pass. The estimated length of the route is 80km. We have to get back to the city in eleven days time: Pasha has a concert and Mark has a train to catch.

There are still disagreements about the grammatical gender of the word «whisky» in Russian, but this was no obstacle on our camping trip

To my great joy, I managed to quickly — and reasonably competently — pack my bag. Even managed to take charismatic Jack with me, albeit a little, instead of knock-off Armenian brandy. I got some experience in packing from a canoeing holiday in the Leningrad Region in May last year. That first time, I firmly grasped the idea that you shouldn’t go camping with a fork but no bowl!

We met a shepherd on a hill, who showed us the way and mentioned in passing that a bear had scared away his flock, so now he has to wander across the mountain range, looking for his lost sheep with binoculars. He also sighed that there are a lot of Muscovites and foreigners these days, although we didn’t manage to figure out why exactly he’s not happy with this development. On the other hand, I guess I can understand: deserted places should stay that way.

Meanwhile, we got into an argument. To be more precise, I got into an argument with Pasha and Mark. You see, we got properly drenched on the second day. If it was drizzling before that, then for three hours it absolutely poured down and we were faced with a choice: to bravely cover our planned daily mileage or to stay in log cabin with a Russian sauna that miraculously appeared in front of us... I finally managed to tip the scales in my favour with an assertive closing argument: «A wet hiker isn’t a hiker at all», which my fellow travellers agreed with. Before we knew it we were drying our clothes over the stone oven and heating up the steam bath. The next day, the fun was over: we had to tackle an ascent along a mountain river with the seemingly harmless name of Tekelyushka, towards the Karatyurek pass.

In the morning, Anatoly, a well-balanced strongman with a direct gaze and firm hand, encouraged us with some warm parting wishes, while one of his three grandchildren asked where we were going with a smile. We charged Pasha with answering this question, and he described all the details of our route to his six-year-old conversation partner as we repacked our accoutrements. It’s high time to add that Pasha is my cousin, who I hadn’t seen for nearly fifteen years. Though we live in the same city (the time I borrowed his cello for shooting and vanished for another three years after giving it back doesn’t count). So this trip was a very important event for both of us.

The average hiking bag has a volume of 70-90 litres

The track was damp and kept us in top form, as sometimes we had to climb almost vertically. This was more than compensated for by the heavy, sweetish taiga air and incredible heavenly studies, but fundamentally changed my conception of hiking as a sort of meditative retreat. Contemplating with 25 kilograms on your back (a trivial weight for more or less well-prepared hikers and a real challenge for someone as physically unfit as myself) is really hard work.

A four-man tent comfortably accommodates three people.

I came to some conclusions during the first two days of the trip. First of all, under no conditions should you take off your backpack. Otherwise, you have to convince yourself all over again after each rest stop that it is within your powers. Secondly, if you take a collection of short stories by Cortazar with you — even a wafer-thin one — this is evidence of a clear breach of hiking etiquette. And thirdly, no matter which place you choose in the tent or how many fir branches you put down, you still wake up from the grinding sound of your vertebrae demanding an orthopaedist.

The ascent was not easy for us. On the fourth day, in the middle of a mountain pass, we realised that we were incapable of overcoming the ridge (about another six hours climb in total) without serious consequences for ourselves and the following day. Without lengthy debates we pitched our tent next to the glacier, resisting the disturbing gusts of wind that were pulling a solid front of storm clouds towards us. To be honest, this didn’t really fill us with inspiration. The night-time temperature was minus five degrees Celsius.

3060 metres is the height of the Karatyurek pass — a Category 1A climb, according to the hiking classification

The night at almost three thousand metres made a very strange and unforgettable impression on me: as a virgin hiker, that was one of the bravest and most romantic milestones. Now, I finally understood where we were going and why. What Vysotsky (Vladimir, extremely influential Soviet singer-songwriter — Sib.fm comment) was croaking about and why «everything will change when you get there», as hikers on their way back spurred us on. The feeling of being right under the skies didn’t leave me from the moment the sun set until the sip of Jack, carefully poured into the cap before going to sleep, which made the spiritual experiences at least twice as strong.

I made a real effort not miss the dawn, so found the time to go up to some surrounding plateaus to heroically breathe in the thin air and make an attempt to warm up after the bracing night. However, I left my camera in the tent, so consoled myself with some words I’d overheard Brodsky saying: «I prefer to take pictures on my retina».

Belukha is the highest point of the Altai Mountains (4,506m), crowning the Katun Range

It was a great day (especially seeing as I was so enthusiastic by that time): we overcame the peak of the mountain pass in the morning and the Akkem Valley opened in front of us, with its breathtaking panoramic view of Belukha’s snow-white faces, the amber ridges of neighbouring mountains and the ice flows creeping towards Akkem Lake. Watching all this as clouds float above and below is an endless joy, especially when the wind dies down and you can hear the sound of the heavens.

Belukha is covered in snow from head to toe and blinds you in the sun. In its immediate proximity you have a feeling of perfect serenity and understand the meaninglessness of timekeeping. I’m even scared to imagine what is experienced by climbers that conquer the peak that the locals know as Uch-Syumer — «Abode of the Gods».

The works of man-mountain Sergei Rakhmaninov would be appropriate background music

So, from now on, our path would mainly wind its way back down. Things were rapidly looking up, seeing as we’d finished off a significant part of our provisions in the first half of the day. Pasha opened up about his jazz band and talked about music more often (for example, I learned that Rakhmaninov’s third concerto is much more interesting than the second as far as critics are concerned). Mark, ignoring his bad knees, went an hour ahead — I got the opportunity to have both a good clean-up in the attics of my mind and sort out the storeroom of accumulated emotional experiences, which I willingly got to work on. By the early evening, we reached our destination on the banks of Akkem Lake, from where we planned to make another four-hour ascent to the Valley of Seven Lakes, a place with a rainbow palette of colours (in good weather conditions, of course), on the following day.

The shores of the lake were dotted with tents: we met organised groups of Norwegian and Swiss tourists, proudly carrying around their crosses on pieces of red cloth, climbers with varying levels of training, athletes, yogis, raw foodists and Sergei, our toned neighbour from Krasnoyarsk who was there with his family and treated us to bread and a piece of smoked fatback bacon (if Sib.fm forks out for another couple of Greta font faces, the phrase «smoked fatback bacon» should be set off in bold, or at least italics).

For the rest of the journey (about two days), I savoured the thought that «I’ve been to the mountains» and considered our adventure complete... That was before we got into the open back of a veteran GAZ-66 pick-up with a broken front wheel, before night fell and before heavy rain started pouring when we began to make our way up to the final pass on a washed-out road. But that’s a completely different story.

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in Russian

When we got back to Novosibirsk, Pasha held out his hand and asked me: «Well then, will you go back?»

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