On Sunday the 12th of August 14 Riflemen from across 6 Rifles plus two external instructors flew from Heathrow Airport to deploy on Ex Kazbegi-Bugle, a summer mountaineering T3 AT Expedition to the Georgian Caucus. The aim of the expedition was to deliver the Summer Mountaineering Foundation qualification to the 11 novice personnel on the expedition as well as to give two personnel with previous alpine mountaineering experience quality mountain days in a different region to further their progression towards mountaineering instructor qualifications. Another aim of the expedition was to carry out defence engagement with a team of Georgian Rangers who where to travel to undertake the Cambrian Patrol in the spring.
From the off the expedition was struck with difficulty. The hire vehicles designated to take the party to the airport never showed, and following this a delayed first flight meant the team missed their connection and where left stranded in Istanbul airport overnight. However, despite all this, on the 13th of August the team made it to Tbilisi and managed to complete the treacherous journey north the next day, arriving in Juta just after lunch. The team worked dutifully as Sherpa’s, hauling kit up the 400m ascent to base camp, situated in the shadow of the Chauki mountain. Once camp was established the team took the time to enjoy some of the local delicacies, a beer and soak in the astonishing scenery while contemplating how they would ever be able to ascend any of the inexplicably steep faces that flanked them in all directions.
The following day marked the beginning of the first phase of the expedition: the teaching phase. This consisted of five days based out of one camp in which the novice students undertook the SMF programme and the alpine students attempted some alpine routes on the Chauki Massif. Group one commenced with an acclimatisation day; attempting an arduous trek up to 3,000m on what the Ex 2IC later coined Mt Doom. For many of the students it was their first time above UK altitude; and the combination of the thin air, Georgian summer heat and steep inclines proved difficult. Many where thankful for the lighter skills day that followed with a focus on navigation. While the going was arduous, perhaps unaware, the students where gaining in confidence at altitude and becoming acclimatised to the conditions through this phase, prepping them well for the trek that would follow.
In the meantime, the alpine group managed to summit two mountains above 3400m, setting what is believed to be a new line on Tikiladze after the tradition route had become impassable due to rockfall. They too where having their own troubles. Due to the gradually increasing temperature in the Caucus year on year, freeze thaw is having a much greater effect on the rock. As the water seeps into the cracks and then freezes, prizing the layers of rock apart it becomes less solid. What this means for the climber is loose chossy rock which is very difficult to gain a purchase on when climbing and is also hazardous when it comes to placing gear as it is hard to tell if it has proper purchase on the rock. Despite this the alpine team where successful in their two summit attempts, merely having to take things slightly slower and be more calculated in their climbing style.
Throughout the first phase the main team where accompanied by the Georgian Rangers. While all accomplished soldiers this week provided another opportunity for them to hone their navigation and get used to covering difficult terrain with weight before their ultimate test; the Cambrian Patrol.
Following phase 1, the team where treated to a rest day and some cultural activities. They undertook a visit to a monastery within touching distance of the Russian border and carried out a light trek to visit another traditional Georgian Orthodox church. This second Church; The Gergeti Trinity, was situated 600m above the town of Stepantsminda and delivered beautiful views both down onto the town and onto the prestige rock feature in the area: Mt Kazbek.
After some light R and R the team returned to Juta to commence the Trek. The route selected took the team from Juta to Roshka, and then back again over four nights. The route covered two passes over 3000m and a range of arduous terrain. Throughout the trek each member faced moments of difficulty and personal struggle including one member who had to face his vertigo head on some particularly exposed terrain. All team members performed admirably, carrying the weight of all their equipment and covering steep ground at altitude in the heat for four straight days. They can all be proud of their achievements.
Following another treacherous Journey back down to Tbilisi (the Georgian roads are steeped in Infamy) the team enjoyed a day of shopping in Tbilisi before a final dinner evening with the Georgians. They experienced traditional Georgian dancing, a mountain of Georgian food and more than enough local wine as well the the Georgians favourite poison Cha-Cha, a 70% grape spirit. A good night was had by all and the defence engagement piece well and truly tied up.
All that was left was for to sheppard everyone to the airport for an early flight back to London, collect vehicles and make the Journey back to Bristol, all while reflecting on an arduous, enjoyable and successful trip.