Nothing about this stuff is particularly sexy. Perhaps when I started ten years ago I thought it would be, though I’d like to believe I was more in touch with reality than that.
It always seems to go a little something like this:
First, you travel for an entire day. But it’s a slow day, and you never really get to relax. Twenty-four hours feels like 48. Long flights are uncomfortable. Layovers always seem too short or too long, and are filled with last-minute logistics on poached WiFi. You can’t charge your iPhone and use your headphones at the same time. You’re hungry, then you’re too full because you actually ate all of the meals provided to you on the flight, including that random sandwich and crackers and OJ and milk and water and brownie that they woke you up for at 5 a.m. You would have brought snacks, but your carry-ons were both too full, and you have to carry them through the gate while pretending that they weigh less than their 60-pound reality. After three flights and 24 hours, you’re exhausted. Your skin is greasy and you feel disgusting. When you arrive in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, you’re wearing the wrong clothing. In fact, it’s fair to assume that regardless of what you wear, the weather at your destination will necessitate clothes of the opposite climate.
Photo by Brody Leven
Then, your bags get lost. Well not all of them, just one of them. It’s your ski bag. Unfortunately, you’re on a ski trip and both your and your partner’s skis are in that one bag. So while it’s only one out of seven bags, it’s a pretty important one. Actually, they all are. Why else would you opt to carry all this gear around the world? Most of it is just safety gear, so it isn’t really necessary...unless something goes wrong. Then it’s necessary, really necessary. And of course you have no idea if anything is going to go wrong and your destination is really far out there, so it’s best to be prepared.
In fact, your destination is the highest peak in the country of Georgia. It creates the border with Russia and is over 17,000 feet tall. It’s been skied from the summit, but last year you were sitting at home, meticulously scanning Google Earth like a crazy person with a skiing and climbing addiction, when you find a couloir dropping from the border that catches your eye. It goes nearly to the summit of Shkhara West, a subpeak of the mountain that has been skied. It’s still over 16,000 feet tall. You wish it went to the summit, but that’s okay. It’ll still be a great challenge, you think to yourself.
Photo by Brody Leven
You research the mountain and logistics of the trip as much as humanly possible over the next six months. Then, after all that planning, you arrive. Your ski bag follows four days later and those are a long four days, waiting and sweating in an apartment you hadn’t planned on renting for long. They finally arrive at 7 p.m. on night four and your driver, though he doesn’t speak any English, is insisting on starting the 8-hour journey you must make together immediately. He says he won’t get tired. You go with it. By the time 3 a.m. rolls around you’re hungry, carsick, jetlagged, and driving up a terrifying mountain road in complete darkness, save for the car’s dim headlights and the occasional reflection of cow eyes.
A few days later, you’re at base camp. It wasn’t easy to get there, of course. The logistics company you hired bailed once you arrived in-country so, without speaking the local language (Svan) or the national languages (Georgian or Russian), you had to secure horses and a horse driver to get your stuff to snowline. From there, you had to haul it all to base camp yourself. Thankfully, your partner on this trip is Mary McIntyre, one of the strongest people you know. Everything you need to do—carrying giant backpacks, climbing mountains, talking to locals—just seems easier for her. Always. She’s the best.
Once at base camp, the weather isn't in your favor. After a week you still haven’t seen the line you came to ski. Even when the rest of the sky is blue and sunny and clear, Shkhara and its subpeaks are hidden by clouds. A week is a long time to sit in a tent with two books, one person, and limited food. Fortunately, the podcast selection is virtually unlimited and you have just enough sun to keep your phone charged using the solar panels you brought along.
Photo by Mary McIntyre
Day 10, your last day on the glacier, is approaching quickly. You’re running out of food, time, and patience. Then, suddenly, on day eight, the sky opens up. Day nine looks to be clear too and you’re so excited you can’t sleep. You lay in your sleeping bag, knowing you need rest but you’re unable to close your eyes. Your head is slightly downhill after more than a week spent laying in this position for 10, 12, sometimes 14 hours a day. And while you have all the time necessary to fix it, you just leave it. In regards to comfort, your apathy has grown over the course of the week. At 2 a.m. you finally get out of the tent. It snowed a lot overnight, so you dig out the entrance to the cook tent. While boiling water for her coffee, you give a gentle yell to Mary who is still asleep.
"Rise and shine, it’s time to climb."
Photo by Brody Leven
Four hours later, you’re one-third of the way up the couloir. You’ve climbed over a few crevasses, but it isn’t as steep as you’d feared/hoped. The going is good. You keep climbing. There’s ice, there’s snow, there’s more ice. Lots of ice.
Then, you’re on top. You put on your skis and do what you do best.
Photo by Mary McIntyre
Eight hours after leaving camp, you return. Alone, in huge wilderness with no one around, you feel safe. You’ll be back in the nearest village in a day, back to Tbilisi in a few days, and back home in Salt Lake City in a week.
Nearly a year of planning, fundraising, and anticipation seems to come to a closure immediately. As soon as you take those skis off at base camp, it’s like it’s all done. With nothing else left, you drag your sleeping pad out onto the glacier and into the sun, sit down, and open up the book that you’ve been rationing the entire trip. You read a few pages and put it back down on your lap. You begin to cry uncontrollably. You don’t know exactly why you’re crying, but you feel a million things at once. You’ve just achieved a goal, you’re with a good friend, and you’re safe. I guess that means it’s time to cry.
Goal Zero ambassador Brody Leven grew up in Ohio skiing on a 200 foot hill, running his own DJ business, and playing lots of soccer. Eventually his aspirations for bigger mountains moved him to Utah and has now taken him all over the world in search of obscure ranges and first descents. He has summited Denali, lived in a van while skiing his way through Patagonia, bummed his way through Romania, Peru, India and numerous other countries around the world. Brody is constantly searching for new destinations and is probably halfway up some random couloir in the Wasatch Mountains as you’re reading this. Follow along on his adventures here.