I was either upset about something, or elated. I can’t remember which. But the key thing is that I had dug out two bottles of wine to share with the other guests at the hostel.
And so it was, as the night wore on, I heard tell that Georgia’s Mount Kazbegi was the legendary mountain where Prometheus had been chained for all eternity, cursed to have eagles eat his liver for the crime of having brought fire to humanity.
Well. Nothing says exciting quite like a mountain where a god is chained for all eternity.
H, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, was headed there in the morning, and planned to spend the night in the mountains. Everyone thought he was crazy. I thought it was genius. And so I set off with him.
It started well enough, if by well enough you mean that it was arduous, strenuous, and steep. Yes. If that’s what you mean, it started very well indeed.
At the time I was running two miles a day, and was at my peak fitness (that time has passed, alas), but the mountain was tearing my breath away.
Also, there was no path.
I repeat: no path.
H would just randomly climb up and disappear for half a century, and I would at every turn ask myself “where would H go?”–and choose the most difficult route. Each time, I’d be right–he’d pop his head up from somewhere on high, and say: “Think of Amiran!” and disappear again.
Now’s the time to mention that the Georgian name for Prometheus is Amiran. Which is only the single most exquisite male name ON EARTH. As you doubtless agree.
So I’m climbing and climbing and climbing, and seriously considering throwing out absolutely everything from my backpack. As all I have is a sleeping bag, a loaf of bread, nuts, bananas, water and a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream, this isn’t an option.
Don’t act like you’d throw out the Irish cream. Heathen.
Finally, finally, after all oxygen has left my system, I pull myself to the top of the mountain. I don’t even have the energy to turn around to look at the church planted on it. I gaze into the cavern of the universe from which we’ve climbed. Gulp oxygen.
I hear H move away. I flop to the ground.
“Ruth!” he cries, “Think of Amiran!”
“Fuck Amiran,” I say. “Let him go to hell, him and his liver.”
“But his children!”
Are his children part of the equation? H’s already climbing on. I want to know if there’s kids in the story. A half-told story is a desperate thing for a woman to be left with on a mountaintop, her guide walking away.
And there’s still that god chained to the mountain. I roll over, smell sweet earth, drink water, and get up.
Turns out that H is not in the mood to go to the church perched atop this mountain–which is the only reason sane humans climb here–and he disappears like Icarus into the clouds.
I trudge like a beast to Bethlehem. Have I mentioned there was no path? It was madness. MADNESS. But I climb on.
Every twenty minutes or so, we’d meet up again. As I staggered up another bend, I’d be treated to the sight of him laid out on a rock, smoking.
It was insane. It was the netherworld. It was like a really sick Virgil.
Onwards and upwards.
At one point, I climbed over a river of rocks. Each rock wobbled, and spoke of death.
Halfway across, I heard something in the air and listened.
It was the sound of my own voice, over and over, murmuring something someone had said to me years before in a Bed, Bath & Beyond. I’d been comparing toilet paper dispensers when this man had staggered out from the towels and curtains and said, apropos of nothing, “Trust your judgment, not your fear.”
As the song goes, I take suggestions from philosophers and fools. I used this wisdom like a rope to the other side, and stepped with it from death to death.
On the other side, we agreed to make camp. This comprised of the following activities:
1) Flopping to the ground.
Yeah, we hadn’t brought a tent. It was July 4th, and freezing.
Our camp site was strange. Tiny chipmunk-type creatures disappeared into the rocks as we approached. H asked me, “Have you seen Galaxy Quest?” I was thinking of the exact same scene. Where these really cute creatures turn out to be starving carnivores.
Well, I got in my sleeping bag and fell into the deepest sleep. Forget meditation, forget the stars, forget the solitude and peace of nature.
I get a jab in my side. I open fuzzy eyes and emerge from the top of my sleeping bag. The night sky was Van Gogh’s wildest fantasy. And so goddamn cold.
“It’s beautiful,” H said.
“If you wake me up again I’ll kill you.”
In the morning, H asked if I’d nuzzled him during the night. I looked at him, and we both looked into the rocks which hid the strange creatures. We ate nuts and the last bananas, we drank water, and then climbed.
Let’s just put it this way. I almost died at least twice that day. I’m not exaggerating.
Once was up a sheer rock face. What I was thinking, I cannot explain. I guess I didn’t realize how sheer it was until I had the idiotic notion of taking a rest on a ledge. My butt on it, my legs dangling down, I saw death and death saw me, and I almost went blind.
I seriously considered calling a helicopter, but I knew I couldn’t reach for a ladder even if Georgia had search and rescue teams. So instead I breathed. From above, I hear H’s cheery voice.
I check the primordial scream in my throat. “Oh, yeah!”
“It’s even ground up here.”
Liar. But it was less uneven in that no 90% angles were involved. I lay on that ground in an open love affair with 30% angles. I could have eaten that ground, I loved it so much. Oh, HEAVENLY ground. I love the ground. Sweet ground.
Makes one very grateful we go back to it when we die.
Anyway, at this point it was hard to hide my shuddering, but H thought it was cold. H is insane. I drank water, shook, and took in the climbing heights beyond. The real Kazbegi.
“Amiran,” said H.
And he got up for the rest of the walk. The plan was to get as far as we could while still having time to make our descent by evening. But as I walked–the ground now level, but swathed with ice–a certainty gripped me that if I took one step more, I would die.
I stopped. I literally just stopped walking.
H turned around, confused.
“I’m done,” I said.
We agreed I’d wait for him at our camp by the strange creatures. I didn’t think he’d be gone that long, so I waited on the mountaintop instead and froze. I took a photo of myself with Mount Kazbegi behind me.
But the real reason I waited up there was I was too afraid to try to get down. That photo I took of me and the mountain? I was so scared, the camera was on zoom, and I never did think to adjust it. The only photo of me up there–is the closest close up ever taken of my face ever. You wouldn’t know I was on a mountain at all. And ain’t no hint of Amiran in it.
Finally I realized I needed protection from the elements.
I couldn’t go down the way I’d come up. The second option was to try climb down an avalanche of rocks. The third was to slide down ice, and crash and splatter against rocks on the bottom. The fourth was to find out what was across the rocks and ice.
I tried the fourth, only to fall on the ice and slide.
They don’t call me Genius Ruth for nothing. They don’t call me Genius Ruth at all.
What happened is I got extremely lucky, and managed to grab a rock before I fell. I climbed back up. I reconsidered my options, now helpfully pared down to just three. I call them: Death One, Death Two, or Death Three.
Or, Plan What the Fuck. This genius idea occurred to me after I almost flew over the edge on ice and saved myself clutching to a rock.
I decided to sit on the ice, and “climb” down on my ass, clutching onto the rocks the whole way down. To use gravity for the descent, and the rocks to slow it. Which would have been wise if it weren’t for two factors:
1. The grain of the ice propelled everything toward the center, where nothing could slow the descent into blood-splattered rocks.
2. There was a crevasse between the rocks and the ice. A dark, black abyss. You fall in, it’s over. Even if you survive the fall, no-one will ever, ever, ever find your body alive or dead. The planet will swallow you.
But those were the only points against it.
Anyway, by the time I realized all this, it was too late.
Time disappeared. Only desperate battle against ice, playing gravity against itself, hurtling speed so as not to crack into the abyss. And then it was done.
I survived. I scrambled off the ice, over the rocks. Onto ground. Sweet, sweet ground.
I couldn’t believe I was alive.
I found our bags. My pants were completely soaked from the ice. I tore them off and climbed into my backpack and hopped onto a rock. I opened the Bailey’s Irish Cream. I drank it. I think the whole bottle. I lay down. I fell asleep.
When I woke up, fuzzy-eyed, a man was looking at me. I scowled at him and went back to sleep.
When I woke up again, he was halfway up the mountain.
I saw H descending, and remembered I didn’t have pants on. I ran to my jeans, which I’d laid out on another rock, hoping they’d dry. (They did.) Clambered into them.
H gets to the campsite. Looks at me a moment.
“Were you just naked?” he asks.
“Now, how likely is that?” I answer.
So I never did see Prometheus, nor get the chance to unshackle him and incur the wrath of Zeus. But although I did not battle with the gods… I did enjoy the struggle.
When I was done with it. Rattling back to the capital in a minibus, a hot meal in my belly.
Mount Kazbegi and the church as seen from the village below
A priest with Mount Kazbegi behind him (view from the church, on another trip up, after the war–and yeah, it’s worth the visit. I’d end up there three times.)
Lower down, it was verdant and beautiful
Then it got rocky, with patches of ice.
Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and brave, for thou art not so ~ John Donne
I look happy when not dead. And Virgil’s probably a few seconds from a smoke.