The Year of Living Dangerously (Part 2)

(or beware the silent rock.)

After six months of almost total caving abstinence summer came, and with it my battered body recovered some of it's former vigour. Our expedition to Georgia was looming on the horizon and I was looking forward to 3 weeks of hard caving.

When we arrived in Sochi by the Black Sea we almost found ourselves embroiled in a civil war. Abkhazia, the region we were intending visiting, was trying to declare independence from Georgia. Sochi, just on the Russian side of the border, was full of refugees and no one was being let into Georgia. Fortunately we were able to get a helicopter to the Fischte Mountain area, our reserve location, which was within Russia. Even this was complicated by the arrival of Boris Yeltsin who had come to try and defuse the situation. This resulted in the temporary closure of the heliport and the threat of being shot if we moved away from the veranda we had been given to sleep on.

We arrived safely at the base of Fischte in spite of the number of crashed choppers at the airport. The problem now was that no one had visited this area before, and we only had one map between us. This meant that we had to set up camp in the valley (at 1600 metres) and spend several days walking up to the peaks to identify a suitable area for exploration.

Eventually we located a suitable spot for our top camp, and it was time to uproot and move house. As we all knew the route by now, we had got into the habit of walking up at our own pace. When we came to take the final loads up though, we were travelling as a group. After climbing 200 metres or so we reached one of our normal resting places. This was a small gully with an icefield which fed a little stream and cooled the air at it's base.

As usual everyone dropped into the streambed and shrugged their packs off. Martin decided to take a photo and wandered off a few yards, turned, raised his camera and yelled, "Lookout!" As I started to get to my feet I felt a massive impact on my back. A rock had slid silently down the ice and launched itself into the air.

"Oh no," I thought, "not again!" as I was lifted off my feet and hurled forward. Ten feet further on I was stopped equally suddenly by a large boulder, the impact being taken by my face and forearms.

Frantic activity ensued, and I was lifted to my feet and laid down on a pile of carrymats and sleeping bags. Derek, the expedition doctor, was called down from further up the mountain, and Yuri in typical Russian fashion unpacked a stove and made tea.

Derek arrived surprisingly quickly and soon established that once again I had avoided breaking any bones. After a rest, Derek took my rucksac and carried it up, leaving Philip to accompany me slowly up to top camp at 2200 metres.

The next 2 weeks can best be described as uncomfortable. The rock had narrowly missed both my spine and my head, but had caused a nice scab and bruised me severely. I also had assorted lacerations and was suffering from serious stiffness. Night time was the worst. I could only sleep on my left side, the tent sloped at 20 degrees and my thermarest had a puncture.

So ended another expedition. I am now just about recovered again, and can't help asking, "What next?"

Eric Downer