Azerbaijan: danger and euphoria

April 2016

When scrambling without a rope, you sometimes hold your life with your fingers and your feet. For me, that's never been more true than today.


I'm in Qabala, a modern town which shares somewhat in Baku's wealth. I set out this morning through the foothills and into the quiet village of Laza (1300m), feeling focused and full of energy.


A steep ascent through deciduous forest brought me out into a rugged alpine landscape, freshly laden with a week's worth of heavy snow. I'd been missing this!


My target was a 2800m peak, which looked enticing amongst the pristine blue sky. At 2200m though, just after midday, things started to get serious.


I'd reached a long ridge, which led onto a huge, sheer lump of a sub-peak, which I'd somehow need to bypass to reach my destination. Approaching from the east, I could see that the southern aspect was a near vertical cliff. The north face was plastered with extremely deep snow and looked prone with the hot conditions on the mountain. Directly ahead, in places poking through the snow, was what looked like a solid line of boulders. Facing that slope directly, it was difficult for me to read its gradient.


As I plotted my next move, two things happened. I heard three thundering rockfalls or avalanches from the surrounding valleys within a few minutes. Then, having been gathering in the north, a huge grey mass of clouds began to sweep across the ridge, causing a temporary white-out. I decided to go on and attack the mound directly, keeping to the boulders where possible.

They weren't boulders. They were giant lumps of saturated mud, interspersed with razor-sharp slate-like rocks. I climbed over these, and through the ever steepening snow in between, until I reached a desperate looking crux.


To my right and above was a swollen melting cornice. To my left and below was a drop into the fog. I took a couple of steps, then the ground beneath my feet collapsed, tumbling down the mountainside with snow and rocks. Shot with adrenaline, I latched onto a rock with a vice like grip, then delicately pulled myself up onto a small ledge. I didn't realise for a couple of minutes, but catching onto the sharp rock had almost sliced the top of my finger off.


I waited there until the cloud briefly cleared. The area I'd just climbed was much steeper than I'd thought and I looked down at the trail of fallen mud and rocks way below. I turned back, but the descent was difficult and uncertain, neither the snow nor the mud being remotely stable.


I eventually ran back onto the ridge to cross to a smaller peak at 2250m.


This might sound absurd, but as I completed this section I felt total euphoria. Music blasting in my headphones, grey clouds clearing to blue skies, then standing on a proud white summit in the centre of an empty mountain range - pumped full of adrenaline. This is why I quit my day job, and I absolutely love it.


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© Oliver France