We entered Georgia with empty heads. It is safe to say that we knew almost nothing about the country we were about to cross, and less about the culture of its people. From this base of knowledge, we had three weeks (about half of which would be spent cycling) to find and write a feature story.
We had two halfway developed ideas about where we might find one. We knew that Georgians were good at wrestling, and a story about the machine behind its Olympic powerhouse team could be a hit. And we knew that there were tall mountains, which meant mountaineers, crazy bastards that were trying things worthy of telling, or at least giving rescue teams the opportunity to do so.
Having just spent more time than we wanted to in Istanbul, we decided against traveling to the capital Tbilisi immediately, and instead headed for the town of Mestia, deep in the Georgian mountains. This was the place from which expeditions (and their rescues) were launched, and we figured there might be something here. The wrestling team in Tbilisi seemed like the safer bet, but the joy of not being paid anything is that you can take risks to go wherever you please.
So, thighs burning, we went to great heights to find a scoop.
48 hours after arrival, we thought we were screwed.
Morgan got so sick that he spent the first day in his hostel bunk, almost unable to move. Chris had been able to secure an interview with the head of the search and rescue team the first day, but was stood up. Still, we were excited by what the tourist office told us, that there was a 15 man team, and they were quite active in the area. This could be exactly what we were looking for. But then the next day we were disappointed to learn there actually wasn’t much of a story. The team was only 5 members, six months old, and the head that we were meeting got a call about a missing climber on Mount Ushba before our interview even started. We had only fifteen minutes with him, but it was enough to discern that he wasn’t tripping over himself to talk to journalists.
The biggest problem was not that the rescue team didn’t want us around. It was that they didn’t get what we after, and the language barrier prevented us from explaining it. If there was a story to write about them, the angle would probably be something along the lines of “What it’s like to rescue climbers in the far reaches of the Caucus Mountains?” But chances are few that any of them had read a lot of feature journalism stories before – they couldn’t see how a human interest story about what it was like to be part of a Georgian rescue team could be interesting, indeed couldn’t even imagine how such a piece would take shape. If they had talked to reporters at all, it was simple and factual: this guy died at this time, or this guy almost died and then we rescued him. They didn’t see why we needed to get close enough to give colorful accounts of their personalities, their community, and their challenges. And because of the language barrier, it was difficult to become their friend. A lot gets lost in translation. We decided we weren’t going to get close enough to get a good story, or to watch them rescue the Armenian. After three days cycling to Mestia, our biggest story lead was a dead end. It was a frustrating return back to the drawing board. The other story idea we had about the Georgian wrestlers in Tbilisi was looking better and better. But now Tbilisi was 5 days away. Whether we liked it or not, we were committed to a story in Mestia.
We continued combing the streets for a scoop. Any scoop. And after a while, we decided to do some additional research on the only computer in town, in the front of a mini market. Of course, right when we arrived, the power went out, so we waited for the grid to go back online by striking up a conversation with a couple of polish climbers who had just returned from Mt. Ushba. Ushba — it was the second time we had heard about the mountain that day, after the rescue team had been called there.
We found out that Ushba was the trophy of the range for mountaineers. Apparently, some routes are so difficult that even the most experienced were fearful, and many that tried them died. We also go word, though the Poles, that a Russian expedition might still be climbing, and they might be doing something nuts. Maybe.
This was all juicy stuff, fraught with danger, and we thought a story about a particular route that was considered extremely difficult could be good, as long as we got somebody actually trying to do it. We decided to head to Ushba to see, essentially, if we could get lucky and find that story. We were pretty desperate at this point.
But it took us two days to get to basecamp, and luck did not seem to be on our side. Morgan waited two hours for a woman who was going to rent us trekking backpacks, and she came back with daypacks that could barely have been trusted with schoolbooks. We put all our stuff in a few bike panniers instead. Two more fruitless hours were passed on the side of the road with our thumbs out, with drivers stopping only to demand exorbitant prices for a ride to Ushba’s trailhead. We finally ended up having to split a cab with a few Czech hikers, which was still cheaper than what the drivers were asking.
Once we finally got to Mazeri, we went the wrong way. We spent the night cowering in our tent under a heavy thunderstorm, and then proceeded up the wrong trail. What we ended up in was essentially a flood wash, which we climbed through with the heavy bicycle panniers on our shoulders. It sucked, and ended up being a five hour detour from the actual hike, which really started back in the village, before even our campsite. It was, perhaps, one of the most dispiriting days we have had on this trip. We were tired and sore, and had no idea whether or not any of this was leading to an actual story.
We finally reached the climbing camp at noon the next day, after yet another night of rainy weather down in the valley. The first person we see in the camp is George – one of the rescue team’s members — who is calling in a helicopter on its second attempt to rescue the Armenian. This is the same Armenian we had originally heard the call for back in Mestia. It turns out he’d been stuck up there for three days. Meanwhile the Russian climbers have abandoned their climb because of the bad weather. The best of them are climbing up an avalanche-prone shoot to see if they can rescue the Armenian, who is only 150 meters below the summit. Not to mention there has also been another death on the mountain, and the body is to be airlifted out that afternoon.
How dramatic! A dead climber, a stranded Armenian, and 16 Russians risking their lives to rescue him. We couldn’t believe how lucky we got. The story seemed to pop up out of nowhere.
We spent the next two days at the basecamp, speaking to those who would talk to us, trying to get updates about what was going on. It was our first experience with beat journalism. Lots of waiting, lots of nothing, and then… something. The whole time we’re trying to draw the story out of George and Constantine, a Russian climber who spoke English.
It was painful work, because every detail had to be almost forcefully extracted, and every question got them a little bit more annoyed. For example, when Chris tried to figure out what happened on the mountain during the storm, the interview went something like this:
“What was the storm on the mountain like?”
“What do you think? It was a storm.”
“Okay, how heavily was it snowing?”
“There was a lot of snow.”
“Were you snowed in?”
Onwards the game of twenty questions dragged, so that a ten minute interview would provide us with barely enough detail to write an account of the storm. It took that much time to figure out that they had actually been huddling on the mountain for warmth, stuck in their half-buried tents for three days.
It was mid-afternoon on the third day when we finally got what we needed. We’d each read through half a novel by that point, just to pass time sitting on the mountain. But then these climbers start to come down in groups of four and five, and among them is a Polish guy named Mike, and his girlfriend. We tell Mike that we’re journalists, and he lights up and just starts talking.
We want to get on our knees and whisper a prayer of thanks, because this guy is like a quote machine – just spitting stuff out, and Chris is tripping over himself to grab his notebook so that he can write it all down. Morgan asks him about a bunch of points we’re not clear on, and he consults with the Russians. Translator and source, you can’t ask for a better find.
Then, to top it all off, one of the climbers signals that he sees the Armenian coming down the mountain. The Armenian — this is it! The ongoing rescue saga, finally coming to an end.
When the Armenian got to camp, everybody quickly crowded around him, and we jostled our own way to the front to pop a few questions off, a little too fast. The Armenian has got so much going on that he backs up a little bit. Morgan signals a retreat from the group to powwow. This interview was crucial. We needed to have our aims and strategy set. No stepping over each other’s toes on this one. Plus, we need to be ethical about it — this guy almost died.
Just when we’re debating a strategy to kindly corner him to extract some tidbits, he invites us over to share the cheese and ham that is getting fed to him off the knife points by the other climbers. We talk for a half hour, and he ends up volunteering the full story. From the size of the ledge he built (two meters by fifty cm), to what he was thinking coming down the mountain, to how he powered his cell phone for three days (with a hand crank).
Just before we leave, Morgan shoots off one more question.
“Are you going to try to climb the mountain again?”
The Armenian looks at us and smiles. “I’m going to climb both the North and South peaks”
Morgan is biting his lip, because he knows we’ve got what we need, and this guy handed us the clincher on a golden platter. The punch quote to close the article. We would have hugged him, but never in his life would he have understood why, and he probably wouldn’t have answered our follow up emails.
We had smiles on our faces as we trudged down the steep trail back to the valley, even though it had become a slip and slide from the rain. We’d taken a risk, and gotten our story. But we also knew that we’d been unreasonably lucky. We could’ve climbed up to Ushba and found nothing going on, and then we would have been left without enough time to find a different feature story before leaving Georgia. It all could have come to nothing, and so we realize we can’t credit ourselves too much with this one.
In India, we’ve decided we’re going to try a different approach: start interviewing people about a broad issue, and then let the individual stories emerge out of the interviews. But at least this time, scrounging for scoops in the mountains of Georgia was one hell of a fun ride.