After months of proposal writing, research and equipment preparation, Mountainsmith Ambassador Dave Katz left his home in the Finger Lakes region of New York on a 90-hour travel marathon. He was bound for the Republic of Georgia to begin work on an exploratory expedition supported by the Petzl Foundation to find champion trees to climb and protect in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains.
Navigating International Travel
After a full day of public bus travel from my home in the Finger Lakes and a second bus to the New York City airport, I landed at JFK with 170 lbs of equipment and a one hour flight delay ahead of me. When the announcement of the delay came over the intercom, I knew I would miss my connection in Istanbul. Istanbul is a massive airport I’ve become intimately familiar with in the past year. When I arrived in Istanbul, I learned the next flight to Tblisi was in nine hours and what proceeded was a futile attempt to find WiFi and a not-so-restful forced bivouac on the floor of the airport.
I eventually boarded the airplane and arrived to Tblisi a few hours later after an unremarkable flight. When I loaded a local sim card and switched on my data plan, through a barrage of texts and voicemails, I learned that I had narrowly missed a failed coup attempt to the Turkish government by a matter of minutes. All air traffic out of Istanbul was then grounded.
With an odd feeling that combined relief, fatigue, jet lag and confusion, I took a taxi to a nearby hostel for a few hours of shut-eye. What seemed like minutes later, my alarm went off, I threw my duffles into my new friend Paul’s beat up 4WD van and we drove to the remote parts of Svaneti province. Paul, who is the director of the Trans Caucasian Trail Association (TCTA) and well connected locally, had agreed to help me prepare my expedition and lead me to intact Georgian forests.
When Sickness Strikes Abroad
When we arrived, I began networking, inquiring and planning for my expedition. With Paul’s recommendation, I hiked out to a bivy under some of the UNESCO World Heritage fortified dwellings and set up a few time-lapse sequences. Although completely exhausted, I was excited to have finally finished my 90-hour travel marathon, to have cameras clicking away as I fell asleep. Stoked!
In the middle of the night, I woke up to a sharp pain in my abdomen. Trained as a Wilderness First Responder, my first reaction was to conduct a simple self exam, and then I resorted to Google. Google, however can lead you down a path of confusion and worry. I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night, perhaps it was jet lag or perhaps the growing pain, but at first light, I packed up my cameras and headed down to the TCTA headquarters. I met my friend Eko who accompanied me to the regional hospital.
Through Eko’s translation, the doctor’s prognosis was an inflamed appendix and recommended an immediate surgery. I had feared this probable diagnosis after my all-night googling. Eko helped translate some questions I had about the facility and I learned this regional hospital had no ultrasound or modern equipment for surgery. I decided it was worth the risk to make the journey back to the capital where better medical facilities and ideally English-speaking doctors prevail. Eko signed a release against the advice of the doctors, paid bills and used some creative social hacking. He then found me a taxi and I rode down the mountain by myself lying down crammed in a small soviet-era sedan on top of a pile of my duffle bags.
Nine sweaty hours later, I arrived in the middle of the night at a modern facility oddly named “Mediclub”, as if it’s some kind of health spa. The taxi drove away with all of my filming equipment and directions to take it to the hostel for storage and, fingers crossed, it would all be there when I got out of the medical rodeo. I did have the feeling that that may be the last time I saw any of that equipment which is expensive, fragile and hard to impossible to source locally.
While the ER doctors conversed in Georgian, I got the impression they had a similar prognosis. I began to ponder the current situation. The last time I was unconscious was about 20 years ago when I was in elementary school and had a ear surgery. That experience was set up in quite a different environment: in my home country and language, with my mother by my side, and with all of my belongings (although not financially significant at the age of 10) safely at home. I called my folks back home in the Finger Lakes, New York and let them know what was up.
The deliberation completed and the ER doctor’s final confirmation was the report from the ultra sound: appendicitis. By day break, I was inhaling some anesthetic and going under the “knife.” No one by my side, with limited ability to communicate with the care-givers, total trust in a few random strangers with all of my life’s belongings and important documents, there I went!
An unknown amount of time passed and I woke up to a doctor aggressively punching my back and encouraging me to “Breathe, Breathe!!” This command was spoken in English and thus I understood it immediately. I was also reminded of my first aid training, that breathing is probably the most important component of survival. I was majorly confused as to why I was struggling to breathe, and actually, I didn’t feel like I was having problems breathing. What ensued was a few hours of in and out of consciousness and a bunch of strange memories/experiences that would be difficult to articulate effectively.
I was eventually transferred to a quiet and clean private room, where I spent a few days recovering and gaining basic life skills back. During those days, I learned a few words of Georgian to help communicate with the nurses and in general things went well, albeit a bit lonely in the chamber. I spent a lot of time thinking, and set a personal record for the most amount of time consecutively spent indoors. The week I had planned to pick Paul’s brain, find climbing locations and local collaborators, I spent training my lungs on a breathing machine to avoid post-surgery pneumonia. But goals are goals, and plans must go on!
Carrying on the Mission
When released from the hospital, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that all of my belongings were still in tact and neatly stacked in a corner of the hostel. I spent a few days lying low and hydrating, eventually rented a 4WD and welcomed my other team members. I had completed much less preparation than I had originally envisioned and was reduced to a limited physical capacity. Combined with the time pressure that surrounds modern schedules, we headed to the hills and improvised what turned out to to be a spectacular expedition of collaboration, discovery and exploration.
Learn more about our journey in my post, “Climbing Trees to Save Forests Abroad.”
Photography by Dave Katz and Ben Roif.