The quest to discover unclimbed boulders has led me to zigzag through the minefields of Iraqi Kurdistan, endure political turbulence in Lesotho, and negotiate my way out of jail time in Sikkim. Despite these normal or perhaps abnormal burdens accompanying my climbing expeditions, I’ve always managed to return home with a lengthy list of first ascents.
But sometimes, that just isn’t the case.
A couple of months back, a friend showed me photos of some boulders they had seen in the countryside of Azerbaijan. Despite the country’s history of alpinism, bouldering is relatively undeveloped. Soon after, I packed my bags and purchased two plane tickets for my wife and I to Baku.
Azerbaijan is a relatively young country having only achieved independence after the break-up of the Soviet Union and, similar to its neighbors, its history is rife with conflict. At one point or another conquered by almost all the empires of old, Azerbaijan and its culture still bear the influences of Turkish, Persian, Russian, Mongolian, and Zoroastrian rule. The country’s newfound oil and gas reserves in the Caspian Sea have brought riches and stability to the country’s capital, Baku, but in the peripheries, things are less rosy, only worsened by Azerbaijan’s ongoing border skirmishes with Armenia.
After landing in Baku, we drove north to the remote mountain village of Laza, nestled among the Eastern ridges of the Caucasus Mountains, along the Russian border. This is when the first wave of many frustrations that we would encounter during our trip came crashing down. We found ourselves bedridden due to unexpected rains and food poisoning. Not wanting to throw in the towel, we spent our time navigating the narrow, muddy mountain roads, scoping boulders to try later. Unfortunately, we couldn’t shake our colds and the boulders weren’t drying fast enough.
We packed our gear and drove west toward the Zaqatala region, which resides in a corridor of Azerbaijan nearly encircled by Georgia and Russia. Our colds lingered and further troubles followed. My wife and I both sustained injuries, rendering us out of peak climbing performance. After
another week of thunderstorms, colds, injuries and camera malfunctions in the country’s north, we tried our luck driving south in hopes of better weather, energy and boulders. I had heard from a climber in Azerbaijan that one of the best boulder fields they had ever seen was located near the town of Gobustan. With our shattered spirits, we drove south.
The skies cleared. The warm sea did wonders for our congestion. Bit by bit, our motivation returned. We rolled up to the boulders and started investigating. I ran my hands over some of the best rock I have ever touched. Things were looking up.
Just as we unclipped our crash pads and chalked up, a park attendant stopped us. The park had recently been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and while climbing had been tolerated in the past, it was no longer permitted. We were told to move along.
And that was that.
We flew out the next morning. After all of our invested time and money, very little bouldering occurred. Our trip boiled down to far more road security checks, colds, injuries, and camera problems than first ascents.
As my wife does, she found the positives. We learned about a new culture and country, made some local friends, spent time outside and made memories. I suppose the experience represents climbing as a whole—sometimes you try your hardest and still return home empty-handed. What I learned is to not always anticipate the first ascents I’ll claim or the stories I’ll write before they’ve even occurred. Rather, I’ll just go climbing and to let whatever happens, happen.
And for anyone else curious about Azerbaijan, well, bountiful fields of untouched boulders await!
Allen Kenneth Schaidle currently resides in the United Arab Emirates, but will forever consider himself a diehard Midwesterner hailing from the creeks and forests of central Illinois just outside Metamora, Illinois. To see more of Schaidle’s work, visit akschaidle.com/.