Stuart and Sheena's Mongolian Adventure
Why Mongolia ? A question we have been asked a hundred times since we first mentioned our intention to go there.
The answer for us was quite simple. Before we got much older we wanted to test ourselves in a mountain environment far removed from civilisation and support. A trip where success or failure depended on our ability to prevail, and our desire to have a genuine wilderness experience.
Mongolia delivered in spades !
Our trip began with the usual panic of trying to squeeze all of our kit into our expedition bags. We took with us our usual 3 season kit along with 4 season mountaineering equipment. Boots, harnesses, helmets, axes, sleeping bags, 70-litre rucksacks, mats, bottles etc.etc.etc..........the list went on and on. After a few failed attempts we managed to squeeze it all in and we were off.
Our first flight was Glasgow to London. We stayed overnight and began our second flight, London to Moscow, the following day. After four hours we arrived in Russia and had to hot-foot it through the airport to catch our third flight: Moscow to Ulanbaataar. Six hours later we arrived finally in Mongolia.
Ulanbaataar is a very industrial city with a strong Soviet influence. Its architecture is very austere and dated in places. Interestingly around every apartment block we saw Mongolian Yurts, which the locals call Gurs. It seems the Mongolians, being mainly nomadic, resented the Russian attempts to put them into modern houses and they simply erected their Gurs beside them. Most of the apartment blocks lay empty as a result.
We spent two evenings in Ulanbaataar where we recovered from our travelling and met up with the rest of the group. We had ten people in our party. All were experienced mountaineers and were very friendly. We had a couple of Australians, a Swiss, a few English and ourselves.
On the second day there we stretched our legs by climbing Mount Tsetsegun, a modest 2256m. It was an ideal way to blow away the cobwebs and give everyone the chance to get to know each other before our very early rise (3am the next morning)
A four hour flight took us from Ulanbaataar to the settlement of Olgii where our adventure would really begin.
On arrival at the very small airport we were ushered off the plane and told to stand on the tarmac outside the building whilst the passengers who were boarding our plane for the return journey vacated the building! Apparently there was no room for both sets of passengers in the small terminal. The airport only serviced these two flights per week, such a difference from Heathrow and Moscow.
Eventually we cleared customs and made our way outside to meet our crew, cooks and drivers. For the first time we saw our Russian-made Gaz jeeps which would take us on the next leg of our journey, a nine-hour off road drive towards base camp. We had three of these little jeeps, two for climbers and the third for the cooks.
The thought of nine hours in one of these vehicles was not immediately appealing, however we quickly fell in love with these little bombproof jeeps. As soon as we left the airport we waved goodbye to Tarmac underfoot and struck off into the vast Mongolian plain.
The time passed pretty quickly and the scenery and scale of the landscape was breathtaking. For miles and miles around in every direction there was.....nothing! We crossed rivers and scaled hills, there was really nowhere our jeeps couldn't go and it was a fair old shoogly ride at times. Eventually we arrived at the appropriately named 'Roads End' where even our trusty steeds could go no further.
We set up camp for the first time and settled down for our first night under canvas.
In the morning we were joined by our camel teams who would be carrying our kit to base camp, we would be walking the 15k and getting a feel for the terrain,which at this point was very like Glencoe, but on steroids!
After a strenuous but enjoyable walk we arrived at our base camp (3095m) beside the Potaniin Glacier. For the first time we saw views of our objective peaks and it was stunning. Every day we saw Golden Eagles and hawks circling high above our tents.
At camp we all shared two man tents, but we had two Gurs erected, one for cooking and one for eating.
Next day we are up and ready to take on Malchin (4037m) A straight forward peak designed really to help acclimatise us for the days ahead. Like all plans it didn't go strictly according to plan. Halfway up a long boulder field we were hit with 30/40mph winds which made our straight forward peak anything but. It was a real struggle and there was talk of abandoning any summit attempt. The group all agreed to continue to the summit ridge and reassess. Good call, the sun came out and the wind eased off a little and we all enjoyed sensational views into Russia and China beyond. A brilliant but tough day.
We spent the next few days doing some glacier training and lugging loads up to high camp (3775m) in preparation for our attempt on Mt Khuiten (4374m).
The high camp was in a stunning location. We set up camp and prepared our kit in glorious sunshine. As the sun went down the temperature plummeted reaching -21 at one point. It was one of the coldest nights we had ever spent in a tent!! A 2am rise saw us prepare for an alpine start with no one complaining about getting up and moving.
The terrain on Khuiten saw us roped up in three teams crossing mixed terrain on slopes of various degrees. The constant threat of crevasses became all too real when our lead Mongolian guide discovered a huge crevasse blocking our way. This resulted in a detour which added a lot of time to the ascent. Snow conditions were very poor with four inch crust covering very deep powder. It certainly made for hard work and we had to alter course appropriate to the dangerous conditions. Eventually we reached the final 40 degree slope towards the summit dome. Now being over one hundred miles from any help and knowing that Mongolia has no rescue services helped to focus the mind and each step up the unstable slope was tested fully.
As happens in the mountains, a perfect day deteriorated quickly and we were engulfed in a whiteout at our very moment of triumph on the summit. This though couldn't take away from our feeling of joy at standing on top of Mongolia's highest mountain. I think we enjoyed the descent in poor visibility as we couldn't really feel the exposure of climbing back down the unstable slopes. Eventually we arrived, very tired, back at high camp around 11am. We had a quick hot drink and climbed into our sleeping bags for some well earned rest.
The plan was to rest during the day and night and make an attempt on the nearby peak of Nairandal (4082m) the next morning.
Around 3pm we were wakened to be told that a big storm was heading our way and that we had to leave high camp pronto and head back down the Potaniin Glacier carrying all the kit back to base camp. This was a real blow. We were very tired from our days exertions and the thought of another six hours carrying heavy loads back to base camp was not appealing. You don't argue with the locals and off we trudged back down the glacier skipping over the numerous crevasses which had been exposed by the wind. Within fifteen minutes of heading off we were enveloped in a serious snow storm with visibility almost zero. The trek back to camp was difficult and exhausting but proved to be the absolutely correct call by our team leader. To say we were shattered on arrival was an understatement. Some of the cooks came out to meet us with much needed drinks. We all slept very well that night!
The following day we did absolutely nothing. It was just a time to recharge the batteries and dry off our gear.
The weather was presenting a bit of a window the following day and Tom Richardson, the team leader, suggested it may be possible to do Nairandal alpine style from base camp. Three of the group decided it wasn't for them but we thought 'In for a penny......'.
We would go up in two rope teams with very light equipment leaving at 4am to get the best conditions on the glacier and if we got to high camp in good weather we would go for Nairandal's summit.
Nairandal is also known as Friendship Peak as three countries, Mongolia, Russia and China all meet at the summit. The chance to stand in three countries on the same mountain was too good to resist and we were off.
The terrible conditions on our descent from High Camp had covered most of the crevasses and we were continually breaking through snow bridges covering them. All a bit of a nuisance.
We got to high camp in good time but the sky was looking ominous however the decision was made to go for it and we never stopped but continued to Nairandal's summit just before the snow started again. Some quick hugs and handshakes at the top and we really did enjoy our moment looking into China and Russia. By now the snow was falling and we headed down as quickly as we could.....probably too quickly !
It had to happen I suppose. Stuart went crashing through one of the snow bridges and was dangling in a crevasse. The rope discipline was very good and he was held long enough for Uoshgo, our Mongolian Sherpa, to help him out. By the time we got down to the terminal moraine the snow was falling thick and fast and soon the ground was a blanket of white.
We got back to base camp tired again but elated to have completed everything we set out to do.
The return journey to Olgii was just as enjoyable as the first time. En route we stopped at the home of some eagle hunters who took us into their Gur, fed us and gave us copious amounts of Kazakh tea and made us very welcome. They brought out one of their eagles and Sheena held the beautiful bird on her arm.
On arrival in Olgii we stayed the night in our own Gur. We were serenaded by a traditional Kazakh folk band and we had a great night of beers celebrating our trip. Back in Ulanbaataar we visited lots of cultural sites and generally recovered over a few more beers and some fine food. We prepared for the long journey home happy in the knowledge that Mongolia was everything we hoped it would be.
Mongolia has mountains as beautiful as any we have seen. It is a vast country which at times takes your breath away. At the moment its countryside is totally unspoiled and free from any signs of tourism, the people are warm and welcoming but it is very very remote. Had we got into difficulty I'm not sure what the outcome would be. All in the group could only get insurance cover as far as Olgii and Mongolia has no concept of mountain rescue.
Would I recommend this trip......? Absolutely, but only if you have the experience to cope with the demands required. We both agreed that Mongolia was one of the hardest trips we have been on.
Did we enjoy it...........? You bet we did !!!
Stuart and Sheena