Day 1 ? Welcome to the western frontier of Mongolia
6am Flight and a 6 offroad hour ride brought us to the doorstep Tavn Bogd National Park and the Altai Mountain Range. This vast remote territory of timeless beauty went on for as far as the eye could see. Weeks of planning had gone into this Day. I had been working with our local guide, Senggu, to put together a support team with the ultimate combination of experience and hospitality. The team consisted of two chefs and an assistant, two drivers, two trainees and two sherpas that had experience in the Mongolia National Army for Search and rescue and rock climbing. An amazing team that was to become a huge family over the following eight days. After traveling all day on a plane and Toyota Landrover, we made camp around 11pm. It was twilight and the stars were brilliantly bright. Temperature check: 11 degrees Celsius. Camping on the Mongolian grassland next to a river was exhilarating.
For Years I have been reading about this western most province that is different from the rest of Mongolia. With its Khazak Muslim heritage, this place and its remoteness is unlike any other place in the world.
Mount Khuiten at 4357 meters ASL is the highest peak in Mongolia and borders China, Russia, and Khazakstan. To travel to the base camp of the mountain takes a minimum of two days from the closest large city.
Day 2 ? Acclimatization
Day 2 had us driving the first part of the day through the canyons of the Altai valleys. After 4 hours we reached the entrance, which is protected by the Mongolian military. Cars could go no further, and it was time to start the acclimatization hike. With our gear loaded on camels and with some of the support staff on horses, we started the 17km walk in. Altitude was 2800masl. Some five and a half hours later we walked into a proper base camp. I was surprised to see the number of other expeditions preparing to summit either Khuiten or the closer and slightly lower Malchin peak. At least 50 tents and a Ger for supplies and used as a medic station, were in place. Our expedition had 6 sleeping tents and 2 cooking tents.?? Once at camp and all was set up, we discussed the plan for the next few days. While the next day was originally set as another training day, the weather had been clear and conditions optimal for an earlier summit bid.?? We planned to make high camp the next night at 3,500masl and camp on the glacier. Then the push for the summit of Mt Khuiten the day after.
Day 3 – High Camp
Not wanting to get to high camp too early, we planned a late start at 11am. A leisurely hike to the glacier was followed by a couple of hours of ice training with rope, ice axe, crampons. Crevasses are the big danger on glaciers and we roped up for safety.?? About 2 hours into the 4 hour trek to high camp, we were hit with the sudden mountain storm white-out that is so common in these ranges. Rather than walking blindly and risking falling into the crevasses, we made our high camp lower on the glacier than we had planned. Which meant a 5am start the next morning. Camping on the glacier itself was not as cold as I had expected. Temperatures dropped to about -11 degrees, but there was little wind and the sudden blizzard died down as quickly as it had started. Lying in the tent that night, thinking of the next day, myriad thoughts made for a restless night. Would the altitude affect me, would the cold get to me, would the rest of the team be ok? The uncomfortable yet heady mixture of trepidation and anticipation finally lulled me to sleep. The sense of mission was both heavy and exciting. My goal was to get the team to the top and back safely. It is what I was there for.
Day 4 ? Summit Day
Our 5am start was delayed an hour as we were keeping an eye on the clouds and the weather. We roped up in two teams. Sengghu started with the first team to get them ahead of the rest.?? We moved at a good pace and even though I stepped into a small crevasse that was covered by snow, I managed to pull myself out. We made our way across the glacier to the place that was to be high camp by 8am. A 30 minute tea break to take in the much needed calories and warm liquids gave us an additional push. At least 12 tents were in place at that spot.?? It was going to be a busy day on the mountain. The weather was nice and sunny and as soon as the sun hit the snow, it was blinding. Hoping the weather would hold, we started across the next glacier and then the ascent up to the peak. The climb itself is not that technical. There were a couple of hot spots which required using the ice axe as tochop into the ice and digging our crampons in, but except for one section, the angle of incline was about 25 to 30 degrees. There are 4 main sections to the summit bid and section 3 proved to be the most challenging. This section was at about 65 to 75 degrees angle, which meant proper placement of the ice axe and really getting all 12 points of the crampons, stuck into the snow. We were lucky that it had snowed over the past few days as it much easier to get crampons to stick in snow and less dangerous than pure ice.?? This hardest part of this one section was the wait time. There were a few climbers in another group that were feeling the affects of the altitude and were moving very slowly. We ended up waiting for over an hour on the side of the mountain. And it seemed that the weather of the last afternoon was going to repeat itself. A snow storm at about 3pm. We watched as the clouds rolled in, and I wondered would we even get to summit before the weather changed. We did. At 2:10pm on August 9th, Wildfire Expeditions led its first summit to Mount Khuiten with 8 members summiting. The victory was sweet but short, as the weather was turning. We headed back down the mountain and when we reached the steepest part, the storm hit. White-out. On our rope there were four, being led by Sengghu. I was the last on the rope of 30 meters and I could barely see Sengghu at the front. Through a series of top rope belay with the ice axe, we all moved down quickly and securely and by 5pm we were at the high camp where all the tents were (except ours). Another 2 hours brought us to our tent on the Glacier. Though the storm had stopped, we decided to move the tents off the glacier and camp at the trailhead. We had another 3 hours of light. Enough time we thought. Half of the team started down to set up camp and start cooking while the other half stayed behind and packed up the tents to make for a more efficient break camp. Darkness set upon us sooner than we expected and exhausted from the summit bid, we moved at a slower pace to the trail head. Unfortunately, in the greying light, we missed the entrance point and kept walking down the glacier until we realized it was too far. Instead of going back we climbed off the glacier and scrambled up the scree slope. Though not that difficult a scramble, our exhaustion made the going go slow. At one in the morning, a full twenty hours since we left our camp the previous morning, we finally fell exhausted into the tent. An epic day.
Day 5 ? Rest Day
We woke to a light powder of snow on the ground and tents. On my early morning sojourn to one of the world?s most scenic toilets, I came across unusual prints on the rocks. Could it be? Baby snow leopard prints? We had had visitors during the night it seemed. Would have loved to seen the baby snow leopards but the prints were a nice sign of the remote beauty around the mountain. We made our way back to Base camp where we were greeted by our chefs and food, food, food.?? Two members had decided not to summit Khuiten, and it was a happy reunion for the full team back at base camp. We rested that day (and took a shower) , preparing ourselves for the summit attempt of the smaller Malchin Peak at 4050masl the next day. With beautiful weather it was a nice day to take a restful nap in the sun and rest the legs.
Day 6 ? Malchin and the 400m Ice slide
We started for Malchin at around 10am. It was a nice trek and we felt unburdened carrying only day packs as there is no snow on the path up. No need for ice axe and crampons. Everybody was feeling good and made the summit of Malchin. The panorama was spectacular on a clear day. Mother Russia, Sengghu pointed. The conditions were right to do a quick decent from the North face of Malchin – an icy slope at about 30 – 40 degree incline. This made for the perfect slide down to the base. It took 3 hours trekking up and about 30 minutes sliding down to the base. Once on the north side of Malchin it was a 30 minute walk and we came to the border markers. Mongolia, Russia. A step forward and we are in the vastness of Mother Russia. My second time to Russia and yet still no official stamp on my passport. The greenness of the mountains continued on to the Siberian ranges in Russia, but looking back at Mongolia, the huge glacier is sadly disappearing year after year. Global warming. Making our way back to base camp it was time for the feast and the toasts of success with vodka. Well deserved by everyone!
Days 7 and 8.
It seemed to be over almost as fast as it had started. With the twin summits behind us, Sengghu had arranged horses for us to ride out to the other side of the national park. A beautiful 3 hour horse ride brought us to another checkpoint for the park.. We packed our things into our 4wds and slowly started through the vast valleys and steppes making out way to the town of Olgii. A night camp by the river and a family breakfast of all us sharing and laughing and reminiscing of the past few days. A quick stop over at a Khazak family that raises Falcons and eagles for hunting. The birds of prey were amazing. The power in there talons could be felt as they gripped your arm intensely.
Moving on Toward Olgii we finally reached the town and had time for a hot shower before flying back to Ulaan Bataar.
Over the past 8 days we all had became a family and the respect and care we all had for nature and the beauty of the land was apparent without words.?? As we said our goodbyes to our hosts and team members and our guides, I felt the people that made up this first trek was truly a dream team. Rich with a background none expected. Our mountain guide had lived in London for 6 years and had received mountaineering recognition in Russia as well as Mongolia. One member was ranked in the Mongolian national boxing team and has aspirations to go to the Olympics. One member was a Search and rescue officer that had spent a year in Sudan on a peace keeping mission. Our own team of Singaporeans had an exuberant lady doing countless headstands on any terrain feeling vibrant and happy with each days adventure. For me personally, usually doing these types of summits solo, trekking with this expedition I found a new sense of tranquility and inner reward, trekking with this group this family.
It?s all about the journey, both inward and outward that answers the questions that in the beginning you don?t even think to ask. Its about aspiring to the extraordinary?