We are back in Olgii City after 9 days in the Altai mountains. All we can say is.... WOW, what an incredible adventure!
We left Ulaanbaatar on the 4th of September for the city of Olgii (or Ulgii) - after a 2 hour plane ride, we were whisked away from the airport in our Russian made Uaz van. After 3.5 hours of riding off-road, we camped in a meadow outside a small town next to a river.
Our team consisted of the Three Amigos (Adam, David and Jimmy) as well as UK expats (now living in Australia) Giles and Elspeth, as well as Leslie, who hails from Colorado. All great people and easy to get along with.
Our journey continued through the Mongolian countryside on September 5, as we bumped along in the Uaz for another 4 hours before we reached the Tavn Bogd National Park gate, where we camped for the day. The ground was still soft and although there were no trees and little grass, the area was still relatively lush (by Mongolian standards at least).
September 6 we walked to base camp - a 14km trek that saw the terrain become more mountainous, culminating in us reaching the foot of the mountains and just about 10,000 feet (3,000 metres). Bactrian camels carried all of our gear, while we slowly made our way through the park. We pitched our tents at Base Camp and found shelter in a ger, a traditional Mongolian tent-house, still in use today all around the country. The ger - owned by our guiding company, became our mess tent, heat source, and card venue for the next week. The weather was clear and beautiful today, and the setting, at the junction of three large glaciers, was stunning.
September 7 saw the weather turn cold and overcast, but we didn’t let that deter us - we started out in the morning to climb Malchin Peak (4,050 metres), which straddles the border of Mongolia and Russia and is the main objective of most climbers who travel to the area. After the first hour, the trail grew very steep (50-55 degrees) and when we reached the ridge, we were scrambling over icy, snowy rocks before reaching the summit almost 4 hours after our departure.
The route down was extremely slippery, so we improvised and started walking on a snow cornice and down the steep backside of the mountain in deep snow. Adam improvised some more, sitting down in the snow, pushing off, and sliding down the steep slope until reaching the bottom, over 2,000 feet below. The rest of us followed suit, squealing all the way down the hill - it took 20 minutes for a descent that would have taken over two hours! Plus, while sliding, we had crossed into Russia! We walked back to base camp tired, but happy to have reached our first objective.
September 8 was another trek - this time to the border monuments of Russia and Mongolia - on a plateau in view of Malchin peak (on the left side of the picture - the snow slope is the one we slid down the day before). Also at the site was a Mongolian monument - the Mongolians marked the farthest four points of their empire (East, West, North and South) with huge bronze monuments noting key points in their history. After hiking for 2 hours, we reached the monuments, and David decided to hit golf balls from Mongolia over into Russia - a unique experience!
On September 9 we were set to travel up the glacier to our high camp, but overnight we received a lot of snow and the winds were high, so we stayed at base camp, in the ger, playing cards and eating. By this time we were in awe of our chef, Aha (great name!) who was providing restaurant quality meals out of his little cooking area. He baked bread, made pasta from scratch, and always provided an amazing meal for us...
By now, the weather had turned nasty - lots of snow and wind had created avalanches on several parts of the glacier. We were told by our head guide, Gangaa (a celebrity in Mongolia who has climbed many of the worlds highest peaks, including Everest and K2), that with the weather, it would likely be too dangerous to climb Mt Khuiten. We would use September 10 for rest and shoot for Friendship Peak, a nearby peak on the same glacier the next day.
We woke up on September 11 thinking our mountaineering trip was done - more snow and wind and cold. However, Gangaa told us to pack up - the weather would get better and we would try to get up to high camp. The three porters, all on horseback, went first to set up camp. These horses would climb through the snow, through the crevasse fields and up the mountain - incredible!
We loaded up our personal gear, our packs weighing almost 40 pounds each, and trudged up the mountain. The glacier was gorgeous, the going really tough, and 7 hours later reached high camp, exhausted. The winds picked up, so we quickly set up camp in a safe place behind a rocky outcrop at 3,500 metres.
The next 42 hours were spent in our tent in a blizzard - the worst conditions we have ever seen! The wind would pick up speed up the mountain and would roar like a train, while the snow continued to pile up against (and in) the tents. By the morning of September 13, over 2 feet of snow had fallen, creating a real danger of avalanches and killing our chances of attempting the summit. We waited for a weather window in the morning, packed our gear and headed back down the glacier in knee deep (and higher!) snow. 3.5 hours later, we were back at base camp, watching an avalanche off the face of Friendship Peak!
September 14 proved to be a long day - we decided earlier in the trip to hire horses to ride out to the South Gate of the park, 20 Kms away. Our horses arrived early and we galloped through the rocky countryside, feeding our inner Genghis Khans. 3.5 hours (and many sore knees and butts) later, we were at the gate. We drove on the beautiful, but rocky terrain, for the next 7 hours, jostling around in the Uaz like ping pong balls.
An hour before we reached Ulgii we pulled into a field and stopped at the ger of an Eagle hunter and his family, where we were treated to a traditional Kazak snack and were allowed to hold an actual hunting eagle - impressive, indeed. Off to Olgii, into the hotel, hot showers and bedtime for all!
September 14 was the last real day of our adventure before making our way to our homes. We drove 30 minutes out of Ulgii to see an Eagle Hunting festival, where the skills of the eagles and their trainers would be on full display. We spent the whole day watching traditional Kazakh games such as dead goat tug of war on horseback, men and women racing horses while trying to whip each other (actually it was the woman whipping the man - is it something he said?), and of course, Eagle calling. All the while, traditional foods, such as goat on a stick and sheep dumplings were on sale.
After the Eagle festival we headed over to Mongolia Expeditions compound where they have a ger. We were treated to a traditional Kazakh meal, which comes on a big platter and includes an onion and cheese “bread” as well as lots of potatoes and meat (sheep and horse, yes horse). The whole meal is eaten with only the hands and it was like our entire trip - it was surprisingly delicious. At the end of the meal we were serenaded by a traditional Kazakh band which included a father, his son and 11 year old nephew, who was a prodigy on the dombra, a 2 stringed guitar.
We said goodbye to our assistant guide Tino, cook Aha and headed to the hotel to play our last game of cards together, finishing around midnight. This was one of the most memorable days of any trip we had and encapsulated our time in Mongolia - pleasant surprises at every turn!
September 15 was our last full day in Mongolia - after a late start, we hopped into the Uaz for the last time and headed for the Ulgii airport, where we said goodbye to our assistant guide and host, Erick. One of the smartest, most organized hosts we have ever had, Erick is also a great person. We want to thank him for all his work - our trip wouldn’t have been the same without him.
Onto the plane, and 2.5 hours later, we were back in Ulaanbaatar, where we said goodbye to Adam, whose flight to Australia left in just 3 hours, checked into our hotel for the last night and went out for a final dinner together.
After another great dinner, we said goodbye to our guide Gangaa, who kept us safe throughout. Gangaa has a great demeanor, likes to laugh and has no pretensions for a world class climber. We would have her guide us again in a heartbeat! Back to the hotel, where three of us (David, Jimmy and Leslie) would pack up to leave in the morning.
We were whisked to the airport in the morning, boarded our flight to Beijing and 2 hours later were each catching connecting flights to North America. And that was it!
Quick final thoughts - not much is known or written about Mongolia in North America, but this was truly an adventure at every turn, making it our favourite destination in the 10 years we have been going on these expeditions. If you like the wilderness, landscapes, good people and cultural experiences on a less traveled path, this is the place for you!
Stay tuned for our videolog of our trip, including the recurring "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" segment. The video will be available in the next 6-8 weeks...
The team, minus Adam (who already left for Australia), is safely back in Ulaanbaatar readying to go our separate ways.
To say this trip was an adventure is an understatement of epic proportions - something new and exciting seemed to happen at every turn.
We have prepared a day by day diary that we will upload as one big blog post over the next couple of days - stay tuned. In the meantime, please check out our Twitter feed for some great pictures of our trip.
After a good night’s sleep, we were back at it in Ulaanbaatar today. The city is hosting the world junior table tennis championships, and all the teams are staying in our hotel. As a result, we had breakfast with North Korea, Iran, and Hong Kong this morning (we were seated next to them). By the way, did you know the Ulaanbaatar has the only North Korean embassy in the world?
We spent the morning stalking Vladimir Putin and looking at statues in the downtown area - we saw politicians, war heroes and even the Beatles (yes, they have a Beatles monument in Mongolia!). After a walk to the largest monastery in Ulaanbaatar, we headed back to the hotel to meet Jimmy and the rest of our team.
Our group consists of Giles and Elspeth, who live in Australia, Leslie, who is from Denver and the Three Amigos - first impressions are we have a good team.
The team headed out for a day of culture, visiting two museums and a cultural show (replete with throat singers and a contortionist) - an interesting, yet highly entertaining spectacle of Mongolia’s past, present and future.
Oh, and we managed to run into Putin’s motorcade as well!
We have had a great time in UB, but it’s tine to get out into the wild and begin our trip - we are being picked up at 11:30 am for our flight to Ulgii. It may be a few days until we can blog again, so please stay tuned to our twitter feed to get updates on our progress.
After 26 hours and three airports, we finally made it to Ulaanbaatar!
We arrived at 10;50 am and were promptly whisked out of the airport and to our hotel. The city was not what we expected - there are dozens of construction cranes and hundreds of new buildings going up all over the city. The population has grown from 400,000 in 1991 to over 1,500,000 today - fully half of Mongolia’s entire population lives here. However, the streets are neat and tidy, as are the citizens.
The streets were crowded and congested with both cars and policemen- turns out Vladimir Putin is in town on a State visit. Russian, or more appropriately, Soviet influence is seen all over the City in its architecture (drab concrete box like apartment buildings). The government here was communist until 1990 and continues to have ties with Russia all the way to the present.
As we made our way to the hotel, Western influence was also apparent - glass office buildings, Irish pubs and, of course, KFC all appeared on our 45 minute journey - the mix of West meets East meets Communism is definitely unique.
Our hotel was one of the largest and most prestigious Soviet era hotels in Mongolia - the rooms had just been renovated and the staff were friendly. However, we were only in the hotel for 15 minutes before we decided to take a road trip to see one of the main attractions in the area - a giant 40 metre high statue of Genghis Khan that sits on s hill in the countryside.
We made our way through the teeming city and into the beautiful countryside - rolling hills, and valleys filled with gers (yurts), horses and livestock. After 3 hours on the road we arrived at the statue - it is made of stainless steel and was very impressive. We visited the adjacent museum, said hi to some Bactrian camels, and were back on the road an hour later.
So far, Mongolia has defied expectations - the city is quite cosmopolitan, the countryside beautiful and every town clean with almost no garbage lying around. You can tell the people are hardworking, proud, and generally happy.
It’s time for a small meal and then off to bed - tomorrow we meet Jimmy and the rest of our team and also spend s bit more time exploring Ulaanbaatar.
Our last expedition together - circa 2013
With 24 hours remaining until we start our expedition, all three of us are desperately paring down our gear to find the right mixture of warmth and weight (or lack thereof). And trying to figure out what a Tughrik is (bonus points if you know what it is without consulting Google).
We hope you will join us on our little adventure - this time there are three ways to do so (even us old guys have a bit of tech savvy).
We will continue to blog when we can, but due to the remote nature of our trek, we are unsure how often we will have cell or wifi service. The goal is to post as much as possible, and hopefully we can provide some great pictures along the way... This will not be like the Nepali teahouses where we could sit in front of a warm fire and access spotty wifi every evening!
Our Twitter feed will be active however, as Adam has a satellite communicator that allows us to text directly to our feed. We hope to do this at least once a day, so tune in often to see what kind of trouble we can get into on the steppe!
Finally, you can see exactly where we are, and even send us a question or a message, by clicking on the Location Tracker link above or following the instructions on our home page. We are always happy to speak to someone from home - after our day is done, there is a lot of sitting around and after playing Hearts for a few hours, it's nice to engage in conversation that doesn't debate the best rock to hide behind for privacy (you get my drift!).
Ashoplan, the 13 year old featured in the Netflix documentary "The Eagle Huntress"
Mongolia, particularly Western Mongolia, is one of the most remote and inhospitable places on earth - temperatures fluctuate wildly, there is very little rain, and the topography is rocky and mountainous.
Eking out an existence is serious business, with no real opportunity for agriculture and a small number of animals hardy enough to survive in these difficult conditions. Some residents raise animals, primarily sheep and goats, moving across the plains in search of pasture during the summer season.
Another primary source of meat is hunting with eagles - this tradition goes back 1,100 years to the Khitans, a nomadic people from Manchuria. Fast forward 1,000 years - this form of hunting was still in practice in Kazakhstan. However, during the communist period many Kazakhs fled for Mongolia, settling in Bayan-Ölgii Province and bringing with them their tradition.
There are an estimated 250 eagle hunters in Bayan-Ölgii. Their falconry customs involve hunting with golden eagles on horseback - they primarily hunt red foxes and corsac foxes. They use eagles to hunt these animals during the cold winter months when it is easier to see the gold colored foxes against the snow. We will be living alongside these hunters as we make our way from Bayan-Olgii to Base Camp.
Each year, Kazakh eagle hunting customs are displayed at the annual Golden Eagle Festival. We will be lucky enough to be able to attend the festival in Sagsai (near Bayan-Olgii) and see a large gathering of hunters and their eagles compete in traditional contests to determine the best eagle (and hunter). This really is a once in a lifetime experience that will make an amazing conclusion to our adventure.
If you are interested in learning more about eagle hunting and life in Western Mongolia, I highly recommend the award winning documentary " The Eagle Huntress" on Netflix - it follows a 13 year old girl, who becomes one of the first female eagle hunters in the region. The protagonist, Ashoplan, actually competed in the eagle festival last year, so we are hoping to get to see her up close.
Just your average September morning in Mongolia!
While we are enjoying the final weeks of summer weather up here in Canada (and Jimmy is still steaming in Texas), we are keeping an eye on the weather in Mongolia, particularly in Western Mongolia.
For the most part, the weather patterns in Mongolia are very similar to what we experience here in the Great White North - warm summers and extremely cold winters. The typical tourist season (if such a thing exists in Mongolia) are the months of June, July and August - any other months of the year are subject to extreme fluctuations in temperature.
Let's look at this week's forecast - in Central Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar (approximately 4,400 feet above sea level), we are looking at temperatures ranging from a high of around 20C (68F) to just above freezing at night. These temperatures will creep downward in the next couple of weeks. With any luck, temperatures in the teens (60sF) will be the norm for most of our trip, while lows will be around the freezing point, until such time as we hit the Potanin Glacier.
Once in Western Mongolia and on the mountain, the lows will dip down to -10C (14F) or lower, and the highs will only fluctuate a couple of degrees from the low number. These numbers are fairly reasonable in comparison to our previous trips.
The main concerns on all of our trips are wind and snow. If you have been following along on our past few expeditions, you will recall wind is always the most important factor in our summit bids. On this climb, snow will likely be a larger factor on the mountain - we will be at the tail end of climbing season in September (we likely will be the only ones on the mountain). There has already been almost a foot of new snow on the summit over the past week, and we are more likely to see further snowfall later in the season. Breaking trail after a foot of snow is no easy task, especially if you are the only ones on the mountain!
We often use Mountain Forecast for our weather reports - on the whole, they have been eerily accurate. You can follow our weather online using this link: https://www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Mt-Khuiten/forecasts/4374.
The extreme weather seems to bring out the best in the Bactrian Camel, the animal that will be transporting our climbing gear to base camp. Over the years we have used all means of mechanized transport getting us to and up the mountain. We have also used a menagerie of animals including horses, donkeys, mules, yaks (and naks) to help pack our gear to camp, but a camel is new to us. An intriguing animal who thrives in harsh conditions and at altitude - this excerpt is from Wikipedia:
These camels are migratory, and their habitat ranges from rocky mountain massifs to flat arid desert, stony plains, and sand dunes. Conditions are extremely harsh – vegetation is sparse, water sources are limited and temperatures are extreme, ranging from as low as −40 °C in winter to 40 °C in summer. The camels’ distribution is linked to the availability of water, with large groups congregating near rivers after rain or at the foot of the mountains, where water can be obtained from springs in the summer months, and in the form of snow during the winter.
Between the Bactrian Camel and Golden Eagle (I will post about the Eagles next week), we will be blessed with the opportunity to interact with two of the most important animals to this region.
With just one month left before we leave, we are beginning to look at our gear and take a closer look at our travel plans. Here is what our itinerary looks like - we will be discussing a lot of these days in-depth in the following weeks on the Blog, but for now, here is an overview, thanks to our friends at Mongolia Expeditions:
August 31: Leave for Mongolia
September 2: Arrival in Ulaanbaatar
September 3: A guided city tour will introduce us to the highlights of the city: the Gandan Temple - city's main Buddhist center, the central city square with a grand statue of Genghis Khan and the Zaisan Memorial, an elevated hill on the city's edge providing a panoramic view of UB. The Winter palace of Bogd Khan showcases rare statues of Buddhist deities and items of personal use of this last theocratic ruler of Mongolia is also worth considering. A show of traditional music, throat singing and contortion at 6PM will be followed by a welcome dinner.
September 4: Flight to Bayan-Ulgy, the Muslim province of Mongolia. Early this morning take a 3 hour flight to Ulgy town in Western Mongolia. The Kazakhs living in the area are the largest national minority and practice Sunni Islam. Upon arrival meet with a support team of driver(s), cook(s) and a guide and head westward to Tavan Bogd national park. At the end of a 3 hours travel across mountainous desert we camp in the valley of Sogoot river. In general rivers in Mongolia are small and shallow occasionally drying up but during the rainy season they rapidly rise and at times burst their banks. Upon arrival we erect our tented camp. It is guaranteed that curious locals on horse or foot will appear out of nowhere to greet you. Dinner and overnight in tented camp.
September 5: Drive to the Tavan Bogd Peaks' gateway. Travel further west and by early afternoon reach the Oigor river valley, the gateway to the Tavan Bogd peaks. En route we try to visit a Kazakh family, male members of which practice falconry. They employ Golden Eagles for hunting foxes, hares and other small animals.
September 6: Hike to Tavan Bogd base camp. Today we trek to base camp of the Tavan Bogd. This gradual ascent takes us through a high mountain terrain of rock outcroppings and of wetlands. With a bit of luck you will see some of the wildlife that inhabit the area including marmots, hares and a number of birds such us Golden Eagles, Black Vultures and Falcons. Our entire luggage will be transported by camels handled by Tuvan herders. Upon completing two thirds' of the way there open majestic perspectives of Potanin and Alexander glaciers with the icy peaks of Khuiten (4374m), Nairamdal (4082m), Snowchurch (4071m), Malchin (4050m), and Ulgii (4113m) on their far side. This evening we camp at 2900m.
September 7: Optional acclimatization ascent of the Malchin peak. The 4051m Malchin is the lowest of the peaks. We hike along the Potanin glacier moraine for an hour and start climbing on the scree of Malchin. Its ridgeline overlaps with the borderline of Mongolia and Russia and provides a spectacular bird's eye view of the Potanin glacier, glaciated peaks and Russia. Over to the west, weather permitting, you will see the massif of Mt.Belukha (4500m) lying in Russia. That is the absolute top of Altai mountain range. Back in camp we reward ourselves with a tasty meal. Those staying behind can relax in the camp and take the so-called Russian border walk, an easy climb on to a neighboring ridge that allows a glance into the territory of Russia.
September 8-11: Khuiten ascent. Our challenge for the following 4 days (including one leeway day) is the Khuiten peak. To reach its base we need to cross the Potanin glacier, which lies in between. An advanced base camp will be set up below the eastern face of Khuiten. A number of crevasses is to be traversed before reaching the Khuiten's foothill. The actual ascent, although technically moderate takes 4 hours. From the summit there opens a tremendous bird eye view over China, Russia and the neighboring snowcapped ridges and snow fields. Weather permitting we should be back to the base camp in the evening of September 10.
September 12: Return hike to White River. Today we hike back to our camp in the White River valley. This time it is a gradual descent along the White river which takes its source from the Potanin glacier. It is a chance to glance into every single valley of the icy massif and witness how the initial stream of glacial dust transforms into the mighty White river. Back to our vehicles to we celebrate our ascent.
September 13: Return transfer to Ulgy, overnight in local hotel. We say "goodbye" to our Tuvan friends and take a 7 hour drive back to Ulgy. Tonight is your chance to sleep in a local hotel. Hot shower and cold beers will highlight the day.
September 14: Sagsai Eagle Festival. We will attend the world famous Eagle Festival. As an initiative of the local population the Sagsai region began to celebrate the Eagle hunting culture with a festival a decade ago. During the Eagle Festival, hunters and the their eagles compete against each other in varius hunting skills competitions, but also, they are judged by their traditional attire and the equipment of the eagles and the horses they use to hunt. The festival also includes horse and camel races, in which mostly young boys compete.
September 15: Return flight to Ulaanbaatar. This morning we catch a return flight to Ulaanbaatar. Farewell dinner.
September 16: Departure. Transfer to airport for return flight home.
Does this look like fun?
Welcome back to another Blog covering our adventures around the world!
A lot has happened since our last trip, which we completed almost two years ago. Health issues, relocation, and family changes are just a few of the challenges we have faced over that time. Not to mention we are all a little bit older and creakier!
However, when the call went out to gauge interest in another mountain trip, it didn't take long for everyone to get excited. Jimmy's exact words were "I'm in, I'm in, I'm so freaking in!"
I get asked a lot about plans for our next trip - I'm always amazed at the people who have read about our adventures via this Blog and surrounding media coverage (thanks SteinbachOnline!), but two questions always pop up:
1) Who is going with you?
2) Where are you going?
Let's deal with those questions on today's post.
First, the easy question - the original three Flatlanders are back together for the first time since we climbed Vallecitos and Aconcagua in 2012!
Jimmy Collier and David Banman last climbed Mera Peak in Nepal in 2017, while the last time David and Adam MacDonald where on a mountain together was Mount Elbrus in Russia in 2014. Adam was scheduled to climb in Nepal with us, but he had to cancel last minute because of a visa issue.
We are all looking forward to seeing each other again - although hopefully this time we won't be stuck inside a 2 man tent in a snowstorm for 40 hours!
Our destination is Mount Khuiten, Mongolia. You can learn more about the mountain by clicking on the Mount Khuiten page at the top. What I want to talk about is why we chose this area of the world, and why, in particular, this mountain.
There aren't too many places in the world left relatively untouched by tourism - the internet has allowed us to see and learn about every corner of the world (and be direct marketed to by the tourism industry as well). Many people make their living simply by blogging about their travels - showing us the beauty and depth of the world's cultures and geographies. I believe this makes people much less apprehensive about traveling to far flung locales - if someone else can do it, why can't I?
While tourism can have a positive effect on an area or a culture, over-tourism can negatively impact the local culture and geographical environment. Whether you are standing in San Marcos Square cheek-to-jowel with 100,000 other people all swarming to take a picture with their selfie-stick, or are walking in a line with 10,000 others up the slopes of Kilimanjaro, the sideshow of these attractions takes away some of the appreciation for the beauty of the surroundings. One needs to look no further than this year on Mount Everest to see what a classic example of over-tourism looks like!
A lot of mountaineers find the beauty of the mountains in their solitude - the chance to get away from cell phones and cameras and crowds and focus on the sights, smells and sounds of your surroundings. This particular climb may not be the highest in altitude, but is definitely the most isolated, and has the potential to be one of the more culturally enriching experiences to date.
As Henry David Thoreau said,
“We need the tonic of wildness...At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”