Western Mongolia Trek part 2; June 25-30, 2011

Once again all photos are Jennifer's; Tim's better ones will come out in due time.

After two days of driving and five days of trekking, our entourage (the four of us, guide Erlan, cook Bodra, and all of our stuff atop camels led by Shaaga's son) arrived at the Tavan Bogd (Five Sacred Peaks) "base camp," near the foot of the Potanin glacier (photo 1). Our plan was to first day-hike Malchin Peak (4050m/13,287'), then spend a day trekking up the glacier to establish an "advance base camp." From there we would climb either Nairamdal Peak (4180m/13,714') whose summit lies on the triple border of Mongolia, China, and Russia, Khuiten Peak (4374m/14,350') whose summit is the highest in Mongolia, or both.

At base camp we met the members of a partnership-climb between the Mongolian and Nepalese mountaineering associations; they'd summited Khuiten the previous day. They were guided by Gangaamaa, who's been leading climbs in the Tavan Bogd region for almost ten years and is enjoying a recent boost in fame as the first Mongolian woman to summit Mt. Everest. We'd secured Gangaamaa several months ago to be our guide for the mountaineering portion of our trek.

From Gangaamaa and the Nepalese we quickly learned that we were uninformed and unprepared for what it takes to climb the higher peaks of the Tavan Bogd. Specifically:
  • Although our clothing, crampons, and gaiters were deemed acceptable, our trekking boots -- despite being high quality leather and Gore-Tex -- were declared wimpy and inappropriate (some more so than others). The two climbing harnesses we'd brought for the kids were good; the two provided by the trekking company were safe but weird.

  • The tents our crew provided for the expedition were wonderfully spacious, but they were an absolute no-go for the advance camp: far too heavy to carry, too cold, and way too large to fit on the snow platform we would carve.

  • Weather is suitable for climbing -- particularly for relative novices like us -- only about one out of every three days. Climbers dead set on reaching even one peak generally plan to spend 2 or 3 days at the advance camp. We'd planned for 2 nights thinking it would give us a shot at two peaks; we quickly adjusted our expectations.
Although we'd had plenty of minor challenges so far, at this point we felt things might be taking a real turn for the worse -- would we need to give up on the mountaineering portion that we'd based our trip around? Alex got constructive: He had the brilliant idea that perhaps the Nepalese, since they were on their way home, might be willing to sell us some mountaineering boots. An hour later, Tim was sporting top-notch boots belonging to Nima Gombu Sherpa, who's summited Everest 16 times -- Tim even thought to have the boots signed, since Nima Gombu could well set the Everest summit record in a few years (eBay here we come). Emily's new boots came from Zimba Zangbu Sherpa, president of the Nepali Mountaineering Association, nothing to sniff at either. The purchases made a rather large dent in our emergency cash, but were well worth it to keep our plans on track. Although there were no boots suitable for Jennifer or Alex, Jennifer's trekking boots had been judged nearly good enough (and ended up working fine). Only Alex suffered, although a pair of improvised garbage-bag boot liners did help.

With the boot problem more or less solved, Gangaamaa took it upon herself to work on tents. Over the next day she managed to finagle two small mountaineering tents that our family would use in pairs. Gangaamaa, the assistant guide, and the porter who would accompany us up the glacier would make do with one of our crew tents. (We'd prepaid a whopping $30 for the luxury of two additional porters who would help carry our personal gear to the advance camp. It became clear those porters wouldn't materialize, but that was hardly a major setback -- we could carry our packs.) Whew, good to go.

We assumed the Malchin Peak warm-up would be easy, since it's scaled by many of the hikers who make it to base camp. It turned out to be a long, steep scramble up loose rock and occasional snow (photo 2), followed by a knife-edge ridge to the summit. Succumbing to acrophobia, Emily & Jennifer forwent the last part, instead sitting down to enjoy our first truly good-weather day, with spectacular views over Mongolia and Russia (photo 3). Gangaamaa's assistant guide Gaana (same name as our driver) led us that day. He spoke no English but otherwise was an excellent guide -- but stay tuned.

The next morning we set out for the advance camp -- Gangaamaa and the four of us on one rope, the assistant guide and porter on another. (The porter was one and the same as Shaaga's son the camel driver; coincidentally his name is Gaana too.) The Potanin glacier is not steep, but it's riddled with crevasses. We moved slowly, with Gangaamaa constantly checking the terrain (photo 4). Falling into a crevasse when roped usually isn't disastrous -- in fact one of the Nepalese had fallen in one -- but we weren't anxious to try it out. In all of our time on the glacier, Alex and Emily each had a leg poke through the snow and dangle, but nothing more serious than that.

When we reached the advance camp we carved out a flat platform in the snow with our ice axes and pitched our tents (photo 5). The tents were tiny compared with the gargantuan palaces we'd gotten accustomed to, but we managed. Little did we know we'd be spending most of the next 38 hours in them (photo 6). It began to snow that evening, and when we got up at 4:30am to see if we could begin a climb, it was still dense clouds and snow; Gangaamaa had no hesitation declaring the conditions unacceptable for climbing. It stays light very late in Mongolia in the summer, so we could begin a climb as late as early afternoon, but the weather just didn't improve. We wiled away our time reading, playing cards, drinking occasional tea and eating snacks, soup, and noodles prepared by the crew. For a couple of hours in the afternoon the weather cleared enough for Tim and Emily to build and very much enjoy a snow-slide away from the crevasse zone (photo 7), but that was about it. (You mountaineers out there will point out that days on end in tiny tents waiting for the weather to improve is the norm, but it was new for us.)

The second early-morning the conditions weren't perfect, but Gangaamaa suggested we give it a try and turn back if needed. We'd already decided to attempt Nairamdal rather than Khuiten if we had only one chance -- although Gangaamaa's conversational English wasn't that strong, her climbing English was quite good, and we'd learned that Khuiten was considerably more difficult and technical than we'd thought. We wanted to go for the peak we felt confident we could scale, and the triple-border of Nairamdal had plenty of appeal. We roped up and set off. In just 2½ hours of alternately blue-sky and swirling mist, and just one really steep section (photo 8), we reached the summit of Nairamdal (photo 9). The views came and went -- mostly went -- but with satisfaction we circled the summit post to ensure we visited all three countries. As an unexpected bonus, Gangaamaa informed us that Emily now holds the record as the youngest person to climb Nairamdal.

When we returned to the advance camp we quickly packed up and continued down the glacier. All told it was a long day of walking and crevasse-avoiding (we even had to slide on our stomachs across a snow bridge; photo 10), but by mid-afternoon we were back in base camp enjoying congratulations and some real food.

The only "blip" in the day occurred when Jennifer was lining up the tips for those who had helped with the climb. The cash envelope felt suspiciously thin. Indeed, Jennifer had (very stupidly) left our cash in the mountaineering tent when we climbed the peak. Despite it being inside many layers of ziplocs, envelopes, and a travel pouch, either the assistant guide or porter had entered our tent and helped himself to $400 while we were climbing. Our expedition guide Erlan was quite upset and took it upon himself to deal with the issue. He interrogated the parties, decided the assistant guide was the culprit, and sent the porter by horse late at night to track down the assistant guide who had left base camp several hours earlier. One way or another, the next morning eight very wet $50 bills were returned to us. What a pleasant surprise.

Our tenth and last day of trekking was an easy one (with camels carrying our gear again; photo 11), through rolling hills back into the realm of nomad families in their gers (yurts), and finally a road-head. Our driver Gaana met us as cheerfully as ever, with 1½ days of driving ahead of us to reach Olgii. We were surprised but actually pleased that Shaaga would hitch a ride with us to town -- quite the character (photo 12), he added a lot to our group. It was a jovial time. In our last campsite our cook (and former hairdresser) Bodra gave Alex a haircut (photo 13, with driver Gaana looking on), and a bottle of Shaaga's homemade "milk vodka" came out. An alternative to fermented mare's milk -- another alcohol staple of the region -- both are certainly an acquired taste.
As had become the norm, several chess games were played among Alex, Erlan, and Shaaga, while Jennifer and the kids played a long-running rummy tournament (photo 14).

It was suggested that we might be able to meet another eagle hunter on our way back to Olgii. Once again we stopped at many gers with little luck, but finally we scored, sort of: A family with an eagle was very welcoming, but the hunter himself was away. Alex had yet another brilliant idea: dress Shaaga up for photos (see photo 15 for the result). The rest of us got to hold the eagle as well (photo 16). Good times.

We opted to stay at the best hotel in Olgii, rather than in a tourist ger camp outside of town which is more common. "Best hotel" isn't saying much (at all!), and the entire city had no water whatsoever for most of the day and evening. We visited a scungy internet cafe and a surprisingly good Turkish restaurant, finally enjoying a real toilet and shower late in the evening.

To close, here's a quote from our cook Bodra that sums up at least some aspects of our Mongolian experience. On the return to Olgii we drove through an area frequented by marmots -- cute mountain-dwelling animals also found in the California Sierras. Gaana and Shaaga bemoaned not stopping to hunt them, and Bodra commented how delicious marmot meat is. I asked her if it tastes like chicken. "No, tastes like horse!" Here's hoping neither marmot nor horse graced our table.

Next: Unwind our trip -- fly Olgii to Ulaanbaatar, one night in UB, continue on to Beijing where we'll spend a couple of days being tourists, then back home.

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