Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring


In August 2004 High Adventure arranged for a group of 20 school students accompanied by 4 adults to visit the Altai Mountains in western Mongolia. Four years later David Hamilton led a group of 13 people to the same area. These were mostly members of the Alpine Club and Alpine Ski Club in the UK. The original idea to visit Mongolia came from discussions in Zermatt during celebrations to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Alpine Club in June 2007.

Mongolia is not an easy destination to reach. Berlin and Moscow are the only European cities offering direct flights and other options via China and South Korea are time consuming and expensive. The start of the Beijing Olympic Games on August 8 also disrupted airline schedules to the region during the period of this trip.

Last minute alterations to domestic flights forced additional changes to the itinerary and reduced the time in Central Mongolia to only two days. One of these was spent exploring Ulaan Bataar, and the other trekking to the 2256m summit of Bogd Uul in the Bogd Khan National Park close to the capital. Temperatures in UB had been blisteringly hot but in the tree covered mountains to the S/N of the city were slightly cooler. The absence of grazing animals in the national Park meant that the ground was covered with many types of wild flowers. On the summit of Bogd Uul there was a Buddhist shrine covered with bright blue prayer flags.

The three-hour flight to Olgi in the extreme west of Mongolia gave an idea of the vast scale of the country and how arid and sparsely populated it is. The 1600km flight revealed nothing below except a dry, rocky and uninhabited landscape with a few blue lakes. The Mongolian staff, provided by Nomads Tours, were waiting at Olgi airport. A large German made ex-army truck was home to our driver, guide, two cooks and kitchen assistant. The truck travelled with the group for the two-day drive to Khoton Lake at the southern edge of the Tavn Bogd National Park. Along the route there were several Balbals (grave markers) dating back to the time when Turkic-speaking tribes lived in the region.

The lake shoreline was beautiful with forests and lush pastures surrounding the deep blue waters. The area is home to Mongolia's small population of ethnic Kazak nomads. These people live in 'Gers' and migrate to the high pastures with their animals in the summer months retreating to homes at lower altitudes during the harsh winters. The group trekked along the lakeshore for two days, camping each night by the waters edge. On the morning of the third day of trekking they said goodbye to the 'Nomads' truck and were introduced to Azimat the 'camel man'. He provided the 7 camels that were to carry the group equipment for the remainder of the trek and also brought 6 horses that were variously used by the staff to follow the group and for team members to indulge in some horse riding.

The next four days of trekking followed a route through the Zuun Salaani Am valley and over the Tahilt mountain pass (3150m) into the Khan Salaani valley inhabited by nomads of the Tuvan ethnic group. They passed a site of Neolithic rock carvings near Shiveet Khairkhan mountain and continued on to camp by the National Park checkpoint by Tsagaan Gol (white river) that drains the large glaciers of the Altai. Here they were briefly reunited with the truck and enjoyed the luxury of hot showers all round.

Now at an altitude of 2410m the weather became cooler and night time temperatures fell below 0° C. The following day the horses and camels carried the equipment northwards for 15km to the site of Base camp overlooking the Potanin glacier. This site less than 2km from the Russian border was to be home for the next five days. At an altitude of 3160m, and with local weather patterns influenced greatly by the proximity of high mountains and large glaciers, temperatures fluctuated greatly. The weather could change greatly and it was possible to experience all 4 seasons in a single day, as claimed in the Mongolian govt tourist literature. Sub zero nights could be followed by snow or rain in the morning, leading to sunny afternoons that were cold if there was wind yet hot in the calm.

After a rest day at BC most of the team chose to climb the peak of Malchin (4027m) a few km west of camp. The route to the top follows the East Ridge, which is also the border between Mongolia and Russia. The terrain underfoot was not very pleasant comprising mostly unstable rock scree. However the final 200m of ascent along the summit ridge was on more solid ground and there was a fine view of the other 13 4000m peaks of the range. 8 members of the party plus the Mongolian Guide and cook reached the top and returned to BC in a round trip time of 7 hours.

The next day the 8 Malchin summiteers supported by 6 Mongolians (Guide, Guide's brother, Cook, Assistant Cook, and two camel men) trekked to an advance base camp situated by a rognon at 3600m on the Potanin glacier. 3 of the local crew stayed in support while the other 3 returned to BC. The weather on the climb to ABC had been fine but no sooner were the tents erected than the wind increased and blew with increasing ferocity throughout the night.

Plans for a 05.00 start were quickly abandoned and the group were resigned to spending a day in bed when the winds started to ease around 08.30. The group made a very speculative start towards the summit of Khuithen, Mongolia's highest peak at 09.30. Conditions remained blustery throughout the day but at 14.15 everyone was standing on the highest point of the summit ridge. GPS and altimeter gave a height of 4246m for the southern summit (known locally as the Mongolian Summit) and 4244m for the northern summit (known as the Chinese summit). In fact the border runs along the summit ridge and both countries share both tops. These heights differ noticeably from the accepted heights given on the best (Russian) maps of the area. These show both summits approx 30m higher, but reverse the order making the southern summit 4274m, 4m higher than the northern summit. The missing 30m is most likely explained by the fact that the Russian maps were produced using different Geodetic Datum (model of the shape of the Earth) from the WGS84 Datum used by most western sources.
But the question of which of the two summits (separated by a 500m ridge) is highest remains to be answered by a party using more sophisticated GPS equipment.

After spending more than 30mins visiting both summits the team descended to ABC arriving at 17.00. The wind had blown at 20-25 kts all day but by 18.00 had risen to 50-60 kts and continued to blow all night driving freezing snow and spindrift into the increasingly battered tents. The Mongolian staff did a great job providing hot drinks and food in the face of the onslaught. The weather had not improved much by the morning but no one liked the thought of spending another night in the damp, wind battered tents. The group left ABC at 09.30, reaching BC three hours later. The Mongolian staff brought the tents down a few hours later.

The 3-week trip had been a fascinating experience offering a chance to see something of this vast and little visited country. The people who live in this harsh and unforgiving landscape had all been friendly, helpful and cheerful. The local staff all worked hard to ensure the success of the programme. The group enjoyed a combination of trekking and mountaineering. The Mongolian weather always kept us guessing, but was never so bad as to disrupt the programme. The same can be said for the unpredictable schedules of the Mongolian airlines!

David Hamilton

Written on flight OM223 26/08/08 Ulaan Bataar to Beijing

David Hamilton
High Adventure
67 Castle Road
CV10 0SG


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