Tavan Bogd: Climbing the Roof of Central Asia

Part 2 - the Climb

Four of us would climb, Matt and Greg, American Peace Corps Volunteers, Cedric, a Frenchman working at the geophysics institute in UB, and me. We had with us two Mongolian guides, Kashat, a local Kazakh man and Zhukov, Mongolia's number one mountaineer, who has been to Everest and France. When setting up our camp the Mongolians discovered they didn't have stakes for their tent, which in any case didn't look to sturdy for the cold strong winds coming off the glacier. A bad start.... Rocks solved the problem in this case. It still stormed throughout the night, so we nearly gave up hope until I looked out in the morning to see an amazing sight - the entire Tavan Bogd range glittering in the morning sun, topped by Khuutain Uul in the distance! They looked gorgeous, and it didn't take us long to get ready to go. But the Mongolians figured the weather was great so insisted on having tea. Finally by eleven we set off for a 12 km trek up the glacier to reach the foot of the mountain.

Camping at the base of the glacier

Camp at the base of Potanii Glacier
Khuutain Uul is the round peak in the background

When we got to the point on the glacier where it was time to rope up we pulled out our brand new climbing rope and harnesses, but all the Mongolians could produce was a piece of string barely strong enough to tie a dead goat to a ger! And only Zhukov had a good harness.... Well, this was gonna be an adventure alright.  No wonder they had insisted all the foreigners go on our rope and they on theirs. Al along we had figured one Mongolian with two of us on each rope would have been better.

Potanii Glacier

Potanii Glacier

By four in the afternoon we had progressed a long way up the glacier, but still had another two hours to go. I had been looking at the weather and been mumbling all day about how nice it would have been to leave at 7 instead of 11. Didn't take long to prove me right, as all of a sudden a snowstorm blew in from the middle of nowhere, and within minutes we were stuck in the middle of a white-out, complete with lightning at close range. Not an enviable position to be in on an open glacier with no cover. Zhukov stopped cold in his tracks, and pointing at a spot below his feet said, "Let's set up camp, Here!". We hurriedly unpacked our gear, while wet sleet soaked us all. Luckily it turned out that the Mongolians had a second smaller tent which was much better suited for the mountain than the tent without stakes they left at the foot of the glacier. We set up our tents in record time, worrying that the metal poles would make perfect lightning rods on the open glacier. We finally crawled into our tents, trying to make the best of it. By then our outer clothes were pretty much soaked, so it was hard to keep the tents dry.

Glacier camp

Glacier camp

Sandagosh, the lovely Kazakh cook at base camp had taken care of provisions, and we found ourselves with a hunk of mutton, some cut up dry bread, a bottle of Salat - Polish pickled paprika cabbage and other veggies, the staple veggie for most Mongolians, and a bottle of pickles. Matt insisted we eat the Salat and pickles as he was not about to lug the stuff down the mountain again. Meanwhile, the storm continued to rage outside. After having filled ourselves with the Mongolian equivalent of Power Food we crawled into our bags as best as we could, although four guys and wet gear in a three-person tent is far from luxurious.

Zhukov assured us that the weather the following day would be great, but it was hard to attach a lot of value to that statement while the storm battered our tents. The following morning the wind was still howling, but when I looked out, the clouds had all but disappeared, and Khuutain Uul once again towered over us. We raced out this time, denying the Mongolians their morning tea. We still had an hour or more to go to the base of the mountain, before the start of the actual climb.

Climbing in wind

Battling strong winds on the bottom of Khuutain Uul

Unlike the afternoon before the snow was hard now, so the going was much easier. However, the strong wind slowed us down. By 10 we finally looked up at the mountain. About 500 vertical meters of snow and ice at a 30-60% slope. My right crampon had been coming off, as my boot was about to fall apart and had to fix it with Duct tape. I thought I had it fixed, but it still slipped off from time to time. Greg had the same problem with his crampons.


Taking a rest on the snow slopes of Khuutain Uul

The first part of the climb went well, and we gained altitude rapidly. The wind was coming from the side now, blasting us with hail dumped in the storm last night. Soon our faces were raw with wind burn. After an hour the slope became steeper, and steeper, until we reached a section of hard ice and snow, at a nearly 60% slope. Very slowly we traversed the section while Greg and I prayed our crampons would hold out. The glacier was now far below us, and we could see far into Russia and Mongolia. Behind us were the rolling grassy hills of Mongolia, the slopes dotted with the odd herd of yaks. To our right stretched the Siberian taiga - low hills of green. In the middle of the hills stood one lonely massive block of ice, Mt. Beluha. In the last century, a group of Old Believers, Orthodox Christians expelled from the Church in the 16th Century, heard of a luxurious valley called Shambala near this mountain. They walked from Murmansk in north western Russia to this remote corner of Siberia to find it. Looking at this majestic mountain towering over the taiga, one could imagine why people considered it sacred...

We breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the traverse, but our joy didn't last long. Above us the slope was less steep, but the ice was rock hard, making it hard for our crampons to catch hold. We managed to cross the ice with some help of Zhukov, and luckily we only had a hike up a gentler snow-covered slope to get to the top. By this time we were all exhausted from the efforts on the ice walls, so the going was slow. Finally, 3 1/2 hours after leaving camp the slope gave way, and a magnificent landscape unfolded in front of us. The views of Mongolia and Russia were beautiful, but paled in comparison to the scenery China had to offer. Jagged rocky peaks topped with icy caps, stretched as far as the eye could see, the valleys in between filled with glaciers. The wind had died down and the sun beat down hard on us. All the days of waiting and struggling through unseasonal storms were well worth this stunning panorama of three countries.


The top!  Majestic view over China

Made it!

Made it!  From L to R: Rogier, Cedric, Matt, and Greg

After taking our pictures and enjoying the view it was time to face the ice wall again. It didn't take long to reach the first patch of ice. Everyone went down it alright, but when my turn came I slipped and fell. I stood no chance to hold myself on the slippery ice, and gained speed rapidly. Within a fraction of a second I was hurling face first down the slope. I wasn't too worried, knowing I was tied in to three others, and after what seemed ages a mild tug on the rope stopped me gracefully.
But after getting up it turned out I had pulled Greg from his anchor, and dragged him down the slope as well. Only by chance did Kashut catch both of us....

After this mishap Zhukov decided to tie in all six of us properly. This worked much better and from then on we descended without further problems. When we looked over our shoulders though, we decided we should really have used some of the ice screws we had with us.

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Approaching glacier camp on the way down

Within two hours we were back at our glacier camp, where we ate something and packed up. We really did not feel like another stormy night on the glacier so we decided to get straight back to base camp. So, we loaded up our packs again and set off down the glacier. By now the sun had turned much of the snow into slush and the glacier surface into a myriad of small streams. Soon our boots were soaked, but the gorgeous weather made up for the inconvenience.

After seven hours we finally walked into base camp, tired, but still on a high from the climb. It was certainly the best climb all of us had ever done!

Next: Lake Hovsgol