In May 2013, I was part of an expedition to the Tavan Bogd mountain range in Mongolia, together with Melissa Presslaber, Michael Mayrhofer and Stephan Skrobar. Hiking and skiing in this remote area where Mongolia boarders China and Russia turned out to be an amazing experience.
Winter 2013 in Europe did not want to end. By the end of April there was still plenty of touring possibilities high up. But we had to leave, our flights were booked- to get some more snow! On the search for a destination for our ski trip, we had had three things in mind: moving on for us unknown grounds, meeting a different culture and combining all this with the possibility to hike and ski. By the time of January the dice fell onto Mongolia. Little can be found on skiing and ski touring in this corner of the world, but the pictures and the geography of the Mongolian Altai mountain range speaks for themselves. There, just on the boarder to Russia and China, the steppe meets vast glacious areas and, with a mountain range called Tavan Bogd (the Five Saints), also the highest mountains on Mongolian terrain.
To get there, we first had to enter the country through its capital Ulan Bator (Ulaanbaatar). Here, life seems to happen in similar paths as it does in any big city- pulsating commerce, heavy traffic, pleasant nightlife and stylish young people make up the scene. Still, there is a unique contrast within the city when welldressed businessmen walk along the sidewalk next to nomads that just come off the steppe. Learning to read Mongolian requires a bit of time, as the letters are the Russian, so first you will nead to learn the alphabet again. Speaking did not seem to be easier, and we felt lucky to get around and organize our daily needs in English.
Leaving the city towards the western provinces the next day, this pleasant easyness would stop at once. Communication in the province towns or villages was a far greater challenge than it was in the capital. The five hours flight across the country gave an impression on the vast wilderness and its impressive size. Mongolia has the world´s lowest population densitiy with 3 million inhabitants on an area three times the size of France. The country´s nomadic past has protected the country from overdevelopment, while shamanic prohibitions against defiling the earth have helped to preserve the virgin landscape and abundant wildlife. Living with and from livestock, cities and infrastructure were simply not required. Today, horses, yaks and camels are still important for transportation- the horse to human ration in Mongolia is 13:1. On the grasslands and steppes, we learned the wind usually blows strong all day long turning the kids´cheeks into a sweet redish. Watching the outfit of the local people, they obviously enjoyed the warm spring temperatures. Us instead we thankfully wore our insulation down jackets.
Beforehand we had planned everything in detail, and the cooperation with a local travel agency made it possible to get everything organized in the short time of 4 weeks. To find shops for food and isobutane can turn out very hard otherwise, as can be renting a car and driver, or fixing a date for the camels to carry bags and food of 8 people up to base camp. Isobutane cartridges for example, had to be bought in the capital and sent overland to the western province before we actually got to Mongolia. It is a thing you cannot buy outside the capital, and bringing it along on the inland flight would not have made a good impression at the security check.
The Tavan Bogd mountain range we aimed to is formed by the Alexander and the Potanin glacier, with numerous peaks on each sides. Where the two glaciers meet was a good spot to set up camp, from here most summits lay within the range of a days hike. Detailed on-hand informations were rare and topographic maps unavailable, proper plans what mountains to climb or where to ski down had to be made on the spot. Back home we make up decisions with the help of a precise weather report and a profound avalanche bulletin. We study detailed maps to estimate ascend times and the nature of the terrain, furthermore most mountains are described in touring books or the internet. The challenge now was to find appropriate destinations and activities without this kind of luxury. In these surroundings we felt lucky enough to receive a basic three-day-weather report for the area sent from the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.
In the first week we hiked two of the Five Saints peaks, Naran and Nairamdal, which regarded us with impressive views over the Mongolian glacier steppes, and gave a glance to the mountains of Russia and China. Initially we had hoped for bigger amounts of snow- but skiing was possible, it was fun, and everyone of the team enjoyed some really good turns during the trip. Personally, the isolation of the area increased the awareness and intensity of every step and every turn we made.
After we had spent a week in the area, the weather turned. While outside a severe snowstorm hauled we discovered the great advantages of the traditional mongolian housing. The ger´s felt walls sheltered us from the elements and a stove in the middle spread a luxurious heat, producing steamed dumplings filled with mutton and fried unleavened bread. In spite of all this luxury, playing card still felt nicer with gloves on.
Three days later the sky cleared up again, all grassland around the camp had turned white. The fresh snow lifted the atmosphere and drew hopeful smiles on our faces. Short climbs the next days were rewarded with powdery turns. Now conditions even looked stable enough to reach Mongolia´s highest peak Khuiten and ski its Northeast face. Full of energy after resting for so long, we set off. The ascent went smoothly until we reached the ridge when all of a sudden the weather changed. Strong winds and fog came in from the West, the decision to withdraw was an easy one under these circumstances.
As with many things in life, some of our plans we succeed, and some we don´t. On the on hand we had planned to reach more summits and ski more lines. But we were allowed to get to know a different lifestyle, watch deeply colored sunsets over the grasslands and discuss the shapes of our skis with the local people. We could experience an intense time combining travelling and skiing, and that makes up for everything.