I never would have imagined myself going to a place called “base camp” by my own choice and on my own dime. Base camp means cold, and I like warm. Base camp means mountain, and I like sea. Base camp means uphill, and I’m more of a coaster.
But there I was, trudging along the top a 3000-meter mountain pass, head down against the icy gale hammering hailstone pebbles into my forehead. I was about 130 km and nine days into a 168-km, 14-day test of my physical and mental endurance. I had passed all the stages of exhaustion and had entered absurdity and resignation. I started singing ““”We’re Off To See The Wizard.”
We were headed to Tavan Bogd, a group of peaks in Mongolia’s section of the Altai mountain range. Tavan Bogd means “five peaks,” and the itinerary from Mongolian Expeditions had us climbing Malchin, at 4051 meters the lowest of the five, the following day.
Gundei, our guide and one-third of the “us,” didn’t know that I had already decided to beg off the climb. “I don’t have proper climbing shoes,” I would say. “And my legs are too fatigued to haul my khushuur-enhanced butt up there.” The best laid plans…
About two weeks earlier I had sent an email to Batbayar, owner of Mongolia Expeditions, asking if his company had any trips to the west that I could join. He called about 30 minutes later. “You’re in luck,” he said. “We have a trip going in a few days, and all except one of the confirmed guests canceled at the last minute.” He was willing to give me a big discount on the price – after all, any money I paid would be money he wouldn’t be losing on the trip. I reviewed the itinerary. “I’m not exactly a mountaineer,” I said. “No problem,” he assured me. “There’s an easier hiking option if you don’t want to climb the peak.” I agreed to go.
A few days later I was standing outside the Golden Gobi guest house at 3 am, waiting for my ride to the airport. Donna, a remarkably fit 50-year-old Canadian and experienced climber/trekker/mountain-sports person, and I would take a three-hour flight west to Olgii, the low-slung capital of Bayan-Olgii province.
BO is home to a large Muslim Kazakh population stranded here during one of the many sudden border changes in the area over its history. They live in perfect harmony with Mongolians as well as Tuvans and other minorities. The Kazakhs look like…well, Kazakhs. Their hair, eyes and skin are lighter than Mongolians’. Their cheekbones aren’t quite as high. They are taller and bigger – as are their gers.
I’m not going to give a day-to-day travelogue, cuz that’d be boring and too long. The heavily edited version:
– drive west from Oglii to Khurgan and Khoton twin lakes. at a petrol station, meet two cars at the tail end of the Mongol rally. stop along the way to meet a family who hunts with eagles in the winter. hold an eagle. they’re very heavy and have sharp, sharp claws.
– camping and easy hiking along lakes. go swimming in freezing water. vodka, beer and singing by a bonfire. (37 km in 2 days)
– hike to the mouth of the White River valley. from here our driver and Russian van will be replaced with two Tuvan camelmen and their camels. (23 km)
– hike up the White River valley. go over a 3500-meter steep mountain pass during a brutal 8-hour hiking day. consider throttling guide, who rarely chooses the trail in favor of difficult “short cuts.” come up with the idea for “steppe aerobics.” (40 steep km in 2 days)
– arrive in camp 7 early enough to attempt a “shower” in (believe it or not) a shower tent. the hair wash was great, but the sudden winter gale that sprung up as soon as Donna finished her shower kinda ruined the overall effect. woke up the next morning to the remains of overnight frost and hail. sat through a snow squall during breakfast. made snowmen. it was cold.
– hike to camp 8, near our camelman’s ger and the entrance to Tavan Bogd Nat’l Park. enjoy a much-needed rest day. share a liter of fermented cow’s milk (the local spirit) with our camelman, named Olonbayar. “Olonbayar” means “many celebrations.” (16 km)
– hike 17 km to camp 9, Base Camp
Which brings you up to date.
As we started a long, gentle decent toward base camp we saw the peaks glowing in the distance. The clouds over them had parted, revealing a bright blue sky and shockingly bright sunlit snow. Hail was still falling all around us, collecting in the depression of the path. (This pic doesn’t do it justice.) I was reminded of a scene in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy and her companions had fallen asleep in a field of poppies – a trap by the Wicked Witch. But the good witch Glenda made it snow, waking them up. In the distance shone their destination, the Emerald City.
They ran through the snow along the yellow brick road towards the glimmering green spires of Emerald City.
We walked (no energy to run) along the white hailstone path towards the glowing blue and white of – let’s call it Sapphire Mountains.
Did I mention that I was a bit out of my head by this time? (I blame altitude sickness.)
By late afternoon the sky had cleared and the sun was shining. But clear skies mean cold nights, and that night was freezing. Worst of all, we were out of vodka. Thank god for Gundei, who had been rationing beer.
In the morning we woke up relatively early and started for the peak. It was an hour-long hike to the base of the mountain. And somehow during that time Gundei and Donna convinced me that I could, in fact, summit. No problem. Feel free to quit anytime. Just see how it goes. Etc.
Halfway up Donna almost quit. The climb was *very* steep, and there was no path. We were scratching our way over rocks that often moved or slid down as we scrambled over them. It was irresponsible and dangerous – at any time I could have loosened a boulder that would crush my finger or break an arm or leg. But by that time my competitiveness had reasserted itself. “I’m gunna bag this peak!” I declared, glaring up at yet another false summit. I may as well have scratched my balls and spit. I was being a dumb man.
Happily, Donna found a path (still very tough, but safer) and we followed it to the top.
We spent about 30 minutes at the peak (not the actual peak, which was a further steep, snowy 100-meter climb – too dangerous for our lacking-in-equipment selves, but close enough). Then I sent Gundei and Donna down ahead of me. I had to pee, and was determined to cop a squat with my butt facing China. Gross? Not really – we had spent 2 weeks relieving ourselves behind rocks. Immature? Probably – but not nearly as gross or immature as, say, pressing your bare penis against monuments and large buildings. (You know who you are.)
The descent was like skiing, but on rocks instead of snow. The technique involved stepping with your heel and letting your foot slide down as long as possible. It was kinda fun. I had to stop twice to empty my shoes.
We rolled back to base camp around 5 pm. Our prize for summitting was marmot – shot by our camelman the day before and boiled up by our cook. (Marmots, by the way, are carriers of Black Plague. Gundei assured us that care was taken to ensure that this was a healthy marmot. Besides, Malchin hadn’t killed us. Why would a marmot?)
A few days later we drove back in to Olgii, where we were promised a hot shower and a *bed* in a ger. The shower was more of a trickle, but it felt so good to wash off a thick layer of accumulated shit – we felt sure that over the previous 14 days our panting mouths had inhaled cow, sheep, goat, yak, horse, camel and human shit, and that it was also embedded in our hair. We *smelled*.
As for the bed, it was wonderful – though after the two bottles of vodka with dinner, I could have slept – well, in an icy tent in a place called “base camp.”