Altai. Climbing Belukha - In quest of Russian Shambala
My train arrived in Barnaul at 8.00 A.M. (5.00 A.M. in Moscow)and I was not expecting to meet my friend Sergey Zhabrodin, who was my partner for that trip, on the platform. He was to arrive there by plane a couple of hours after my arrival, as we had planned two days before in Moscow. However, due to a mistake in our calculating, Sergey was in Barnaul before me, and was even able to find a taxi to Tiungur, the starting point of our expedition.
"It's too expensive", - I thought, when I was informed of the taxi price (170$), but ten hours and a thousand kilometers later, a third of which was unpaved road, I agreed that the price was not exaggerated.
"You have brought good weather with you," we were told in Tiungur. "Today is the first sunny day. For more than one month it has rained here. Good, - I thought. "It'll be lucky for us if it prolongs for some days more". There is no harm in dreams, especially in mountains, but by the next day it was raining again.
We had made a camp on the shore of Katun, and the next morning we were visited by a man who offered us horses. We had planned to do a part of our way on a horseback, and immediately accepted his offer. We agreed about prices and after an hour of packing started up the mountains by a small caravan of three horses ?ã two for us and one for our horse guide. The price was 300 rubles (10$) per day for one horse, but that sum diminished after drinking two liters of vodka (our entire stock) with our horse guide. We decided to go up by the Akem valley but on the second day we discovered that our path was missing under high water of the flooded Akem River. It was too dangerous for horses to continue the way. The last drop for our horse guide was our meeting with a very sad caravan in which they had lost one horse with its cargo in the wild waters of the Akem. Our guide refused to go further. So, on the third day of nasty weather, wet through and through (two days in a saddle under continuous rain), we put on our rucksacks and in the evening reached camp "Visotnick" by an absolutely terrible muddy path and almost without accidents (not counting Serge's falling into a spring). All the time it rained. It was really hard even to believe that any improvements in the situation were possible. The next day we left part of our things and provisions in the camp and went to the Akem Lake where we made a formal visit to the rescue station, and then back on the trail again. It rained again in the evening when we made our camp on the shore of a small lake near Mt. Ak-oyuk.
The next day we tried to climb that mountain, but having been put in a rut by terrible rains we returned to our camp. The rain had ceased by dinnertime and gave us an opportunity to dry our things. After that, we decided to lose no time and have some ice climbing training. If you look at the North Face of Mt. Ak-oyuk, on the left side of its great glacier you will notice a gigantic ice wall about 80 meters high. We used just that wall for our training. The far part of the wall is vertical with a little declination in the higher part and is very beautiful for climbing. However, there is a danger of stonefall in the lower part of this wall. In the closer part, the wall is smaller but climbing here is more sportive because there are two cornices of one meter each. This part of the wall is out of the way of stonefall. We were soon having a lot of fun. The next day, in fantastically good weather, we climbed Mt. Ak-oyuk, from the top of which in such weather can be seen a great panorama, especially the massif of Mt. Belukha, the great crown of Altay and the main purpose of our trip.
The shrill sound of my alarm clock has pulled me out of a half-asleep, dozing condition, in which I've been for the last two hours, having, as is usual in high mountains, very bright, delirious dreams. I sit up quickly and I look at my watch - one o'clock in the morning. I listen for some time, then with caution open an entrance of our tent and look out. What I see there instantly drives the rest of sleep from my head and completely mobilizes me. Today we will be on The Summit; we must be there today. If the weather allowed us to doubt yesterday, now all doubts have vanished like a dream - the weather is ideal - neither wind, nor cloud, easy frost, ice crust and brightly shining moon. I wake my sleeping partner, and begin to prepare breakfast - tea, chocolate and biscuits - before hard work it is better not to overfill one's stomach. Last night we had gone to sleep completely dressed for climbing and thanks to this we have saved a full half an hour on the dressing, something which is always painfully long in our small double tent. It was also warmer to sleep dressed - our sleeping bags are not for sleeping on the snow because it is too cold.
In the space of one hour the base camp is already far below, black points on the silver snow, brightly lit by the moon. Some tents are highlighted from within - people are waking up. But tonight we have been first to start, and as we will see later, we've been right.
I go up slowly. The dawn is still very far, but the light of the moon is reflected by the snow, creating an illumination almost as bright as daytime, but of rare fantastic beauty. The sky is covered in stars, the bright band across is the Milky Way. The air is very clear and transparent, and in the south where the stars are sinking in darkness, the black ragged line of the horizon is visible. There is Mongolia. There is the boundless open space of Altay between the horizon and me, where there are still places untrodden by the foot of man. Sometimes I turn and walk backwards - what I see around is so beautiful, that I want to look all around me at once. I can't escape some feeling of strange mysticism, unreality of everything that surrounds me. A feeling of indescribable delight and euphoria grows in my heart. It is very easy to go up, rare thing in mountains. It seems that if I ceased moving my legs, the strange mystical force would carry me upwards anyway.
I pass the turn of a glacier, raise my eyes and am stunned. Here it is, the Russian Shambala, Holy Mount Belukha. For some time I stand still, from a mountain comes a strong flow of energy; I feel it almost physically. I recollect the stories about this mountain, my friend's parting words. I was told that Belukha is a mystical mountain, but I did not expect to feel it so brightly.
On the ridge of Bierelskiy I wait for my partner, who has lagged behind considerably. Now it is necessary to use a rope for belaying. All the magic vanishes, the normal climbing work begins. The Ridge - the most "difficult" part of the classical route on Mt. East Belukha. It is 200-300 meters of easy rocks with snow and ice. The points of belaying are reliable, and the climbing is simple.
While we climb the ridge, I don't know from where, in the clear sky appear clouds, which while we climb higher, have become a dense fog, a very bad thing for orientation. Somehow, almost by touch, I look for a way to the summit dome, settlement of which I had noticed from below. Sometimes I occasionally come across faint old traces on the snow, proof that we are on the correct path. The stars were fading - it was near sunrise, and I hoped to be on the summit just at the moment of sunrise - a rare lucky person could observe such a show. But the clouds became more and more dense, and my hope of seeing something decreased. In the meantime, the slope on which I went, as Hedgehog in Fog (popular Russian multiplication film) became more steep, and soon it was necessary to use ice tools. A few more meters of climbing, a small snow cornice, and I am on the top! We were right to rise at such an early hour! What I have seen from there has forced me to clutch with shaking hands my camera. The clouds were lower than us, the sun had just risen (6.00 A.M.), and the very low, Western Belukha was represented to us as a dense cloudy dome of very correct form with tremendous colors of fantastic beauty. Unfortunately, my abilities as photographer and as writer don't give me an opportunity to describe that miraculous show. Maybe there was even something indescribable. To tell you the truth, now I am disappointed with the results of my photographing on the summit.
On the summit a strong wind blew, it was rather cold and humid (because of clouds) and we quickly became covered by a thin layer of hoarfrost. The half an hour of sitting on the top was enough to be frozen, and we decided to head down. This was not so simple, again because of the poor visibility. As a result, on the summit we lost the way and began to descend by a wrong ridge. Having descended some ropes, suddenly I saw in a break of a cloud below us a snow saddle with a tent buried in snow. Our mistake with the route became obvious, and having left my partner to sit on a shelf, I climbed down to the tent. It was three Poles who had lost their way there the previous day. Fortunately all was OK with them, and quickly having broken down the camp, they came with us back to the summit, where on the second attempt I found the correct way down. We descended without problems, having met on the descent some teams going to the top. They told us then that no one else saw anything but fog. So, rise earlier! :)
Our return road was not marked by any accidents that are worthy of description. We had three days of descent by a dry path with light rucksacks (part of our things had gone down on horseback by Kucherla valley), legs erased up to our knees, bushes of currants and raspberries remaining behind us(we had no time to stop as we were in a hurry). The weather continued to be good for us, it only rained at night, the path was dry, and we ran downwards as if on an asphalt road. Again we did not hurry for nothing, for as soon as we got under the roof of base "Visotnic" in Tiugur, there came a strong rain until the next morning and when we departed it was raining still. Then one more day of jolting in the car first up to Biysk, then up to Barnaul. Then three days of dull sitting in Barnaul, because the was not train (for another two weeks!), nor plane (for three days)and there were not any tickets available. I departed on the fourth day (Serge departed earlier), but three days in Barnaul had much sufficed. The city is absolutely empty, and three days for acquaintance with it is obviously too much.
My acquaintance with Altay, however, was very pleasant to me. I had been for the first time in these mountains of a stunning beauty, absolutely unlike any mountains I had been to before. The nature of Altay has not yet felt on itself the pernicious influence of civilization. I think that is why it behaves toward the people so warmly, so kindly. But I can't say that about the local population, from dialogues of which I have only unpleasant memories. But it does not spoil general impressions of that trip anyway. It would be a sin to complain - we were unusually lucky with the weather, and climbed very beautiful and interesting mountains. Altay has smiled on us and has allowed us to admire its beauty.