On the Mongolia/Russia border, 250 kilometers to the south-west of Irkutsk, the chain of the Tunkinskie Gol’tsi mountains leads from the south end of Baikal out across the wild western portion of East Siberia to climb from low gentle hills to the jagged snow covered rock outcroppings of Arshan, eventually ending in steep cliff faces tucked away behind a labyrinth river system in the Eastern Sayan mountains requiring days of access. The pinnacle of this mountain range is Munku-Sardyk, standing at 11,453 feet, 5,546 vertical feet above the trailhead from the canyon road that traverses the farthest flung regions of Buryatia. The peak is usually climbed in early spring when the rivers are frozen and the approach requires a relatively simple several-kilometer-long hike up the White Irkut River to base camp, followed by a long day trekking deep into the headwaters of the Muguvek River to launch into a cramp-on, ice-axe slog up the last 2880 feet of snow and glacier covered rock to the stony summit. Rising nearly 6000 feet above the surrounding planes of southern Russia and Lake Khubsugul of Mongolia, Munku-Sardyk is an impressive massif of jumbled razor-edged rocks jutting one over another in a frenzied climb to support the ice-capped crown of the region. When I first saw the mountain in Fall 2004, I knew that if it was high and remote, I had to climb it. Thus, as with my sky-diving episode in Samara, it is only after the freezing, storm-covered summit has been achieved that I can announce – mom, dad, you couldn’t reach me by phone last weekend ‘cause I went for a walk in the woods.
Now, we Coloradoans may think 11,453 feet isn’t really all that high – after all, we have thousands of peaks higher, and I was somewhat amused as fellow hikers talked seriously of the importance of acclimatization at base camp and debated whether to take the peak on the first day or spend one day walking in the area and adjusting to altitude. Base camp, you must understand, was at about 6500 feet. My companions were “acclimatizing” at an altitude lower than my dad’s house in Colorado. That amusement turned to gratitude, however, as we climbed higher and higher along the snow-covered peak and the oxygen-laden air gave me time to enjoy the views and take in the scenery while my comrades were wheezing and talking of headaches.
On the other hand, 11,453 feet is somewhere near treeline in Colorado, whereas treeline in Siberia’s East Sayans is at about 7000 feet. In one day, we climbed from base camp up 5000 vertical feet to the glacier-covered peak and back. That’s like Long’s Peak. In winter. With an ice axe and cramp-ons. This is not Mountaineering 101.
I managed to find a group of climbers via the internet. There is no “Irkutsk Mountain Club” out here, and the folks that go hiking really go hiking. There are almost no trails anywhere, and no organizations or regulations that police land use. If you can climb it and survive it, you pretty much have the right to do whatever you want. This means that the adventurers out in the mountains are a pretty hardy crew, who generally scoff at less than 3000 feet of vertical climb in one day and fully expect that any mountain ascent will require not only rock, but technical ice climbing. Most of them have come across episodes of near starvation or storm-weathered nights without a tent, and Munku-Sardyk is for them “tame”. In our group of seven was the leader, Misha, an astonishing 18-year-old with a face already belying too many hours of sun and weather and a list of adventures I wouldn’t care to repeat. There was a couple, both well-prepared, consisting of Dima, a pretty hardy fellow and his companion Sasha, admirable for her capabilities. We had Misha’s friend, another first-year university student with an impressive resume, and a 20-year old woman whose brother often goes in with this crowd, but couldn’t get away this weekend. She was ready to try anything. The last member was Max – a quiet, content, and extremely capable guy with an easy-going attitude an excellent mix of good-judgment, skill, and experience. Misha was ready to take me up the technical rock-climbing route because he figured I could do it – his motto seemed to be “if it’s harder, it’s better”. Max, on the other hand, would just smile out shyly and winningly from eyes crafted of a mix of Russian and ancient Siberian-native bloodlines. He was ready to take us girls up the “non-technical” route so that he could snowboard back down. He prefers winter hiking to summer because the warm rains can get you wet and the high-altitude -40 F isn’t really that cold after all. Max, by the way, is heading to Elbrus, one of the Seven Summits and the highest peak in Europe this summer.
We left Irkutsk on a commuter train Friday morning, transferred to a bus carrying our small crew plus dozens of members of a folk music group and headed towards the border. We arrived only at 7:30 pm, and started our hike up the frozen White Irkut, reaching the river fork an hour and a half or about 4.3 miles later to set up camp and get in a late dinner. That night, I discovered, as I had feared, that the “-5 F” sleeping bag I had was nowhere close to that warm, and I spent the night huddled between Misha and his friend, adding layers of clothes until I finally got a couple hours of exhausted, cold sleep.
When I first joined up with the group in late March, it was only Misha, another experienced guy, and I who showed up for the meeting. Both of the men had already climbed the peak and were looking for good company in which to return. That group eventually grew to 20 people and split in two, those who left Friday morning (thus skipping work) and those who left in the evening. From those early meetings, I was content to let other people do the work. I have done so much organizing and preparation for my group trips that I know what a big burden it is to get even 20 people to agree to pay the $25 round trip ticket Irkutsk-Mondy, to decide who will purchase what food, and who will carry what gear. As a woman, I was not really expected to carry any gear save my own things and some group food. Thus, I walked up to base camp with only a 40-pound pack, while Misha had around 66 shoulder-aching, hip-rubbing, deadening pounds. Misha also furnished me with his spare ice-axe, crampons, carabineers and climbing webbing, with Max chipping in a helmet later on. In exchange for equipment, I am now their translator-slave – rather a good deal I think.
We headed up the peak the next day at 8:30 – rather a late start, and watched as a clear blue sky became marred by wisps of snow, whipped to a stormy fury against the high peaks. The weather was clear and calm, but mountains defend their high reaches, and localized wind and snow storms are not unusual. I had no idea how much we had to climb (save that it was somewhere around 5000 feet), how far, or over what terrain, and I just settled into my slow-but-steady gait. After three hours of up, covering 2000 feet without a single break or drop to drink, we stopped at the frozen and windy lake below the face of Munku-Sardyk. I was piqued and concerned that no one seemed to realize liquids are paramount in such a climb, and received the general condescending, “well, I go 6-8 hours without water” from Misha and Dima. This time of year is very popular for the climb, particularly the first weekend of May, dubbed the “May Holidays”, as Monday is a day off work, celebrating “International Workers’ Day”, and many, many people break away from their routine for the weekend. The Ministry of Emergency Situations (in Russian “MChS”) has set up camps along the route and is ready to go out and rescue people that break their legs or arms in the climb. Because so many climbers are so experienced, Munku can be perceived as “easy” and many unprepared novices are gulled into thinking it’s simply a walk up. If the mountain weren’t the highest, it would surely be less popular, as it isn’t really difficult enough to attract the usual robust climbers for the sake of testing their steel against the rock. Most climbers head to Munku for a day of easy peak-bagging and spend a couple other days just enjoying. It is nature’s playground.
We had tea on the lake, noted the emergency crews scanning the peak with binoculars for stranded climbers, and then split into two groups, the men taking the technical ice climb and the women starting up after the snowboarding, Elbrus-climbing native along the snow route. After only a couple hundred feet of climb, I reached that point that I hit in every successful climb, where I looked up at the wispy clouds of swirling snow on the summit, saw the long line of climbers stretching up some unknown-to me distance of snow-covered glacier, and knew that I could make it to the summit. I learned that at that point I still had 2800 feet to go, but once I’d strapped on the cramp-ons and had the ice axe in hand, everything goes on auto-pilot and you just thrust one boot after another into the snow, looking for a good hold, before plunging on to the next step. I watched as Sasha quickly bounded up 40 feet, and then stopped to gasp for air, waiting for me to catch up before continuing her bound-gasp routine. I had decided when I left camp that morning that I was climbing for me and no one else, and I never wavered in my insistence on a slow, steady pace; forget the apprehension of machismo that says speed is better.
At some stretches, there is a set of “stairs” that has been carved into the mountain by people all trudging up the same line, and most climbers take the ease of walking up that one route. It was at about 700 feet from the summit, that I paused and asked a man climbing behind me if he wanted to pass. It with some surprise, pleasure, and slight consternation that I heard his answer, “You’re a woman.” “So?” I asked. “You’re climbing well”, was his only answer and he stopped, waiting with me, and continued on only after I had rested for my 4, 8, or 12 breaths, which I measure with precision. Looking down the slope, my eyes widened to realize that as a novice on this mountain, and relatively inexperienced in snow and ice climbs, I had become the leader of a group of 15 people. Thus it was that I guided total strangers up the steep slopes of the highest mountain in the East Sayans.
When I walked, they walked, when I stopped, they stopped. I inevitably passed the few men that would rush up a few feet only to throw themselves down on the slope and lie prostrate wheezing for breath. It became evident that I was now route finding for 20 people as I sought a line of harder snow along the wind-blown ridge and border with Mongolia. The last two-hundred feet is a scramble up the rocks sans cramp-ons, and the MChS has affixed a rope line to keep people from sliding off the loose sedimentary shale. I, however, came to climb a mountain, not a rope, so I refused the help and battered the winds to the very end.
The top is the very top. There is nothing higher, or really even close, anywhere. Looking to the south, you see Baikal’s little sister, Lake Khubsugul in Mongolia, over 6000 feet below – in all other directions, the peaks of the Sayans fill the distance. It was extremely windy on top, with snow blowing everywhere, and at 4pm, we’d been climbing for seven and a half hours and all were beat. There is an enormous Russian Orthodox metal cross erected on the summit to those who have died in the attempt, and a Buryat structure, around which pilgrims have tied pieces of cloth as prayers and offerings to the local spirits. I took off my bandana, a square American flag, and fingers freezing fast in the wind, roughly sawed off a strip with my jackknife and tied it to flap in the wind with dozens of other symbols.
My fellow climbers were delighted to learn they had just summitted with an American and I was shot in photo after photo, unable to smile because those muscles froze somewhere half-way up during one of the gusts of wind that makes you drive your ice-axe deep into the snow to keep from being blown sideways down the mountain. I noted a dad and son on top – the dad had his son affixed to him by rope, much as my dad and I used to climb mountains, and the man perched me on a rock outcropping next to his son and snapped our photo. People aren’t really that different after all.
I didn’t think the weather was that bad – it was mostly clear, but the views were blocked by periodic mists of cloud that shrouded our peak, and after a quick look around, we headed down. I broke off the group trail to head straight down the snow chute, and low and behold, twice had to self-arrest with the ice-axe as my cramp-ons failed to catch in the ice and I went sliding down the 2000 foot chute. My lack of wounds attests to the fact that a simple axe with a metal hook can truly save your life.
When we reached the lake, I was once again bringing up the rear, and we waited for the men to return from their more difficult ascent. It took them an hour, during which time we tried to make tea, an ill-fated venture that ended in an exploding propane canister, thrown Hollywood-like into the expanse of the icy lake. I hung out with the MChS men and saw the inside of their snow cave where they slept, drank their hot tea, and generally froze. When the men came back, it was with rough cuts, scrapes, and bruises as several of them had managed to fly down the mountainside a good deal farther than I had before coming to a stop. The trip down I was tired, but in good spirits, and I watched as the forbidding peaks disappeared behind rise after rise of frozen river, as I descended into the valley.
After 13 hours on the mountain, it took ages to get dinner going, and that night, I broke out the foil emergency blanket I have often carried with me and never used, dressed real warm, and managed to sleep comfortably through the night.
The next day, we hung around camp drinking tea until 2, when we went of to do some ice-climbing on frozen waterfalls – a first for me, and I brought back as a souvenir a nice clean gash in my pant legs from cramp-ons slicing wildly through the air as I swung around on the belay rope. Max and I then went snowboarding, and I spent two hours on wild mountain slopes hiking up and learning to maneuver my way down under his excellent guidance, no longer a perfect imitation of a dying fish, as in Severobaikal'sk. I finally got the hang of it and my muscles, after two days of exertion, were shaking with exhaustion long before I myself was ready to give up. We headed back to our last dinner of chicken soup – Misha carried a real frozen chicken up to camp – and after long discussions of religion and American politics – retreated to one last chilly night in the sleeping bag.
I was generally amazed a the food – whereas my American company usually brings dehydrated items, this was gourmet cooking: real oatmeal, kilos of cheese, salami, and sugar, packages and packages of melba toast and cookies, a few nuts and dried fruit for the ascent, and all cooked over a real fire with metal buckets for pots. They didn’t even extinguish the fires either, figuring the moisture-laden frozen ground was low-risk for flammability. (Misha and I had an interesting talk about that one.)
The last day we headed out to the bus, back down the river – I managed to lose one of the memory cards for my digital camera in a rather maddening situation, and we waited at the bottom for a couple hours for the bus to show up, drinking bear and eating pozi, before making the eight hour bus/train ride home.
I sit now, once again before this accursed computer, once again looking out at the snowy May skies, munching some of the left-over salami that belies our considerable oversupply of food and thinking of my memory card far away on the Mongolian border, wishing I were keeping it company. The washing machine is wringing the campfire smoke out of pairs and pairs of socks and gloves, and my spiffy fast-drying insect-repellent pants lie on the chair as I figure out how best to sew together the cramp-on gash. Aside from snowboarding bruises and a bit of sun, I might have been one of many who spent the long weekend drinking beer and watching holiday TV programming in Irkutsk. I am grateful that among the majority of photos that were saved on the camera, there is one of a young woman standing on a snowy summit she once saw from a solar observatory, who figured she’d give it a go – simply because it sounded like a good story.