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adventure & travel

Freeski mountaineering in Mongolia

Expedition to the Tavan Bogd mountains

by Stephan Skrobar 01/09/2016
Uka, the normally relaxed, always grinning cook at base camp, exchanged worried glances with Tsogo, our Mongolian translator. The kitchen tent was about to give in to the strong wind. The girls' tent had already given up the ghost a few hours ago. Now it was up to us to secure the other tents as quickly as possible with additional ropes and stones hastily dug out of the freshly fallen snow.

It was mid-May 2013 and halfway through our expedition to the Tavan Bogd massif in Mongolia. It was storming and snowing, and we felt we had lost all contact with the outside world. It was colder, windier and icier than we had feared, but on a clear day the area was more impressive and expansive than expected, mostly under an endlessly bright blue sky.

We had come to this remote corner of the Altai Mountains to ski exciting lines and take in a few of the 4,000-metre peaks along the way. Melissa Presslaber, one of Austria's best big mountain freeriders, had the idea for this trip to Mongolia and put together a team of similarly ambitious ski mountaineers. Liz Kristoferitsch is Austria's most successful freeride snowboarder, Michi Mayrhofer is a busy contest rider, photographer Zlu Haller is a bouldering legend from Innsbruck, Tom Andrillon is an experienced filmmaker from France and I, Stephan Skrobar, run a Freeride Center in Austria.

The preparation took time, money and nerves; and yet it was part of the whole experience. We had to organize visas and border permits, brush up on vaccinations, beg sponsors, repeat rescue methods and ultimately put our equipment in bags that wouldn't drive airlines and their staff into a rage. Unfortunately, we failed miserably at the latter.

The final logistical steps were taken in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. Mongolia Expeditions was our partner for transportation and catering on the one hand, and for the all-important contact with the local culture and philosophy of life on the other.

Olgii is a small town in the Bayan Olgii Aimag at the western end of Mongolia, where we spent time before and after our trip into the mountains. Olgii exudes a relaxed atmosphere, a town where cows and the rare traffic lights live in peaceful cohabitation and the sun colors the evening sky a deep magenta. Here we began the last leg of our journey west, into the mountains of the Tavan Bogd.

It took a day's journey through the steppe, in one of those indestructible Russian minivans built for roads where there are no more roads, until we reached the end of the road. The first night in the tent, everyone was preoccupied with their thoughts, which mostly revolved around the onset of the cold and what animals were roaming beyond the tent wall. Wild horses, sheep, yaks, wolves, bears. Camels finally transported our equipment to base camp, while we stood with our mouths open for the first time in front of the mountains of the Tavan Bogd Range. Everything was bigger, wider, colder and windier than expected.

Preparing for this part of the world was difficult. There was virtually no literature, and our only guide was a coarse-grained printout of a Russian military map from 1969. We had to rely on our judgment and the daily weather report via satellite from Innsbruck. The snow conditions were more biting than we had hoped, the exposed location and the strong winds had taken their toll on the snow cover. Skiing was not really fun.

The base camp was semi-protected behind the moraine of the massive Potanin Glacier at just under 3100 meters. Life at base camp revolved primarily around the number of layers of down to be worn to combat the cold, enough horse meat to eat and discussions about the ice shields gleaming from every mountain. At least the latter was alleviated to some extent by the later snowstorms.

Our first exploration destination was at the end of a long trail over the Potanin. Mongolia, China and Russia share the border at the summit of Nairamdal and that is the most spectacular thing about the mountain. Perhaps the view is also impressive. China on the left, Russia on the right, that was really cool.

It was time to tackle our actual intention, which was downhill-oriented freeski mountaineering, i.e. searching the mountains for interesting gullies and impressive slopes. We started with obvious yet fascinating colouirs on Burgit, the mountain opposite the base camp. We continued on the Naran, a playful, almost four-thousand-meter peak that stands between the two large glaciers Potanin and Alexander. Sometimes we were on our own, sometimes in small teams. This increased the certainty of being far away from any civilization and possible help, and intensified the need for maximum concentration and the general experience.

After a week, two snowstorms hammered through base camp. We practiced crisis management, discussed weather forecasts, moved our camp to a hardy ger - a traditional Mongolian tent, played cards or hid in our sleeping bags.

When the clouds had cleared, it had become even colder, the snow cover higher and unpleasantly transformed by the wind. We stoically made our tracks on the huge north-facing slopes, which looked impressive but were a far cry from classic soul skiing. On the last day, we finally peeled ourselves out of our tents early to ski the impressive Khuiten North East Face. Khuiten is the highest mountain in Mongolia, and the report promised cold, windy but precipitation-free weather. This was not the case. When we reached the summit ridge after seven hours, a snowstorm blew the summit and descent fantasies out of our faces. We did what is generally considered "sensible" and turned back, even if it was frustratingly painful at that moment.

We returned to base camp and subsequently to Olgii with ambivalent feelings of unsuccessfulness. But of course it wasn't a failure. It was an incredible adventure in a great country.

This article has been automatically translated by DeepL with subsequent editing. If you notice any spelling or grammatical errors or if the translation has lost its meaning, please write an e-mail to the editors.

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