In March 2015 I embarked on a three week ski expedition in Northern Mongolia. I had been inspired by an expedition undertaken by an intrepid group of Russian mountaineers in February-March 2011, which itself inspired the Ring Of Darhad Wolverine Expedition in March-April 2013. These were extended winter backcountry traverses of some of the wildest terrain in Mongolia, and the Ring of Darhad expedition had a scientific goal to survey wolverine populations.
First a brief summary of the expedition that I embarked upon. This was a cross-country ski expedition, on nordic backcountry skis, in the Hovgsol region of Northern Mongolia, bordering Siberia. I skied two areas, the Horidal Saridag mountains, a protected area adjacent to Lake Hovsgol, and the ‘Taiga’ which is the wilderness area surrounding the Darhad Valley extending to the borders with Tuva and Russia.
I didn’t have partners for the whole trip so I decided break the trip into sections, some solo and some with friends joining. This approach limited the routes to doing out and back trips rather than complete traverses or loops. The expedition served as a huge learning curve for winter travel in the Mongolian taiga. Here are a few of the lessons I learned.
Setting an objective gives a journey purpose and goals making it a true expedition. Objectives can be something as simple as completing a challenging route, reaching a hard to get to place, or discovering some insights about the ecology, culture or history of an area. In this case I had contacted the researchers who had undertaken the previous expedition and offered to record wolverine tracks and collect scat samples for them. This made the expedition much more rewarding and the additional tasks kept me focused, especially on the solo sections. I even discovered a possible wolverine den site.
Of course when temperatures can drop to minus forty simply to survive and not loose any fingers or toes is a worthy objective (incidentally the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales meet at -40 degrees). Which leads on to lesson #2.
It took me 15 years of experience in Mongolia before I finally undertook a multi-day unsupported winter camping trip. I had plenty of winter experience, including cross country ski excursions near Ulaanbaatar and the best (and coldest) part of one winter living in a ger in Hatgal, the village where I started this expedition. But I was still afraid of making that leap to winter backcountry travel.
In part my reticence was due to not having assembled the right equipment. It also took time to accumulate the knowledge and experience. But confidence was a factor too. It was the previous expeditions that gave me the final push, if they could do it, so could I.
The cold isn’t actually so bad if you have the right equipment. There’s a saying, usually accredited to Russians, that “there’s no bad weather, just bad equipment”. The thing to be more afraid of is wind. On this trip I discovered that camping up in the mountains was much warmer than camping down by Lake Hovsgol, where you are much more exposed to the wind, and where the cold is draining to the lowest point.
What I mean by a hot tent is a heated tent with a wood stove. My first winter camping set up in Mongolia was a heavy weight Montana canvas wall tent with a ‘four dog’ stove, heavy duty kit but heavy. Fine for vehicle based camping or perhaps packing in on a horse, but way too heavy for a self-supported expedition. The alternative to a heavy hot tent set up would have been regular a lightweight backpacking tent, and building a big fire to sit around in the evening before crawling into a cold sleeping bag in a cold tent.
Thankfully, sometime in the last decade or so, a few tent designers started innovating lightweight tipi-style tents that can be heated with collapsible titanium wood stoves. I acquired an 8-man Kifaru tent a few years previously complete with titanium stove. While it was rated for eight persons in a squeeze, with a woodstove, winter gear, and a stack of firewood, it was about right for three. The coolest part of the set up is the roll up chimney. Rolled one way its just a compact roll of metal sheeting, but roll it out and pop the bend the other way, add some retaining loops, and you have a full length chimney, genius.
Not only does having a heated tent add a lot in terms of comfort and safety, drying socks, boots and skins and things like that, its also the key to staying hydrated. The wood stove means you can be constantly melting ice or snow for water (see #4). Of course this only works in an environment like the Taiga where you can get down to the tree line every night to find fire wood.
Staying hydrated is super important. Ice yields much more water than snow, so its much more efficient to be melting ice (plus you tend to get lots of added fibre, like pine needles, when melting snow). I was mostly following frozen rivers so occasionally I’d find an unfrozen patch with flowing water, other than that all water had to be melted first. I already mentioned having the lightweight flat-pack wood stove helped considerably. The other key is having an axe of some sort to harvest ice in the first place.
On this expedition I took a small Gransfors hatchet, this is a Swedish axe popular with bush crafters. I thought I’d be using it more to chop wood for the stove, but it was possible to feed the stove with small sticks that could be broken by hand. What it proved invaluable for was harvesting ice from frozen streams. Next time if I am going solo and want to save weight I’d take an ice axe instead, also useful in case I get into mountaineering terrain.
While many of my insights from this expedition are about having the right kit, the over-riding principle is to make your gear as lightweight as possible, without forgetting something that’s absolutely essential. I chose to haul my gear with a pulk sled (from skipulk.com) in part because I have an old back problem and didn’t want to be carrying a heavy pack. The American expedition backpacked all their gear, while the Russians had backpacks and also dragged kid’s sleds or dry bags.
The pulk worked well on the flats, but was an absolute pig to haul in deep, snow, rocky terrain, or steep slopes. Now I can really feel for those Arctic and Antarctic explorers hauling huge sled loads. I was also overloaded, and the volume of the sled made it easy to add too many extra ‘luxury’ items. Next time I need to refine my packing list and invest in more ultra light gear.
In the Mongolian Taiga, there’s also the interesting option of hiring a Tsaatan reindeer herder and some reindeer to help carry the kit. We did three days of travel like this to see how it could work for future expeditions. It was fascinating to learn how the Tsaatan travel in the winter; despite the offer of space in the tent, our guide was happy to sleep out in the open under a pile of sheep skins and furs.
Standard winter camping advice recommends camping on the snow as it gives some insulation from the ground, and using ski poles, skis, and snow stakes to peg out your tent. Well this approach simply doesn’t work in Mongolia. Its so cold that the snow doesn’t consolidate, old snow actually coalesces in to large, loose, sugary crystals. It doesn’t pack down in to a firm base, nor does it support a snow stake.
To set up camp its best to clear the area of snow first. I didn’t have a snow shovel so just had to push the snow away with my boots. Interestingly our Tsaatan guide brought along an home-made wooden snow shovel for this purpose that he had carved with an axe. Next time I will take a lightweight snow shovel, which will also mean I am better prepared for any kind of avalanche terrain (which I try to avoid in any case on these cross country ski expeditions).
Once the snow is cleared from the tent site the trick is then to use six inch nails to stake out the tent. I fixed cord loops to the nails to help pull them out the next morning. The nails also allowed us to pitch the tent directly on frozen streams giving a nice flat campsite.
One of the many enjoyable aspects of a winter expedition in Mongolia is visiting local families in their cabins and gers (yurts). Locals are always extremely hospitable, especially to winter travelers, and especially after Tsagaan Sar (Lunar New Year). Expect to get served up a huge dish of steamed dumplings, called buuz, usually filled with mutton and sometimes with horse meat which Mongolians consider a high calorie winter fuel.
A real treat is when your host adds a few slices of steamed mutton tail fat on top of your buuz. That might sound disgusting right now, but after spending time exerting yourself in extreme cold you can start to crave more fat, or at least care less about what you put down the hatch. In fact fat with everything is great, when its so cold you need the calories to keep warm. I was even adding butter to my tea and coffee on this expedition.
I’ll stop at 7 lessons learned, but of course there were many other insights gained from this expedition. I am now looking forward to future trips to put into practice the experience gained on this trip. Please get in touch if you are interested in joining a future winter expedition in Mongolia.