Under Blue Heaven
Words Matthew Holt, Pics Matthew Holt, Mandy Ramsden
We flew over the Altai - or Golden - Mountains, where Mongolia, Russia and China all touch. Down amidst the glinting white pyramids and prisms was Mongolia’s highest peak, the 4374m-Mount Khüiten, though we had no clue which one it was. Mandy Ramsden and I had joined a commercial expedition ‘to climb the world’s remotest peak’. And even if there are many mountains in Alaska and Antarctica which could challenge this title, getting to Khüiten was a long and complicated journey, via several unpronounceable places.
Landing in Ulaanbaatar, we found Mongolia’s capital a jarring mix of crumbling Confucian temples, brutal Communist apartment blocks and brazen glass skyscrapers, most of which were still under construction. With the country in the thrall of a mining boom, there was a nouveau-riche buzz to the city - the roads choked with gleaming 4x4s and the art-deco restaurants filled with pinstripe suits. More traditionally, posters advertised forthcoming sporting fixtures, with Mongolians considering only wrestling, horse racing and archery to be manly pursuits.
The city’s landmarks and monuments were all dedicated to the nation’s founder, Chinggis Khan. His formidable bronze statue guarded parliament; his stern face was etched on a prominent hillside; the exhibition in the national museum lauded his contributions to humanity; and a 40m-high steel statue of him aloft his horse marked the spot where he found a lucky whip and realised he’d been chosen to create an empire by the eternal Blue Heaven. It took me some time to reconcile this ubiquitous Chinggis with Genghis Khan, whose Mongol hordes put the lights out across Asia and Central Europe in the early 13th century, slaughtering up to six million people.
In ‘UB’, as it’s familiarly known, we met the rest of our 13-strong team, who were British save for the leader, Adrian, who vacillated between being Welsh and Australian, depending whether we were talking culture or sport, plus a Frenchman who didn’t speak a word of English but answered to the name of Denis. We also had two local guides: Uskhuu, the first Mongolian to summit Everest, who was planning an attempt on K2; and Senguu, who had worked as a chef in Liverpool and had hopes of becoming a pop star.
After spending a couple of days hiking in the Terelj National Park and scrambling up Mount Tsetsee Gun (2256m), we flew to Ölgii. Reputedly a provincial capital, it might have been the set for a Spaghetti Western, minus the saloon. Here we transferred into Purgons, Russian 4x4 minivans built for purpose, not comfort or style. With the tar ending abruptly 100m outside the airport, we were soon bouncing across the dusty open steppe, following a faint rutted track leading into the hills. It was a bone-jarring, organ-jolting ride and on the few occasions I managed to doze off, I was quickly woken by being hurled against the sharp metal frame. Mercifully, we got to stop regularly for punctures. It was dusk by the time we reached the trailhead at Tavan Bogd, where we spent our first night under canvas.
The next morning, I was woken by a deep grunting, which I assumed with a snicker was from the neighbouring tent, till a peep outside revealed camels grazing on our tent pegs. They were the two-humped Bactrian variety, though many of their humps were unaesthetically saggy and could have done with cosmetic firming. When I mentioned this to Mandy, she must have misheard and glared at me harshly. Looks aside, they are the apex beasts of burden, carrying loads of 200kg, which is three times more than your Himalayan yak and ten times that of a puny Andean llama.
Over breakfast, we watched the camels being loaded – a fascinating process, given their general truculence and frothy spitting. Then we set off on foot into a fine drizzle. With thick grey clouds almost resting on our heads, I could only presume Mount Khüiten was somewhere above us.
It took five hours to reach Base Camp, which occupied a grassy meadow at 3100m besides the Potaniin Glacier. We were the only climbing team in residence, with the camp’s facilities comprising some immodest open-plan squat toilets and a couple of large felt gers, in which our stout cook-lady conjured up delicacies like horse dumplings and spam sushi. It was a pleasant enough spot, when the sun shone - sheltered from the wind by the glacial moraine, with a stream to bathe in if you were feeling brave.
Marmots provided entertainment, darting furiously between their burrows. Mind you, these small, furry creatures have inflicted far more mayhem than Chinggis Khan, carrying virulent bacteria that can spread to humans with quite devastating effect. Transmitted to Italy by Genoese merchants in 1346, the ‘Black Death’ wiped out half of Europe’s population in just seven years.
We had planned to acclimatise by first climbing Mount Malchin, a 4050m peak just above camp, which marked the frontier with Russia. When we made to leave, however, a bitter gale almost knocked us off our feet, so we thought better of it. In the afternoon, once the wind had dropped, we did hike up the glacial moraine to get a view of Mount Khüiten. Mandy thought it resembled a Japanese fan, whereas I thought it looked like a capsized yacht, though that probably tells you more about us.
The next day we moved up to High Camp, leaving in dawn’s alpenglow. We now had heavy packs, with our climbing gear, tents and three days’ food. After following the moraine for an hour, we put on crampons, roped up and clambered onto the glacier. To be honest, as glacier’s go, the Potaniin was quite tatty: the ice ingrained with red sand that had blown over from the Gobi Desert, while halfway up was the rusting wreckage of a helicopter, marking the sorry end of an indolent 1980s expedition. On the plus side, however, the crevasses were easily visible and only one of our team managed to fall in.
After four hours, we reached a rock island protruding from the middle of the ice, on which we pitched our tents. As we boiled water and served out a communal dinner, Denis looked on dolefully, having neglected to bring a mug, bowl or cutlery.
Our plan was to leave for Khüiten’s summit before dawn, but streaks of fast-blown cloud kept us guessing at the coming weather. At midnight, when I checked outside, the sky was clear and starry. At four a.m., when we got up to leave, it was breezy and snowing. And one hour later, when we were still dithering over our plans, a blizzard had set in. By the time the weather cleared at noon, it was too late for the summit.
That evening, as we once again prepared for an early start, Denis discovered that the sole of his climbing boot had somehow detached from the heel. Luckily, Adrian proved highly creative with cable ties and duct tape.
This time when we came to leave at four a.m., it was perfectly still, the night sky studded with constellations, shooting stars and the occasional airplane. We formed three ropes, with Adrian leading.
‘Follow my footsteps’, he said, zigzagging artfully between crevasse scars, before disappearing with a muffled scream. He’d only gone in up to his neck and was able to haul himself out, but we continued a bit more tentatively after that.
As we made our way up the steepening flank, dawn crept up behind us. The horizon turned a bruised blue and then a band of burning orange heralded the sun’s welcome arrival. The extra day at High Camp meant we were well acclimatised and it took only three hours to reach the top.
The actual summit was a raised platform the size of a pool table, and we took turns going up for photos. From here, we could see into Mongolia, China, Russia and Kazakhstan. There were no lights, towns, roads or signs of civilisation in any direction - just dun plains, icy glaciers, turquoise lakes, jagged peaks and the flawless eternal blue heaven. It might not have been the remotest peak in the world, but it certainly felt out there, especially since we faced a celebratory dinner of boiled marmot and ‘Chinggis’ beer.
This article first appeared in SA Mountain June 2015