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Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.

WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

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The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

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These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

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Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.

REAL MEN TROT

I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

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Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

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The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.

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Guidebook

Aug 25, 2018

Denali: The High One

At 6190m (20,310ft) Denali is the highest mountain in North America. Its arctic latitude makes for extreme weather conditions and its remote location in the Alaskan wilderness means that climbing teams must be self-reliant and experienced.

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WRITTEN BY

Harry Kikstra

This article initially featured in issue 13 of The Outdoor Journal, you can subscribe here.

I carefully take my soft contact lense out of the little box that I kept inside my sleeping bag all night and place it upside down on my finger. My eyes don’t open enough and it won’t fall into place- it freezes solid. I put it back into the warmish fluid and try again.

It’s -40. It doesn’t matter if you measure in Fahrenheit or Celsius, this is where the two scales meet and it isn’t pretty. When I attempt to get some gear from a plastic bag, the bag tears into pieces as the soft plastic turns to brittle. I didn’t know it could do that, you learn every day, often the hard way.

“Denali” means “The high one” in Athabascan. “Bolshaya Gora”, the Russian name for the mountain means “the Big One”. Both are true, but somewhere the adjective ‘cold’ should be added for clarity’s sake.

The U.S. Geological Survey announced that the mountain is 20,310 feet (6,190 m) high on September 2, 2015, as opposed to the earlier recorded hight of 20,320 feet (6,194 m), as measured in 1952. Photo: HARRY KIKSTRA

How much difference could a few weeks make, right?

It’s early May and our little two-man team is amongst the earliest of the season. Normally, most climbers try to reach the 6194m/20,320ft high point of North America (and therefore one of the fabled ‘7 summits’) in June. How much difference could a few weeks make, right?

We struggle with the sleds and fall over on the very first slope. Heartbreak Hill, it’s named as it is actually sloping down from ‘Denali International Airport’. That might seem like a good thing, but if you are bad at skiing with a 25kg/55lb backpack and a fully laden sled with no sense of direction, pushing your legs from behind, you’ll start to understand why.

Arriving at the flat landing strip that is carefully staked out between several crevasse fields that could swallow the Cessna’s whole, is an adventure in itself. The take-off from the small town of Talkeetna, Alaska (“A quaint little drinking town with a climbing problem” as the sign said) was from a small paved airstrip. All the gear, in heavy-duty North Face duffel bags, was stuffed in the rear of the small plane that sported a small sign that mentioned that in order to smoke, you’d need to step outside.

known as ‘one shot pass’- as that’s all you get.

While airborne, the pilot started hand-pumping a lever that lowered the skis over the wheels of the plane as the landing would be on terra substantially less firma. The forests and rivers of Alaska slowly changed into moraines and glaciers while the pilot seemed to be aiming directly for a collision with a small peak. Just before hitting it, we took a sharp turn and went through a small gap in the ridge, known as ‘one shot pass’- as that’s all you get.

The only way to get to Denali is by bush planes. Photo: HARRY KIKSTRA

The exact distance to the bright white landing strip is hard to discern from the air, and the actual landing is a combined audio-visual skill as the beeping of the crash sensor indicates the remaining distance to the snow. The plane came to a halt quickly and we unloaded our gear, high with anticipation as we finally set foot on the ice.

As there is no running water on the mountain and you therefore need to melt all water from snow and ice, you need a lot of fuel- on average a gallon can of Coleman White Gas per person, per expedition. These cannot be transported together with persons in a plane, and therefore the park rangers organise separate flights and the cans can be picked up at Base Camp.

I had skied before, but never on touring skis and never with a sled. I thought that Denali would be as good a place to learn as any. Unless you bring your own, the sled can be rented and picked up at the landing strip as well and they normally are attached to your harness with thin ropes. The team members themselves should be connected with a climbing rope as well to maximise the chance of survival in case of a crevasse fall, so it takes a bit of puzzling to get the set-up properly wired. The rental sleds are very light, but also thin and narrow and prone to tip over when loaded with oversized duffels.

Denali is a desolate place. Besides the sleds and fuel, there are no supplies on the mountain and you should be self-supported all the way. Normally a team takes at least a spare stove or even a spare tent as they can rip, blow away or even fall in a crevasse together with the sled. A night outside would be lethal.

Denali is the highest mountain peak in North America, with a summit elevation of 20,310 feet (6,190 m) above sea level. Photo: HARRY KIKSTRA

Though our team was only two persons strong, we still brought an extra tent as well as an extra stove and loads of food. The statistics showed that the average expedition lasted about 18 days, but only half of the climbers would summit, often defeated by the weather or by physical and mental exhaustion. To be sure, we brought enough food that could last us nearly four weeks if needed so we would have time to acclimatise and wait out the expected multi-day storms.

The immediate result was that our packs were heavy and our sleds were overloaded and not very stable at all. When going straight up an incline this would only mean very hard work, but unfortunately many of the slopes were to be traversed while climbing and as there were no trails of previous expeditions, the sleds kept on toppling over, creating more stress.

storms can be fierce, start without much warning, and can destroy an unprotected tent.

You could camp anywhere you wanted on the ice, but as there are many open and just as many hidden crevasses, it’s smartest to stay at one of the common camping spots. Later in the season these are easily recognisable by the many snow walls protecting the colourful tents. We can see the remains of the many snow walls, but still have to get out our snow saw and metal spade so we can cut large blocks out of the hard snow and place them in circles. There is not much wind now, but storms can be fierce, start without much warning, and can destroy an unprotected tent.

We fall asleep inside our warm down sleeping bags. After all the planning, preparation, travel and hard work of the first day on the mountain we are completely exhausted, but as happy to be in this wonderful place. From Base Camp to the summit you need to climb about 4000 meters (13,000ft), which is more than the vertical distance from Everest BC to the summit of the world.

During the Russian ownership of Alaska, the common name for the mountain was Bolshaya Gora. Photo: HARRY KIKSTRA

Though Denali is only a bit higher than the more accessible Kilimanjaro, the summit of Africa, the temperature and lower pressure closer to the poles make this a very different endeavour. No singing porters, no warm water to wash your face in the morning and no hot meals with popcorn unless you make them yourself. You need good knowledge of crevasse rescue, winter-camping and ice-climbing techniques. You definitely need to be in excellent physical and mental shape if you want to have a good shot at summiting and returning with all fingers and toes attached to your limbs.

We leave our skis at the bottom of Motorcycle Hill, named after the infamous races where motor bikes go up steep hills as high as possible until they topple over. This hill is not that steep, but it would be very hard if not impossible to haul the sled up wearing skis. We change to crampons and shuttle loads in our backpack from here. From now on, we do every stretch twice: once to bring part of our gear and food and again to bring up the rest. We also leave a portion of our supplies in the camp for the way back, buried in the snow and marked with our skis.

The section called Windy Corner fortunately is not that windy at all, but there are some rocks falling down the West Buttress, so we pass as quickly as we can. The next big camp is Advanced Base Camp, or ABC, at 4200m/14,000ft. Here most climbers will spend several days- acclimatising, resting or waiting for the weather to improve. The rangers have a post here and the doctors and rescue team are always busy treating frostbite and injuries from falls, if needed followed by an evacuation by helicopter.

Unlike most climbers, we also brought some non-freeze-dried food and the smell of freshly baked onions and bell peppers was enough to draw a small crowd around our tent walls.

Until now, the ‘climb’ of Denali using this Normal Route mainly consisted of a slow slog through a wonderful world. The steepest part starts right out of ABC and normally has some fixed ropes attached to minimise the bottleneck and the amount of injured climbers. The sudden rise in altitude and the heavy packs makes breathing hard, but the views over BC and Mount Foraker make it worth it.

The next section is exhilarating, you walk right along the narrow West Buttress ridge, with huge drops on either side. We pass Washburn’s Thumb, a big rock named after the pioneer climber and photographer that I would meet a few weeks later on my way out.

A climber on the summit ridge of Denali, Alaska. photo: HARRY KIKSTRA

many people also prefer to go unroped as a sudden fall won’t mean you pull your partner with you

When I plant my ice-axe, I suddenly feel the earth moving. A large plate of snow and ice breaks off underneath my feet and starts falling towards the glacier. I quickly plant the point of my axe in the snow and brake with all my weight on top of it, as to avoid going in the same direction. This is why it can be good to be roped together as your climbing partner can help you; though many people also prefer to go unroped as a sudden fall won’t mean you pull your partner with you and if you are proficient in self-arrest, you should be able to stop a fall.

High camp is at 5200m/17,000ft. It is not a very pleasant place when it’s windy and cold, but when the breeze settles and the sun is out, you can enjoy your surroundings and prepare for the last section ahead.

referred to as “the Autobahn”, due to the amount of climbers that fell here.

Just outside of camp the dangerous and steep traverse to the saddle is often referred to as “the Autobahn”, due to the amount of climbers that fell here. Concentration and proper use of crampons and ice picks are paramount. Usually there are fixed ropes here, but it’s still important to know how to handle these and to be prepared for unexpected gusts of freezing wind.

From the saddle that separated the two summits of Denali we slowly continue up over an easy slope. Though it is not steep, the altitude makes walking very, very hard and we’re glad when we reach one of the last parts of the climb- the “Football Field”. This flat section leads us to a short but demanding last climb in order to gain the summit ridge which offers a great finale to this grand adventure. The ridge is not very steep, but only a foot wide in places and the views are spectacular.

After a few false summits we reach a small plateau and notice that the ridge continues downwards from here. We hug emotionally and take some quick pictures. The weather is amazing, but we both know that the descent is long and dangerous and can only relax once back in our tent.

We summited on the first summit day of the season. For us, it was day 13. We donate our big pile of excess food to newly arrived climbers and make our way down, pick up our skis and sleds and stumble down the gentle slopes, tired to the bone.  

Oh yes, “Heartbreak Hill”. Now we truly understand the meaning of it as the last part back to the Base Camp is slightly but definitely uphill and it takes the last of our remaining strength. We collapse breathless in sight of the tent city that is many times the size it was two weeks ago. The pick-up is in order of arrival in BC, so we haul ourselves over to the BC manager’s tent and jot our name down. We could be picked up with little notice as a good weather spell would quickly bring in a stream of freshly-smelling climbers and we could take the plane back to civilisation.

We have no more strength to erect the tent and I sleep a few hours on top of the stack of fuel canisters until we get called. We get picked up by the blue Cessna and return via One Shot Pass to the comforts of Talkeetna, Alaska: pizza, beer and memories.

 

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