When you have been a part of KE leading trips to the Greater Ranges for a while (and in my case quite a long while), people will inevitably ask "what is your favourite trip?". My standard both truthful and perhaps unhelpful answer is to say that it is either the trip I am on at the moment or the one I have most recently returned from. If however I was really pressed to make a very short list of top locations, whilst I would struggle, one thing would be certain and that is that Khuiten - the World's most remote mountain would be there somewhere.
2013 was my 6th...well the word is expedition really to this fantastic area in the fast west of Mongolia where the mountains form the junction between that country,Russia and China. It is an area of alpine height peaks (Khuiten is 4374m) but there are no roads or settlements for miles in any direction.
It's not an easy trip. Unlike say Nepal there are no porters to carry our loads and no Sherpas to help. We do however always have our friend and local contact Sandagash to cook for us at base camp. To reach base camp we fly for 4 hours from the capital Ulaan Bataar to the small town of Bayon Olgii. From there 7 hours off road driving in Russian jeeps takes us to the road head. A strange name for the place as dirt track head would be better. A day's trek leads us to our base camp, two gers, known elsewhere as yurts. They form our kitchen and dining areas and a welcome shelter from the wind and snow that can often arrive suddenly even in summer.
This summer the weather looked benign when we arrived so we thought we'd make the most of it, so after a day of training on the glacier we set off up the Potanin Glacier roped together in two parties carrying full camping and climbing equipment for three days and two nights. I lead one rope with Francis, Elizabeth and Bryan and our agent and friend and Mongolian resident from Ulaan Bataar, Australian mountaineer Graham Taylor lead Richard and Catherine.
The blizzard arrived at high camp just after we did giving us just enough time to secure the tents on the snow.
For me as leader one of the toughest tasks of this trip is doing the cooking for 7, especially when it is in a blizzard.
Over a period of hours snow was melted and food prepared and served to the team in their tents. Not quite a banquet but there were no complaints.
The blizzard raged until about dawn.About a foot of snow had fallen. Clearly the main objective,Khuiten was out of the question, the slopes and ridges would be plastered in deep avalanche prone snow. Instead we went for the second and safer objective Narindal, at 4183m it's summit is the junction between Russia, China and Mongolia and gives a fantastic view with no trace of humanity in any direction.
We returned to high camp and next day in improving weather descended back to Base Camp.
The third peak on the agenda is an unusual, challenging but not technical summit that is reached via scree, scrambling and a little snow. It is Malchin at 4037m. We took a rope to protect the team as we crossed a snow gully just below the summit. This second summit is a real treat, giving views all along the range to mountains with evocative names like Sunset Peak, Eagle Peak and Snow Church all rising above glaciers named after the first explorers Potaniin and Alexander.
It seemed that the weather was getting better and better so on the penultimate morning of our time at Base camp I suggested to the team that we might have an option to try again for Khuiten. I had achieved the plan once before in 2004 but it was tough. We would leave after dinner in the evening and make a night ascent of Khuiten from Base Camp and return for breakfast next day. It would make the best use of night time freezing conditions but would be a 12hrs+ excursion.
Richard and Catherine elected not to go so during the day I lead them to a walk up/scramble peak to the south of Base Camp called Gejadien. It is probably the best viewpoint of the whole range.
After dinner at 9pm Francis, Elizabeth, Bryan, Graham and I set off for the summit of Khuiten as a single roped team.
Initially the glacier was in great condition and combined with our light packs we moved quickly up to the height of our previous High camp. From there we entered a glacier filled valley that leads to a col from which we aimed to climb a steep ridge which eventually leads to the summit.
Graham and I alternated breaking trail as the snow got deeper and deeper. Normally the crevasses in the glacier in the valley are clearly visible but despite the full moon, there was no sign, just smooth deep snow. Gradually it became obvious that unless the wind had blown the snow from the col and ridge above and there had been some substantial freeze thaw to consolidate the snow pack, we would again not make it up Khuiten. We were right, once on the col the conditions were much worse. It was cold and windy and there was about 1 metre deep of soft powdery snow. It was an easy decision for me to make. At 3.30am and we turned and descened. The snow presented an avalanche risk without safe anchors and of course we would have to come down the same way.
At 7am we strolled into Base Camp, had some hot drinks and slept for a few hours before packing up camp and starting the 5 hour trek back to the Road Head.
As if the day wasn't long enough,once we reached it we could not miss the chance to visit one of the local families who live in a ger and graze their animals in the area during summer. The main attraction was to see and hold their hunting eagle.
None of us had trouble going to sleep that night.
Four days later I was back home in Sheffield reflecting on another fantastic KE mountain adventure.