MONGOLIA - THE GREAT ESCAPE
IT WAS IN 1990 that an exuberant John Blashford-Snell first brought up the prospect of a Raleigh International expedition to northwest Mongolia. John, who has all the attributes of the traditional intrepid explorer, not least the characteristic pith helmet which he still insists on wearing to all corners of the globe, seemed to be offering Julian Freeman-Attwood and myself the opportunity to climb in one of the most remote mountain regions of Central Asia. Of course there was a catch! We would spend the greater part of our time acting as guides and instructors to a small group of aspirant mountaineers. 'Well motivated though' John told us, then almost as an afterthought added that most of the 'students' would be unattached girls in their early twenties! We thought for maybe half-a-second before giving our answer.
The mystical mountains of the Altai span almost fifteen hundred kilometres, yet for most of their length there is little about which to get excited. However, where they pass through the triple border point of Russia, China and Mongolia, only a short distance from the frontiers of Kazakhstan, a compact isolated range rises to over 4000 m. This massif - the Tabun Bogdo - lies in the dead heart of Asia and was rumoured to hold the most spectacular mountains in the country. Not surprisingly, no information was forthcoming from the Mongolian authorities, and I spent the next two years trying to follow-up vague leads in various Eastern Block and Soviet states, always drawing a blank until, two days before our departure, a package arrived from Barcelona containing a sketch map and an incomprehensible report of the 1967 Polish expedition. I packed it in my baggage in the vain hope that we might bump into an itinerant Pole somewhere in Mongolia. When we left the UK, fortunately well in advance of our charges, we still had little idea as to how we should even approach the massif!
There were to be three 'instructors'. Julian is a wily Shropshire aristocrat with a power to weight ratio the rival of any Olympic gymnast. He had come into high standard mountaineering later than most, yet his background, which included almost being blown into several hundred pieces by land mines whilst making the first crossing of Mauritania's Empty Quarter, stood him in good stead. On the other hand our partner in crime, Ed Webster from Colorado, started climbing when barely out of nappies. This would be his first expedition to the mountains since shortening his digits when climbing to the South Summit of Everest, four years ago. Now for a few basic statistics: Mongolia has an area equivalent to Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Germany, France, Spain and Portugal all rolled into one - yet with a population of only two and a half million! As half of these are nomads, who live on nothing but mutton and milk, and sleep in large circular felt tents called Gers, the number of permanent settlements is, understandably, small. Although an independent country for many years, it had been heavily reliant on the Soviet Union for its basic needs. After 1990 these quickly disappeared: on our arrival in May 1992 the economy had reached rock-bottom, ration books were being issued in an increasingly foodless capital - Ulaan Baatar - and aviation fuel had become very scarce.
We were forced to wait nearly a week in Hovd, the hub of several Raleigh medical and community programmes, but it would be untrue to say that the time was wasted. Across the far side of the river from our camp lay a 60 m high cliff of decomposing granite which sent Ed, and to a lesser extent Julian, into a frenzy of enthusiasm. Although not so sharp on the open walls, where the use of small finger holds is mandatory, Webster is still a demon when it comes to his old specialty - the crack. On our first day he took this esoteric part of Central Asia into modern times by leading us up the awkward 'Amarsana' (E2 5c), named after a popular folk hero.
Our first stroke of luck came the next afternoon. Two of the staff had just returned from Ger city, as Hovd was becoming affectionately known. To our surprise they had bumped into another foreigner. 'Well, he spoke to us in English but I think he might have said he was Polish' said the Yorkshire lass. Our eyes widened in disbelief. 'Anyway we've invited him along for tea.' I raced to my tent and pulled out the Polish article - surely this was a good omen; with the article even vaguely translated, we might have our first insight into this enigmatic range.
When Ryszard Palczewski stepped inside the Ger an hour later, and announced in perfect English that he ought to make a reasonable translation as it was he who had written the article nearly 25 years ago, we were-well-simply lost for words. More so when he informed us hat, subsequent to the 1967 expedition, he had met his future English wife while working in Afghanistan and now lived in Brighton - making regular trips three times a year to attend to his farming project in Eastern Mongolia! It's a perverse world that allows you to spend years making unsuccessful enquiries all over Europe, only to find that the best information lay right at your doorstep!
A few more granite gems succumbed to Ed's stumpy hands before we eft m a high-wheeled military truck, armed with our newly acquired wealth of knowledge, and carrying our imported food, gaz and equipment for the next one and a half months. There are no roads in western Mongolia only directions, and after three days of travel across a rocky and wilderness we reached a small Kazakh encampment. A urther 20 km on foot, with camels carrying the luggage, took us to a base camp site.
During the next five weeks we explored most corners of the range, feeling privileged to be the first western climbers outside the Eastern Block allowed a mountaineering permit. True the scale was no more than the Bernese Oberland, to which there was a close resemblance, but the ambie'hce was distinctly Himalayan! The main peaks had been climbed by their easiest lines, but little, if any, technical climbing had yet been achieved. We were lucky to have students that were talented, and their enthusiasm meant that interesting new routes, rather than straightforward ascents, could be tackled.
Then there were the tracks - snow leopard, bear and... the other! We were crossing the head of the remote Alexandrov glacier, en route to climb a superb diamond shaped face of blue water-ice, on a peak that Ryszard had named Snow Church. A set of curious fresh prints crossed the glacier, heading towards China over a high col. They were large, showed a definite toe-shaped formation, and, inexplicably, were in sets of three. We had a choice; should we follow the tracks over the pass in an attempt to discover the origins of this mysterious triped; or should we climb the face? We climbed the face, convinced that the tracks could only be those of a Yeti carrying a snow leopard under one paw! There were many memorable climbs, but for me the most interesting, occurred during a five-day exploration of the upper Selenge basin in the company of our six most capable students. Selenge had been climbed from the Alexandrov glacier, but the north face a pure ice wall of c 450 m-looked most attractive......well, except for the serac barrier that appeared to be a
continuous wall across the whole width of the lower face. A peer though Ed's 200 mm Nikon showed a possible weakness, so the next morning Richard, Bridget and I left shortly after dawn, moving up excellent frozen neve and a short stretch of 75°ice to reach the base of the barrier at the presumed break. The prospect looked gloomy. Above, the ice wall was only 5-6 m high, but overhung a good ten degrees past vertical and looked distinctly mushy towards the top. I moved first left then back right across the slope, peering upwards and then shaking my head in a manner bound to discourage even the most confident of clients. I then scanned the horizon for some ominous build-up of cloud, but none came to my rescue: in fact the weather - damn it was as perfect as one could wish! There was nothing for it but to try directly above the belay, where at least the wall was at its lowest. I climbed a metre or so and placed a screw. Not encouraged, I returned with a snow-stake and an additional hammer kindly donated by Bridget. At full stretch the stake was driven horizontally, then with wild flailing, that might have been misconstrued as front-pointing, 1 graunched my right foot on top of the protruding stake and hastily embedded a hammer over the lip. Maintaining the classic five points of contact at all times, I somehow arrived - too exhausted to be a jabbering wreck on the slope above, placed my four remaining screws and sagged onto the lot. Richard, who was considerably heavier, made a valiant effort before becoming airbone with the stake. With the main problem - extracting the runners - now solved, he felt it his duty to test the security of the belay screws and a fixed rope was arranged. Bridget was less fortunate. One of her many attributes is her weight - or lack of it; she looks somewhat less than four stones. 'How about giving me a little pull' came the almost casual remark from below. Richard and I took hold of the rope; a second later Bridget flew past the stance like a rag doll, a blur of gyrating arms and legs. Richard grabbed one of these and with great dexterity fielded her onto the belay. As I led up into more amenable terrain 1 caught snatches of conversation about the finer points of wicket keeping and whether Bridget's hair had come out of place.
Towards the top of the face another fine yet decidedly easier pitch led up past a smooth rocky rib. 30 m of hard water ice at 65° terminated at a precarious exit over a curl of snow. By continually slanting away from my companions I just avoided destroying both their helmets and a growing friendship. The summit attained, a fine traverse at AD standard concluded the day and we reached camp shortly before dark, tired but happy with our new route.
Towards the end of our stay, with the main group having returned to Hovd, there was just time to attempt Huiten (4356 m), Mongolia's highest peak, by the undimbed south face. Although we had seen several more impressive virgin faces this was unquestionably the biggest, with over 1000 m of vertical height. Unfortunately it meant a tricky two-day crossing of the range via the heavily crevassed Alexandrov glacier, 'Yeti Col', and an appalling wade across the remote Prjevalski glacier - the latter named after the nineteenth century Russian explorer who also gave his name to the wild Siberian horse. We sat out the next day. in bad weather but by 11 a.m. the sky was clear and the snow crisp. After a quick cup of tea we started our proposed line, a prominent ridge bordering the left side of the face, and climbed through the night of the 11-12 July 1992 in order to take advantage of the frozen conditions.
The weather was perfect - as good as any day in the high mountains and the summit views were intriguing. To the north lay the vast uninhabited nothingness of the Siberian Steppe. To the south and west a myriad of undimbed and mostly unnamed peaks ran away into China. East the long gentle gladers on the Mongolian side of the range flowed towards wide grassy glens and barren rounded tops that were strangely reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. It was a mountaineers dream; but a dream that was, unfortunately, soon to be shattered. .
At about 2 p.m. I had just started to descend a vast boulder slope near the base of the ridge. Prior to this we had kept more or less together, but 1 took a good rest whilst packing away the climbing rope, and the other two made their own ways down to the glacier. It was a slope typical of those found all over the lower reaches of Asian mountains; large angular blocks that, now and again, wobbled underfoot. Only this one triggered something above! Suddenly I was knocked rudely forward, landing on my side in a slight hollow with a large granite boulder across my left leg. At first I couldn't believe it! Not now; not here in one of the most inaccessible corners of the range!
1 must have passed out for a while because when I came to, the lower part of the leg had lost all sensation. Miraculously the boulder had trapped it in a slot just wide enough to stop the full crushing power but, alas, not wide enough to avoid a serious double compound fracture. I knew immediately that I had to relieve the pressure and restore some circulation before it was too late. My basic first-aid kit contained Temgesic - perhaps the strongest oral painkiller. 5 put two under my tongue and set to work.
Pushing, heaving or even cursing the block proved useless. I tried to reduce the size of the leg by cutting away at the various layers of clothing with an annoyingly blunt penknife; but as fast as the material came away the uncooperative leg would swell to fill the gap. Using my axe and hammer I tried to chisel away at the granite constriction below. Whatever I did appeared to be futile.
I then remembered the climbing rope. Above my head and slightly set back from hollow lay another large boulder. After a couple of attempts I managed to lasso it and, by passing a loop of rope under the near end of the offending block, set up a pulley system with the few karabiners that I was carrying. Although unsuccessful at first, by increasing to a six to one mechanical advantage, I just succeeded in shifting it, not enough to withdraw the leg, but enough that a minute or so later a tingling sensation moved down towards my toes. I kept up the battle, pausing occasionally to let out a loud yell. At first it was 'Ed!!' 'Julian!!', as if there was a dozen or so people from which to chose. Then once or twice I tried 'Help!', but it sounded so ridiculous that I quickly reverted to a high-pitched wail which I guessed would be just as effective. At round 7 p.m. I was greatly relieved to hear shouts from below; yet it took a further three hours for Julian and Ed to move the boulder sufficiently to free the leg and construct a temporary splint with ice-axes and the climbing rope. With Ed doing an outstanding job of supporting the leg and navigating a route in the dark, I bum-shuffled down for 14 hours, leaving a trail of red spots like painted waymarks on the boulders. In the meantime Julian had returned to the foot of the face and collected a tent, sleeping bag etc.
Finally we reached a flat spot on the moraine, where a clear cold stream, fresh from a melting snowpatch, had created a small, grassy oasis. After removing my splint, the components of which would be essential for the climb back over the range, the lads left hastily. By moving at night (their third consecutive night out) they hoped to reach base camp the following day and radio Hovd. In the Alps a rescue helicopter would be alerted and, often within hours, the patient would be receiving treatment in a well-equipped hospital. But this was Mongolia and by July there was, officially, no aviation fuel!
The days were hot; but with the tent entrance within arm's length of the stream, drinking water was plentiful. The first day was spent brushing up on my tourniquet technique. It had to be Ed's suggestion; Americans know all about snake bites! It was easy to convince myself that a friendly face was unlikely to reappear within three days: but what if something were to happen to the lads on the way out? Sloppy snow, rockfall in the couloir; I could imagine a number of depressing scenarios. What if I was still alone on the sixth? Should I try crawling down the glacier? It flowed in completely the wrong direction and as far as I knew led into a valley that was entirely
uninhabited. Of course there might just be an adventurous shepherd.....
At the time I couldn't crawl out of the* sleeping bag so the question seemed rather academic. I resolved not to dwell on the matter too much until nearer the time. Instead I either day-dreamed or dozed - rituals, so my friends say, that I usually perform well! Occasionally odd statistics, read somewhere in the dim and distant past, would enter my mind - like '70% of all victims with untreated compound fractures die after ten days'. Ignorance can be a splendid attribute sometimes!
Fortunately I was never put to the test. On the evening of the fourth day after the accident I heard the distinctive sound of rotor blades. Wild with excitement I twisted round to peer through the tent entrance and saw, coming over the range from the north, a large, old and unwieldy Russian helicopter.
As soon as the Raleigh base in Hovd received the radio message preparations were made for the evacuation. London was informed and SOS International alerted. The military felt they were unable to help; but the civilian airlines had a twenty year old cargo helicopter and a pilot who, despite having no experience of operating in mountainous terrain, was willing to fly if fuel could be found. After complex negotiation and diplomatic intervention sufficient fuel materialized to fly the 1200 km from the capital - Ulaan Baatar - to Hovd, where the state released the last remains of emergency fuel left in the west of the country, as a gesture of thanks for the work done by the various Raleigh projects. Unfortunately, it would not be enough to complete the round trip.
Having completely written off any possibility of air rescue, I was baffled, for one brief and bizarre moment, as to why the Russians should want to check-out this section of their border with China! Then I saw the letters MAT that signify Mongolia's airline and the rest of my life suddenly began to look a whole lot more promising. If at that moment the chopper had turned around and crept back over the range I think I would have still felt elated because I now realized that other people knew!
Instead it circled crazily above the tent then, operating beyond its ceiling, made two attempts to land. On the second I got a distinct impression that things were going out of control but the pilot managed to pull out, and the chopper spun to the left, then disappeared south over the moraine. Feeling fairly confident that help was-well-at least close at hand, I settled down to wait.
More than an hour later Ed popped over the moraine carrying an old, green, military stretcher. He was closely followed by George Baber - an RAF pilot seconded to Raleigh and the third of my rescuers the Belgian doctor Jan Kennis. They were all visibly depressed! Three bewildered passengers, unable to communicate with their Mongolian-speaking pilot, dumped in the middle of one of the most remote glaciers in Asia with no equipment, and in the case of George, who had been flown direct from the desert climate of Hovd, virtually no clothes! Fuel was very low they told me, probably only enough for one attempt. Unable to see the direction in which the helicopter had flown, they had to assume that it must have escaped back over the range. Nevertheless the campsite was dismantled and I was strapped into the stretcher.
Time passed. Just to add to their anxiety the clear skies of the last four days rapidly clouded over and the tent was soon unpacked to give shelter from a violent thunderstorm. Ed, Jan and George huddled miserably around the stretcher, shivering, realizing that one or more nights out with no food were becoming increasingly likely. They cursed the folly of being off-loaded from the helicopter without any equipment. By contrast, I was over the moon! While base camp, having lost sight of the aircraft for nearly three hours, now feared the worst, and Hovd, in constant radio contact, slipped into despondency. I was ecstatic!
In fact Jamaldorj, the pilot, had made a bold and daring decision. Flying down valley towards Chinese Zungaria he lost just enough altitude to make a comfortable landing. Cutting out the engines to conserve precious fuel, he waited patiently, allowing ample time for us to complete our preparations and the weather to clear. Restarting the engines he disconnected then off-loaded the very heavy batteries, together with all non-essential equipment (including Jan's medical box!) and trusting to God that the craft would not stall, flew in for the pick-up.
George heard him first and ran to the centre of the grassy swathe, beckoning him forward with appropriate hand signals onto what seemed to him an almost perfect helipad. Obviously it wasn't! Jamaldorj finally elected to put it down on a large snowpatch in amongst the granite boulders, waving frantically for us to move as the slightest change in conditions might make it difficult for him to get airborne with our extra weight. The engines roared and 1 felt the cold turbulence buffet my face. We raced - well, rather they raced, I just yelled with pain - bumping and crashing across giant blocks. Bits of bone were moving in all directions. I saw the co-pilot jump and moments later struggle across the snow patch to help, flip-flops clenched tightly between his teeth!
By the time we reached the helicopter I thought I was past caring but I was wrong. Lifting the foot of the stretcher up to the door, Ed fell into a hollow and I crashed to the ground ('You do a nice line in screaming', George confessed a few minutes later!). I was successfully bundled inside on the second attempt, the co-pilot fighting with the door as the helicopter lurched forward over the moraine and skimmed across the glacier, struggling to gain height.
I lay back, propped on one arm, gasping with relief. Jan had both arms around me, his head buried in my shoulders, crying. I looked down the length of the stretcher to Ed who was hunched over, stil! gripping my legs firmly, also crying. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of George, collapsing into a seat, tears wetting both cheeks. In a sudden release of emotion I joined them and, there we were, four grown men all crying our eyes out! Then someone realised the chopper was flying in completely the wrong direction. It was only on landing to collect the batteries that the reason became clear.
After a brief stop at base camp in the gathering gloom, we flew 150 km to a small aerodrome, barely reaching it before the fuel cut out. I was taken to the local 'hospital' but it was on the manager's desk that Jan cleaned the wound under local anaesthetic. They didn't have splints but he improvised with long strips of wood, kindly ripped from the surrounding shelves and cupboards by the manager himself!
Although the cbances of further fuel were less than slim, there seemed nothing else to do but try. Yet it was here that we had, perhaps, our best stroke of luck. Northwest Mongolia is largely populated by Kazakhs; crafty, tribal folk who hold no allegiance to the Republic, and who for the last few months had been desperately attempting to escape from a country rapidly approaching economic ruin. That morning there was an unscheduled and somewhat illegal landing of an aircraft, sent on an evacuation mission from Kazakhstan. After five bottles of Vodka had changed hands, fuel syphoned from the plane with an old hosepipe gave the chopper just enough flying time to reach Hovd where I was able to take my first bite of food for five days.
Meanwhile SOS International had obtained clearance from the Mongolian ministry to land their Singapore based Lear jet. Prior to this date no foreign aircraft had been allowed to enter western Mongolia, nor did Hovd appear on any aeronautical chart. At one stage there was even concern that the runway would not be suitable. However, the following day the Swiss pilot made a perfect visual landing and I was swiftly transferred to a modern casualty bag and flown to Hong Kong. Even here our run of luck held, allowing the pilot to break the curfew and make an emergency night landing just one hour before the airport was hit by a typhoon. I reached hospital at 4 a.m. and the same morning was lying in an operating theatre, having three metal plates internally fixed across the fracture sites.
The success of this rescue was due to the immense cooperation and strong 'bonding' between all those concerned; but their efforts would have been doomed had it not been for a spirited helicopter pilot who, against all odds, was prepared to have a go.
The party made 23 ascents of peaks and lesser summits as marked on the map. Several were previously untrodden and more than half were climbed by new routes of varying standard up to alpine TD-/TD. The main ascents were made in the company of Richard Bruton, Vanessa Carter, Bridget Cowen, Claire Gosney, Tom Nichols and Colonel Tsanjid the Mongolian representative. There is still much scope for ice/mixed routes of great quality in one of the decreasing number of unspoilt wilderness areas left on the planet. Lindsay Griffin was injured and rescued by helicopter after many difficulties. The British, led by John Blashford Snell, were climbing in northwest Mongolia, May 1992.