On a cold and overcast afternoon in a small lakeside resort in
Siberia, my friend Phil and I clumsily drag our plastic sleds down a small set
of stairs to the frozen surface below. Our farewell party consists of Eugene, a
local trekking guide and our trusty fixer, and two Brits, Robbie, and Natalie,
who are new acquaintances.
An hour before, we had been basking in the comforting
warmth of a trendy local café.
"You two look like a right pair of
f****ers," Robbie had quipped with his strong London accent.
I was glad we
at least looked the part, given we would soon be leaving behind the sanctuary
of the café for a long cold march ahead.
Trace a finger roughly north of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of
Mongolia, and you soon hit a vast body of water. Tucked between mountains and
Siberian hinterland, Lake Baikal stretches for nearly 700km. Its frigid depths
plumb to a little over 1.6km. Remarkably, the lake freezes over in February and
March, just enough to allow a few hardy (or stupid) souls to walk on its
I had hoped to see the curious shapes and methane bubbles that
marble the lake's windblown, frozen surface, but that first afternoon on the
ice, we were met by compact snow fields. Phil strode ahead for the first few
hours as I chatted to Robbie and settled into my 'polar plod.' Elite
ultra-runners Robbie and Natalie were here to scope out the possibility of
running across the lake in the future. Phil and I simply wanted to amble across
the thing before our tourist visas expired.
The frozen surface of Lake Baikal
We had arrived at the shores of this winter curiosity after an
intense six months of sourcing equipment, acquiring visas, planning the route,
and squeezing in some much-needed training. The latter was undoubtedly required
as I was exchanging a sedentary office job for twenty-odd days of pulling two
plastic sleds, choc full of food, fuel, and other necessities. The sleds would
be our lifeline as we trekked across Baikal, from a small resort village in the
southwest corner to the penultimate settlement in the north - a journey of some
The first night on the ice, and the next few after that, took
some getting used to. It was now just Phil and I, and the twinkling lights on
the shore were distant. Beneath our sleeping mats, the floor creaked and
The ice was solid enough that we had difficulty driving in ice screws
to pin our tent down, but it also appeared to be a living, breathing beast.
Subtly piercing the overwhelming silence, the faint, haunting sound of the
groaning ice below almost sounded like shelling on the western front.
to be our nightly soundtrack for the coming weeks.
Tent life out on the ice
Our plan was to snake along the lake's western shoreline, only
deviating to navigate around the large mass of Olkhon Island at more or less
the halfway mark. During the first five days, we slowly found our rhythm
and were zipping along nicely, reaching close to 30km of walking on some days.
We strapped small micro spikes to our boots to gain traction on the bullet-hard
ice. Still, despite being unwieldy and heavy, I preferred to use my snowshoes
as they dug harder into the surface.
In March, the lake is reassuringly cold, with the mercury
regularly dipping to -20c and below at night. Thankfully we slept soundly in
our big puffy arctic sleeping bags.
Once you overcome the initial fear of deep
cold, you almost learn to love it.
It renders the air crisp and clear. Ice and
snow crunch pleasingly underfoot. And the light takes on a different ethereal
quality. During the day, the cold was less of a worry, as the heat from our
movement kept us warm. Ironically sweat is the enemy of a cold weather traveller,
as it freezes on your clothing and drops body temperature. So I was constantly
fiddling with layers, vents, hats, and gloves.
The sun rises through a blade of ice
To the outsider, sled hauling and the relentless monotony of one
step after another might seem like torture. On some days, it is. On those days,
all you can do is cinch down your jacket hood, put your goggles and face mask
on and drive into the biting wind, only looking up occasionally to scout the
But on clear sunny days, it's close to perfection. The internal
battle is replaced by an overwhelming sense of freedom as the horizon melts
into an endless expanse.
The winds on Baikal can be merciless. On our third full day,
hoods were most definitely down. My goggles repeatedly fogged over as I worked
hard against the headwind. I tried not to slobber as I breathed heavily into my
ice-stiffened facemask. No time to stop for long with the temperatures dropping
to 30 below; just keep moving forward and shovel in a handful of goodies when
We only made 14km that day, but the miles soon flew by as the weather
was mostly kind to us.
Phil breaking trail on a snow covered section of the lake
By day nine, we had sighted the jagged bulk of Olkhon.
"Let's aim for the darker brown patches to the right," suggested
Phil, "I'll meet you there." Despite being twenty years older, Phil
was in better shape, so most of the time, during clear weather, he would take
off ahead and meet at the end of the day. A risky strategy given we had no
radios and I usually carried our one satellite phone - but it had worked for us
so far and meant we could both travel at our own comfortable pace.
I had met Phil two years earlier on a polar training course in
Norway. Tall, bearded, and with a smattering of tattoos, he could look a little
menacing. But I soon learned he was a gentle soul. Empathetic and kind, but
also tough and very driven. The sort of person you know you can rely on. That
counts for a lot in the wilderness.
The sun setting behind the mountains on the Western short of Lake Baikal
The more I walked, the more I doubted our plan for the day. We
wanted to ‘thread the eye of the needle’ and navigate between the mainland and
Olkhon's western flank. Things didn't seem to add up, though. As the day wore
on, the darker brown side of the island looked too far to the right to be the
passage we were aiming for.
My feet were screaming from days of being bashed on the hard
ice, and the sun was dropping ever lower behind the mountains. I scanned the
horizon for Phil.
He had the tent. "Trust yourself, Ash," I muttered
to myself. "Trust the map."
I took a bearing and headed left of the darker hills, assuring
myself that Phil must have come to the same conclusion. The negative part of my
brain was mulling over the prospect of a night out in the open, huddled inside
my sled bag, with as much clothing as possible. That was definitely not a
But just as I began to fear the worst, I spotted it – our tent -
a tiny dark fleck on the horizon. The pain in my feet melted away, and I pushed
onward, celebrating and muttering to myself with musings I have long since
Jumbled ice forced upward through changes in pressure and temperature
The shoreline of Baikal isn't without life or interest.
rolling hills covered with deep snow and generous smatterings of dense woodland
filled much of our view before Olkhon. The ice itself drew us in with its
natural artistry. Trapped methane bubbles and sweeping white swirls were frozen
into translucent sheets with a hypnotic effect, and the broken ice forced upward
by pressure twinkled with blue and emerald tones.
There were also occasional Dacha's, wooden summer
houses for the rich or visiting tourists. Olkhon has several dwellings on its
shores, and we took up the hospitality of one friendly hotelier to escape into
the warmth and refuel.
Never have black tea, honey, bread, and a bowl of plain
white rice tasted so good.
The character of the landscape began to change after this.
Undulating lumps gave way to huge alpine giants. Steep buttresses and gullies
soared high into the deep blue sky, and the loose snow danced around these
features as the wind buffeted their upper flanks. Although local mountaineering
clubs do access these remote ranges, there are no doubt many lines that remain
Some of the many mountains that line the shores of Lake Baikal
Endless beckoning nothingness to the right and jagged alpine
mountains piercing the skyline to the left.
Now, this was why I was here.
After 15 days of travel, we had covered nearly 450km. We
happened across a series of remote huts, one of which was inhabited by a hardy
couple who manned a weather station.
Forgetting any notion of purism, Phil and
I took up the offer of a night in a small wooden hut. The following day I
started off early and waited for him to catch up. The catch came much later
than usual, though. A brown bear had arisen early from hibernation and
descended on the weather station. No big drama, though, as the sore-headed bear
was chased off by a few warning shots from our weather station friends.
The weather station hut
The wildlife weren't the only interesting characters on our
journey. There were the locals too.
One day out of the haze, a pair of battered
old Soviet vans came careering toward me on the ice road that lines part of the
"Oh Christ, what the hell do they want?" I thought.
screeching to a halt, a great big bear of a man stepped out. Chattering away
for a moment, he realizes my blank face means I can't understand what on earth
he's saying. He quickly switches to English and hurries his clients out of the
Before long, I'm surrounded by tourists asking for photos, as if I were
some kind of curiosity. I must have looked like a stereotypical "Polar
Explorer" with a fur ruff on my hood and a weather-beaten face.
After asking where I lived in the UK, an Austrian chap even managed
to talk about my local soccer team who had just won the league. But soon
enough, I was thanked for my photographic and conversational duties and treated
to a shot of local samogon (moonshine).
Not one, however, but three.
decline their gesture, so as we went our separate ways, I tottered on, feeling
bemused and a little worse for wear.
What on earth had just happened?!
After a few weeks, life on the ice becomes ingrained. You forget
what it was like before, and you don't want to imagine what it will be like
when you reach the end.
While striking camp in the morning may have taken
several hours, it now took half the time. The disciplined routine of cold
weather travel becomes second nature. The ice, wind, and snow become your
entertainment. Their distinct moods lift or sully your own.
Team shot early one evening
To the indigenous Buryat people and those who spend a lot of
time on the lake, Baikal is an extraordinary place.
"I physically feel how the
positive energy of Baikal recharges my batteries. For me, it's not just the
biggest freshwater lake – it's part of my inner world," our fixer Eugene
Several times in his life, he had attractive job offers in other
countries, and I could now see so well why, on each occasion, he had turned
The final few hundred kilometres were not easily won. The snow
was deep in the latter half of the lake, and even with snowshoes, we struggled.
Eventually, after 19 days and 634km, we reached the end. We trudged into
Severobaikalsk, a slightly grim and rundown town built for workers of a new
railway line in the mid-'70s.
We dragged our sleds onto the main road into town, past abandoned lakeside
summer houses as the odd mangy dog or local resident looked on curiously. I
felt like a frontiersman riding into town during the expansion of the Wild
West. Still, thankfully we weren't met by a gun-toting local sheriff. As we had
found repeatedly throughout our trek, the people who live along the shoreline
are warm, generous, and very hospitable.
And just like that, our Siberian wander was at an end.
the next 36 hours chugging past endless taiga on the Trans-Siberian railway and
other lesser-known lines. A dream safely fulfilled, our bodies could now relax.
We ate, drank, laughed, and felt satisfied. Despite the warm toasty sanctuary
of our carriage, I knew before too long we'd both want to be back out on the
Once you experience this winter pearl of Siberia, it becomes part of your
The finish line, with Severobaikalsk behind
"Subtly piercing the overwhelming silence, the faint haunting sound of the groaning ice below almost sounded like shelling on the western front. This was to be our nightly soundtrack for the coming weeks."
"Once you overcome the initial fear of deep cold, you almost learn to love it. It renders the air crisp and clear. Ice and snow crunch pleasingly underfoot. And the light takes on a different ethereal quality."
"I felt like a frontiersman riding into town during the expansion of the Wild West, but thankfully we weren't met by a gun-toting local sheriff."
"After a few weeks, life on the ice becomes ingrained. You forget what it was like before, and you don't want to imagine what it will be like when you reach the end."