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 surface.
First steps on the ice
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.
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 640km.
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 groaned.
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.
This was to be our nightly soundtrack for the coming weeks.
Life in the freezer
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.
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 way ahead.
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 you can.
We only made 14km that day, but the miles soon flew by as the weather was mostly kind to us.
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 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 pleasant prospect.
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 forgotten.
A changing landscape
The shoreline of Baikal isn't without life or interest.
Lumpy 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 unclimbed.
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 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 lake.
"Oh Christ, what the hell do they want?" I thought.
After 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 van.
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.
I daren't 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?!
The home strait
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.
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 told me.
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 them down.
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.
We spent 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 ice.
Once you experience this winter pearl of Siberia, it becomes part of your inner world.
"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."