Retracing Baikal’s Ice Crucible

25 million years old according to Scientific estimates, she looks as pretty as a princess!

25 million years old according to Scientific estimates, she looks as pretty as a princess!

A short but good sleep, and I awaken predawn. Disengaging my pajamas (a down parka) with difficulty from my blue kazoo (sleeping bag), I leave my snoozing comrades with camera in (mitten bound) hands. Snapping the wonder of our solar star rising over the wind-driven plain of ice on Baikal is AWESOME.

Marius slept under the cold stars and next to a warm fire. I doubt he was warm though.

Marius slept under the cold stars and next to a warm fire. I doubt he was warm though.

Kesha was always on point, and saw to it we got fed well. Here he gathers ice for tea.

Kesha (Innokenti) was always on lead sledge, and saw to it we got fed well. Here he gathers ice for tea.

Baikal is a venerable sea. Known as the “North Sea” during the Han dynasty, battles were fought on her shores between the Han and the Huns, ancient inhabitants to this area around 119 BC! According to scientific estimates, Baikal is the oldest lake in the world, a mere 25 million years old. Snap! Snap! I snapped Old Glory until frozen. Coffee calls from the fire.

Just off Olkhon's Eastern shores fault action thrusts huge ice slabs up for admiration.

Just off Olkhon’s Eastern shores fault action thrusts huge ice slabs up for admiration.

Sasha and Vanya wave at you, and give some perspective to this ice jumble.

Sasha and Vanya wave at you, and give some perspective to this ice jumble.

The magnificence of this blue ice is . . . magnificent!

The magnificence of this blue ice is . . . magnificent!

We pack, luncheon, stow gear, disembark! Straining at the traces to move quickly across naked ice, with thirty miles still ahead, we are all go. We gain the hummock field that had us near despair the day previous. Clearing that labyrinth, on trudge we to nightfall. The wind whips as we drive heavy screws into ice to anchor our tent. Stars marshal in millions, peering down on us through cosmos jet black. Bone penetrating cold drives us into the tiny enclosure of our nylon domicile to toss and shiver and shiver and toss until dayspring. Oh Shackleton, my Shackleton, why did I read your tale? Near morning as we lay awake freezing, we cackle at the absurdity of sleeping on a solid sheet of sounding ice. What do I mean by “sounding” ice? Follow this link if you have never heard the strange sounds ice makes.

Ready for our second go at Baikal's ice box.

Ready for our second go at Baikal’s ice box.

How easy it is to pull a sledge on naked ice.

How easy it is to pull a sledge on naked ice.

The wind carved snow cover on the lake.

The wind carved snow cover on the lake.

Preparing for our last night on Baikal. It was North Pole like.

Preparing for our last night on Baikal. It was North Pole like.

Babylonian star catalogues list Orion as "The Heavenly Shepherd". The Shepherd tends to our shivery encampment.

Babylonian star catalogues list Orion as “The Heavenly Shepherd”. The Shepherd tends to our shivery encampment.

The only way to conquer this wicked cold is to get this expedition under way! I shed my frosty sleeping sack and stuff, strain, struggle into frozen boots. Our gear is hooded in hoarfrost. The promise of sleeping this eve in a warm yurt with a full belly drives us forward.

At lunch Marius, a friend from Romania relates to me his struggle of two nights past. The trek across Baikal had been rough, and he didn’t relish returning through the same ice bin of suffering again. Seeing the distant lights of habitation somewhere on the isle of Olkhon, he hatched a plan to escape our expedition, make his way to one of these homesteads, arrange transportation to Irkutsk, and catch the train back to Ulan-Ude! But he didn’t have enough money, and he needed a place to stay in Irkutsk. Since I have lived there, he thought I could furnish him with a host and a loan. He seriously considered making his escape! I burst into laughter with Marius at this idea, partially from commiseration, and partially because I couldn’t get my head around the lengths he was willing to go to avoid re-crossing Baikal. An enduring spasm of mirth cavorted in our bellies, now that we knew Marius, and the whole crew would survive our crossing.

The only way to conquer hummocks is by force!

The only way to conquer hummocks is by force!

Another team hits the hummocks.

Another team hits the hummocks.

The north wind blows, freezing our lunch break, and our expedition soldiers on. We become automatons, pulling the traces until we are spent, and then pulling three miles more. Our water freezes, and we are reduced to eating snow. Pain is ignored, vision tunnels, I will stop when I step on the eastern shore. But our team stops now, for a tea break! Gaaaah!

A stop for tea and . . .

A stop for tea and . . .

Ibuprofen. In the Fatherland they make it pink.

Ibuprofen. (In the Fatherland they make it pink.)

The end is in sight, but the team is flagging. I quarrel with Sasha over chatter and focus. I reason that the time to shoot the breeze waits in camp beyond the shore. So let’s shut up and get there! And we do, willing our sledge through the last field of hummocks to be met by cheers of the teams ashore. But we don’t stop; we drag our burden on into camp to deposit it where it need move no more. Only then do we slip the traces, and hug our rejoicing comrades. Now for a hot meal, a hot sweat*, (*Russian Banya), and a bed of oblivion.

A wood burning stove and a bunk bed. Spoiled rotten.

A wood burning stove and a bunk bed. Spoiled rotten.

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21 thoughts on “Retracing Baikal’s Ice Crucible

  1. Hi Alex, This story reminds me of the Buryat man (at whose guesthouse I slept in Ulan Ude) inviting me to return in the dead of winter to travel – by four-wheeled jeep I believe – over the Baikal ice, an adventure that he’d already accomplished once before. If it weren’t for my physical aversion to Arctic-like temperatures, I might have considered taking him up on the offer. Especially when contemplating the unparalleled magnificence that you so beautifully convey – in word and image. Wow wow wow.

  2. Amazing story. Fascinating journey. Too rugged for my bones. Thanks for letting me share your experience. And thanks for visiting my blog and my cloud photos.

    • You bet Rosemarie, thank you for stopping by my neck of the virtual woods. You are welcome any time! Alex

    • Hey, you bet Rosemarie! Thanks for stopping by my neck of the virtual woods! You are welcome any time! Alex

    • Oops, I think I replied twice, so let’s make it thrice! I thought I accidentally deleted my first reply. Sorry! :)

  3. Great photo! When I was young I travelled the Transsiberian railway from Moscow and through Siberia. That was unforgettable. We then went on further to Tasjkent and Samarkand. But the majestic landscapes of Siberia is still in my mind. The birch trees, the grey houses and the little old ladies standing by the gates. The train crew was fantastic. So happy and smiling – their golden teeth glimmering in the dusk. Food was interesting but good. We all cried a bit when we left them…

    • Wow! When was that? I love riding the train. Although my experience until recently was of very gruff, unfriendly train staff. Training for hours on end through birch trees does impress the soul. Getting your mind around it is like fitting a humpback in a fishbowl. Siberia, much more than ice, yes? Thank you for stopping by. You can always catch the train here! Toot – toot! :)

  4. oh my gosh, Im poking my tongue out at you in jealousy ! What amazing scenery and photographs. You camp in these surroundings ? … This is too cool :)

    • Sandra, Siberia is an amazing place to camp! To date, this is the most extreme camping I have done, but I plan to again! Taking the pictures was challenging, cold photography is ummmmmm . . . COLD! Glad you like! I like 2! :)

    • Thank you Kara! I was hoping for a “signature” shot of that ice, but I don’t feel like I got it. Gonna have to try again!

    • Thank you EAM! That one is a long exposure, and I actually ran about the yurt shining a red light on to get that effect. Thanks for stopping by!

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