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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A Long Haul for Olkhon

Campfire by moonlight on Olkhon island in Baikal.

Relishing the glow of a warm blaze on the Isle of Olkhon after 2 cold hard days of trekking.

The sledges are packed; their loads ratcheted into place. Sleeping bags, tents, thermoses, packs filled with minimal amounts of dry cloths and necessary gear, boxes of canned meat, dry soup, noodles, rice, sweet biscuits, cookies, and tea make up the balance of each burden. Our expedition is at hand. Into each set of traces slips a man, and one after another, the sledges began sliding toward the ice-bound shore of Lake Baikal. We wave to well wishing friends collected along the start of our route. Just off shore, we gather arm in arm to place our lives in the hands of our Maker. Now into the teeth of Baikal!

Sledge teams crossing the snowpacked ice of Baikal.

Having cleared the first ice hummock field along the eastern shore, we get underway.

The Holy Nose Peninsula in winter on Baikal.

The Holy Nose Peninsula always stands watch over our northern flank.

An Oriental maiden is winsome Baikal. Lake Baikal is Medusa. A glimpse of her concealed shores will leave a man gasping at her exquisite expanse. Her enchanting allure has led many to perish in her frigid storm frenzied waters, or on the arctic desert of her frozen agua. Baikal = danger, but her magnificence is > than her danger. When you partake in the grandeur that is Baikal, you will become aware of an indescribable majesty; a power that rent the foundations of earth to purposely lay Baikal in her basin. Your heart will fly to this Creator.

Sunset over the team on Baikal's ice.

Sunsets and sunrises over a mirror of ice are wonderful to behold. Time to set up camp for the night!

Ice hummocks. Stubbornly they oppose our sledges, blocking, bashing, and halting our progress. Even after yesterday’s work of hammering a path through them, they still had their way. But we were hopeful of naked ice. Clearing the hummock field we set off southeast on soft-crusted snow for the coast of Olkhon, largest island and most sacred place on the Sacred Sea.

Setting up camp on the ice of Baikal at dusk.

Setting up camp on a pleasantly lit sheet of freezing ice.

Our toils end at sunset. Progress, eight kilometers out of forty-seven. (A thirty-mile total taking into account hummock fields.)

Have you ever made your bed on a frozen sea? The ice speaks spooky. (Click on this link to hear how ice sounds while you lay upon it.) 5521 cubic miles of water ominously smacks the bottom surface of your ice mattress. Many years ago I read “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage”, a story of desperate survival in the Antarctic. While sleeping on the ice, I “conveniently” recalled the instance where an ice lead opened under one of the tents dunking an unsuspecting sleeper in the sea. With a mile deep trench of water below my bed, ask me if I slept well!

Glowing steam from our night camp kitchen on Baikal.

I was so busy photographing the glow of burner and headlamps in the kitchen steam, I nearly missed dinner and had to scrape my portion from the bottom of the cooking pail.

Breakfast is a piece of frozen bread, frozen cheese, and two FROZEN slices of salami. And hot tea. Break camp, repackage sledge, fill thermos, off!

Pushing our sledge toward Olkhon island on Baikal.

Day 2: the push to Olkhon. Oleg in the traces, Timur and I on push.

Our moustachioed Ukrainian captain, Oleg Ivanovich gaily chats his way across the kilometers. Laughing, scolding Vanya* and stopping for tea are his main endeavors aside from pushing the sledge most of way. His constant chatter originally miffs me, but soon his golden heart shines through. (Besides, I tend to think everyone talks too much.) It’s amazing how sharing a bit of suffering can turn someone into a friend you would go anywhere with. Oleg – a tribute to the Ukrainian people.

The team considers it's approach to the island of Olkhon on Baikal.

Eyes on the prize. L to R: Timur, Oleg, Sergei (Expedition Commander), and Sanya.

Valera sports an ice mustache.

Valera sports an ice mustache.

Timur our most experienced member had already made several winter crossings. We got on splendidly, laughing a lot, freezing together taking pictures of the black velvet and diamond sky and sharing the frustrations of trying to put up a tent in sub-zero temps while fighting the wind. Timur’s Russian throws me for a loop. That is until I notice native speakers also asking him to repeat himself, hah!

Sanya, at sixteen was on his second crossing. He and I took turns at the lead pulling the sled. When he focuses, we cruise. When he starts talking, we falter. Vanya often gets Sasha’s goat, (his specialty) and twenty-minute arguments ensue. This went on until we all invite Vanya to catch the team ahead of us. Invitations flow freely. Sanya and his brother Dima usually drill for water at lunch stops. They drill through a meter and a half of ice in about ten minutes. When my lunch kit was packed at the bottom of our sledge, Sanya found me a cup, spoon and bowl in a heartbeat. Twice.

That brings us dear thirteen-year old Vanya. Parentless and full of energy, un-needed advice, ridiculous questions and always ready to argue, he was our expedition’s anchor. Wrestling him earned me my first black eye in decades. As our sledges spread across the ice, he often brings up the rear, and we end up waiting for him, slowing the whole expedition to a crawl, until we start sending him ahead. (Yes, to heckle other teams.) Though he drives us nuts, everyone loves Vanya, and when we finally make the eastern shore after 60 miles of sledge pulling, we heave Vanya into celebratory air.

Resting on the ice of Baikal.

A brief respite before lunch.

Barefoot on the ice of Baikal.

Keeping blisters at bay Misha changes socks before lunch.

Soup on freezing lake Baikal, Siberia.

Hot soup is ready and in your belly almost simultaneously. Kesha and Vanya shovel their soup.

Lunch break on a mile deep trench of water.

Lunch break on a mile deep trench of water.

On naked ice, pulling sledges is pretty easy, as long as you have crampons, or poor man’s crampons, screws screwed into your boots. Soft-crusted snow is another matter demanding the pushing and pulling of multiple team members who continually interchange places as they get tired and take breaks. The Holy Nose rose far to the north, a marvelous mountainous peninsula of sacred significance second to and on the opposite shore of Olkhon. Olkhon imperceptibly creeps closer with every step. In the evening we finally find our long-awaited naked ice, which gives wings to our sledges. The first sledge makes Olkhon a good 45 minutes before we do. They set up a blinking beacon to guide the other sledges in and start a fire. A FIRE! I had been searching the shoreline for thirty minutes in anticipation of a campfire to zero in on. Finally flaming into sight, it gives my heart wings.

Island of mystery on Lake Baikal, Siberia.

The Island of mystery draws closer footfall by footfall.

Pressing for Olkhon island after sunset on the ice. Baikal.

Our path leads to Olkhon. The sun has set, and we’ve a pull ahead of us yet!

Campfire and stars over Olkhon island, Siberia.

The campfire and stars burn through the cold of Olkhon Island. Our tiny valley home on the island.

My down parka, as a rule rebuffs cold like an angry badger rebuffs house guests, yet while making camp, my veins become ice choked. After tent pitching I stumble all a shiver to the fire and hunker down to wait dinner. Hot chicken and pasta puts everyone in a fine mood; and we encircle the fire drying boots, pants, socks and whatnot, laughing into the wee hours.

Find Part 2 of this story here: “Retracing Baikal’s Ice Crucible” 

Firelight on frozen Olkhon island, Siberia.

This campfire made the 60 mile trans-Baikal trek worth it. Share a laugh with us!

The moon over our campfire on Olkhon island, Baikal.

The fool moon smiles on camp.

Expedition members on Baikal prepare for a long winter's night.

Expedition members prepare for a long winter’s night.

A Trek Across Baikal

The Angara is the only river that flows from Lake Baikal. Over three hundred flow in! Due to her currents, no matter how cold it be, the Angara does not freeze over for some way down river.

The Angara is the only river that flows from Lake Baikal. Over three hundred flow in! Due to her currents, no matter how cold it be, the Angara does not freeze over for some way down river.

Next week I will be attending a mens conference on Lake Baikal. After several days of manly camaraderie, we are going to cross from the East side of Baikal to the island of Olkhon on the West (Irkutsk) side. I am really looking forward to this, although it may be extremely windy and yes, . . . cold. It will take most of a day to cross. (And another to cross back!) I am hoping for pristine skies, multicolored sunrises and sunsets, and a billion stars in black velvet at night. I’ll share the adventure when I return. Prayers for the safety of all participants are gladly accepted and kindly requested.

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This will be our view as we make toward the Island of Olkhon. I have crossed Baikal on skis twice. The mountains seem to keep moving further into the distance even as you draw nearer.