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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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”