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ALTAI EXPEDITION, SIBERIA

Jenny Paterson and Paul Stoddart

Jenny Paterson Paul Stoddart Everyone was silent as the bus trundled down the broad, well-kept freeway from Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport into the city. We had, after all, started on a trip that had been planned and anticipated for months - in fact, a year, almost, to the day since I first spoke to Andrey Ershov about a possible expedition to Siberia - and we wanted to take in all the new sights on this, our first visit to Russia.

Members of the group were: Jennifer Barron, Betty Davis, Tunney Kirk and Kate McCallum (Cape Town Section); Christel Jost (Stellenbosch Section); Hannie Low (Amajuba Section) her friend Lies Muller (non-member), Paul Stoddart (former member of Johannesburg Section now resident in Australia), and me (Jenny, Johannesburg Section). In Moscow we were joined by Marina Ershova and Dr Alexey Shalaev our official guide; in Barnaul by Alexandr (Sasha) Parchin who was to be our "local" guide and Roma, our cook.

Our destination: the Altai Mountains, one of the major mountain systems of the Asian part of Russia. These mountains lie at the junction of Russian South Siberia, China and Mongolia. Their highest region is a maze of rugged, heavily glaciated alpine ranges, deep gorges, beautiful lakes and high plateaux - home to a variety of animals, including the endangered snow leopard.

There is no vehicular access beyond the village of Tyungur, which for us was a two day, 800 kilometre bus ride from Barnaul and thereafter a three day walk-in to the Akkem Lake where we were to set up base camp.

trekking with horses The Altai region derives its name from a Mongol word - altan - meaning "golden" and the morning we started walking was truly that. Under bright blue skies with cottonwool clouds, a warm sun shone on happy faces as we sat after breakfast awaiting the arrival of the horses that would transport our baggage to base camp. We set off with our day packs, heading up the Kucherla Valley and our horses going up the gentler Akkem Valley, happy in the knowledge that we would meet up with them again before sunset. We walked through glorious meadows and forests on paths next to the Katun River and were quickly introduced to the strawberries, blackcurrants and every other kind of berry that had the Russians foraging like squirrels at every bush and thicket!

And slowly but surely the white cottonwool clouds were turning into grey rain clouds that started dumping their contents during the course of the afternoon. Intermittent rain fell for the next two days. We ascended and descended paths thick with mud. My word, the mud! We slithered and slid; in mist, out of mist; eating, pitching and striking tents in rain and mist until we got to the Akkem Lake where again our wet tents were pitched in light drizzle with the threat of heavier rain to come. We were delighted at the prospect of the next day being a rest day and the thought of getting and staying out of our mud-encrusted pants was attractive. About 200 metres from camp, nestling in the forest, was a sauna (banya) and Marina promptly made a booking for us for later that night - it was a joyful experience and we wallowed for the entire hour allocated to us! For supper Roma prepared a delicious borscht. It was a cold first night but our sleeping bags had miraculously kept dry.

camp in the forest The gods were good to us the next day: it was spectacular. The sun shone brightly, the mountains surrounding the lake (which had been draped in mist when we arrived the previous day) were clear of mist and cloud and reached high up to the sky. In the distance was the awesome, beautiful, snow-topped, ice face of the Akkem Wall, nearly vertical and more than 1000m high, and what is called the Pic Delone-Belukha-Altai Crown cirque. Looking from left to right we stared at Delone (4070m), Belukha East (4506m) (one of our goals where we hoped to fly the South African flag for the first time), Belukha West (4460m) and Altai Crown (4167m) all shimmering like ice castles in the morning sun. On the right and closer to us was the dark mound of Bronya Peak (3250m), another of our goals. On the left was Karaoyuk (3950m) and in the centre running down to the lake the vast Akkem Glacier.

We awoke to yet another glorious day and were rowed across the lake to spend the day exploring the Yarlu Valley. When we could go no further up the valley, we elected to go up and over a benign-looking ridge dividing two valleys rather than retrace our steps - a ridge that turned out instead to be a steep, hairy pile of choss! Everyone made it to the top safely with only some loss of humour in the effort to get there.

The next day we set off to climb Bronya Peak. We headed up the beautiful Valley of Seven Lakes, past a succession of waterfalls until we got to the inevitable glacial moraine and ultimately the glacier itself, which was easy enough to cross. Then the scrambling began! Up scree, rocks, more scree and more rocks. Our backpacks were left at a lunch spot about halfway up and we eventually summited at 3.20 p.m. We enjoyed the spectacular views from the top, especially of Mt Belukha and the gargantuan Akkem Glacier. The retreat of the glacier is clearly visible from above; Sasha estimated that it is receding at a rate of up to 100m a year. We left a summit note under a rock and took heaps of photos. A South African first!

Akkem Lake and Bronya Peak A satisfied, happy group returned to base camp to find that Alexey had cooked us a celebratory dinner of plov, which was a pilaff based on wild goat that had been shot by our horse-driver. The delicious smell ensured that we were all early for dinner, which was served with great aplomb. A clean plastic table-cloth was spread across the table boards. We were formally requested by Alexey to "please be seated". Once seated, Sergei brought across this enormous cast iron skillet filled to the brim with food. Under Alexey's guidance and to our utter amazement Sergei upended the skillet and spilled the contents onto the table-cloth - to spontaneous applause. Alexey and Sergei each took up a large spoon and mixed the contents. It was truly delicious. It was a lighthearted meal, and we only became serious again when the "Mt Belukha summit team" started discussing logistics for the next day. Paul and I were silently hoping that the good weather would hold out, but this was not to be.

At about 9.30 a.m. the next morning Anton rowed us across the lake in the rickety old boat, aptly named "Akkem", as it let in water as fast as one baled it out! By walking around on the eastern shore we by-passed the mud of the west bank. This saved us from crossing the swiftly flowing river where it entered the lake. A torrent of glacial melt water, over a metre deep, is best avoided, even on a sunny Siberian summer's morning! We followed a well-marked path along the valley for about three kilometres until we reached the glacial moraine. This consists of an enormous heap of huge, jagged boulders, chiselled from the heights above by the forces of water and ice. From here it was steep going for two kilometres, with the rough path soon giving way to boulder-hopping. The route became a little easier once we reached Akkem Glacier, which we followed for a further three kilometres to Tomsk Bivouac (3200m), a very well constructed aluminium-clad wooden haven, as we were soon to find out. The storm clouds that had steadily been building up over the past few hours suddenly deepened and darkened and soon rain started pelting down. Thunder rolled all around us whilst the storm raged on furiously. Sleep was fitful that night... the wind howled and hit the hut like an unstoppable train.

I had decided not to continue beyond this point and nor would Betty. On going outside the next morning, I knew (despite being deeply disappointed) that I had made the right decision as it had started snowing during the night and a fresh covering of snow was all around, the wind was still blowing gales and there was no doubt that the storm would continue that day - which it did, and only blew itself out during the night.

We awoke next morning to a glorious day: bright, crisp blue skies and wispy white clouds scurrying about. After a quick breakfast, Betty and I set off to return to base camp.

Mt. Belukha and Akkem Wall Paul takes up the story:
During a break in the weather, we left Tomsk Bivouac and walked eastward up Akkem Glacier to the headwall that forms Delone Pass, with Delone Peak and Belukha to the south. Delone Pass requires six pitches of ice climbing at an easy grade (on an angle of about 45) with good protection from ice screws. We proceeded south for about one kilometre across the glacier before starting up the long slope that leads to TKT Pass (pronounced Tickatay). At the first major plateau (Berilsky Saddle - 3520m), about 300 metres above Mensu Glacier, we set up camp. A higher campsite was rejected because of deteriorating weather, and we settled into our tents from about 4 p.m.

Next morning we checked the weather for an early start but decided to wait. Several inches of snow had fallen during the night. At 9 a.m. we started up towards TKT Pass in white-out conditions, but turned back after half an hour when visibility remained poor. I found the fresh snow quite disconcerting, as it very effectively hid several nearby crevasses that I'd noticed the day before.

The weather next morning was partly cloudy but visibility was good, so we started at 6 a.m. and, with the Russians setting a typically cracking pace, we soon reached the alternative high camp below TKT Pass. Set in a dramatic cirque, this looked quite comfortable, with waist-high walls of compacted snow protecting the tent-sites. At this point we put on crampons and climbed a crevassed snow slope directly towards the ridge to the north of TKT Pass. This route, called Beluchinsky Pass, provides a more direct - although steeper -route to the summit. The final ascent to gain the ridge requires just over two pitches of ice climbing with poor protection from ice axe and ice screw belays (the slope was again about 45). Once on the ridge, there was another 200 metres of height to be gained on mixed rock and ice to the summit. This was technically quite easy, but was made difficult by the cold, gusting wind. We reached the summit at 12.30 p.m. on Friday, 23 August 2002. Unfortunately the visibility was poor, with only an occasional glimpse of the neighbouring peaks through the cloud. The temperature on the summit was -5 C, but we estimated about -25 C with wind chill (for a 60 kilometre per hour wind). The gusts could have been up to 90 kph. We left a summit note in the aluminium canister, took photographs and returned to camp by 2 p.m. The view opened up on the descent, with a fantastic vista out over Mensu Glacier (the longest in the Altai range) and into the unexplored valleys to the south. We returned to base camp by the same route down the Akkem Glacier. Rather than take our chances on finding the boat, Sasha led us to a cable slung across the river. The icy torrent was now only waist high and, by walking fast, the pain only struck me when I was halfway across. The communal attitude of Russian mountaineers was evident from the abundant collection of damp, abandoned takkies lying around. By hurling these tatty wretches back over the river after each crossing, we all managed to keep our boots dry and our feet intact.

I found the climb a fantastic introduction to snow and ice conditions and was particularly fortunate to be accompanied by three extremely strong and experienced mountaineers. There had clearly been a misunderstanding at some point, and Sasha seemed relieved afterwards to discover that I was inexperienced rather than plain clumsy. Whatever the case, I was thrilled to accept an ice screw as a memento of the first South African ascent. The range also offers scope for many more challenging routes, particularly on the huge Akkem Wall above Tomsk Bivouac.

Jenny continues with the story:
The successful summit team returned to camp amidst huge excitement!

Shepherd's Hut Later that afternoon Alexey broke the news that there were no horses to take out our baggage the next day. The last of the horses had left the valley the day before and we would have to carry our stuff down in stages. We left the next morning, carrying backpacks of varying weight. Our camp that night was in amongst the trees beside the Akkem River and we soon became used to the noise of the rushing water. Our path the next day continued through the thick forest and then eventually into some beautiful, wide meadows with an abundance of wild flowers. The trees were beautiful as the leaves were rapidly changing to glorious autumn colours. We stopped at a hut which we named Shepherd's Hut to have shelter for the night should the horses not arrive! We all gathered firewood and Alexey cooked up a delicious meal of gerikha (boiled barley) to which was added bully beef, onion and spices.

The horses did not arrive.

It was a cold night, sleep was fitful, but everyone took it in the same spirit of adventure as they had been doing all along.

The horses did eventually catch up with us in Tyungur late the following afternoon - in answer to our prayers that this would happen before we left by bus for Barnaul. We had walked to the local general dealer's store and had bought some wine, beer and vodka so were quite relaxed about both the horses and our baggage. We returned to Barnaul, covering the full distance in one day and it was with some nostalgia that we said goodbye to Sasha and Anton the next morning at the airport.

The next few days were spent in Moscow and St Petersburg doing the tourist thing. We bade another nostalgic farewell to Paul at the hotel, and Andrey and Marina who saw us off at the main train station. Another highlight of our trip, for me, was surely the sleeper train to and from St Petersburg. What a delight before the inevitable killing of time in airports, waiting for the planes that would ultimately bring us back to South Africa - filled with indelible memories of this wonderful experience!

photos: Jenny Paterson and Tunney Kirk

To see more photos from our South African Altay - 2002 expedition, please, click here .

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