In “Forgotten First Ascents,” Owen Clarke is digging up cool climbs from the past and talking to the climbers who made them happen. This week: The Bombadorj Arete, Mongolia, 2002.
For a time back in 2002, the hardest route in Mongolia wasn’t a 60-foot pumpy sport burner—as it soon would be—but a 1,600-foot big wall, put up by Americans Steve Schneider, Heather Baer and Shawn Chartrand.
Schneider, an old-school Yosemite pioneer with speed records and several El Cap free ascents to his name, met Chartrand at the now defunct Marmot Mountain Works in Berkeley. As climbers do, they began talking about climbing trips. Chartrand had been to Mongolia twice with the Peace Corps, but had always wanted to return to climb.
Schneider was intrigued, so the pair teamed up and drafted a grant proposal. They received the American Alpine Club’s Lyman Spitzer Cutting Edge Award.
“It was the first and probably last I’ll ever get awarded,” said Schneider, laughing. “We got like $3,000 though, so we shot over there to check it out.”
His team, made up of himself, his wife Heather Baer, Chartrand, Mike Strassman and Jackie Carroll, flew into Mongolia’s capital, Ullanbaatar, then drove west in a jeep to the small town of Uliastai, a journey that took four days. Uliastai sits just to the west of Otgontenger (12,812 feet), the tallest peak in Central Mongolia’s Khangai range, and the mountain holding the target of their proposed climb.
They made a base camp near Uliastai, and stayed with local nomad shepherds. Chartrand knew some rudimentary Mongolian from his Peace Corps days, but his Mongolian was a dialect spoken near the Kyrgyzstan border, so it wasn’t always useful. Though they could only barely communicate verbally with the locals, the climbers connected with their hosts in other ways.
“There was this one shepherd, Bombadorj. He didn’t speak a word of English, but he played chess,” said Schneider. “We were really evenly matched and we had an absolute war every day at base camp, just trying to get each other’s pawns. We couldn’t speak to each other, but we really bonded through that game.”
A nomad, Bombadorj came with his family to the high country each summer and set up his yurt. He had a dozen camels that he would let loose to mate and graze all summer long. “From base camp we could look like four miles up the valley with our binoculars and see the camels all frolicking around,” said Schneider, “it was really cool.” When winter came, Bombadorj would take the camels back in, load his family and his yurt onto the camels and head down to the lowlands again. With a herd of that size, Bombadorj was a fairly rich man by local standards.
He and the other shepherds treated the climbers like family. “They’d give you their last bite of food if you showed up hungry… not that we were happy eating their food,” Schneider added. “Our stomachs couldn’t handle it, so we mostly cooked for ourselves.”
Though the team’s grant was for a new route on the nearby Otgontenger, their hopes were dashed on sight. “We’d heard about this beautiful granite face on the mountain, but when we got there we saw it was basically a big rubble pile,” said Schneider. Undeterred, they pivoted and began scouring the area for a new objective. In a nearby valley, known locally as Brownsmoke Valley, the team found a solid line up a prominent arete. Another two hours of scrambling brought them to the base of the climb.
The five split up into two groups, with Carroll and Strassman taking an easier line to the summit (The Lite Path 5.10a), finishing in one day.
Schneider, Baer and Chartrand attempted a more direct, difficult route up the main ridge. Chartrand was recovering from a back injury, however, and riding in on the horses was rough on him. The majority of the route went down quickly, but the crux pitches proved to be extremely runout. Schneider described the crux as a “Red Zinger-esque thin crack, kind of on a slab. It was super dangerous, super scary,” said Schneider. “You’re way in the backcountry, and I was looking at a forty-footer, where the least I would do is break a leg.”
It became clear they would have to return a second day to add a few bolts to soften the route down to a more manageable PG protection rating. Unfortunately, this meant going through another grueling approach and descent. “My wife was saying we could just come off the main ridge, finish the line easy and not have to go back and get bolts, to make it easier on Shawn,” said Schneider. This decision was the hardest part of the expedition, he admitted, “but I was adamant that we hadn’t traveled halfway across the globe to do the lighter route. We knew we had the line, and we knew it was the best route in the valley.”
So the trio returned a second day, this time on horses. The journey entailed a four hour horseback ride from base camp to the foot of the talus slope, then another two hours of scrambling. Schneider drilled five bolts to protect the two 5.11d crux pitches, and all three topped out together, despite Chartrand’s injury. They named the prominent line The Bombadorj Arete, after the chess-playing nomad they stayed with at base camp.
They went on to bolt a 5.12a, Welcome to Mongolia, in Gorkhi Terelj National Park an hour northeast of Ulaanbaatar. In Terelj, they met with the Mongolian National Climbing Team, and in partnership with the Alex Lowe Foundation, Schneider helped them train in speed climbing for the upcoming Asian X Games. Welcome to Mongolia (which then became the new hardest route in Mongolia), went up right next to the team’s speed climbing practice route—which for some reason was an offwidth. “I’d never seen that before,” Schneider said, laughing. After four tries, he managed to beat the Mongolians’ best time.
“They just didn’t have the training culture yet,” he said. “They were at the very beginning of the climbing learning curve, but eager and happy to learn. So for them, [Welcome to Mongolia] was perfect in every way. It was right up front and center, next to the routes they were doing every day. It felt really good to leave them with a route like that.”
For their efforts, the Americans were awarded Mongolian Medals of Sport in Climbing/Mountaineering, numbers 29, 30 and 31. “It was a precious treat,” said Schneider.
Naturally, many harder routes have been put up in the region since Schneider and Co. took down Bombadorj nearly 20 years ago, but the experience meant more to him than the difficulty of the line. “First ascents, particularly back then, a large part of the adventure was just going in and trying to figure stuff out. Finding transport, finding something climbable, and switching plans when it doesn’t go your way,” he said. “That’s an experience you don’t find nearly as often anymore.”
The changes that have taken place in the climbing world in the last two decades are a mixed bag, as he sees it. The vast amount of information available online about climbs anywhere in the world, the instant mapping and connectivity, has changed the game.
“I’ve had partners Instagramming when we were doing a wall. I didn’t even know what Instagram was,” he said, “but that’s cool. This guy’s just psyched to be doing a big wall, and he’s Instagramming himself so he can get the most value from his adventure.”
With the increased popularity of gyms, the fame of figures like Alex Honnold, and the growing spotlight on competition climbing with the upcoming Olympics, however, Schneider feels some things have been lost. “You don’t have a lot of the history preserved,” he said. “It seems like people don’t know who their pioneers were. They come out of the gym and go outside, and they really don’t know about what went on before them. It’s important to know your roots, to know where the sport comes from.”
Owen Clarke, 23, is a climber and writer based in Alabama. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fresh fish tacos. He is afraid of heights. Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.