Her scream filled the hot and sticky air, lasting much longer than it should have compared to a normal leader fall. My finger was locked on the shutter, tracking the fall. First five, then 10, 20, 30 feet. Gear popped from the crack, slowing Erin momentarily before it spiraled down the rope, showering granite crystals as she cartwheeled 40 feet down the rock face to a final sickening thud. Only then did I take the camera from my eye, realizing one of my worst nightmares had come true. I had just photographed my friend’s death. It was the first lead of the trip.
Four years earlier I had been asked by a friend to edit his pictures from a month-long trip to Mongolia. I took one look at his images and portraits and decided I had to go. They sparked my imagination, capturing a place and people that still adhered to an ancient lifestyle. Remote lands without paved roads or power lines stretched into the distance. The people wore colorful garments and, raised under “The Land of Blue Skies,” had craggy, sunbeaten faces. I saw yurts and teepees, and behind them, large granite domes and walls. A year later I ran into a friend who had been living in China establishing a manufacturing facility for his U.S.-based company. On a one-week vacation, Andy Merriman and his wife, Holly, had visited a national park in Mongolia called Gorkhi-Terelj and put up a few first ascents. Andy mentioned that they wanted to put together a trip to go back. I committed, and started rounding up other confreres.
All hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah, our group of climbers consisted of mostly couples, with Jimmy Basler and myself the exceptions. Jimmy, an avid boulderer with a somewhat grumpy demeanor, was quick to voice his opinions, often causing others in the group to tease him mercilessly, but his quick wit usually left him the winner.
Ryan Gellert and his wife, Xiaomin, took on the role of trip parents. Aptly nicknamed “Gel-ert” for his addiction to hair products for his stylish red fro, Ryan kept everyone in place with well-timed, deadpan jokes. Xiaomin, originally from Yangzhou, China, served as a “cultural liaison,” making sure everybody took time out from climbing to sightsee and explore.
Andy and Holly Merriman were perplexing, as half the trip they were the perfect fit and the other half I thought Holly would, or at least should, kill Andy. A well-rounded climber, Andy was non-stop in both action and talking, providing the rest of the group with an endless supply of opportunities to laugh at his expense. Holly, a solid climber and excellent all-around athlete, was more introspective, but with a little vodka and Ryan’s jokes, she emitted a booming laugh the group lovingly named the “Holly Holla” that could be heard across the steppe.
Nick Rueff and Erin Bergey seemed to be on an adventure in young love. Nick and Erin have had a run of bad luck on trips, from climbing injuries to losing (without noticing) a roof rack with bikes still attached as they drove up the highway to Squamish. Nick, a serious boulderer, was to end up sending most of our boulder problems after we all failed. Erin, a nurse, was the trip medic, and a good trad climber with a serious demeanor, but she could be counted on to crack in sudden comedic outbursts.
After three days of travel, our crew of eight landed in Ulaanbaatar, or “UB,” the capital city of Mongolia. Carrying two large roller bags each and backpacks stuffed to the brim with climbing, camping and photo gear, we exited the airport, found our driver and interpreter, Myagmarsuren or “Miigaa,” and packed ourselves and our gear into a van heading into the city. UB is drab, with colorless plain buildings built in an efficient Communist style, without any differentiating flair or decoration. Local traffic seemed to defy all driving rules. Two-lane roads would often contain up to six lanes of traffic, and stoplights meant little, with pedestrians left to take their chances. Roads crisscrossed haphazardly and driving through town consisted of detour after detour through residential neighborhoods and apartment complexes. Colorful, sprawling shantytowns surrounded the city, and teemed with relative newcomers. With recent droughts and a bitterly cold winter, livestock killoff was up to 20 percent, putting many farm workers out of jobs and sending them to UB to look for work.
We spent the next day and a half grocery shopping, searching the black market for crash-pad foam to stuff the shells we had brought to avoid Air China’s excess baggage charges, brushes for cleaning new lines, and gifts for the families and kids in the remote regions we hoped to reach. The trip started off on the wrong foot for Erin, with one of her bags lost on the way over: She was obliged to spend several hundred dollars for new clothes, shoes, sleeping bag and other accessories.
Mention Mongolia and most Americans think of the fabled warlord Genghis Khan, or Chinggis Khaan as he is known in Mongolia. Born in 1162 as a Mongol, a member of one of the least powerful steppe tribes, he would go on to form one of the most powerful empires in history. Though Genghis Khan would be demonized throughout history as a ruthless conquerer, his leadership ushered in an era of great prosperity and innovation throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Genghis gathered tribes, cities and peoples together to form countries that exist even today, and helped create the borders of China, Russia, India and Korea. Genghis Khan created the first international postal system, started a regular census, granted unprecedented religious freedom to his subjects, created a universal system of law, abolished torture, granted diplomatic immunity for ambassadors and messengers of hostile nations, and re-established the Silk Route for trade. For over 150 years after his death, the Mongol empire thrived, although internal and external conflict finally ended its run.
In modern Mongolia, a country still actively tied to the past but rapidly adopting the future, Chinggis is a strong symbol of the history that ties the country together. Under socialism and Soviet influence from 1924 to 1989, Mongolians were forbidden to mention Chinggis’ name. Culturally significant sites such as his birthplace or rumored burial grounds were completely off limits and aggressively patrolled by the military. At the end of 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Mongolians saw an opportunity for change. In 1990 they revolted against the standing Mongolian People’s Republic and were able to move to a democratic system of government. Since then, Chinggis has re-appeared everywhere as a symbol, on vodka and beer labels and in restaurants, shops and monuments. Chinggis seems to be a reminder of renewed power, prosperity and dignity after years of oppression under socialism, an icon and symbol of the future, uniting everyone from city urbanites to shepherds in remote outposts.
Our first night in UB, we went to a recommended restaurant close to where we were staying. We were the only ones in the restaurant and although the staff was extremely friendly, three hours after ordering our food we had still only received one dish. In even the nicest restaurants, our orders were often mixed up. Although simple fare, the food was always tasty, usually consisting of lamb or beef flavored by vegetables and spices. Our favorites were the small meat dumplings called buzz, and khooshor, large fried dumplings.
Ready to strike off into the unknown, we piled into a UAZ-452, a Russian-made van that is the vehicle of choice for locals in remote areas. A cross between a 1970s Volkswagen bus and a Humvee, it can cover difficult terrain and is usually easy to repair. Our driver Miigaa was constantly tinkering with it in camp and we only had to stop a few times on the trip to fix problems.
In the States, the drive to the Khogno Khan Mountains might have only taken four or five hours, but Mongolia’s highways are narrow and littered with potholes, with long stretches of unpaved detours and many stops for animal crossings of all kinds: camels, yaks, sheep, goats and horses. Herding is one of the main sources of income for families in the countryside, and we quickly found that you could not take a step outside large cities without landing in sheep, cow, horse, camel or yak shit. Bones bleached white by the incessant sun littered the landscape, scattered by local dogs and giant birds of prey. Eagles, hawks, falcons and vultures scanned the steppe in search of recently dead or weak herd animals. Ranging in size from owls less than eight inches tall to vultures with up to 10-foot wingspans, raptors were everywhere, circling the skies or standing watch on the roadsides.
While stopped for dinner at a roadside eatery near Enderstat, one of our party asked where the bathroom was. The owner with a smirk pointed outside and just said, “Mongolia.” Bathrooms outside of UB varied from modern-style to rancid outhouses.
After finishing our meal, we filed outside, to see an older woman heading our way in the sweltering afternoon heat. Short and stooped, she was carrying a heavily duct-taped box. Arriving in front of us, she briefly smiled and opened the top of the box and we saw a small cooler stuffed with ice-cream bars. In less than a minute we had cleaned out her supply and she happily headed off back into the desert.
Eight hours after leaving Ulaanbaatar we arrived in the Khogno Khan valley, separated from the road by the Elsen Tasarkhai sand dunes. The valley below the Khogno Khan mountains consisted of a beautiful multi-colored steppe that is the result of farming attempts under socialism. Now only the rich golden colors and uniform patterns remained. Granite walls, domes and spires, the hillsides green with trees and brush, jutted abruptly above the steppes. We choose a “ger” camp surrounded on three sides by walls and boulders.
An iconic symbol of Mongolia, the ger, or yurt as it’s commonly called in the U.S., is the traditional home still used by a large percentage of the population. A round, squat structure made with an internal skeleton of wood, felt insulation and a canvas outer layer to protect it from the wind and rain, the ger is easily assembled and disassembled for travel. In a society where 30 to 40 percent of the population still lives a nomadic lifestyle, simplicity and the ability to move all your possessions quickly are key.
After a 10-minute negotiation, the camp staff “approved” us and we reached an agreeable price and began hauling our gear into our two gers.
Our morning began with a sunrise bouldering session just above camp. Holly quickly established the trip’s first boulder problem with a highball V3 as we searched the hillside for other boulder problems and the day’s routes. We settled on a section of cliff filled with interesting cracks, slabs and dihedrals. On the 25-minute hike up everyone began calling out to claim prospective climbs, and beta was rolling before we even reached the cliff. Holly and Erin chose a line that started with delicate face moves, then entered a left-leaning crack. Andy called for a direct line up a slab while Nick and I spied a short but photogenic arête. While racking up I asked Andy and Jimmy who had the drill? Everybody went quiet and we all looked at one another sheepishly.
Andy replied, “It’s in the van. We need to get it quick. Miigaa was talking about driving off to find some parts for the van.”
Nick and I decided we would hike down for the drill while everyone set up topropes to clean the lines. After a short time we reached camp, found the forgotten drill and made the first of many other mistakes. Without testing whether the battery was charged, we hiked back up the hill and I set off for the top of a striking arête to establish an anchor. After placing some gear, I rapelled off the edge, and pulled the trigger only to find the drill dead.
I yelled, “You morons brought a drill, but didn’t charge it first?”
Jimmy yelled back that he’d plugged it in two weeks ago and it should be fine.
“How did you charge it?” Andy asked him.
“What do you mean how did I charge it? I plugged it in while we were in China.” Instantly, Jimmy realized his mistake. “Shit!” China’s voltage difference had fried the charger.
After toproping their line a few times and talking among the group, Erin and Holly decided to try to send it while we had cloud cover, which would make for better photos.
Erin prepared to lead as her boyfriend, Nick, and I scrambled up the hillside to get a better vantage point, and Jimmy and Xiaomin hid from the oppressive sun in a small cleft. Erin climbed steadily up the wall, hiking the crux face moves, and reached the midway point on the climb, where it jogged left. After fiddling in some gear, she struck off into the undercling crack, blindly placing more gear. She had just put in a piece and started again when suddenly her feet popped, she fell and kept falling, and finally landed at Holly’s feet. Nick and I looked at each other, our stomachs churning, and dropped our cameras.
As I sprinted, flashes of thought appeared in my mind: helicopter evacuation, notifying her parents, visions of a fall six years earlier when my wife, Cheri, slid past me in a snowy couloir, rag-dolling off the cliffs below.
Would Erin have led the climb if I hadn’t been there with a camera? Did I push too much because the light was good?
We were surprised to arrive and see Erin sitting up talking with Holly. Amazingly, she showed no out-of-place bones, no blood and no sign of head trauma. Other than some scrapes, bruises and soreness, Erin seemed unscathed. Over the next 10 minutes, we went over the fall in detail, inspecting her gear, replaying the scene and reassuring ourselves that she was miraculously OK. The area’s large-grained granite apparently needed extra cleaning in order to hold a cam in a fall, an aspect that combined poorly with blind placements. Luckily her third cam had held long enough to absorb most of the fall before blowing when she was only about a foot off the ground.
Once things calmed down, I remembered my camera above. On the way up to retrieve it I debated whether I should delete the photos immediately or hold on to see what Erin thought. I was not sure I could even look at them. Once I got to my camera, the curiosity was overwhelming and I had to take a look. I only got a few frames into the fall and tears started flowing; a few more and I started to dry heave and could not look any further.
For better or worse, I decided to see what Erin and the others thought, and set out to rejoin everyone for the hike back to camp.
Not yet mentally ready to climb again, we decided to pack up and head to Karakorum, the 13th century capital of Mongolia, to seek an electrician to fix the drill charger and visit Erdene Zuu, one of the oldest surviving Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia. Starting in the late 1930s, the communist leader Khorloogin Choibalsan began systematic destruction of Buddhist monasteries, closing almost all of the 700-plus monasteries and killing somewhere between 10,000 to 18,000 lamas. Under government oppression and with many killed or fleeing, Buddhist monks went from an estimated 100,000 in the 1920s to only 110 in 1990. Once a democratic government was set in place in the 1990s and public religious practice was again allowed, the rebuilding of many of Mongolia’s monasteries began.
Karakorum reminded us of an old Western town but signs of rapid change were also present. Other than the paved main road, dirt roads were the norm, with dust storms constantly blowing through. Hitching posts stood in front of all the shops, horses and donkeys tied off while business was conducted inside by Mongolians dressed in deels: long oversized robes fitted at the waist and usually worn with wide, brightly colored sashes. More than half of the townspeople wore deels, but the others had modern clothing, many in fashionable attire such as stiletto heels and pencil skirts on the dirt streets. All the children seemed to have clothing featuring Mickey Mouse or other American cartoon characters. Satellite dishes and solar panels sat next to family gers. For every rider on horseback we saw two on motorcycles and at one point witnessed one herder rounding up his horses by motorbike.
Once introduced, people were friendly but otherwise remained disinterested in tourists. We spent the first afternoon in search of an electrician, finally finding one at the local cell-phone shop. In a corner of the shop, a young man with a small table overflowing with electrical equipment and parts listened quietly while Andy described to Miigaa what he thought was wrong with the drill and asked him to translate. When this seemed to go nowhere, Andy pulled out a sheet of paper and started drawing electrical diagrams. At this, the young man’s eyes sparkled and the two began passing the paper back and forth, each writing equations.
Andy looked at me and said excitedly, “He’s trying to test me to see if I know my shit.”
“Does he know his?” I asked.
“He’ll fix it, for sure!” said Andy. We stopped back in later that day and he had fixed the charger, but we found out that the battery had also been fried, obliterating any chance of using the drill the rest of the week.
After a day and a half in Karakorum we returned with new energy to the Khogno Khan to check out some boulders and possible splitter crack lines. Just a mile or so from our previous camp we found Eden Camp, in a small side canyon with a bubbling spring that kept the area green and lush. From this aptly named site we began to put up numerous boulder problems as well as two crack climbs on a formation just above camp. Mr. Baatarjav, the friendly owner of the camp, spoke no English but was intrigued by us and soon became a part of the group. We immediately liked him when, after we hauled our gear into camp, he pointed at Nick and asked, “Douche?” Knowing he was asking if Nick wanted a shower, we still took advantage of the moment and all chimed in, pointing at Nick, “Douche.” Taking a particular liking to Jimmy, he created a chant of “Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy” whenever he saw us and would check out our climbing gear, seemingly amused that we would travel all this way to climb rocks.
Erin was recovering quickly, but her luck turned again when she spent a day with food poisoning. Suffering through it all with an iron will, Erin came back from the stomach bug and began to toprope and boulder with the rest of the group and would go on to establish a route of her own as well as some proud boulder problems.
After a week in the Khogno Khan we had to head back to Ulaanbaatar to drop off Ryan and Xiaomin at the airport and try to see if we could find a new battery for the drill before heading to Gorkhi–Terelj National Park, where Andy and Holly had visited three years earlier. While in town we went to dinner with a friend of Andy’s and Holly’s who was doing forestry research in Mongolia. He brought along another American, William Gardner, a PhD student in archeology and an avid boulderer. We easily convinced Will to come with us to the Terelj. After a depressing search for a new battery or drill we were driving off dejectedly when Andy and Nick, both engineers, decided to try one last idea. We headed to the black market and purchased three 12-volt motorcycle batteries and an extension cord to hardwire to the drill, then were on our way again.
Unlike the Khogno Khan, Terelj was a lush forested area abounding with streams and rivers. Granite was everywhere and we had trouble just trying to decide what to climb. We finally settled on a camp next to the walls that the Merrimans had visited before. Right away the drill roared to life, and just above our ger camp we established one of our favorite routes from the trip, a bouldery line named Chinggis Gold, after what seemed to be Mongolia’s most popular (and the group’s favorite) vodka. Over the next week we put up six routes on the heavily featured granite, from one-pitch 5.12s to multi-pitch 5.8s featuring chickenheads, crystal knobs, vertical dikes and a host of other varied features. We continued to seek out crack lines but found most in the area to be shallow and flared, almost impossible to protect. At this point we were hesitant to work on many of these and favored the face climbs. Our final day we wrapped up the last few remaining routes, then visited a small monastery at the head of the valley. Situated at the base of large granite cliffs, and surrounded by an aspen forest, the Ariyapala meditation temple is guarded by a suspension bridge and a steep flight of stairs. Gleaming white on the hillside, the temple is decorated inside with bold, beautiful colors of every hue. Inside, the temple was cool and quiet, inviting introspection.
I entered by myself and wandered around, alone in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time. Statues, religious objects and painted scenes adorned the walls. I studied each one, wondering at its meaning and place. My mind drifted to how Erin walked away from a fall that should have killed her. Most people probably would have quit climbing after a similar experience, but two days later she was back at it. I had now witnessed two serious falls in my life—my wife’s six years earlier and now Erin’s—and in each one I saw death go empty-handed. After each one I wavered only to rejoin the rock shortly after. Why we come back to climbing after accidents or near tragedies is something I cannot begin to answer for someone else, but for me it was right here. Climbing has been my catalyst for travel all over the world, for friendships as strong as family, for a sense of freedom, if only for a few weeks, and for the sights, smells, tastes and memories that come from new experiences. I walked lightly back towards the intricately painted wooden doors, the creaks and groans of the hardwood floors the only sound to mark my passage, and rejoined the rest of the group outside.
Nathan Smith resides in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he can’t decide whether to go back to some of the amazing places he has visited or keep visiting new ones.
Getting there – Flights into Ulaanbaatar from the U.S. come from Beijing, China, and Seoul, South Korea. The flight can be as expensive as about $2,000 but within the country, food, lodging and travel are inexpensive.
Currency – Mongolia’s currency is the tögrög. It’s best to withdraw currency when you land in UB as you will not easily find an ATM elsewhere and credit cards are not commonly taken in the countryside. We each withdrew the equivalent of about $285 and that was enough for two weeks with food, lodging, transport and interpreter.
Supplies – Food and basic supplies can be found in UB at the state department store. You can usually find food in the small towns along the road although the selection is limited. If you are vegetarian, plan on getting all your food in UB.
For non-food items, try the black market, a giant “swap meet” open daily. Most vendors will have a calculator to show you the price of an item. Be prepared to barter. You can often get things for half their first listed price.
Even the most remote outpost is fully stocked with Chinggis vodka. Beer is harder to find outside larger cities. Our group bought out the beer supply multiple times with as little as two bottles or cans.
Gear – Bring everything you need as you cannot find climbing gear in Mongolia. The state department store in UB carries a limited selection of camping gear, but expect to pay two to three times what you might pay in the States.
Travel Guides – Although possible, it can be very difficult for outsiders to make their way around Mongolia without help. We used Mongolia Trekking and found them to be reasonably priced and very friendly.
Mongolia Trekking LLC. – Mr. Bold
Tel: (+976) 7013 7013
Camping and lodging 4Ger camps are easily spotted, with rows of gers in a small area and usually a larger building for the kitchens, showers, etc. Expect to pay around $5 US per person per night. Camping is generally OK almost anywhere in the countryside, but ask permission from the local residents first.
For Eden Camp in the Khogno Khan:
Website: (In French) www.horseback-mongolia.com
Tel: (+976) 9665 0111
Electricity – Outside UB electricity is not consistently available. Bring an inverter to plug into the car. Solar panels are very effective to keep cameras, iPods, etc charged. Bring extra fuel to offer the host to run a generator if you charge in camp.
Season – Although temps can vary, May through September are generally the warmest months.
In June, we experienced only five hours of complete darkness each night. Bring sunscreen but be ready for extreme swings in temperature. We went from roasting in shorts and T-shirts to wearing technical fabrics, fleece and down.
Photography – Outside the city, most people seem to like having their photos taken, but always ask, then show them the photo on the screen. If you can, have them write their addresses and send them prints. Don’t blow it for others and promise a photo, then not send it.
Guidebook – A small online guide created from this trip can be found at www.bdel.com/journal.
Other amenities – In UB, Caffe Amsterdam caters to a Western crowd. Expect to pay about twice the price as everywhere else for the “comfort” coffee, though. Nomads, an upper-scale restaurant, serves traditional Mongolian cuisine. Try the lamb with hot rocks, and the meat platter with horse, lamb and beef.