The chainsaw sliced through the ice creating perfect blocks, slotted around the poles like a Lego construction. The start line was up! I had flown thousands of kilometres from home to reach the provincial town of Moron in northern Mongolia, and then by bus and car north to the small town of Khanke on the border with Russia. Now, while I tested out my crampons, and others strapped on their ice skates or bike snow tyres - often for the first time - an assembly line of talented ice construction-workers built the frame for the starting arch. Bemused locals chuckled as we interrupted their otherwise peaceful ice fishing to take photos of the deep holes they had drilled, and their catch - another first, certainly for me. And a couple of the slightly more adventurous tried out the dash from the sauna into the icy lake.
Six months earlier, browsing the internet in search of my next adventure, I came across an ad for the Mongol 100. Billed as "the most surreal, audacious and hauntingly beautiful adventure challenge known to Man," I was instantly attracted to the spectacular images of black ice and remote campsites. The recent challenges I had undertaken were in desert environments, and the contrast of a location that could be as cold as minus 40 degrees was stark and appealing. And so I signed up, and pulled out the map of the route.
Lake Khovsgol was formed over 2 million years ago and is one of 17 ancient primeval lakes on Earth. It is a protected remote wilderness area bounded by ancient boreal forest, where wolves and reindeer roam. The lake itself contains 70% of the freshwater of Mongolia and 1% of the entire global supply of fresh water; it is the purest fresh water on Earth. At this time of year it is frozen - solidly frozen - to a depth of approximately two metres. The Lake is considered sacred and you cannot camp on it, so the challenge route criss-crosses the Lake as you move south, for a total distance of approximately 100 miles (160kms) over four days.
We were up before dawn for the start; balaclavas protecting our faces from the cold morning air. Continuously moving as we waited for the countdown, to keep the cold radiating from the ice through two pairs of thick merino socks and into my toes. We were strangers enthusiastically hugging each other and sharing best wishes for the unknown ahead.
And we were off!
I am a self-confessed plodder: steady, focused, but definitely not fast. I enjoy the challenge, but also absorbing every moment of the scenery. And there was so much to see! Smooth black ice, sharp protruding ice like window-glass, snow covered sections with intricate snowflakes, and everything in between. Snow-capped mountains to the west, thick forest to the east, and the occasional local vehicle, steaming along the "ice highway" to Russia. Every 10kms was a checkpoint, manned by enthusiastic local and international volunteers, providing hot tea, energy bars and all-important hugs. And behind the checkpoint vehicle, a bucket and bag toileting arrangement, to preserve the pristine lake environment if not the modesty of the challengers.
As the day went on we became quite spread out along the route, with the skaters, fat bike and sub-4hr marathoners far away in the distance. The safety “vehicles” were sleds pulled by Mongolian horses; short, squat animals with bells attached to their manes that could be heard approaching for miles. I heard a rumour, never substantiated, that anyone that needed a lift on the sled would be warmed up with felt blankets and a shot of vodka.
And at the end of the stage we reached the bank of the lake, where the amazing local team had set up a series of gers and a built a massive campfire, surrounded by ice cut from the lake for fire safety. The sunsets here were truly spectacular; pinks and oranges against the white of the ice, eventually replaced by an ink sky of a million stars. Foot inspection determined what I had feared – that my heavy-duty crampons were inhibiting the movement in my forefoot, resulting in massive pressure blisters. It was a problem shared by those of us with this model, while those with the smaller crampons had fared much better. Fortunately, as a crampon novice, I had also brought the smaller ones and changed over to them for the remainder of the event.
Exhausted, we collapsed into the warmth of the Mongolian ger - a perfectly environmentally adapted round felt tent, with a wood-burning stove in the centre to keep the cold at bay. Eight challengers to a ger, plus three local volunteers, our ‘fire fairies’, who stoked the fire during the night as the temperature dropped to minus 25 degrees.
Day 3 was my low point. The 42km leg started with a long, technical, ankle-breaking section over uneven and sharp ice. Technical terrain is definitely not my strong point and the concentration required sapped my already depleted energy. Finally out onto the black smooth ice after more than 2hrs, I still had over 36kms to go. I think hitting a low point is inevitable in this kind of event, and for me, reaching this point and what I choose to do with it is part of the reason that I come. This is the point where I need to battle my inner-most and deeply held beliefs about my self-worth. That I am too fat, too unathletic, too stupid. That I was an idiot to think I could do this. That I don’t belong here, in this place, with these people. Where I must work hard to cultivate the ability to get out of my own head and just keep moving forward. After all, as a friend once told me, walking is just one foot in front of the other.
As the sun commenced its descent behind the mountains, the campsite was still nowhere to be seen. But as I reached the last few kilometres I was joined by others: one then two, then three and four. Seeing me from the campsite perched high on the bank, they had come to help me over the line. As I made the final ascent, they gathered at the stage finish, these friends of a mere five days, making a human tunnel to welcome me home. And bringing me a beer. There is no greater sense of belonging.
We gathered after the challenge to celebrate in a large ger in the town of Khatgal. Vodka flowed freely as we thanked the team of local and international staff who had got us across the lake. We were each gifted a carved reindeer antler from the local Tsaiga people as a momento of our time here. And we followed the local tradition of passing the sheep-skin, to collect money and other gifts to be shared among the drivers and camp helpers. None of us wanted this time to end.
It is a very long way to travel for a challenge. But nowhere else is like this place. The crisp air, the endless patterns in the ice, the smoky gers. Awaking to find wolf footprints in the snow. Sharing a laugh and a feast with people with whom I can only communicate through (usually unsuccessful) charades. Crossing ice in a 2WD vehicle, and watching as fires are lit beneath the engine in the morning to warm it sufficiently to start. And sharing all this with the most inclusive, positive people from around the world. I can’t wait to go back.
In 2020, the Mongol 100 will be held on 1-8 March. See: https://ratracebucketlist.com/mongol100/
Originally published in Travel Play Live Magazine, July 2019
Photos: Leo Francis Photography