Of Beasts and Blizzards

In the middle of the night a sharp-nosed creature nudged me awake from the other side of the tent wall, whining and pressing insistently against my ribs. Sleep dissipated slowly, and then abruptly. The sharp-nosed animal was the wind. The whine was the sound it made as it poured over the 600 foot walls of the bowl in which we were huddled, and hurtled itself into the tent, bowing the wall into my side and clawing at the guylines. Beneath the whine was another sound, crystalline, that replaced the round patter of the rain to which I’d fallen asleep.

Snow.

It was August 18th, and we were camped at 8500 feet after three days of leisurely hiking south along the Hoid Tamir valley and then west and up into the first of the high peaks of the Khangai. This little swath of mountains, the easternmost on the wolverine snow map, is barely tall or rugged by mountaineering standards; skirted by steppe meadows and then pine and larch forests along the lower slopes, the higher reaches of the arc give way to a maze of pika-filled boulder fields and nearly-impassable willow groves along creek banks and then, higher still, a wasteland of shattered talus that would make the peaks and passes themselves difficult to traverse with a heavy pack. Still, lakes dotted the high bowls and made good camping spots along the way, and we only had to reach about 9000 feet before we would begin to wind our way down into the Chuluut valley. I’d worried about the talus, I’d prepared for bad weather, but I hadn’t anticipated the blizzard that greeted us as day four dawned.

The Hoid Tamir River, Arkhangai Aimag

The herders who had waved us to their gers and given us tea and yogurt as we made our way upriver had talked about the rainy summer – a fat summer for livestock, a year that added wealth to the herding economy. In each ger where we stopped, strings of aruul and byaslag – dried yogurt and cheese – hung thick from the poles, while heaps of urum – clotted cream – sat on tables, and cow stomachs full of shar tos – clarified butter – lined the walls. The yaks and cows gleamed fat and sleek, the sheep and goats gamboled, the dogs were well-fed enough to wag friendly tails even through their barking, and the horses, tossing manes and lifting their hooves high, trotted towards us across the floodplain, stopped, stared, edged a few steps closer, a few steps closer still, until we stopped; and then they bolted, only to circle around to flirt with us again. In past years, with drought and harsh winters, lethargic animals standing among the bones of their herdmates in dead brown pastures had been a standard sight, so all the lush green grass and sleek animal life of this summer were heartening. But it wasn’t lost on me that in the first day we walked through one rainstorm and sat out another in a ger where a short and extremely drunk man butchered a goat at our feet; thunder rattled and the rain pelted down and the man shouted at us – perhaps because he was drunk, perhaps because the rain was loud, perhaps because we were foreigners and he believed we would understand him better at higher volume – that we should stay right where we were because the storm was ferocious. I wondered how long it would be before it started snowing up high.

On the second day the chill edge in the air and the clouds wedged up against the ranges on either side of the valley were cautionary, but the third day rose clear, with nothing but a bank of high wispy clouds to the east. We made our way up through the drainage of the Shivertiin River – in the US, we would probably call it a creek – towards a lake cradled in a high bowl below the peak of Shivertiin Uul. I’d been back here in 2010 and a family of herders had claimed that their dog had killed a female wolverine in this drainage during the winter. Unlike the valley of the much bigger Hoid Tamir below, the Shivertiin drainage was deserted in the summer, a narrow horse trail and scattered winter outbuildings along the lower reaches the only sign of human use. We could see the higher peaks on both sides of the valley now, Khan Ondor to the east, Shivertiin above us. Khan Ondor means “Khan’s Height.” Shivert, however, eluded me; the name, along with an apparent variation Shivee, occurs in ranges across Mongolia but I’ve never found a definition in a dictionary and no one has ever been able to explain the meaning.

Whatever it meant, the going was a challenge, with a 2000 foot elevation gain over about three miles. At around 7500 feet, we dropped over a lip of earth and then began to climb again; the terrain shifted from forest steppe downstream of the lip, to alternating fields of boulder-sized talus and thickets of willow as we pushed upstream. The cliffs grew nearer. The sky grew darker.

A half mile from the lake, the clouds opened up. We arrived in the bowl bruised by the talus, scratched by the willows, and damp despite our rain gear; bushwhacking through the shrubs, my gore-tex boots, otherwise infallible, had gotten soaked. We pitched a hasty camp. The rain defeated attempts to start a fire, and we crawled into our sleeping bags without dinner, colder than was strictly comfortable. I was worried about my boots, but fell asleep warm and dry and feeling secure.

Then at 3 a.m. the snowstorm prowled down off the cliffs and for an hour, as the wind bayed and the tent shuddered and cowered around us, when I knew but didn’t say that it was snowing instead of raining, when in the blur of half sleep it seemed like the sun might never come back and we might be blown off the mountain into an infinite, frigid night, I was scared. I haven’t been scared in that way for a very long time; a monster-under-the-bed, something-out-there-in-the-dark-is-waiting-to-get-me fear. I thought about what we would do if something did happen to the tent – a sturdy, three-season mountaineering tent, designed for serious conditions, it nevertheless seemed a frail creature before the swatting paw of the storm. I laid out my headlamp and put in my contacts and mentally located my jacket and gloves. I thought about my soaked boots. I thought about how to instruct Marissa on getting back down below the lip of the boulder field if my feet froze and I couldn’t make it.

The sky grew light and the fear dissipated, although the clouds and the snow did not. In daylight, it was just an August snowstorm, but we were still stuck. Going back down through those boulder fields would have been more risky in the whiteout than staying put, even without frozen boots. Marissa seemed incredibly calm, lying in her sleeping bag. I read a novel and, at one point, opening the tent flap to the whirl of white, made a dry comment about how wolverine research always involved near-death experiences. The litany of wolverine-related adventures is long, shading frequently into misadventure, and the nod to near-death experience is a sort of half-ironic, half-protective mantra invoked at the point where things become moderately exasperating, in hopes of telling the powers-that-be that we take the point, that wolverines must be respected for their tricksterish natures, and that we have no need of intensified reminders. None of the misadventures has ever actually been dangerous. I tossed my words out to the wind in ritual offering, and zipped the tent closed.

By noon the next day, the sky opened to the east, and we could see across to Khan Ondor, now as white and fierce as our own bowl. Going up over Shivertiin Uul to Chuluut was out of the question, so we broke camp and headed back down, wet boots and all. The snow was still falling intermittently, but not as fiercely as the day before. The talus fields were trickier than they had been on the way up, snow masking holes and making the rocks slippery. The trek down through the rocks felt like some evil Greek myth, Sisyphus’ boulder rolled perpetually before us and multiplied, again and again, into a thousand treacherous duplicates underfoot.

Then, at our feet, a familiar pattern, a loping stream of four-toed canid tracks, palm’s breadth, leading up the mountain, and showing us a reliable path back down. We backtracked the prints through the thinning snow, losing them here and there but always picking them up again. The tracks were small by Yellowstone standards – at home, these could have belonged to a large coyote – but here they could only be those of Tengeriin Nokhoi, Heaven’s Dog – the wolf.

Further down, another set of tracks appeared. These were headed downhill instead of up, and had been made by a lighter animal than the wolf; the animal had been heavy enough to depress and break the crust around the tracks, but not heavy enough to punch through the hardened snow. The imprints were faint but the tracks were as large as those of the wolf, and in a few places five widespread toes seemed to arc out around the edges. The trail among the boulders and thickets was too short to determine a gait; the tracks disappeared into the snowless ground beneath a sheltering larch and I couldn’t find them again anywhere nearby. Beneath the tree, a patch of overturned earth suggested that the animal had spent a few minutes digging before moving on.

The tracks were too obscure to call for certain, but the possible five toes and the size were intriguing, especially in combination with herder reports of wolverines in the drainage, elk and deer sign that we’d seen earlier, the abundant pikas and the huge talus fields, and the now-very-evident presence of large quantities of snow. The fifth toe on some of the tracks might have been an illusion, the tracks might have belonged to a very large hare, but wolverine was not out of the question.

Alpine pika in a boulder field on Shivertiin Uul.

By the time we reached the lip of the boulder fields, the snow had stopped falling and had almost disappeared from underfoot as well. We camped early to give our things time to dry, and ate macaroni and cheese and packets of instant borsch from Russia. It became clear that what I had taken as calm on Marissa’s part as she lay quietly in her sleeping bag had actually been fear – that she had been, reasonably enough, freaked out by the snow and that, in addition, she had taken my deadpan comment about near-death experiences literally. She had thought I was telling her that we were about to die.

Chagrined at my failure to be reassuring, I asked what she wanted to do. I would have probably waited another day and gone over, or else dropped back down and skirted around the range to Chuluut – we had more than enough food, since I had packed a week’s worth of dehydrated camping meals in addition to our provisions of multiple kilos of borts – dried meat – and pasta and soups and oatmeal and cheese and salami – but I didn’t want to push it. We elected to head back to the aimag capital, Tsetserleg, and decide what to do from there. When we got back two days later, the town was abuzz with talk of the freak snowstorm and cold spell that had blanketed the Khangai all the way northwest to Tariat – the entire first half of our route.

The on-going storms in the eastern Khangai and uncertainty over conditions further to the west concerned us enough to elect in favor of caution. I’m not interested in dragging inexperienced hikers into situations that might put them off backpacking altogether. I was deeply disappointed as we headed back to Ulaanbaatar, but the brief time that we did spend in the field indicated, from the amount of wildlife sign and the unique perspective that a walking pace permits, that the trek would be worthwhile for research purposes. The maps were reliable, the people we met friendly, and the terrain was challenging enough to be interesting without being problematic. So for now, the plan is to take up the trek again next summer.

In the meantime, I found, in a small dictionary, the verb shivrekh, which means “to drizzle,” or “to spit,” and, in another dictionary, an indication that shivee refers to things that are perforated – for example, gigantic boulder fields with their numerous holes into which the unwary foot can slip. Shivee also refers to a sort of plant that grows in the Khangai, and to a structure, tipi-like, that is made of wood. And also, as a woman in Tsetserleg informed me, to smelly feet. All of these are potentially relevant to our experiences up there on the mountain, an entity which, as Mongolians would probably be quick to reiterate, is a creature in its own right, alive and as mercurial as any of the tricksters, human or otherwise, that haunt its slopes and pay their respects to its powers.

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9 thoughts on “Of Beasts and Blizzards

  1. Awesome. Just for now though I’d at least like to note that I’m not put off on backpacking at all, looking forward to another adventure soon! But yeah I was definitely really afraid we might not make it out… I would say that my calm was mostly a state of hyperawareness: “don’t make any mistakes.” My boots stayed dry, so I was surprised and very concerned when I learned that Rebecca’s had gotten wet inside. I was also pretty concerned about getting caught in something on the way down because my pants were not waterproof or insulated.

    • I definitely don’t think you’ve been put off backpacking, I just didn’t want to push you to a point where you were 🙂

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