Back in March of 2013, five Americans got on a plane in Montana and flew to Mongolia to undertake a massive ski transect through the mountains that surround the Darhad Valley. We got scolded for our loud enthusiasm as we pored over maps on the 6:00 am flight out of Bozeman – apparently the hour was too early for our fellow fliers to deal with people talking about skiing for weeks in search of wolverines. We were pretty excited, and that excitement was audible.
Over the course of the ensuing month, we slogged through 230 miles of unconsolidated snow, often knee-to-thigh-deep. We were constantly hungry, and often uncomfortably cold. We dealt with some major group dynamic issues. I struggled for the first week with the weight of the pack, fell down a lot, and even cried once or twice. I got frostbite on my foot, my entire face peeled off (probably also some kind of frostbite, but who knows), and changed clothes only twice in 23 days. My friend lost about thirty pounds and spent much of the expedition gazing longingly at a single pack of fritos that he’d brought along and managed not to indulge in until our final day in the field. We all fell through the ice crossing a river as we emerged from the mountains, and were only saved from more misery and frostbite by the fact that we crawled out next to the ger of a local doctor, who promptly took us in and warmed us up.
In the midst of the trip, I had a half hour of abject terror trying to connect with my family, almost all of whom had been at the finish line of the Boston Marathon when the bombs went off. I spent much of the rest of the trip in a haze of anger over an attack on my hometown and on an event that was closely tied to my family and an extended group of friends. The trip was physically and emotionally taxing at levels I’d never dealt with before. I got back to Ulaanbaatar and didn’t leave the guest house for days, except to go out and buy a bottle of vodka, which my friend and I consumed in one sitting as we decompressed. I don’t even drink, most of the time. That’s how bad it was.
Six weeks after we emerged from the field, I was busy planning the next trip. It would have to be a few years out, part of a long-term monitoring program, and, in fact, it would be most helpful and useful to wolverine research if I could replicate this insane expedition once every three to five years until I died. Those were my thoughts on the matter c. June of 2013, as I mapped out fundraising plans for future expeditions. I knew it would happen; it was only a matter of when. And whether or not I could trick a few more people into coming with me on the pretense of an exciting trip.
The ski trip, my students informed me last summer, was what is known as “type two fun” – the kind of fun that is only fun in retrospect, and mostly taxing while happening. Most of the fun I’ve had in my life has been, I’m pretty sure, type two fun. Type two fun is probably the hallmark of wolverine research, in fact, and getting into and out of a type two situation is one of the big initiation rituals of the aspiring wolverine biologist. Those with a particularly scientific turn of mind might hypothesize that everyone involved in wolverine field research has at least a slight masochistic streak.
Regardless, I’m now in Ulaanbaatar with a team of four friends, about to embark on the second wolverine ski transect through the Darhad – round two of type two fun for all. We’re starting in a better place in several respects – no bad group dynamics, I’ve done the trip before and know what to expect, and I’ve spent a lot more time in the region in the ensuing years. On the other hand, this year the snowpack is rumored to be much shallower, and Tumursukh Jal, the director of the three parks where we’ll be skiing, is concerned that we’ll be hiking a lot of the way. Our border permit, due to a typo at the border office, was issued for a soum several hundred kilometers to the east, and can’t be fixed until we arrive in Murun, so that’s another point of anxiety. And my pack feels like it weighs 70 pounds, because our first hitch, through Ulaan Taiga Strictly Protected Area, is nine days – which is a pretty brutal way to start, especially if you were counting on the first week as a gentle aid to training because your last month in the US was so crazy and so frigid that you barely got outside, let alone engaged in anything that might really count as getting in shape. So that’s yet another note of concern.
But after several days of 50 F weather (which, for the record, was approximately 70 degrees warmer than the weather in Montana the week before I left….) the temperature in Ulaanbaatar dropped again last night, and tonight the Bogd Khan Uul, the mountains to the south of the city, were brushed with snow. So things are looking up.
Tomorrow we leave for Murun, and thence to the Darhad to begin the trip. It’s going to be great to be back out there on the trail of Mongolian wolverines once again.