Two Years Later, Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Two years ago, five of us emerged from the Sayan Mountains of northern Mongolia after 23 days of skiing around the Darhad Valley. In his pack, Jason Wilmot carried 33 samples – scat, urine, hair – that we had picked up in the backcountry. Our journals and GPS units recorded 28 sets of wolverine tracks. We were gaunt, ragged, frostbitten, filthy…and ecstatic.

Or I was, anyway. As the director and lead scientist of the Mongolian Wolverine project, and the first person to undertake a systematic survey of wolverines in that country, I’d shared many an anxious conversation with Jason about whether long-range ski surveys, even in areas known to harbor wolverine populations, would prove a valid technique for yielding data. We weren’t sure that the expedition would provide worthwhile information. We speculated that we’d be lucky to find a single set of wolverine tracks and a single DNA sample. When we found our first track 45 minutes after setting out on the first day of the expedition, we laughed and said we could just turn around and go home. Mission accomplished, our single track and sole DNA sample retrieved. I was giddy, that first day.

By day three, as I crawled into a hole where the wolverine that had left track #5 had stashed a chunk of elk and the wing of a capercallie, the giddiness had settled into a persistent hum of excitement. Deep down, I’d hoped, and probably known, that the reports of wolverines that I’d collected from the Darhad over the past four years, and the pelts that I’d seen, meant that the species was in the mountains in force. But when you study the animal in North America, it feels almost miraculous to find a single set of tracks. I’d found tracks in Mongolia before, in summer snowfields, and even pulled samples from those tracks. Still, neither Jason – the co-PI on the project since its inception in 2009 and a fellow veteran of the initial 2010 Darhad wolverine research (horseback, not ski) expedition – nor I were prepared for the abundance of tracks and samples.

Jason, Jim, and Forrest taking a break at a wolverine track site, 2013.

Jason, Jim, and Forrest taking a break at a wolverine track site, 2013

Jason, and wolverine biologist Jeff Copeland, originally conceived of doing wolverine work in Mongolia before I knew either of them. Jeff had taken an initial exploratory trip to the country in 2004, but, busy with work in the US, had done nothing further. When I met Jason in 2006, I was a grad student looking at wolves in the Yellowstone ecosystem, but he and his wife discussed their wolverine work in Glacier and Yellowstone with me, and Jason expressed interest in doing work on the species in Mongolia, and I was immediately intrigued. I had been a Peace Corps environmental volunteer in Mongolia, spoke the language, and wanted to go back to study wildlife. A little bit of inquiry suggested that no one had ever done systematic work on Mongolian wolverines. Neither Jason nor Jeff had the time to dedicate to leading a project, but I did. What seemed at first like a pipe dream – go research the world’s most difficult-to-study species in a country with almost no infrastructure – gradually took shape as Jason, Jeff, and other wolverine biologists mentored me, supported my grant-writing, and shared my growing excitement as the pieces came together.

The major challenges were logistics and funding. It’s one thing to conceptualize a wildlife research project in the US, where helicopters, GPS collars, snowmobiles, and airplanes are available to those with the bank accounts to pay for them. It’s another thing entirely to conceptualize a project in a place like Mongolia, where technology that we’re accustomed to here in the States is absent even if you’ve got the funds.

Mongolia, however, has something that dominant American culture lacks – a human population that has been living with and observing their wildlife over thousands of years. A large part of that population continues to herd livestock through wolverine habitat to this day. My initial efforts focused on simply talking to people, using a blind interview technique that allowed them to identify wildlife species in the area without knowing which one I was looking for. I also took small clips from pelts of animals that had already been killed – emphasizing that under no circumstances was I asking people to kill wolverines for me – in order to begin to build a DNA database, to add to the five samples that Jeff Copeland had obtained from fur hats in 2004. Interviewing proved to be an effective method, and the extraordinary conversations about nature and wildlife that followed were both informative and inspiring. By 2010, we had quadrupled the samples from Mongolian wolverines. We had gone from an insane idea to a place where we were gaining increments of understanding.

Gulo tracks in the Altai, 2010

Gulo tracks in the Altai, 2010

I didn’t, however, want to be one of those obnoxious Americans who shows up in a place, does some research, and claims a bunch of “discoveries” for herself, so from the outset I viewed the work as collaborative and reciprocal. I kept in trust the particulars of cultural stories and practices that belong to Mongolians, shared the basic scientific data on distribution, and saw the project as a long-term investment in building research and conservation capacity with interested communities. By 2010, when Jason first traveled to Mongolia with me, I’d delineated the Darhad and the surrounding mountains as the most likely region for doing a longer-term project. For one thing, it was the largest region of modeled wolverine habitat in the country, and the interview data and the pelts that I saw confirmed that they were there and that people saw them pretty frequently. For another, there was one protected area already in existence in the mountains, and another two were being proposed, which meant that we would have the structure of a dedicated conservation entity to work with. My particular objective – find out what wolverines are up to – could be combined with building conservation capacity amongst rangers and protected area staff. This made it the ideal location for a sustainable project. And finally, this region had robust existing ties with the Yellowstone ecosystem through programs such as BioRegions International, affiliated with Montana State University, and several tourist companies and conservation outfits. So the potential positive outcomes were manifold.

The big challenge, however, was moving from the efficient, low-cost, first-cut interview and basic survey techniques, to a more scientifically rigorous assessment of the Darhad population. Jason and I had discussed and tentatively planned ski surveys for DNA samples as an intermediate step between interviewing, and camera and collar work that would allow us to obtain demographic data and test hypotheses. I’d taken a year off to work for the Clinton Foundation in Cambodia after our 2010 expedition, so we’d just started to discuss these things again in 2011 when Forrest McCarthy, a renowned mountaineer, wolverine researcher, and friend from my time in Jackson, got in touch to ask if I wanted to collaborate on a proposal to National Geographic. He wanted to do ski surveys for wolverine in the Altai Mountains in western Mongolia, where I’d previously interviewed people and found some tracks. Forrest had a friend who had been working on the Chinese side of the Altai and who had picked up a number of wolverine tracks there. Forrest imagined an expedition on the Mongolian side of the range, and floated the idea to an acquaintance, chance met at an outdoor gear expo, who had some connections at National Geographic. The two of them decided to try to organize an expedition. This dovetailed perfectly with the ski surveys that Jason and I had been discussing.

In the conversations that followed, I suggested that for the sake of long-term scientific and conservation impact, we shift the proposal to the Darhad, since I intended to continue to work in the region, and the ski expedition could help us refine baseline data in preparation for more serious research. We already knew that there were wolverines in both the Darhad and the Altai, so simply detecting tracks and picking up DNA wasn’t very useful unless those efforts were placed into the framework of more comprehensive work. Hence the Darhad was a better target than the Altai for a one-off ski survey, since a National Geographic sponsored trip would be one among many mutually-reinforcing research activities.

Forrest, at some cost to his personal interest in the Altai, agreed to the change. Jason and I wrote the grant based on our previous work, tweaking pre-existing proposals, and Forrest and his acquaintance, Gregg Treinish, added expedition details. Forrest was instrumental in assessing the maps and terrain to develop a route navigable on skis and still useful to wolverine research, since he’d run ski-based wolverine surveys before. Gregg proved adept at getting gear donations, and the staff of his organization – through which we submitted the grant – worked hard to make sure the logistics were in place. We were later joined by Jim Harris, a talented photographer with a background in wildlife biology. Thus the first Mongolian wolverine ski expedition was born, in conjunction with the scientific objectives of my long-term project.

So what is the state of Mongolian wolverine work, and the broader efforts to build conservation capacity, two years after we stumbled out of the snowbound mountains?

For various reasons, the road to hard scientific results from the DNA samples has proven as circuitous as the expedition itself. There have been a number of issues around this, which don’t bear examination here, but rest assured that the samples will eventually yield published results. There should also be a methods paper, examining long-range ski surveys as a technique for collecting data of a certain scope and quality. First, though, we need to assess whether what happened in 2013 was normal, or whether it was a fluke. To do that, we need replicate ski surveys to show that this is an effective way to obtain data and – perhaps – monitor over the long term. Those replicates are in the works.

In the meantime, however, I was able to spend last summer developing the other, probably even more important, piece of the project, which involves collaboration with the Mongolian protected areas administration and entities in the US that can help insure a long-term program for research and conservation in Mongolia. With the collaboration of BioRegions International, we built a summer workshop program for 40 staff, rangers, and local environmental officers in the Darhad. Two US National Park Service scientists from the NPS Inventory and Monitoring Program, and conservation biologist Lance Craighead of the Craighead Institute, served as presenters in an exchange that is the first step in what will become, over the next several years, a comprehensive inventory and monitoring program. I remained in the town of Ulaan Uul and the mountains around the Darhad for an additional eight weeks, training staff in GIS, and working with the rangers to set up a camera survey for snow leopards.

With all the rangers who have seen a wolverine, during workshop with park staff, 2014

With all the rangers who have seen a wolverine, during workshop with park staff, 2014

This summer, we will be returning to Mongolia for another round of workshops, with a focus on community-park interface, small business opportunities with a triple-bottom-line (human, environmental and financial well-being) orientation, and continuation of the programs started last year. We will be joined by staff from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and a conservation biology student from MSU. We’re working on developing an internship program that will allow Mongolian park staff and community members to travel to the US for more intensive training and exchange – perhaps even with a wolverine field research component.

Finally, I’m developing a field research program that will implement an intensive two-year wildlife survey in one of the three protected areas. The wildlife survey will be multi-species, since it makes no sense to nearly kill oneself in the backcountry for the sake of a single species – but of course, wolverines remain the animal of greatest interest to me, and closest to my heart.

So for all the work, all the excitement, all the hardship and frostbite and sweat and hunger and cold, the 2013 ski expedition gleaned a very small piece of a very large puzzle.

But wait. Did you catch that sentence where I mentioned replicate ski surveys?

Yes, those are part of the multi-species survey plan. A friend attempted to retrace our route this year – he ended up truncating it, but collected additional samples and track data, and is up for trying again next year. Despite the rigors of the endeavor, I’ve had numerous other volunteer offers. And the most important objective is to train the rangers on these techniques – whether they’re on skis, reindeer, or horseback, it’s their mountain range and their wildlife, and the fate of the Darhad and its wolverines lies with them. So as we develop a systematic monitoring protocol, we’ll be training – and learning from – them.

Two years out, that’s where we are – contemplating going back in for Mongolian wolverine ski expedition #2, and kind of relishing the thought. But this time, it will be one part of a survey that will look at wildlife populations in a much more comprehensive way. That bigger puzzle will be decoded, piece by piece.

Oh, and the collar and camera work – that’s out there too. There will be more to follow on this topic. We’ll be getting to know individual Darhad wolverines pretty well, I promise.

For making the expedition happen, I remain grateful to National Geographic and the expedition participants. Two years later, I also have to take a moment to reflect on how far the work has come. Since the expedition, certain players have shown the vision and cooperative spirit that make conservation projects like this effective. To the Wolverine Foundation for their financial, moral, and intellectual support, I’m indebted. To BioRegions and its directors, I owe great thanks for their openness to collaborating to develop a wildlife conservation focus with the parks in northern Mongolia. Sustainability is key to any ethical wildlife research project these days – there are no conservation outcomes without commitment – and BioRegions is key to achieving this. To Tumursukh, the  director of the Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas Administration, and his outstanding staff and rangers, for their hospitality, eagerness to teach and to learn, and enthusiasm for conservation – mash ikh bayarlalaa. You’re an inspiration (and I’m psyched to see that huge photo of wolverine kits on the wall of the park visitor center.) To expedition members Forrest and Jim, who have in so many ways remained supportive of my work, and who got over their initial annoyance with my very slow ski pace – sorry, guys – and went on to develop a collaborative proposal for a second, summer expedition in the service of wildlife research in the Darhad – I’d gladly have you back on any of my projects, and I hope that both of you find time in between your even more amazing adventures elsewhere to return to Mongolia. To Jason and Jeff, my wolverine guides and mentors – words in a blog post will never be adequate. I’ll see you both in the Darhad. Bring your sense of adventure. It’s only going to get better from here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mongolian Bone Crusher

This blog has served a number of purposes over the years. It’s been a place for me to document my work, keep track of research and news, formulate and share ideas about carnivore conservation, explore the cultural connections between people and wildlife on two continents, and collect wolverine sighting reports from people all over the country. I expected all of these outcomes, more or less, when I started the blog and the Mongolian Wolverine Project back in 2009.

What I did not expect was the community of friends and supporters that developed around what I’ve been writing. Devoted wolverine enthusiasts have taken the time to contact me, share their ideas and work, give me feedback, invite me to their field sites, meet up for face-to-face discussions, and in some cases even come to run half-marathons with me. Many of these people have been interested in wolverines for far longer than I have, and I’ve learned a lot – and gained a lot of energy – from my conversations with them.

Among these individuals, British artist Jeff Cain was one of the first and most consistent in sharing his interest in the species. Jeff belongs to that small and unique group of people who have the Wolverine Thing – that odd, inexplicable fascination with the species, a sort of sacred obsession that strikes particular people. He has traveled all over the world to photograph, draw, and paint them, and has shared a number of great wolverine stories with me. He is a wildlife filmmaker as well, again with a primary interest in wolverines, although he’s worked on a number of other species. He follows wolverine research attentively, and his paintings are sometimes dedicated to particular researchers and their work. His enthusiastic emails of encouragement, along with photos of wolverines and images of his artwork, always appear in my inbox shortly before I set out on any major expedition, usually at the moment when I’m starting to question the validity of what I’m doing, or worry that I don’t have what it takes, or am ready to have a minor meltdown over the physics of fitting 20 camera traps into a very small suitcase. Those emails have frequently provided the antidote to pre-expedition nerves, and I remain grateful for such long-distance support.

A detail from "Mongolian Bone Crusher." Copyright Jeff Cain.

A detail from “Mongolian Bone Crusher.” Copyright Jeff Cain.

Earlier this month, I went to the post office to find a large mailing tube with British stamps waiting for me. Inside was a print of a gorgeous painting, depicting a wolverine chewing on a boar skull in Khentii Aimag, northern Mongolia. The painting was titled “Mongolian Bone Crusher,” and the print was inscribed to me. Jeff had contacted me some time ago to tell me he was working on it, after I told him that I’d found what I referred to as a boar skull that had been chewed on by a wolverine (I was mistaken. It was a deer. At a quick glance, the skull in fragments, its ivory read as an incipient tusk. But I’m glad that the painting depicts a boar skull, because that marks it as Eurasian, and not North American.) I love the fantastic detail in this painting – the texture of the fur and the moss, the gleam in the wolverine’s eye, the way he’s crunching through those old bones and living up to his gluttonous reputation. You can win all kinds of recognition in the scientific world, but having a wolverine artist paint a picture in honor of your work feels like the best possible stamp of approval. A Jeff Cain painting of one’s wolverines is a sure indicator that one has entered the official annals of the wolverine world. I am truly honored, and can’t wait to frame and hang the work.

DSCN3459Jeff Cain’s Wolverine Artwork website highlights his work, including the Mongolian Bone Crusher and other paintings dedicated to particular research projects and researchers. I’m adding it to the permanent list of links on the blog, and encourage everyone who appreciates wildlife art to check it out. I love this work because it combines two of my great interests: wildlife science and art. It’s a conscious attempt to express the details of what we’ve learned about wolverine ecology in the medium of beautiful and meticulous painting.

This post hardly does justice to Jeff’s work, but it’s been too-long delayed by travel and a busy schedule over the past couple of weeks, so I want to get it out there. A huge thanks to Jeff, and to all the people who follow this blog, support this work, and have taken the time to share their interest, ideas, and creative work. You are the best!

 

Mongolian Archaeology Presentation in Bozeman

A brief divergence from wolverines: my friend and colleague, Dr. Julia Clark, will be giving a talk next Thursday, March 5th, about her archaeological work in the Darhad Valley. The talk is at 5 pm at the Bozeman Public Library’s small conference room, and it’s free and open to the public. The event is hosted by BioRegions International, the project that I work with in Mongolia.

MongolianArchaeology

Julia did her dissertation on the transition between hunter-gatherer and herding lifestyles during Mongolia’s Bronze Age, between 5000 and 3000 years ago, with a focus on the Darhad region, which is also where my work is currently based. She’s the first woman to lead an international archaeological expedition in Mongolia, and she single-handedly facilitated multiple years of field camp that gave learning opportunities to Mongolian and American archaeology students alike. She’s also been a great supporter in various ways, including some fun field time, and a briefly exhilarating suggestion that she had unearthed a Bronze Age wolverine jaw bone (it turned out to be a fox, but it’s the thought that counts.) She also introduced me to a Mongolian guy who, several weeks later, on the other side of the country, in an entirely coincidental moment, happened to save me and my entire party from our vehicle, which was stuck in a raging river and rapidly filling with water. Long story, but I would probably still be stranded in Hovd if not for Julia and her archaeology connections. So I encourage you all to come out for the talk if you have the chance. Hope to see you there!

And if you are interested in volunteering with her project, you can find details on the application process here.

Happy Tsagaan Sar, and Ms. Wolverine on Coping With Snow

Today is the Mongolian Lunar New Year, marking the beginning of the Year of the Wood Sheep. Here is a little synopsis of what lies in store, from the American Center for Mongolian Studies:

The year of the Sheep year is seen as a time for healing and stability after the chaos of 2014’s Horse year.
This year is the year of the Wood Sheep or Goat. The year is symbolized by the color green, meaning new growth and renewal. The main theme for the next 13 months should be on intimacy, family and close friendships. It is a year to develop a gentle heart and open acceptance on all levels. 
Another aspect of the wood sheep is creativity; it is a time for art and the cultivation of beauty. The year of the sheep is a time to pick a direction and not give up or become discouraged because Sheep can only move forward! 
With this in mind, we encourage all to renew old academic relationships, seek out new opportunities for collaboration, commit to your research goals for the year, and publish as much as they can.
Ms. Wolverine adds, “The Year of the Sheep is bound to be a good year, because sheep are tasty.”
gulotsagaansar

Traditionally, Mongolians greet their elders with blue khatag scarves as part of the New Year celebration.

 

On that note, our second missive to Ms. Wolverine deals with something that wolverines are especially equipped to advise on: snow.

 

Dear Ms. Wolverine,
I don’t have a relationship question, but I am looking for advice dealing with all the snow we’ve received in the North East. How do you maneuver through snow pack? How often do you go outside and face the elements, and how do you not get frustrated with it? I fear this winter may break many of the primates back east—whether they are trying to entertain their young, train for a marathon, or just get to work. Please advise….

-Snowbound in MA

Dear Snowbound,

First things first: can I move in with you? Our snow out here in the Rockies is pitiful this year. Here’s a fun real-time snow map that allows you to keep track of snow cover all over the country. You will note that the entire northeast currently looks like an ice-cap. We still have a fair amount of snow in the mountains, but the weather is so warm that the trees are budding and the crocuses blooming. I’m concerned. We may have to consider a mass migration.

Now, on to how to survive extreme snow conditions.

Here’s the thing: you are a human. Humans evolved in Africa where there is not a lot of snow. Therefore you are not naturally equipped to cope with these conditions – unlike the far better adapted wolverine. We have nice thick fur coats that keep us warm down to -40° F. You may also have noticed that we have gigantic feet. Wolverines, like humans, are plantigrade walkers, which means that we walk with our heels on the ground. Bears do this too. Animals in the cat and dog family walk on their toes; they are digigrade animals. Plantigrade walking is far superior in snowy conditions because you have greater surface area to support your weight. This is why wolverines can bound along in snowbound regions, while animals like wolves have more difficulty. Possibly this helps explain why we wolverines do so well in snowy regions: our competition is seasonally excluded. Importantly, too, ungulates have difficulty in deep snow conditions, which gives us an advantage that sometimes helps keep us fed, especially when those stranded ungulates are already weakened by winter conditions. But I digress. Back to the point: Even though you humans also walk plantigrade, you only have two feet, and they are not that large when you take into consideration your relative body weight. So you will sadly never be able to be as elegant or efficient in the snow as a wolverine.

I know, however, that you have that amazing capacity to substitute things made with your little monkey hands for all the natural gifts that you seem to be lacking, so I suggest that you acquire some of those fake snow feet that you people have invented – either skis or snowshoes – and put those on. Then you’ll be able to move around more easily in the snow. By “going to work,” I assume you mean “finding food,” so these items will help you corner those stranded ungulates I mentioned above. I’d recommend that you get some of those detachable claw things – arrows? bullets? – to help you dispatch them, though, because your teeth are also pretty pitiful.

Likewise, I suggest that if you are in training for a marathon, you figure out how to use skiing as a partial substitute for running. I know the impact on the muscles is different, but from what I have seen, the cardio workout can be just as good. Snow provides its own opportunities for being a great athlete. Also, you have those treadmill things, and even if you don’t like them, I suggest that seven feet of snow on the ground might constitute adequate extenuating circumstances for adopting the practice, if you insist on running.

As for entertaining your kits, here’s something fun that you can do that will help prepare them for survival as adults: take all your food out of that funny freezer thing in your house, and bury it in various snowbanks here and there in your yard. Then test your kits’ ability to sniff it out. If they can’t do it quickly, frankly they are going to need some serious help surviving in the future. If they can find it all within a reasonable time, they’re doing well, and when they disperse, you’ll know you’ve helped give them a good education.

Aside from that, though, snow is a lot of fun for adults and kits alike. You asked how often we go outside – I don’t know if you are aware of this, but we actually live outside. We only go inside when we want to destroy a cabin or something. We spend all our time outside and are experts on snow activities. So here are some other things that you can do, either on your own just for fun, or with your kits: Ski. Snowshoe. Build a snow den. Build a gigantic wolverine out of snow. Find some icefalls and climb them really fast. Find a mountain and do the same. Establish territories and have a snowball war in which you try to keep the other wolverines….I mean, the other humans out of your territory. This is also great practice for adulthood. Track wildlife – this is much more fun in the snow! Find a long hill and slide down it. Run back up and do it again. Repeat until you are hungry and need to go retrieve some food from the snowbanks in your backyard. 

Seriously, snow is fun. Especially for kids, who don’t have to stress out about “going to work” yet. Don’t be afraid to send your kits out and let them enjoy it. They will have great memories. And find ways to appreciate this unique winter even if you are an adult. Maybe it’s an opportunity to get out and about by new means, see things in a new way, and gain a new perspective on the human place in the natural world.

I know that people in New England and especially in Boston are very stressed out about all the snow. My final admonition is this: Remember that Mother Nature is the boss. Your trains aren’t running on time because you got seven feet of snow? People’s roofs are collapsing? Those hives of human activity called ‘cities’ are basically shut down? What did you expect? Welcome to climate change. It’s going to wreak havoc on my home….and probably yours. We’re in this together.

Tell me your address, and when you stash all that food in the snowbanks for your kits, be sure to include some moose, a bit of deer, maybe a beaver or two….I’ll be along once I run my own cross-country ultra marathon to reach my new home.

See you soon!

Ms. Wolverine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mongolian Wolverines Tomorrow at USGS, Bozeman

Short notice, but tomorrow at noon colleagues from my 2014 Mongolia trip will present a seminar on our capacity building work with the Mongolian Protected Areas. Following an overview of the potential for collaboration between Mongolia and the Greater Yellowstone by Dr. Cliff Montagne of BioRegions International, I’ll give a short presentation on the Mongolian wolverine work to date, where I see it going in the future, and how the listing decision has changed my own thoughts about the relevance of the Mongolia work. Also present will be Mongolia 2014 trip participants and co-presenters Kristen Legg and David Thoma of the US National Park Service, and Lance Craighead of the Craighead Institute. Needless to say, after many years of working in the comparative vacuum chamber of my own crazy wolverine quest, I am excited to be part of a great team working on the broader context of conservation and park management in Mongolia.

The presentation will be held at the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center in Bozeman, Montana, as part of the USGS EcoLunch seminar series. Details are here. Hope to see you there!

 

Lightning

And now for something completely different – I’m eager to get out of the morass of listing politics and back to writing about the work in Mongolia. Part one of summer adventures in camera trapping.

The storm comes in fast, when we’re at 9600 feet on an exposed ridge, close to the crest of the divide between Mongolia and Russia. We’ve been toiling upwards for nearly two hours now, and I’ve made the mistake of keeping my eyes front and up, or else on my feet picking their way through the talus, and I don’t glance behind me until a small golden weasel – Mustela erminea, at a guess – pops out from among the rocks and dances around me, and I turn, following it as it does the quintessential weasel dance, circling, peering at the interloper, curious and unafraid, and as I turn, I see the sky roiling in behind us, up the valley, a veil of precipitation cloaking the mountains, snake tongues of lightning flicking across the sky, flickering among the clouds the way the weasel flickers among the rocks, and I realize that we are in trouble.

Ermine in the talus

Ermine in the talus, moving too fast to focus.

The ridge drops away sheer on either side for a thousand feet, maybe more, all the way down to a rushing stream that drains out of the big bowl whose southern rim we are climbing. The world is a palette of subdued colors; rock and snowfields and the copper and rust of vegetation just liberated from winter snows, the only vital color the golden weasel and the deep aqua around the edges of the icebound lakes far below. The valley is a dizzying distance below, and the mountain offers neither shelter nor any easy descent – it is a mountain ground down to a million pieces of mountain, an edifice of precariously balanced talus that seems ready to slide if you put a single foot wrong. The only way off is the way we came up.

DSCN2579

Snow leopard country.

I shout up to my companions, who have not stopped to watch the weasel and who have not turned and who have not, therefore, seen the storm bearing down on us. Ulzii, the ranger, turns and I wave and point and say that we need to get off the ridge, now. Tsend, who has joined me from Ulaanbaatar as a bridge between my fairly proficient standard Khalkh Mongolian and the nearly-incomprehensible dialect of the Darhad region, comes back down a few feet, squints at the storm, and says, “Maybe it will miss us.”

“It’s not going to miss us.”

“You need to have a more positive attitude,” he admonishes me, and heads back off up the ridge.

A crack of thunder shatters the air around us and the wind rises as Ulzii and I stare in consternation at Tsend’s back, retreating up the ridge. The clouds swallow the last of the sun and the thunder booms again. I’ve been in the wilderness with a couple of people who I really admire as expedition leaders, people who display qualities of calm and cool that I would like to now emulate, as a leader myself, but that seem impossible to evoke amidst the rising panic and simultaneous frustration that threaten to overwhelm me. The rain starts then, and it turns quickly to sleet and hail. Within seconds the talus, already precarious when dry, is soaked and slippery, making the prospect of a descent even more daunting.

In a tone of the deadest calm I can muster, I ask Ulzii to go get Tsend and bring him back, but he has barely gone a few feet when I feel my heart lurch and skip, and a strange itching sensation passes along my scalp and my teeth hurt and my head spins. I put my hand to my head and look back up at Ulzii, and he is on the ground with his back against a large boulder, his face white. Behind him, I see Tsend rapidly returning down the ridge. Positive attitude indeed, I think, and flatten myself against the rocks, pushing my backpack with its metal water bottle and various electronics as far from myself as it can get without going over the edge. I’m shivering, I realize, soaked to the skin, so I chance pulling the backpack closer, and extract my winter gear – puffy jacket, down jacket, raincoat, hat – and pull them on, feeling the instant relief of warmth through my headache and the strange fuzziness of thinking that seems to have overtaken me. I’m the only one who has this kind of gear; broach the idea of emergency layers with a Mongolian and he’ll just laugh and say, “Zugeer, zugeer,” which is an all-purpose Mongolian expression that means, in essence, “It’s not a problem,” but which can also mean, “You’re being overly cautious and no descendant of Chingis Khan requires such coddling.” This is probably true; Mongolians are the toughest people I’ve ever met. Nevertheless, I worry about Ulzii and Tsend, Ulzii in his uninsulated rubber riding boots and thin jacket, Tsend in the office-wear that he has brought, cotton pants and button-down shirts and a sweater and windbreaker, neither with a winter hat. The hail and the thunder and the lightning crackle and pelt and roar around us, the cloud that is the heart of the storm enveloping the ridge. It goes on and on and on as we crouch there, growing colder and wetter and – at least on my part – counting the intervals between lightning and thunder to try to figure out whether the storm is moving away from us. It doesn’t seem to, it seems to have settled in, huddling over us the way we are huddling against the rocks. We are far up the valley, nearly at the headwaters of the drainage, the vast encircling wall of mountains that mark the upper end, and the storm hits that wall and stays, pushing at the peaks.

Finally it seems to dissipate, marginally, and we scramble down the mountain as another wall of precipitation and flickering lightning moves up the valley towards us. Halfway down, Tsend suggests that we wait and see, that perhaps this one will miss us and we can go back up, but Ulzii mutters “Ayul, ayul,” which means “dangerous,” and I’m glad that he has said it so that I can avoid speaking. My head still hurts. Later, I know that I’ll have to talk to them again about gear and about mountain safety issues – the awkward problem of the dynamic of a young woman telling two older men what to do – hopefully this time with more impact, but for now, between my aching teeth and muscles and the splitting headache, I’m glad not to have to talk.

Not until we’re back at our camp, huddled under the battered old tent fly that Ulizii has stretched between two trees, tending to a sputtering fire and trying to avoid the leaks as another round of rain and hail pelt down, do I process what happened. Ulizii and Tsend both felt it too – the lurch of the heart, the prickling skin, the burn along the edges of the scalp: lightning passing through us from a charge in the ground. The realization comes with the sense of deferred awe that people seem to experience only after they emerge from extremely dangerous situations, when the adrenaline releases its hold and the mind stutters to life again. We could have died up there.

It’s day four of a research trip to set up wildlife cameras in the most remote reaches of northern Mongolia, and I ask myself a question that I’ve asked myself many times before: is this work worth the risk?

I don’t have the right to answer this question for my companions, but they’ve made it clear that they want to be here and understand that it’s potentially dangerous. For myself, the answer remains the same: Yes, it’s worth it. And we’ll be back up that mountain tomorrow, even though, looking up at it from our camp, I have the uneasy sense that it’s not finished with us yet.

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Trying to keep the fire alive back at camp in the post-lightning deluge.

 

Notes From High and Beautiful Country

I’m struck anew at how this country seems to resist rapid movement by any conveyance other than horseback.

After an amazing ten days in the field setting up camera traps, I’m briefly back in Murun, the capital of Hovsgol Aimag. The trip down from the Darhad took three full days, most of which involved waiting around for vehicles, and the rest of which involved crawling along through mud and ruts at about 10km per hour while sitting in Russian vans – the world’s most uncomfortable motorized contraptions.  As we are not a fancy organization with a huge budget, however, we go by local transport.

And in the end, it’s worth the trouble. Working with the protected areas administration, with a grant from the Snow Leopard Network and cameras on loan from Panthera, I went back up into the country we skied last year, to set up camera stations in hopes of catching an image of the big cat whose tracks we found in the snow. One of the PA’s rangers, Ulzii, worked with me; we spent ten days hiking and riding through amazing country. I thought I’d seen the best of it during the ski trip last year, but it continues to get better with every expedition, and with more time to explore. I am at a public computer right now, unable to upload my photos or write a full piece about the experience, but the highlights included scaling multiple 10,000 foot peaks; watching a large swath of mountainside fall away in a huge rockslide in the valley opposite; getting hit by lightening (which was startling but resulted in nothing worse than exhaustion and a pretty bad headache); the sheer sense of fun with which Ulzii took up spraying perfume on rocks to create lures, and pretending to be a big cat when it came time to test the cameras; seeing elk and wild reindeer and a flirtatious and fearless Siberian weasel; finding a skull, probably a young musk deer, gnawed to shards, with a big pile of wolverine scat next to it; finding huge amounts of elk and ibex and moose sign, and even bear scat; inching along a headwall that was more a million pieces of mountain than a single mountain, ancient cracked talus precariously balanced and threatening to slide with every step; being up high in spectacular meadows ringed with snow and avalanche chutes, feeding into wild streams roiling down into hillsides covered in pale lichen and wild azalea and rhododendron, all of it underlain by permafrost; climbing up along those streams, scrambling over rocks and rapids to come out in another meadow, with a series of beautiful waterfalls, and then scrambling straight up big cliff faces (finding, in one handhold, the perfect nest of a small bird, three pale eggs nestled in the bowl) to come out on a huge plateau where you prowl back and forth, looking down at the plunging valleys all around, the half-frozen lakes below, the streams rushing down towards their rivers, and try to figure out how a snow leopard might think.

Now comes the waiting. I’m headed up to Bayazurkh, the soum to the west of the Darhad valley, to look into helping a fly-fishing company create a research plan for monitoring taimen, the 200 pound salmonids that swim the rivers here. From there, I hope to walk back to Ulaan Uul in the Darhad via the high mountains of Ulaan Taiga, the last remaining section of the Darhad mountains that I haven’t yet explored. From there, I’ll go back up into the mountains in late July to take down the cameras.

This will probably be the only day on which I have internet access until the end of July, but I plan to do a full write-up when I return – I’ve already composed a lot of it in my notebooks, and honestly it’s nice to be back to writing by hand, with a pen, and with no computer anywhere in the vicinity. Still, I look forward to getting back to writing here once I return. In the meantime, let’s hope that the snow leopard(s), the wolverines, the ibex, and the other wildlife of the Darhad visit the camera sites, so that we can learn a bit more about them and help the protected areas plan for their conservation.