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.

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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.

 

 

The Mountains Are Always Walking

Two weeks ago, I went up into the mountains with a telemetry receiver to see if I could find F3 and M57. The trip was, in the tradition of mountain travels the world over, a pilgrimage, a small, quiet return to a source. So far 2012 has been a rough year, and also a wonderful one, and the disruptions have meant that my interactions with the wolverines who inspired this blog have been minimal. I visited F3’s den site last September, and skied into her territory in March, but between September of 2011 and April of 2012, I was only intermittently in the GYE. I had made a purportedly sensible decision to try to secure a better (read: more conventional) future for myself, despite the fact that heart, gut, and intellect warned  against the decision. Events proved instinct correct, and I had to extricate myself from a situation – in a flat, uninspiring landscape to boot – that I should have known better than to get into in the first place. At the same time, I’d put together two long-shot grant applications for dream expeditions, the kind of Indiana-Jones-inspired epic adventures that I thought only happen in movies or novels. One involved walking across the Khangai Mountains this summer. The other, in affiliation with the organization Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, proposed a 200-mile ski trip through the Sayan Range in spring of 2013.The latter was the idea of fellow wolverine-enthusiast and professional adventurer Forrest McCarthy, who called me one dark day in January and shook me out of torpor and semi-depression with his enthusiasm for the idea of a ski expedition across Mongolia in search of tracks and hair samples. I would barely have dreamed of doing something like this on my own, but with Forrest and ASC director Gregg Treinish on board, and with NRCC’s Jason Wilmot as the third partner, it suddenly seemed feasible – although still, secretly, I thought funding it seemed as impossible as funding my walk across the Khangai.

In early April, I left the relative security (and undeniable frustration) of the flat occupation in the flat place, and plunged off the edge of a cliff into a salary-less, health-insurance-less, uncertain future. In May, like a giant net thrown out by the universe, the freefall was broken by word that both of these expeditions had been funded, one by the American Alpine Club and the other by National Geographic. For several weeks, I was so giddy with excitement and disbelief that I felt like I was floating around Bozeman with my hair standing on end. I come from a New England Puritan background, long secularized but still deeply self-effacing; we are all raised to expect perfection of ourselves, without any hope of ever achieving our goals because we are, ultimately, undeserving. I had no idea what I’d done right but it seemed as if dreams I’d cherished since I was a child were being handed to me. Suddenly I was extremely busy with discussions about equipment, how many reindeer it might take to resupply a ski expedition in northern Mongolia, and whether or not we could find any Mongolians, short of the Olympic ski team, who might be able to join us. If I’d felt unmoored by my misadventures in flatland, I was unmoored in a different way by this enticing new image of myself as adventurer extraordinaire.

After a few weeks of this, however, reality reasserted itself. I am athletic by genetic default, but I am not really that badass. I do extreme things only by accident, in pursuit of wildlife. Wolverines are the point. Mountains are the point.

So I gathered a receiver and an antenna, packed minimal supplies, and set off towards one of F3’s haunts. In my quick trips to the GYE over the winter and spring, I’d heard rumors: that she might have been pregnant again this year; that she had been wearing a collar that she’d subsequently dropped; that she hadn’t in fact dropped the collar; that M57, her purported mate, had gone missing; that she might have been carrying on an affair with an interloping male. Things I’d taken for granted about F3’s life suddenly seemed as obscure and sketchy as things I’d taken for granted about my own. I wanted to find her, I wanted to find M57, and I wanted to recenter myself.

Going into the mountains is always as much a mental adventure as a physical one, a constant adjustment of one’s relationship with time and motion. First there is the speed of the highway, and then the slower speed of a winding dirt road, and then the stop and the sudden stillness at the trailhead, the bustle of securing gear, the shrug of shoulders and the motion of the pack settling across the back. And then there is the walking, seemingly so slow at first because the mind is still going so fast, and then just right, and then completely unconscious as one’s own mind seeps into the environment and dissolves.

On this particular day, my objective was thwarted by a still-raging creek, not yet spent from the first of the great summer snowmelt up high. I contemplated for a few moments, and then followed a path that led further to the east, but still in the same general direction, which was up. As far as I knew, matters stood like this: F3 was still wearing her most recent collar. Her reproductive status this year remained unknown, as did the fate of any of the kits she might have had last year. M57 hadn’t been heard from on the last flight. The genetic results of samples taken at F3’s den site last year were floating in the intellectual ether, as-yet unexamined. The likelihood of finding any of the wolverines, even via telemetry, was razor thin. The country is rough, all crags and cliffs and soaring glacial bowls that block radio signals, sometimes even from a plane, let alone on foot. To hear a wolverine, the animal has to be in the drainage with you, or else you have to be high enough that the signals aren’t suppressed by an intervening ridge or peak.

At about 8000 feet, I ran into snow deep enough to ensure an inhospitable campsite if I went any higher, so I stopped short of another goal, frustrated. I was in a narrow valley, surrounded on all sides by massive cirques, still snow-laden, brilliant in the early evening sun, and incontrovertibly solid barriers to any radio signal. I set up camp near a small lake and glassed the cirques; far up among the crags on the face opposite, a set of tracks, too far away to identify, led across a snow field and then upwards in a way that made my breath catch. I told myself not to be ridiculous, that I was seeing what I wanted to see. One does go out into the mountains looking for wolverines and then stumble across fresh tracks in a potentially 500 square mile territory.

To prove myself wrong, I pulled out the telemetry equipment and tuned it to F3’s frequency. The buzz of blank static hummed across the gathering evening. A bald eagle dove for a fish in the lake as I switched to M57’s frequency. The eagle struck water and veered upward, and as it rose, the ticking of a radio signal boomed over the receiver, so loud, so clear, that M57 had to be in the drainage with me. No signal so definite could make it through the rock walls around me.

Early the next morning, I bushwhacked up the only snow-free ridge in sight, a thousand feet in less than a mile, an ongoing struggle between the weight of my pack and the will of my legs. At the top of the ridge, perched on a narrow band of rock between two snowbound amphitheaters, I listened again. This time I heard F3 as well; both the signals were more distant, and they were coming from the same direction. The tracks that I’d seen last night looked, from this closer vantage, like a set of two-bys.

The mountains are addictive, and last Friday I went back, aiming for higher country now that a spell of hot weather had melted some of the snow. I was leaving for Mongolia in four days. I wanted one last trip into F3 and M57’s country before I left. I wanted, too, that dissolution of mind that comes in the high country.

In Mongolia a decade ago, a friend of mine had a book about Buddhist environmental ethics, and I picked it up once and flipped it open to a page where a single phrase caught my eye: “The mountains are always walking.” The sentence was some kind of Zen koan and although I usually seek out analysis and intellectual elaboration in my studies of Buddhism, I didn’t want to know anything else about this particular sentence. It was too intriguing and perfect. I closed the book and gave it back to my friend. I thought about that sentence a lot over the years, turning it over, toying with it, letting my feet guide my thoughts about it as I rambled, hiked, skied. On Friday, I let the phrase set the rhythm as I climbed up a much steeper course than I had traveled two weeks ago, through a burn and then mature forest and then out into another, much higher bowl, this one so vividly green that I felt the color on my skin. The cliffs still wore capes of snow and I skittered across these fields, occasionally in the fresh tracks of a black bear that had recently gone in the opposite direction. Fat golden marmots squealed from their burrows. Streams trickled from the snowfields and gathered force as they met, until they formed cascades down the rock faces, and then a roaring stream through the green meadow. Across the bowl, three elk lay in the summer sun, red-gold against the green, sparing an occasional glance in my direction as I made my way up towards the pass. I heard nothing from either wolverine that night, but the next morning, up above 10,000 feet, the two of them were audible again, very faint, pulsing across the landscape from miles away.

I had a series of conversations a few weeks ago about the nature of this wolverine work: whether it was a legitimate occupation, whether I would ever be able to make a living at it, or whether the quest for wolverines was a mere idea, an attempt to impose meaning on the blank space of chaos that we all sense lurking underneath our lives, the ultimate impersonal pitilessness of nature. In the Buddhist mode, it is perhaps better not to be too attached to anything, let alone a single species, the argument went. And yet there is such a tiny margin between detachment and nihilism. A long time ago now, I worked with torture victims and refugees in several post-genocide countries, very shortly after the wars had ended. I was young, naive, and unprepared. Detached compassion unraveled into a fierce encounter with meaninglessness, because meaninglessness, the absolute unpicking of all presuppositions and assumptions about the purpose and workings of the world, was the only thing that prevailed over and erased the force of having witnessed the depths of human depravity. Perhaps there is such a thing as being too attached to a quest for a species, and perhaps that quest is indeed a simple mental construction. But then again, everything we seek is a mental construction: wealth, renown, relationships, successful children – all of these, as measures of our worth in the world, are predicated on cultural constructions as finally flimsy as the worth we ascribe to getting to the top of a mountain or finding an elusive animal. I would rather have something bounded, something to which I can be attached in an impersonal and unimposing way, than fall down that black hole again. Attachment might make me a failure as a Buddhist, but it makes me a little more successful as a human being.

A decade ago, walking in the mountains restored a tenuous sense of self after the worst of that face-to-face encounter with the terrible things that people do to each other, but a few weeks ago I discovered that I still can’t discuss any of it without choking up, even though I thought that I had put these things to rest a long time ago. So I keep walking in the mountains. The mountains and the things that they contain walk too. We are in this together. And once in a while, knowing for sure that a wolverine is out there, somewhere, is enough to bring you back to yourself.

When I got back from the hike on Saturday, I looked up the phrase “the mountains are always walking.” It is from a text, the Mountains and Rivers Sutra, by the Japanese Zen poet Dogen.

It’s now 6:30 a.m. and I am in the airport, ready to leave Bozeman for Ulaanbaatar, for a much longer walk with the mountains.

Walking the Wolverine Dream

Just outside of the town of Kharkhorin, Mongolia, the dun steppe begins to rise in a series of rolling golden hills capped by ovoos, shrines to the Owners of the mountains. The hills rise further into forested slopes to the west, and then further still into ice and snow-covered rock, the entire length forming Mongolia’s central mountain range, the Khangai Nuruu. The range reaches its zenith at Otgontenger, one of the most sacred mountains in Mongolia, whose name – roughly translated – suggests “The Younger Sky.” (Or “The Sky’s Hearth,” depending on how far back you follow the Turkic roots of the language.) Otgontenger was the axis mundi for almost all of the proto-Mongol empires, which clustered their capitals around or near Kharkhorin, the gateway to the rich pastures of the Khangai and to the myriad rivers that lead, eventually, back to the snows and glaciers of the great mountain. Chingis Khan himself chose Kharkhorin – known as Karakorum to the 13th century world – as his capital, and although he always lived in his ger, his descendants built palaces and temples and, for a brief century, turned the city at the edge of the Khangai into the center of the known world.

As the empire fragmented, Karakorum collapsed back into the steppe. Today, a single monastery remains, along with four stone turtles that once guarded the gates of the city. This now-unassuming town was my home for two years when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, and I spent every spare moment of the spring, summer, and early fall – before it got so cold that I was blinded by my eyelashes freezing together, which usually happened in November – wandering through the mountains. I daydreamed of walking all the way from Kharkhorin to Otgontenger on a vast pilgrimage in search of snow leopards and birds and wolves. The furthest I ever got was about 50 miles out, a week’s trek with my dog.

The Orhon River as it emerges from the foothills of the Khangai, near Kharkhorin, Mongolia.

Last July, my colleague Lydia Dixon and I walked from Kharkhorin up the first valley of the range. The valley is just a nick in the earth, but if you follow it far enough – as I did countless times when I was living in Kharkhorin – it will eventually lead you up onto a high ridge from which the first forested waves of the range spread out like a green sea. At one time, a small Buddhist temple sat against the southern wall of the valley, but it was destroyed in the Communist purges of the monasteries in the 1930s. Today, the shrines are all shamanic – two large ovoos on the hillsides above, dozens of smaller ovoos, and a spring surrounded by a rock wall adorned with blue khatag scarves. The valley also marks the eastern edge of the Khangai Nuruu National Park, a much-ignored entity that encompasses the entire swath of mountains across a straight-line distance of about 300 miles. Conservationists and climbers are more enamored of the bigger ranges to the north and west – the Altai, the Sayan, the Khoridol Sardag, and the Khentii, where Chingis Khan is supposedly buried. And the UN is more enthralled with the recently-designated Orhon Valley World Heritage Site, which honors the cultures and empires that flourished in the region. But the Khangai Nuruu Park is likely to be important to any widely-dispersing alpine species; it is the central connection zone among all of Mongolia’s mountain ranges, and it deserves more attention than it gets.

As a volunteer, I’d taught ecology and English in the schools, and spent my summers surveying for snow leopards and their prey species in the Altai and the Horidol Sardag, towering ranges that commanded awe and respect. But the Khangai owned my heart, perhaps simply through familiarity. My students and I formed an ecology club and conducted bird surveys for the park, and when school wasn’t in session I took off for days at a time, sometimes following the Orhon River beneath the mountains, sometimes back into the mountains themselves. Hunters left offerings at the big ovoo outside town, mostly deer skulls, the occasional ibex, a full lynx pelt, and once, the skin from the head of a snow leopard. I always hoped to see some of these species, alive, during my hikes. My dog and I saw wolves once, but never anything more. My friends scolded me for my long walks, telling me that I would be eaten by a wolf, attacked by a camel in rut and, when those warnings failed, cautioning me that the Khangai was home to even stranger things than wolves and camels, that almas – yetis – had been known to kidnap human women.

Ovoo, at which offerings are left for the Owners of the mountains. Ten years ago, these included pelts of endangered wildlife. Today, with the intervention of the town shaman and the Buddhist lams from Erdene Zuu monastery, offerings consist mostly of tea and incense.

A Mongolian dog is good protection against marauding yetis. Georgia, companion of many Khangai treks, and Degiimaa, close friend, in Kharkhorin, 2009.

The Khangai was also home to creatures almost as legendary as yetis, with feet almost as big, although I was barely aware of them at the time. When I left Mongolia, my friends gave me several gifts – a bright blue silk hat adorned with fake pearls, a Buddhist thangka stitched in silk thread, a hat trimmed in lynx fur, and the pelt of an animal. The friend who gave me the pelt said, “It’s because you like wildlife. I don’t know the English name of this animal, but it lives up in the mountains.” In my memory, the pelt was thick-furred, brown and a paler golden, the head and feet gone. I turned it over and over in my hands, my fingers sinking into the luxuriant fur. I had no idea what it was. We had been lectured about the problem of tourists taking wildlife products out of the country. I didn’t know what the animal was and I didn’t want to get stopped with a CITES species in my backpack. I left the pelt in Ulaanbaatar.

Four years later, I was driving through Sunlight Basin, Wyoming, with Jason Wilmot, who I had just met the day before. He and his wife and daughter were staying in a cabin in Sunlight for the winter, running wolverine live-traps for the Absaroka-Beartooth Project. I’d come out from New England to talk to him about my master’s research, which was about wolves, but since running wolverine field research is a full-time job, we were discussing the finer points of wolf conservation conflict while en route to rebait the traps. The talk turned to wolverines, and when I asked where they lived, he listed their range countries, and then mentioned that there was a weird, unstudied population in Mongolia, that he and his wife wanted to go there, but that it was hard to get access to a country like Mongolia. Like an avalanche, the memory of that pelt washed over me, the texture of it against my hands, the deep brown and the gold. “You aren’t going to believe this,” I said, “But I lived in Mongolia for two years. I think I may know where some wolverines are, actually.” I had finally identified the pelt.

On Jeff Copeland’s snow map, the Khangai contain scattered denning habitat, most of it in the high mountains to the west, although the entire range is within the temperature model. There are at least five big swaths of the mountains inhabited by ibex and argali populations, and until a recent spasm of overhunting, marmots were abundant across the range, offering plenty of food sources. A cousin of a close friend of mine shot a wolverine near Kharkhorin in 2008, and last year I saw photos of another wolverine that had been killed about 75 miles to the northwest in 2010. Both of these animals were male. They might have come south from Khentii or the Sayan, or even east from the Altai, but the herders in the region know far too much about the species – its gait, its tracks, its diet, its denning habits – for the animals to be passing vagrants. Somewhere in the Khangai, a breeding population of wolverines is probably turning out kits. I dusted off my old dreams of walking west to Otgontenger and revised them: instead of snow leopards, I would go in search of wolverines.

Last July, as Lydia and I walked up the valley outside Kharkhorin, we joked about how great it would be if we stumbled upon a wolverine and a wolf, the latter her species of interest. We rounded a bend and a new shrine came into view, a pole surrounded by a ring of stone and topped by a horse tail standard. Just in front of the shrine, a new sign had been erected; it read, “The Khangai are home to ferocious spirits. If you come into this place with bad intentions or a black spirit, be warned.” I knew that the town shaman had put these things in place; he was an old friend from Peace Corps days and was committed to protecting the natural resources of the region. I smiled at the sign, and then looked towards the standard, and grew light-headed. Tied around the middle of the pole was a pelt, brown and light gold, flecks of white across the chest, oversized feet dangling, desiccated nose pointed at the sky. The shaman had chosen to evoke the guardians of the Khangai through the ferocity of the wolverine.

I don’t necessarily believe in fate, but I do sometimes believe in coincidence, in the older sense of the word – that events coincide with some form of coherence, if you pay attention. Multiple times, it seems, the Khangai and wolverines have coincided for me. The wolverine at the gate of the mountains prompted me to try to fulfill that old dream of walking west. I wrote two grant applications, and both were funded by the American Alpine Club, the organization probably best suited to appreciate the overlapping needs of wolverines and humans whose aspirations involve being out in the mountains. This summer, a friend and I will head out into the high country to interview herders, take pelt samples for DNA if possible, and perhaps find tracks or other sign. Along the way, we’ll also conduct occupancy and behavior surveys for pikas, record marmot sightings, and look for snow leopard sign. We’ll be on the trail for at least a month, covering a distance of about 300 miles. I’m excited, and a little intimidated, and above all grateful for the amazing opportunity to not only make a contribution to wildlife research, but to fulfill such an old and cherished ambition. So huge thanks to the American Alpine Club for their support and enthusiasm for wolverine research and for mountain ecosystems all over the world.

Shrine with horsetail standard and wolverine pelt, Khangai Mountains, Mongolia, 2011. Photo by Lydia Dixon.