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.
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.
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.