Shams Eybert-Bérard, Pierre-Alain Philippi, Thomas Guerrin and Thibault Drouet skied down three of the five holy mountains in the Mongolian Altai range in August 2013, including the tallest peak in Mongolia: Mount Khuiten (4374m).These four childhood friends cycled unassisted to this utterly remote area from Olgii on the Russian-Mongolian border.Their travelling companions? Often-abominable trails, dreadful weather, and mosquitoes – but also intense moments and rewarding encounters. This memorable adventure sealed their friendship for all time!
31 July 2013
31 August 2013
A DESTINATION SPOTTED ON GOOGLE EARTH
Shams Eybert-Bérard knows plenty about outsized travel! Every summer for the past six years, this osteopathy student has roamed the world, usually self-sufficiently on a bike.In 2013, he took along three of his buddies – all mountain-mad like him – for the adventure. It was the first time they had been able to go away together... and it was an opportunity not to be missed! But they needed to choose their destination.“I’ve got a real soft spot for Central Asia,” explains Shams. “The people are very welcoming, and I wanted to focus our project on this region.” Having a look on Google Earth did the rest… “Kind of by accident, I came across Mount Khuiten. It’s located in the least populous region of the least populous country on the globe!” That nugget of information stirred the globetrotter’s curiosity. And thus was born the “Mont Khuiten 4374m” expedition. On the programme: a bike ride from Olgii, on the Russian-Mongolian border, to the foot of the Potamin Glacier, in total self-sufficiency. Then skiing up the glaciers of Khuiten, Nairamdal (4180m) and Malchin (4050m). This sporting challenge was followed by a second stage: meeting the nomadic Kazakh peoples, who breed reindeer and hunt with eagles. “All of us are just about professionals in something or other, but we’re not mountain pros! For the six months before we left, we all did our prep where we were working – Thomas in Paris, Pierre-Alain in Madrid, and Thibault and myself in Grenoble. Thomas’s father is a guide, and he gave us advice. One part of our training was to twice climb the Dôme des Ecrins and get used to pitching our tent on the glacier.”As for route guides, there was strictly nothing... They had to make do with a piece of a map obtained via a Russian website and the stories of adventurers who had preceded them.
“All of us are just about professionals in something or other, but we’re not mountain pros!”
POOR CONDITIONS, BIG SUCCESS
Early August. The team arrived in Olgii, the biggest town in western Mongolia with 18,000 inhabitants. Time for the final preparations. “We bought fruit and 14kg of freeze-dried Chinese noodles to give us 10 days’ self-sufficiency out of the 14 we planned to take for the first part of our expedition.”Be they hadn’t reckoned on the “rotten” road (sand, stones, swamps, icy torrents…), the dreadful weather (wind, rain...) and the mosquitoes! “The first 50 kilometres took us four days! We had to push our bikes half the time!”Thankfully, the 356km of trails were not all the same… And besides, the legendary Mongolian hospitality tempered their despondent mood. But the team’s troubles weren’t at an end! Fourteen kilometres from their goal, severe disillusionment set in: “There was an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the park and we weren’t allowed in. We needed a pass that we should have got in Olgii!”
“Make of your life a dream; and of your dream, reality”
After seemingly endless haggling, an Australian-Mongolian guide managed to intervene on their behalf and the guards finally relented... And to think that this was the first time anyone had travelled there on bikes!“We were finally able to get to the Mount Khuiten base camp. Reaching the summit wasn’t easy. In the Altai, the weather changes very quickly. We had to use a GPS to find our way in the fog, wind and wet. We only got one brief clear interval, at the top. But the mountain itself was easy – a smaller version of Mont Blanc! We had great snow on the way down, so we enchained with Mount Naraimdal – and once again, we just had a small splash of blue sky at the top.”The next day, Thomas and Shams scaled Mount Malchin – in fine weather, this time. “It’s my best memory of the whole trip,” says Shams.The journey back to Olgii was like the outbound leg: a biblical struggle! And yet, “we view the expedition as a huge success. Despite the poor conditions, we didn’t have a single argument.”
800 KM AND FOUR PEAKS
Some people would have been satisfied with this trip, but not this quartet. “After a 24-hour rest, we headed off again on our bikes towards the Tsambagarav range, 100km southeast of Olgii. We’d barely left the city when we got lost. We had to climb trees to try and work out where we were. It was incredible – a maze of trails only walked by the locals. And once again, the easiest option was to travel by GPS!”That evening, they were delighted to meet an eagle hunter and the 15 members of his family. “He invited us to eat and sleep.” A great moment, before they rose early for another glacier skiing escapade, a second night in the yurt, and then back to Olgii for one final adventure: “In Alpine style, we climbed a handsome arête and ended perched on a nameless dome of snow, at 3701m. So, we opened up our own little route, and christened it Tolgtor, the name of our driver.”There was absolutely no human presence for miles around, which merely confirmed that the lads had found what they’d come looking for: adventure and freedom.Thus ended a superb expedition spanning more than 800km – 90% of it on trails – and four summits. With a keen sense of pride into the bargain: “We proved that you can succeed without being a specialist – you just need to believe in your dreams”.Their message will be conveyed in a film to be screened at the mountain-film festival in Autrans (dept. of Isère) in December 2014!
“For us, the most important thing is that we did it while engaging with the local people, sharing our meals with them and sometimes sleeping in yurts…”
Opting for bikes
The four buddies chose travel bikes and fitted the equipment themselves. The models were heavy (14kg), robust, and mechanically very simple: no disc brakes, no suspension… “They’re not hard to repair, or to abandon if necessary!”