By Winter Wildlands Alliance Policy Director, Hilary Eisen
This past March I found myself, along with 4 friends, shouldering the heaviest pack I’ve carried in years and clicking into skis on the frozen Gunii Gol (Gun River), about to embark on a month-long expedition to survey for wildlife in northwest Mongolia. After years of planning and fundraising, and over a week of travel just to get to this starting point, we were anxious to start skiing. Our anxiety was heightened by a distinct lack of snow on the surrounding steppe. The Gunii would be our path to the (hopefully) much snowier highlands of the Ulaan Taiga Strictly Protected Area.
Our expedition was part of a rapidly-expanding partnership between the Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas’ Administration and The Wolverine Foundation. The link connecting these entities is a Bozeman-based conservationist, Rebecca Watters. In 2013, she was part of a team (along with Winter Wildlands ambassadors Jim Harris and Forrest McCarthy) that conducted the first-ever winter wildlife survey in the mountains surrounding Mongolia’s Darhad Valley. Three years later, as we were hiking up Bozeman’s popular “M trail”, Rebecca mentioned she was interested in repeating and expanding upon the 2013 survey. I eagerly volunteered to help organize the expedition. We recruited 3 other athlete-biologist friends – Jen Higgins, Sarah Olson, and Dylan Taylor – and with a grant from the Trust for Mutual Understanding and product support from Altai Skis, Katadyn Outdoors (Alpine Aire Food and SteriPEN), Caramel Cookie Waffles, LÄRABAR, Big Agnes, Duckworth, Skida, Titan Straps, and Fast Wax Ski Wax, the 2019 Darhad Ski Expedition became reality.
Back in the early 2000’s, the discovery of significant amounts of gold and jade in the mountains surrounding the Darhad Valley kicked off a mining boom that threatened wildlife, fish, forests, and pristine waters. Concerned about the health of the forest and its wildlife, clean water, and the safety of their families, the local people of the Darhad petitioned the government to protect nature and prohibit mining in the region. After many twists and turns, Tengis Shishged National Park and Ulaan Taiga Strictly Protected Area were finally established in 2012. Combined with the existing Horidol Saridag Strictly Protected Area, the total amount of protected land in the Darhad totals over 3.7 million acres, all of which falls under the jurisdiction of the Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas’ Administration and is managed by a staff of just five professionals and 34 rangers. Our plan was to traverse Ulaan Taiga Strictly Protected Area, Tengis Shishged National Park, and a multi-use zone in-between Tengis Shishged and Horidol Saridag Strictly Protected Area.
The goal of our expedition was to provide scientific support to the Protected Areas managers and test for the viability of periodic long-range ski trips as a non-invasive monitoring technique in places where traditional wildlife research methods (colloquially known in the research community as “collar and foller”) are not an option. The 2013 Darhad expedition focused on wolverine tracking and collected dozens of scat samples for genetic analysis. We hoped to find and collect additional wolverine scat to analyze and compare with the 2013 samples in order to increase understanding of wolverine populations in the Darhad. We would also be surveying for other wildlife, assisting the Protected Areas’ Administration to develop a baseline understanding of wildlife species presence and distribution across the region.
Although our plan was to follow the GPS track recorded by the 2013 expedition for part of our route, nobody had ever traversed Ulaan Taiga on modern skis (the 2013 expedition traversed Tengis Shishged), so we relied on Google Earth to chart an approximate course that followed river valleys connected with mountain passes that appeared to be passable. When we got to Mongolia we shared our intended route (on Google Earth), with the Protected Areas’ director, Tumursukh Jal, who has spent a lifetime in the mountains surrounding the Darhad. He confirmed that it was doable, at least in the summer. No one knew for sure if it was possible in winter, with potentially dangerous snow conditions or uncrossable rivers. There was only one way to find out.
The Darhad, which is north of 50 degrees’ latitude, is notoriously cold, with the average temperature staying below zero from November through March. Frostbite, bitter cold, and super deep snow were among the challenges the 2013 expedition faced. Knowing this, and having tracked the temperatures in the region all winter, our packs were loaded with -20 degree sleeping bags, extra-puffy jackets, overboots for cold feet, and more. However, upon arriving in Mongolia we learned that it had been an unusually low snow winter in the Darhad, and we’d arrived at the start of an unseasonably warm spring. As we drove to our starting point on the edge of Ulaan Taiga, the landscape was overwhelmingly brown. Thankfully the rivers remained frozen and were holding snow – essential for wildlife tracking.
Within minutes of clicking into our skis on the first day we came across wolverine tracks. When I first saw the tracks I thought to myself “naw…it can’t be” and then heard Rebecca exclaim “Gulo!” (Gulo gulo is the scientific name for wolverine). We followed the tracks upriver, carefully examining every willow or larch tree that might be hiding a scat. Snow tracking gives you a very different perspective on your surroundings than simply skiing. It’s an opportunity to view the world through another species’ perspective and to imagine what they’ve experienced along the same route. Before long, our wolverine had started following, or perhaps was being followed by, several wolves. Wolf tracks and wolverine tracks intertwined and wove in and out of willows in the braided river channel. We followed the tracks until the wolverine left the river and set off across the steppe where, because there was no snow, our tracking ended. We continued skiing upriver, searching for more tracks.
We quickly settled into a rhythm – ski, eat, rest, repeat. Day after day. Our general pattern was to follow a river to its source, ascend a pass, ski down the next drainage until intersecting our next upstream river, and repeat. Wolverine and other wildlife tracks were numerous but the snow was, in a word, terrible. Although it became more abundant after we gained elevation on our first day, it never improved in quality. Sugar, facets, breakable crust, glop, ice – Mongolia’s cold and ultra-dry climate makes for difficult snow conditions. At lower elevations, we were restricted to river corridors as the frozen river was the only skiable surface and place where tracks were evident. Beyond the river we “skied” over rocks, willows, tussocks, mosses, and grass, or opted to put our skis on packs and walk.
Access to Mongolia’s Strictly Protected Areas is restricted to scientific purposes only and our expedition would not have been possible without permission, support, and guidance from the Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas’ Administration. The administrative staff in the town of Ulaan Uul and the Darhad rangers who met us at three separate points along our route to resupply us with food, fuel and fresh socks were as much a part of the expedition team as the five of us on skis. In planning the expedition, we knew our resupplies would be critical, but what we hadn’t anticipated was how enjoyable they would be. Each resupply was an opportunity to spend time with and, learn from, the Mongolians who are dedicated to protecting and caring for the mountains we were traveling through. Although none of the Mongolians we met in the Darhad speak English, and Dylan’s, Sarah’s, and my Mongolian is limited to “hello”, “thank you”, “goodbye” “wolverine” and – my favorite – a children’s rhyme where you chant “shade shade go away, come here sun!”, Jen and Rebecca both speak Mongolian. Rebecca, in particular, is fluent and graciously provided translation for everybody.
Despite the language barrier, our experiences in a shared landscape, and our skis, provided connection. Skiing has a long history in the Darhad, especially among the Tsataan, nomadic reindeer herders who traditionally used skis to hunt during the winter, but it is a dying tradition. We had great fun helping our new Mongolian friends into our boots (well, mostly Dylan’s boots) and watching them try out our skis. One of the rangers who met us for our first resupply, Boldbaatar, was especially keen to ski. I pulled on my boots to join him, thinking I would be providing ski instruction, and he took off like a rocket! I hurried to catch up, and soon realized that what I thought was a ski lesson was actually a ski race! As it turns out, Boldbaatar had skied when he was in school! When we finally came to a stop, he laughed and said riding a horse was a much easier way to travel! Horse travel is limited by deep snow, however, and after observing how skis allowed us to travel deep into the mountains, and trying them out for themselves, all the rangers we met excitedly talked about how skis would help them in their work patrolling the backcountry.
On the 12th night of the expedition we camped on the banks of the Ikh Jams river. From this point forward we followed the same route (although in the opposite direction) as the 2013 expedition. It was a relief to know that others had skied, and ground-truthed, the route. Our first 12 days had included detours around surprise waterfalls, tiptoeing through avalanche terrain, and the general sense of adventure that comes from really not knowing what’s around the corner. The second half of our traverse was marked more by challenges with gloppy, or non-existent, snow than terrain or route-finding difficulties.
In planning this expedition, we aimed to hit the sweet spot between long days and adequate snow, so we started skiing right after spring equinox. Of course, we hadn’t planned on an unseasonably warm spring. As the days grew longer and temperatures continued to rise, it became more and more of a struggle to find skiable surfaces, much less wolverine tracks. Rivers were our main travel arteries both because they are generally the path of least resistance (ie. least willows) down a valley, and because frozen rivers provide a wonderfully skiable surface. Until they start to melt. Although the rivers rarely melted to the point of being impassable (except for short stretches), we encountered increasing amounts of slushly overflow, which built up in an aggravating layer of glop on the bottoms of our skis. We also had to be aware of deep pockets of water sandwiched between slush and the frozen river below, and occasionally had to quickly change course to avoid filling our boots with water. Towards the end of the expedition we often found ourselves walking in our ski boots up dry riverbeds, through willow-choked riparian areas, or across snow-free meadows, but we generally managed to find another section of snow or ice without having to walk too far.
We had our doubts about whether the snow would hold out. Our last few days of skiing were a bit contrived as we hopscotched our way along from one skiable surface to the next, but we made it to our final destination at Jiglig Pass, a major nomadic migration route connecting the Darhad Valley to Khövsgöl lake. Twenty-nine days and 340 miles after first shouldering our packs on the Gunii, we had completed a human-powered winter traverse through some of the most remote country on earth. By the time we took our boots off for the last time, we’d documented 45 sets of wolverine tracks, collected over a dozen scat samples, and filled 12 pages of data sheets with track locations of other wildlife species including moose, wolf, elk, boar, roe deer, sable, lynx, and marten. We did not find any sign of snow leopard.
Throughout our time in the Darhad everybody we talked with mentioned that spring was a month ahead of schedule – the rivers were breaking up early and the snow was melting faster than they’d seen before. While the early spring was a bit of a headache for our ski expedition, it’s indicative of a much larger concern. Climate change is dramatically impacting Mongolia. While the effects climate change is having on Mongolia’s human population are of grave concern, less is known about how it’s impacting the country’s wildlife.
Wolverines are closely linked with persistent spring snow cover and scientists are concerned about the species’ ability to persist in a warming, less snowy, world. Government designations have protected this unique place from mining and development, but boundaries and designations won’t stop climate change and its impacts on species across the globe. The Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas’ Administration staff are incredibly dedicated to protecting their unique corner of the world for future generations. This expedition was one small contribution to their efforts and to advancing wildlife conservation in Mongolia. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be part of this larger effort to address climate change and the impacts it has on our wild snowscapes.
Sometimes it’s hard to grasp the extent of a journey when you’re in the middle of it. When we were skiing we were often just focused on our goal for the day, the number of hours since our last snack break, or the wolverine tracks we were following. Up one river and down the next, trudging through deep snow, and effortlessly gliding down river ice, we kept moving forward. After days of moving, it was anticlimactic when we took of our ski boots at the end to wait on the side of a road for our ride back to the Protected Areas’ headquarters in Ulaan Uul. But, when we were driving through the Darhad Valley the following morning we saw the vast panorama of mountains we had just traversed for the first time. Our jaws dropped open as we piled out of the van to take in the view. Suddenly we had some perspective on where we’d been and how far we’d traveled over the past month, as well as the enormity of the challenge faced by the Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas’ Administration to care for and manage such a vast landscape.