The following article, describing one of our expeditions to the Russian Altai, appeared in the magazine "Irish Mountain Log" in the winter of 2005.
The Altai Mountains in Southwestern Siberia first intrigued me after reading the book Entering the circle by Olga Kharitidi. Her evocative descriptions of this beautiful mountain range were so appealing that I resolve to go there. By a happy coincidence I attended an Adventure Alternative presentation by Gavin Bate in NUI-Galway in 2002 and discovered that the Altai was one of three destinations in Russia that Gavin organized trips to, the others being Elbrus and Kamchatka.
Two years later, in 2004, the Clare Outdoor Club invited Gavin to Ennis to present a slideshow outlining in more detail the nature of the Russian adventures he offers. As soon as I heard that Gavin's guide and business partner in Moscow , Sasha Lebedev, was just completing a guidebook on the Altai Mountains , I knew that I have chosen the right agency for the trip. My next challenge was how to persuade nine others to join me!
This provided easier than expected as, luckily, some non-mountaineering friends had also been enchanted by Olga's book and tales of Ð¡ice maidens' unearthed on the high Altaian plateau, as described in National Geographic (October 1994). So, dates agreed, we flew from Shannon to Barnaul , via London and Moscow , in September of this year.
Barnaul , a city about 600,000 people, hosts the nearest major airport to the Altai. Sasha met us on our arrival and we proceeded to the pink-and-white Kia minibus that was to take us on the first leg of a 12-hour road trip to Tyungur, the Ð£base-campÐ¤ village for treks in the southeastern Altai Mountain region. This is where Mt Belukha (4,506m), the highest mountain in Siberia , is located.
En route, we visited the excellent Altai Regional Museum in Gorno-Altaisk, a must for anyone interested in the archeology of this region. The next day, we stopped briefly in Ust-Koksa, along the Katun River , and visited the delightful wooden Pokrovskoe Church while Sasha registered our visas with the authorities. All the while, we were following the Chuisky Trakt, the main M52 roadway that runs right through the Altai Republic and into Mongolia .
In Tyungur, we crossed the shaky suspension bridge from village and stayed the night at the very well-organized Turbaza Vysotnik (a turbaza is a tourist camp). Here we were introduced to Yulia, an English teacher from Barnaul , who would be our cook and assistant guide to Sasha for the next eleven days. Next morning, Sasha introduced Alexei and Nikolay, our two horseman, who, with their team of seven horses, carried all our gear and food for the trek.
We took a five-day high-level loop walk to the east of the Akkem Valey, with many doog mountain views en route. We averaged six hours' walking per day and pitched our tents in lovely location each evening. Every day was different, but the familiar pattern of collecting dry firewood of our campfire, over which Yulia cooked all of our breakfasts and dinners each day in three billycans suspended from a thin wooden branch, some became second-nature to all of us. Sasha's knowledge of the flora and fauna, history, topography, language, culture and customs of the Altai people was encyclopedic. Apart from a glimpse of one or two farmers and shepherds working at a distance, we only met one other person on the trail approaching Akkem lake after five days and two other trekkers on the eighth day.
At Lake Akkem, there is a hydro-meteorological station, four metal, drum-style lodges used by Mountain Rescue and the area suitable for camping about 10 minutes' walk from the lake. The early morning and late evening views of Mt Belukha from here were stunning and we undertook two radial hikes from his campsite. The first was on the snowy Sunday morning up to the Valley of the Seven Lakes . The next day was beautiful and, fortunately for us, the best conditions in which to trek up close to the headwall of the Akkem Glacier, some 2,000m below the thin peaks and immense ice-walled north face of Belukha .
We realized before our trip that we would be visiting this region on the centenary of the publication Siberia : A Record of Travel, Climbing and Exploration by Samuel Turner, FRGS, who in early 1904 attempted to be the first person to climb Mt Belukha. Turner's is a fascinating and detailed account of his winter expedition to the Altai and climbing of Belukha and, reading it, one quickly realizes just how little has changed in 100 years. It is a must for anyone intending to add this fine mountain to their list of climbs.
Superb panoramas of Mt Belukha were our reward of crossing the Kara-Tyurek (Ð£Black HeartÐ¤) Pass (3,100m) the next day, en route to the neighboring Kucherla Valley . We descended to the Lake Kucherla on the following day, having enjoyed another pleasant night camping in the wilderness. Here, the weather changed a little to greyer skies and some rain, but our spirits and bodies were warmed by a visit to a nearby wood-fired sauna (or Russian bahna). This was situated in a tiny complex of hunting lodges frequented by wealthy hunters from Europe and North America who traveled here in winter to hunt for bear deer and wild goats. The caretaker kindly took the time (five hours) to crank up the heat and get the steam flowing so that we could relax and ease our aching limbs and forget about the rain and wind for the evening!
The walk out along the Kucherla River from the lake took two days, and we collected wild mushrooms for our dinner on the first of these. These went down well by the glacial riverbank where an old Russian log cabin became the accommodation for most of our group for the night, as a welcome respite from the tents! Next day saw us back in Tyungur at Turbaza Vysotnik by mid-afternoon, and the following morning we traveled the full 12-hour bus journey back to Barnaul for a very short final night in Hotel Barnaul and our flights home early the next morning.
Had it not been for Andrey Panin, Adventure Alternative's agent in Moscow , we would still be in Sheremetyevo Airport trying to make a very tight connection! Despite the hardships, everyone really enjoyed the Altai Adventure and we vowed to return and explore some other parts of Russia less well-known to westerners, in the company of Sasha, at some time in the future.
John O'Callaghan is chairman of Clare Outdoor Club and a member of the MCI Executive Committee