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Lake Baikal, Siberia - Winter Crossing

Trip ReportJames Hipkiss

In February I undertook an expedition to cross Lake Baikal in southern Siberia to raise money for my chosen charity the Dr Hadwen Trust. Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world at 1,642 m deep, 395 miles long and 49 miles wide. It holds a fifth of the worlds fresh water and is thought to be the oldest lake in the world.

I wanted to see this remote region and taste the real cold of Russia. I flew into Irkutsk, just north of the southern tip of the lake. From there we drove 4 hours to Olkhon Island. Just off the central west coast the island sits in the widest part of the lake and provided the launch point for our trek. On the drive we got our first taste of an ice road: the ice is over a metre thick at this time of year and the government mark out ice roads where the ice is strongest - this changes every winter. In summer the only way to the Island is via ferry. We drove a fair distance over rough and bumpy roads and finally arrived at our stopover for the night. It is a place called Khuzhuir and as well as having some fantastic scenery it is a place of significant spiritual meaning to the Buryat people (originally Mongolians, now one of the largest indigenous groups in Siberia). The town is small and relatively untouched by tourism so our hotel was brand new, smelling strongly of fresh wood. Tourism is growing though and it was surrounded by developing wooden structures.

Later we visited the shores and I slept restless thinking about the upcoming journey. Morning strikes and it is very windy as the breeze washes over the exposed town from the mountains. Today we drive across the island to Uzury - not even a town, but a weather station situated in a bay on the east side of Olkhon. Here we taste proper cold - as I get out the car and walk onto the ice I feel my nostrils start to freeze. I'm definitely glad I packed my warm belay parka. Again we stay in an amazing little hut on the beach with a stone oven inside to keep us warm. Before dusk we climb a small hill overlooking the bay and enjoy the amazing vistas infront of us, if not just a little nervous at seeing the vastness we have to cover. In the evening we go for our first 'Banya' - a Russian sauna. I am glad to have the heat soothe our muscles and relaxes our nerves, for the following morning we set out on the lake. As I walk back to our hut (my wet hair freezing) I look up at the stars and see more than I have ever seen. I am so happy to be alive and feel truly in the present moment.

The sun rises and we get up slowly. A big breakfast to fuel a big day is eaten, and we start to pack our sleds. When I carry my sled to the ice, with 2 tents, a sleeping bag, all my clothes, food and water, I worry it will feel very hard to pull. I put on my harness as we prepare to leave, look back at land, and start to walk. With no snow on the ice there is very little friction and reassuringly my sled glides fairly easily behind me. The ice is crystal clear in places and it feels very strange to walk on - some people are known to have had vertigo standing over the darkness, and being there I can understand why - walking from cloudy ice to a clear patch feels like walking off the edge into water, your stomach drops and you have to remind yourself how thick the ice is.

As the sun comes up the ice warms and the ice around you starts to crack with alarming force - the noise is like a gunshot and the ice sometimes shudders underneath you. This takes a lot of getting used to - my instinct is to run! 30 minutes into our walk we hit our first obstacle; this winter has been relatively warm for the region and as such there are many ice hummocks - big boulder fields of ice blocking your path. They can go on for kilometres, or sometimes just metres, but as some are well over 6ft tall walking over them isn't often possible. Even the small ones can topple your sled over making walking very slow and tedious. Much winding and weaving gets us a decent way, though we realise the distance we are really going to walk is a lot longer than our straight line measurements.

After a few hours my beard is covered in icicles and the first pangs of tiredness starts to hit my legs. 7 hours of walking is what we think it will take to cover the 20km target - I get in the zone and push on, occasionally munching energy bars and drinking hot tea to keep me fueled. After seemingly endless hours and boulder fields we start to look for a decent patch to set-up camp. I had worried about sleeping on the ice as once static it is much harder to stay warm, especially at -30C. I was concerned how my gear would hold up - there is no mercy in Siberia. Once you start cooking the tent warms up and when I got in my sleeping bag I felt confident.

After 4 days of insomnia I ironically got a decent nights sleep - that's what exhaustion will do for you! We wake up with our sleeping bags and tent walls covered in hoar frost. Every time I move it rains down on my face - I dread having to get out of my warm sleeping bag, but quickly the excitement builds and soon I am raring to get going. We look out the tent and see during the night the wind has collapsed our cooking tent. I make a mental note to take more ice screws to anchor the tents next time. Warming up my frozen boots doesn't take too long and I feel very pleased at how well my cold weather gear is working for me. My nose and beard freezes almost instantly in the morning winds, and I can only take my gloves off for a moment before my hands freeze, but I am warm under all my layers and can stay outside almost indefinitely. After some difficult packing-up in the winds, we set off. I start strong, feeling very rested, grinning constantly.

After about 5 hours of fast paced walking my body starts to crash. My feet are sore from the way my Microspikes are sitting on the soles of my feet, my ankle is rolling slightly also due to mis-positioning of the spikes, and an old injury in my hamstring is occasionally making me wince. We push past our 21km target and my body tells me it has had enough - my ankle hurts and I slow to a snails pace. I know we need to set up camp fast. We find the closest possible spot and set up the tent. As I dig out a platform for the tent with an aluminium shovel I can't be bothered to put on my glove back on. When I go to put it back on, for some reason my hand doesn't fit in the liner - I realise it is numb. Fear stirs in my stomach - the skin is white and all the stories of frostbite I have heard play through in my mind. I unzip my parka and put my hand under my armpit, praying the warmth will thaw it out. Quickly the blood starts to flow back and I know I am in the clear.

It is a stark reminder of how quickly a small mistake can lead to massive consequences here. I collapse into the tent, eat the chocolate coins my Mother gave me back in England, and feel my blood sugars start to rise. Exhaustion blurs your mind and I realise I have to keep on top of my vitals if I am going to stay safe. The night is a noisy one; as we are sleeping behind ice hummocks to block the wind it means we are right next to a fault-line in the ice. The loud cracks and shuddering of the tent keep me awake, and I hear noises outside the tent - in the morning I am told it was a 'Nerpa', or Baikal Seal scratching the ice, perhaps making a breathing hole. As I get up I do my usual morning routine of Ice Yoga and my ankle feels a lot better, but I use a compression bandage from my first aid kit to be safe. We pack up and get going - today we have to cover almost 30km, but with the coast in sight we are very motivated and I feel the strongest yet - my body is adjusting to the abuse. As we get closer to the eastern side of the lake it starts to snow slightly, the Mongolian side of the lake is a lot colder and snowier than its Russian counterpart. Snow increases the friction on the ice so our sleds feel heavier.

The day is long but we can taste the finish - I think a lot about the charity, the money I am raising and my family, and use this to push me past my limits. Just half a kilometre from the shore, clearly reaching the shallows, we hit our biggest ice hummocks yet. With spirits still high, and laughing, we all take different routes over these ridiculously big slabs of ice. Some of them pivot and it definitely feels precarious. Suddenly we realise there are no more steps to take - we have made it.

I take pictures with a banner for my charity and all that is left is to drag our sleds over some snow drifts 15 ft high, how they got to be so big I can't imagine. We call in our pickup by satellite phone and drive to Maksimikha for another night in a fantastic on-shore hotel - this area is so remote we are the only guests out of 30 rooms. We spend the next day leisurely driving around the national park, bathing in hot volcanic springs (a very strange experience feeling your beard freeze whilst your body is in a hot bath), climbing up on islands, walking in caves, visiting temporary ice fishing villages (having lunch in one of their yurts) and playing with the very friendly local dogs.

We drive to Ulan-Ude where we finish our journey. I can safely say this has been one of the best things I have ever done, and can highly recommend the winter Lake Baikal experience to anyone looking for a polar-like expedition without the polar price tag!Thanks for reading! :)"