BD employees report on their climbing trip to Mongolia
In June 2010 a crew of Black Diamond employees (Andy and Holly Merriman, Nick Rueff, Jimmy “Balls” Basler, and Ryan Gellert) teamed up with some other American friends (Including photographer Nathan Smith who wrote and photographed a feature about the trip for Rock & Ice magazine) for a two-week climbing expedition to Mongolia. The group managed to complete a slew of new routes on the coarse granite domes, walls and boulders, as well as enjoyed the amazing culture and adventure travel Mongolia offers. Below is their report from the trip, as well as photos (from Nick and Nathan) and a PDF guide (click here to download the guide).
[Nickl Rueff on Chingis Gold (5.12a)]
With the rise in cell phone technology, almost ubiquitous wifi coverage and an increasing level of connectedness, there are very few places in the world that are still truly remote. The rolling hills and grassy steppes of Mongolia definitely qualify. In a country roughly the size of Alaska with a population of only 3 million – 1.5 million of which live in the capital city of Ulaan Baatar (UB) – Mongolia is a place that personifies desolate. Once out of the UB city limits, paved roads are few and far between – electricity and established towns even less common. Present day Mongols are one of the few truly nomadic cultures left, living in Gers (yurts) and dutifully tending their livestock. However, when you do run into people, they tend to be some of the most friendly, welcoming and accommodating people anywhere. It was a chance to immerse ourselves in this culture, while hopefully developing some climbing on the side that enticed our group to explore Mongolia.
The wheels were set in motion by Andy and Holly who had made a visit several years back while living in China and helping set up Black Diamond’s manufacturing facility. A weeklong visit had seen the development of a handful of routes in the Terelj area – a lush valley with endless granite spires about 2 hours northeast of UB. After endless badgering from Andy, we agreed that we should start putting something together. Finding flights from Beijing to UB proved to be more difficult that we expected and it took almost a year to finally make something work.
In early June of 2010, our motley group converged on the Beijing airport. Nick Rueff, Andy Merriman and Jimmy Basler were just wrapping up another 2-3 week work trip in southern Asia. Ryan Gellert and his wife, Xiaomin, were living in China at the time. The five met up in Ryan’s tiny Hong Kong apartment and prepared for a red-eye to Beijing. After a brutal 8 hour delay in the HK airport and almost getting kicked out of the red carpet lounge, they were finally on their way.
[The team's ger homebase with acres of untapped granite in the background]
Erin Bergey and Holly Merriman, Nick and Andy’s better halves, got stuck with a ridiculous itinerary traveling from Salt Lake to Beijing. Because their flights were booked with frequent flyer miles, they were at the mercy of the airlines. They would hit no fewer than 5 airports on their journey (SLC-Denver-Calgary-Narita-Beijing). Adding insult to injury, Erin’s main rollerbag was lost on the way to Calgary and it ultimately took half of our trip to get it back.
The final member of our ensemble was Nathan Smith, the only one not directly associated with BD. Between Andy’s endless spraying and a friend’s trip to Mongolia, Nate was excited to explore Mongolia with us. Nate was a perfect complement to our group. As an avid and prolific first ascensionist, he was well versed in what it takes to clean, equip and establish a new line. Nate is possibly best known as a professional photographer. Not only was he excited to be able to document our trip and have an opportunity to capture Mongolia’s unique culture in image form, Andy was beside himself knowing he was going to have someone taking his picture for a full two weeks. Nate also provided a welcome relief to our group’s particularly lowbrow sense of humor. His deep monotone voice was often heard questioning the group’s sanity after a long sigh and a disbelieving shake of the head. It didn’t take long for him to come around though and by the end of the trip he fit right in.
Upon arrival, the first two days were spent gearing up and checking out the city. UB has a lot of Russian influence and feels very much like an Eastern European city in some ways. This spell is quickly broken as you head to the outskirts of town and find whole “neighborhoods” of gers lined up as far as the eye could see. We spent some time walking through the town square, with all of its statues of Genghis Khan, also known as Chinggis Khaan, the infamous Mongolian ruler of the Mongol Empire who would, at his peak, rule over most of Eurasia.
Our primary contact in UB was a man who went by the title Mr. Bold. Always smiling and excited for our visit, Mr. Bold helped us with accommodation, food and secured us a driver for the first week of our trip named Miigaa. Both Mr. Bold and Miigaa were very welcoming and gracious to our often very unusual needs and requests. Miigaa especially became very used to us pointing at an outcropping of rock or a lone boulder and excitedly asking him to take us there. Miigaa, who understood English very well and spoke it passably, became a memorable member of our group. We shared our food and vodka and he patiently drove us to every chunk of rock we wanted to explore. We even got him to boulder a little with us! Miigaa has explored every inch of Mongolia with his wife and has a beautiful book of pictures documenting his travels. He proudly displayed and shared his journeys with us the same way any climber shares stories and pictures from past adventures.
[Nick, Andy and Ryan sorting out the mess of gear inside their ger]
Wanting to be prepared for anything, we had a LOT of stuff: several full racks of cams, a drill plus 100 bolts and hangers, plenty of quickdraws, 4 or 5 ropes, tents, 2 crash pad shells, solar panels and batteries, stoves, pots and pans – the list goes on. However, even with our diligent preparations we still needed a few things. Bringing crash pads was difficult - we didn’t have room to bring entire pads and shipping them to UB was prohibitively expensive. We decided we would bring shells and make do with the best foam we could find once there. We also needed brushes and other cleaning utensils for route development as well as some simple cooking supplies. Where can one find such a mix of supplies in UB (where there is no Wal-Mart)? The Black Market of course.
Sprawling across the outskirts of town, the Black Market is huge. We heard estimates that upwards of 60,000 people would be negotiating its stalls on a busy weekend day. Thankfully we had Mr. Bold to help us get around. We bounced around from section to section seeing everything you could possibly imagine for sale. Because so many of the people in Mongolia are still nomadic, the Black Market serves as a one-stop shopping area for those people who are coming through for their yearly restocking. Tools, fabric, clothes and solar panels were common sights for this reason. We found everything we needed along with some very unique souvenirs. Most of the group left the Black Market with an entire wardrobe of authentic Mongolian garb, from boots to undershirts to hats.
Having spent a couple days in the city, we were all ready to explore the country. We enjoyed our last English breakfast and espresso at Café Amsterdam and packed up the van. The roads in Mongolia are treacherous at best. There are only 2 paved roads in Mongolia – one that runs east-west and another that runs north-south – and they meet in UB. These paved roads are full of pot holes, debris and often livestock. Once you get off of them, the road quality deteriorates even further. Because of this, the vehicle of choice for journeys like ours is the UAZ. Russian made and built to be taken anywhere, the UAZ looks like a loaf of bread stacked onto the chassis of a hummer. These vehicles are as bare bones as it gets which makes them easy to service when they break down – and they always break down. Nothing short of a tank would survive the continuous beating vehicles in Mongolia are subjected to.
[Erin Bergey and Holly Merriman on What's the Scoop (V2)]
As we prepared the vehicle for the 16 rollerbags, 2 crashpads and 9 people we were going to try to fit, we learned some unusual news. We had planned on being able to strap a good quantity of our stuff on the roof but apparently this was not allowed. Travel groups, stacked unnaturally high with gear, had started tipping over with concerning frequency. To try and put a stop to this, the Mongolian government had started enforcing a new law prohibiting anything from being on the roof. We had a hard time understanding how anyone was going to enforce this rule but apparently if you were caught a hefty fine was in store. Initially we thought we were going to have to find another vehicle but after a lengthy game of rollerbag tetris, we managed to fit everything in the now very crowded UAZ. Not for the first or last time, Miigaa looked at us like we were crazy.
We endured 1-2 hours of traffic leaving UB and another 6-8 hours of steady bouncing down the road before we reached our destination. We were aiming for an escarpment of rock southwest of UB and very close to the old capital city of Kharkhorin. Between Google Earth and beta from Mr. Bold and Miigaa, this spot held the most promise. We arrived in the evening and had just enough light to scope out a section that looked like it held some promise for climbing. We found a nearby Ger camp and Miigaa negotiated us a good deal.
We all awoke the next morning excited to explore our surroundings. It was much warmer than we expected – full on desert heat and sun – but it didn’t deter us at all. We quickly made our way up to the most promising section of cliff and started scoping lines. Several jumped out at us immediately and a couple different groups started strategizing on how best to equip them. Nate had eyed out a striking arête that would make for some fun sport climbing and great pictures. Erin, Holly and Andy found a nice arching crack to explore on top rope. As Nick and Nate ran back down to camp to grab the drill and hardware, the excitement in the air was palatable. Everyone was psyched how well things came together and was anxious to start climbing. The excitement may have been a little premature.
[Andy Merriman on Mongolian Route Rage (5.11c)]
After hauling a couple heavy packs back up, Nate geared up and started making his way to the top of the arête. 30-45 minutes later he was hanging in place ready to drill anchors. The drill whirred to life and upon first impact, immediately ground to a halt. “You guys forgot to charge the drill!” Nate yelled. Jimmy yelled back, “No way – I let it charge for a whole day in China before we left.” Andy had a concerned look on his face. “Wait a minute. You used the transformer, right?” The question was met with a confused stare from Jimmy. “What do you mean…” Jimmy didn’t realize the old Hilti we brought wasn’t automatically switchable from 110 to 220. He had plugged at 110 battery into the 220 plug found in China and had fried the circuitry. We were without a power drill and Andy forgot to bring a hand drill as a backup.
Seeing as though we were unable to equip any sport climbs, we turned our focus to the possible gear lines in the area. Erin, Holly and Andy had top roped the arching crack they initially spotted and were psyched to try and lead it. Somewhere in the 5.11 range, the climbing was solid but the gear was a little tricky. Often pinching down to shallow, flaring pods the gear was difficult to figure out and not very confidence inspiring. On top of that, the rock had a top exfoliating layer that was easy to clean off but disconcerting until it was gone. Feet were often crumbling slightly and the edges of the cracks had small pebbles that were not solid and made gear placements that much scarier.
After drawing straws, Erin found herself on the sharp end. Confidently plugging a few pieces, she slowly but steadily made her way higher and higher. Nate and Nick were perched about 100 yards back, psyched to be getting such good shots of climbing this early in the trip. Suddenly, without warning, Erin’s hand greased out of an undercling and she let out a surprised shout. As she fell, gaining momentum, each of the pieces she had placed popped out and she hit the rock slab with a sickening thud. Everyone ran over, hearts in their throats, expecting the worse. We were a solid 6-8 hour drive from UB, the only place with medical facilities but almost certainly not up to western standards. Any significant injury here was very likely to be life threatening. Climbing in the US is positively benign compared to this and we take our medical system, with helicopters and cell phone access, for granted. All of this raced through everyone’s minds in an instant. Thankfully, after a careful once over, we realized she was okay. Two very bruised heels and some scratches was the extent of it. Our nerves and psych shot, we decided to call it a day and drink some vodka.
The group realized we were never going to get what we wanted to accomplish done without a functional drill. We had wanted to explore Kharkhorin and a busted drill was a good excuse to go into town early. It only took a couple hours to get there and we quickly found a ger camp on the edge of town. Kharkhorin is a very small town reminiscent of what border towns in the US must have been like 150 years ago. The locals were a hardened group that could obviously withstand the harsh environment. The history of such an old town was evident, especially at the local Erdene Zuu Monastery which is one of the oldest in the country.[Ryan Gellert on Foxtrot Unicorn (V6)]
Understanding that we needed to get the charger fixed, Miigaa drove around town to see what our options were. For reasons that were never totally clear, Miigaa pulled over at one point and started talking to an older man. Before we knew it, we were packing in a little tighter to make room for the old man to join us. We sped off to another part of town and stopped at a nondescript ger. We all piled out and slowly understood that we had happened across the town doctor who had taken us to the town electrician. He (the electrician) wasn’t at home but he had been called and was on his way. In the meantime, his children had taken an interest in all the white people who had just showed up. We had picked up some coloring books and toys at the Black Market for occasions just like this. We pulled out a soccer ball and suddenly, all the shyness disappeared. The electrician’s daughter was particularly excited to have a whole group of new friends to play with. We later learned her name was something that sounded like Jeltsa and she wasted no time ordering us around by pointing and gesturing. At one point Ryan, who towered over her, decided to play keep-away which quickly got him banished from the circle. A frown, firm shake of the head and stern point left no question about what Ryan was supposed to do.
After waiting 30-40 minutes, it was clear the electrician was not going to show up. We all piled into the van again, assuming we were going to plan B. Instead, we drove across town and showed up at another ger. The old man jumped out and next thing we knew, we were making room for another person. We now had 11 people, 16 rollerbags and 2 crashpads stuffed in the bulging UAZ. We quickly realized we had gone to pick up the electrician who was obviously very drunk and not at all happy about the situation. He proceeded to berate us in Mongolian, drunkenly pointing and glaring at each of us. To our satisfaction, we hit a particularly big bump and his head crashed into the window hard enough to make his red eyes water. It was all we could do to not burst out laughing.
We raced back to the electrician’s house but quickly moved on because he was entirely too drunk to work. He could barely sit on a stool much less replace the fuse in our charger. It was a frustrating and discouraging way to spend most of the day. However, after dropping us off at camp, Miigaa went off on his own and managed to find a shop that had a young guy who specialized in cell phone repair. We brought our charger to him and Miigaa explained what happened. After quizzing Andy on his circuits knowledge he said he could fix it. For about $40 USD he not only fixed the charger but made it switchable between 110 and 200. This kid was good! The group was elated and we went to sleep thinking we were back in business. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
The next day we drove back to the mountains, charging the drill off of the UAZ on the way. We came in from a slightly different direction and got to scope a good section of the escarpment. We were excited to see a lot of different options and psyched we had a drill again because most of them looked like face climbs that would need to be bolted. We also stumbled across the best concentration of boulders we had found yet. We stopped and spent the afternoon putting up half a dozen of the highest quality boulder problems we would find the entire trip.
Just as we were packing up, a wall of darkness started moving our way. We only barely managed to pack everything into the van just as a massive sandstorm hit us, blasting us with sand hard enough to take off a layer of skin. We drove around the corner and found a different ger camp named Camp Eden. Desperate to get out of the wind and sand, we quickly pulled in and sent Miigaa to see if they had any accommodation. They were happy to have us and we rushed to unload the van. Camp Eden was comprised of Tee-pees instead of Gers and we found them to be nice and spacious.
The owners of Camp Eden were some of the nicest people we met the entire trip. They let us cook inside their main building on our stoves where it was warm and out of the rain. We concocted a huge meal and invited everyone to join us. The next several days were spent exploring this new area and putting up routes. We found several excellent boulders that also yielded some of the best bouldering of the trip. We also found one particular spire with a couple different routes that ended at the same point. Unfortunately, after testing the drill we realized we had not only fried the charger, we had obviously damaged the battery as well. Fully without any options at this point, Andy fashioned a hand drill out of a bit and a roll of tape and spent a solid hour or more drilling two holes for anchors. It was worth it because it allowed us to climb the two best gear routes of the trip: Prison of Eden (5.9) and Rabble, Rabble (5.11).
[Holly Merriman on Prison of Eden (5.9)]
We left the area satisfied with what we had climbed but frustrated that we didn’t explore more of the area’s potential because we didn’t have a drill. However, we needed to get back to UB so Ryan and Xiaomin could return to China, hopefully get the drill fixed and explore the Terelj area, which we knew had a lot of opportunities for new routes.
We arrived safely in UB having survived the first week of mishaps. We still had a broken drill but we did retrieve Erin’s lost bag and confirmed that there is a Hilty dealer in town so things were looking up. We resupplied with essentials for the upcoming week (food and vodka), had a tearful goodbye with Gellert (not really), and picked up an extra person for the 2nd week of the trip (our new friend Wil).
Monday morning we grabbed yet another English breakfast at Café Amsterdam, packed the the now incredibly roomy van and headed to the Hilti dealer. Unfortunately our drill was too old for them to help us. We could of course buy a new one for $1,200, which would help out our cause but was way too expensive. After receiving this news the van of hopeful climbers went quiet and the mood could be cut with a knife. All we had to work with was a drill bit with enough climbing tape on it to form a handle to pound on. That would get us about one bolt per hour…..awesome. Then alas, the boys got a genius idea that the drill could run off of three motorcycle batteries. (I highly recommend going on a trip with a few engineers). We picked them up at the Black Market and then head out of town in the pouring rain.
[Nick Reuff and Andy Merriman put their engineering skills to work on the busted Hilti]
As we entered Terelj our spirits were already lifted. As far as we could see there were large rock outcroppings of granite, rolling green hills and breathtaking views as far as our eyes could see. There was even a river for Jimmy to cast his line into, which made him happy. We had Miigaa take us into Terelj village for some lunch (dumplings again) and then went back to the same ger camp Andy and Holly had stayed at three years ago. As we entered camp they were amazed at how much it had changed. What used to be a small camp with just a few gers, is now a large camp with gers, tepees, and a log building with a bathroom and running water. After unloading ridiculous amounts of rollerbags and backpacks, Miigaa left us for the week with what I could swear was a smile on his face, happy to be rid of us. We saw Miiga off and headed into the ger camp to explore our new home for a week.
The inside of the gers had just enough space for our gear and four people to sleep comfortably. We were greeted by the host as she came in with an arm load of wood for our small stove and a thermos of hot water. We waited out the rain and then ventured out to explore. The immediate rock around us had a ton of face climbing potential and we were excited as we scoped the cragging and bouldering potential for the next week. We were able to get on a couple of established routes that Steve Schneider had put up on his 2003 trip as well as bolt a couple of routes with our now working drill! After a long day of drill drama, changing weather and new found rock potential we all celebrated with a homemade meal by the resident Chef Merriman and some vodka to wash it down with.
[Holly Merriman on Mongolian Route Rage (5.11c)]
Holly & Erin were awoken the next morning just after dawn to Nate asking them to go climb his recently established two pitch route called Mongolian High Steppe for some sunrise photos. Holly mumbled something to the effect of, “Nate is a drill sergeant”. They begrudgingly got out of bed, drank some coffee, and start climbing. Mongolian High Steppe (5.9), which is a two pitch climb featuring chicken heads on the first pitch in all the right spots, and a slab with tenuous moves on small crystals for the second pitch. Even if they were sleep deprived the climbing was worth getting up early for.
We all were able to scope and establish new routes in the general surrounding area and the great thing about the face climbing in Terelj is if something looks good, then it probably is! One of the best routes on the trip was Chingis Gold (5.12a), named after the trip’s house vodka. Although fairly short, this route had it all with techy face moves, stemming, high stepping, long reaches, and even a hand jam. Another favorite was Mongolian Route Rage (5.11c). This route was a steep face with chicken heads to crimps, with the crux being a mantle with a long reach to a small jug. Another route of note was, Khan’s Classic (5.9), which was an all female ascent - from cleaning and bolting to sending. It was slaberiffic! Because we didn’t have a means for transportation our route development was limited to just the nearby outcroppings but this was more than enough to keep us busy.
[Erin Bergey and Holly Merriman on Khan's Classic (5.9)]
We spent the week exploring areas and getting in as much route climbing and bouldering as we could. Aside from a few rain showers and Andy almost getting attacked by dogs, the second portion of our trip went without epic. Our drill was working, the climbing exceeded our expectations, the expansive valley kept us captivated and the food was exceptional. The evenings were spent gathered in our gers getting a core workout from all the excessive laughing with good vodka and excellent company. We were entertained on the last evening by a crazy herd of goats scaling rocks just to find good grass. A site that could humble any climber.
The next day after a few more routes and some bouldering, Miigaa showed up with the van to take us back to UB. We said goodbye to our hosts including their daughter who we had nicknamed ‘Freckles’. After giving them some BD beanies, shirts, and cooking supplies they handed us a bottle of vodka as a parting gift (as if we needed any more). We also visited the cabin of a horseman Holly and Andy had met on their first trip. He had been watching us climb over the past week and we noticed his horse’s bridle was made out of climbing rope that they had given him three years prior. Unfortunately he was not home when we visited on the last day but we did leave him with some cooking supplies, more rope, and an Orbit at his front door. On our way back, Miigaa took us to the Aryaval Monastery so we could walk around, spin the prayer wheels and take a few more photos before heading back into town.
As most vacations go, we simply did not have enough time. We said goodbye to Miigaa, (who was the best driver we could have asked for) and left him with some gear he was sure to get some use out of. We had a nice dinner at a Mongolian restaurant called Modern Nomads with our friends Tom and Will, and then we were off to the states the next morning.
Mongolia is a very beautiful and desolate place with friendly locals and very good food (if you’re not a vegetarian). The climbing is sharp course granite; some crack, some vertical climbing, and a lot of slabs. To see more information on the climbing download Nate Smith’s Mongolian Guide from the trip.