American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, Mongolia, Mongolian Altai, Huiten, First Winter Ascent

  • Climbs And Expeditions
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  • Publication Year: 2003

Mongolian Altai, Huiten, first winter ascent. In winter 1998, we skied 400 km through Russia, Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia—making the first winter ascent of Huiten (4,374m), the highest point in Mongolia, on March 3. We called our expedition the Altai-Two Mountains, because we also climbed Belukhu, the highest peak of the Altai Mountains (Huiten is the second highest). Six of us from St. Petersburg took part in this journey, carrying everything on our backs for 27 days.

The geographic literature usually identifies two ranges: the Russian Altai (the ranges in Russian territory and in Kazakhstan), and the Mongolian Altai (running north-south along the Chi- nese-Mongolian border). The Mongolian Altai is an unusual area with high peaks, a dry climate, and the largest glaciers of the Altai. At its southern end, the Mongolian Altai is called the Gob- iskii Altai (Gobi Altai), because it abuts the edge of the Gobi desert.

Huiten is on the border between Russia and China, at the juncture of the Russian and the Mongolian Altai, in a massif called Tabyn-Bogdo-Ula (“five holy peaks”). The Tabyn-Bogdo-Ula first appeared in the scientific literature in 1905, after Russian geographer V. V. Sapozhnikov discovered the Potanina Glacier, the largest of the Altai, near the source of the Tsagan-Gol River (according to the archives of the Russian Geographical Society, Sapozhnikov named everything that bears a Russian name, in a 1905-1907 expedition).

Huiten is the mountain’s old Chinese name (which means “cold”), but its Mongolian name—given during an international climbing expedition in 1970—is Nairamdal, meaning “friendship.” The Tronovy brothers from Russia first tried to climb it from the Potanina Glacier in 1915, probably reaching the false summit by the southeast ridge.

On the east, in the direction of the Potanina Glacier, Huiten terminates in a steep ice wall, but two ridges provide a route to the summit. A third ridge on the north links Huiten with the peak Russkii Shater (where the boundaries of Russia, China, and Mongolia converge). This rocky ridge, beginning at the upper snowfield of the Potanina Glacier, is steeper than the others. To the west lies the basin of the Chinese Kanas River. The right-hand tributary of the Khalasi Glacier is called the Roborovsky Glacier. Through a low, wide pass, this tributary is visible from the Russian side of the Betsu-Kanas River valley. Finally, a short ridge runs south from the summit, toward the right branch of the Khalasi Glacier. Through the years, all the ridges have been traversed, but it looks like no one has ever tried to climb the south and east walls.

Besides Huiten, other peaks surrounding the basin of the Khalasi Glacier (Przheval’skii) have attracted a lot of attention. We believe that Snezhnii Tserkov’ (Snowy Church) and the Krasavitsa Peak (Beauty) are still unclimbed and unexplored. They are in Chinese territory, with summits near 4,000m.

We decided to climb Huiten by the southeast ridge, from the Potanina Glacier. From our base camp on a lateral moraine, we climbed the glacier on crampons, but unroped (there were almost no crevasses). After several kilometers, at the juncture of a right-hand tributary, we began encountering crevasses, then after two more hours we ran into more snow.

From the base of the southeast ridge, the summit appeared to be a snowy cupola— but we would find out that it was actually just a narrow ridge. Since we hadn’t used our skis, we left them at the base of the ridge and cramponed up 25° to 30° slopes, passing two large rock gendarmes on the right (crossing a 40° ice slope to get by the first one). It took an hour to reach a saddle on the ridge. The saddle was a flat, sheltered spot between low cliffs, with room for several tents.

On the south side (left of our route), the ridge ended in steep scree, while on our right, the east ice wall of Huiten was higher and steeper. We roped up, and continued climbing the jagged ridge, which was about 300m long. The ridge grew wider and steeper (up to 40°), and was crossed by many snow-covered crevasses. Hard ice lay beneath the surface of snow.

When we reached the south false summit, it was necessary to drop into a 25m deep, 10m wide knife-edge col, bounded by a cornice over a crevasse on the Potanina Glacier side, and a rock wall on the Chinese side. This drop was probably what stopped the Tronovy brothers in 1915. From the col, it was less than 50m to the summit marker. The ascent from the saddle had taken one hour and 30 minutes. We thought it looked like the marker was 100m south of the very highest point.

It took two hours and 30 minutes to descend to where we had left our skis. From there, those who chose to ski down reached base camp in another 30 minutes, while the rest of us who continued on foot were an hour behind them.

Although a strong wind and snowstorm, and -18°C temperatures had hampered our climb, the very next day it was sunny (but colder). March is the best month for a winter ascent of Huiten. The whole story about this skiing expedition, Altai–Two Mountains, is available in Russian on the internet at:

Konstantin Beketov, Russia, Translated by Henry Pickford, AAC

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