‘When you reach the top, the distant goal appears close’

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The Red Fox Elbrus Race-2022, an annual skyrunning competition at the highest mountain peak in Europe, gathered more than 160 athletes on May 7, testing their courage and agility. B.Nyam-Ochir from Horizon Mountaineering Club won a gold medal while climber from the Mongolian National Mountaineering Association and the UB Hiking Club, Sport Master D.Otgonkhuu won fourth place. From this race, D.Otgonkhuu seized a gold medal in 2017, a bronze medal in 2018, and a silver medal in 2019. Here is an interview of the two mountaineers.

Not everyone has the courage to climb the highest peak in Europe. When did you start thinking about climbing Mount Elbrus?

B.Nyam-Ochir: I waited three years to participate in this competition. In 2019, I first heard that the Red Fox Elbrus Race is held every year. At that time, I wanted to compete, but I couldn’t due to the pandemic. I’m so happy that I could challenge it this year, not to mention even winning it. We left the country on April 21 and climbed Mount Elbrus with our team on April 26 to prepare for the race. I think we were able to show the endurance of Mongolians in many ways during the competition.

D.Otgonkhuu: This is my eighth time participating in this competition. From 2013 to 2019, I represented my country. In 2017, I won the race for the first time and became the champion. the climb is different every year. In the past, the weather at Mount Elbrus suddenly worsened several times and competitors had to be sent back without reaching the top. The weather was pleasant this year, but it was windy and stormy due to heavy snowfall at the peak of the mountain. This was B.Nyam-Ochir’s first competition aboad and he made his way all the way to Mount Elbrus.

Extreme sports attract a lot of people. Do you seek out extraordinary adventures?

B.Nyam-Ochir: I was born in Uvs Province. When I was a child, my father used to take me hiking. It snows a lot around there during winter. Herding sheep in the snow was a test of patience. I think I learned most of my climbing skills while running across rocks and cliffs to herd cattle in the mountains. When I came to Ulaanbaatar as a student, I used to go hiking at Bogd Khan Mountain. I joined the Horizon Mountaineering Club and took part in high-altitude running. We went to Russia and spent a few days preparing for the race at Mount Elbrus, which is 4,300 to 5,300 meters high. At first, I didn’t think I was good enough to reach the peak. But my inner person said to me, “You have no right to get discouraged and go back, just keep going. Come on, run!” Since that’s what my heart was telling me to do, I worked hard to accomplish my goal. The weather was calm that day, with no clouds in the sky. Athletes were happy to be participating in the competition when the peak was in a “good mood”. After the race, the weather got worse.

D.Otgonkhuu: Dadal soum of Khentii Province is my birthplace. As a child, I used to climb mountains and walk across steppe land to herd livestock with my peers. When we went to participate in the competition, athletes had come from different regions of Russia. Due to the pandemic, the competition was postponed for two years, so the athletes needed to prepare at the mountain ahead of the race. Our northern neighbor is a strong competitor in mountaineering, sport climbing and sky race. There are high-altitude competitions in 1,000-meter running, sky marathon and sky race. Most athletes specialize in one sport and have been successful for many years. As for me, I participate in the sky race category. This time I took fourth place.

What tactics did you develop to compete against experienced international athletes?

B.Nyam-Ochir: While watching other athletes during training, the Russians looked a little better and stronger than others. Athletes who came in the first six places had made a huge gap from the others. Before the start of the race, there was a lot of snow on the top, and the higher we went, the worse it became. The Russian athlete who went first did not get tired, but he did slow down and I got to outrun him. He made way for me on purpose and followed me close. It was his tactic to win at the final moment. I knew his tactics, so I used all my energy and skills when we exceeded the 5,000-meter-altitude. As soon as we saw the peak, all runners increased their speed. I worked as hard as I could, forgetting that I was tired. The Russian athlete must have thought that I was inexperienced because he had never seen me before. He probably didn’t imagine I would win. Therefore, it was wrong for him to devise a plan to attack from behind and outrun me. He reached the top 13 minutes after me.

How did you feel when you got to the top of Mount Elbrus?

B.Nyam-Ochir: I suddenly burst into tears of joy. As I passed the finish line, I still couldn’t believe it. I asked myself, “Did I really win? Is this true?” I never thought I would win when I started the race. Successful completion of any mountain race is a great victory for athletes. So, I was more interested in finishing the journey than winning. When you reach the top, the distant goal appears close.

D.Otgonkhuu: I think Mount Elbrus has been generous with me. I have a complete set of medals from this competition. I personally wanted B.Nyam-Ochir to achieve his goal. I first took up the sport in 2011. I became a student that year and while studying tourism at the National University of Mongolia, I hiked for a week to reach the peak of Asralt Khairkhan Mountain with my teachers and students, then I climbed Sutai Mountain in Govi-Altai Province and Munkhkhairkhan Mountain in Bayan-Ulgii Province. The profession I chose strongly influenced me in getting interested in mountain sports. As a result, I became interested in running, rock climbing, ice climbing, and sports climbing. I took fourth place at the Asian Ice Climbing Championships and ninth place at the 2019 and 2022 World Championships respectively. I find every competition interesting. The most interesting thing was this year’s Ice Climbing World Cup, which was held in Switzerland. Previously, the World Cup was held in Kirov, Russia, and the Asian Championships took place in China and South Korea. Each country has a different climate and ice structure. The World Cup in Beijing left a lasting impression on me. There were 16 semi-finalists and eight finalists. I was ranked ninth.

Did you go to your hometowns to meet your family after the competition?

B.Nyam-Ochir: Shortly after my arrival in Mongolia, I went home to meet my family. I rested there for a few days. D.Otgonkhuu has been practicing this sport for many years, so he works as a team leader and a coach and teaches younger athletes how to climb and run during competitions. I started high school in 2018 and started my career as an athlete back then. Inspired by my first bronze medal, I set a goal to become able to compete in international competitions. I work at Oyu Tolgoi LLC now. I work there for 14 days and have 14 days off. During my off days, I go to the mountains and train in high-altitude running. When I became a champion, one of my friends said, “You can win the race. But it’s difficult to defend the title.” I kept thinking about what he said since. I will compete in next year’s tournament and defend my title. I will train and prepare for it from now on.

D.Otgonkhuu: Sport has expanded my circle of friends, helping me make many new friends. By participating in the annual competition, I got to know my competitors and became friends with some of them. Sport climbing is included in the Olympic Games. My main goal is to become an Olympic champion in this sport in the future. For the last two years, we have been training children in this sport. There is no age limit for climbing. The earlier you start practicing, the more experienced and successful you can be.

How much conflict did you have with your family when you set foot in mountain sports? How did they react when you chose to do the most difficult type of mountain sports?

D.Otgonkhuu: My family gladly supported me. Their acceptance was a big factor in my decision to continue doing this sport. If they didn’t support me, I probably wouldn’t be persistent until now. I work for Mongol Expedition. In addition to working as a tour guide during summer, I also offer climbing training. People prefer moving away from the noisy and stressful life of the city for a while to relax and travel in the quiet nature. Humans are also a part of nature. So, we want to get energy from Mother Nature. Today, people rarely go hiking. Young people usually climb Altai Tavan Bogd and Sutai Khairkhan mountains with a professional guide. Guiding in mountains is not an easy task. Because we’re responsible for the lives of many people, we have to be very careful and responsible. During the climb, some may return in the middle of the road due to weather and health conditions. One of the two guides takes them back while the other takes the rest of the team to the top. The guide will train for 10 days before climbing and study the route well. In addition to teaching climbers how to walk, they monitor their health – both physical and psychological well-being – estimate potential risks along the way, and plan what to do next.

B.Nyam-Ochir: One of my interests is mining. My family has always supported and encouraged me to do the sport I enjoy. I aim to succeed in both work and sports. Walking and climbing mountains broaden and refresh my mind. I plan to compete successfully in the Altai Tavan Bogd skyrunning competition next month.

Some people say that reaching a mountain peak is like meditating. Is it okay for people to hike with many thoughts or should they be focusing on the hike?

B.Nyam-Ochir: You don’t have to think about many things when climbing a mountain. The feeling you get from reaching the top is incomparable. But before you go down, you need to evaluate the risks for the return, pay close attention to your environment, and focus. Going downhill is riskier than climbing up. Athletes need to be mentally prepared before the competition, talk to their inner self, and listen to what they have to say. In any mountain sport, mistakes and points are likely to be the first and the last thing on your mind, so keep your thoughts organized and don’t get distracted by anything else.

D.Otgonkhuu: We aim to successfully complete the program we started two years ago. There are five great peaks of Altai Tavan Bogd Mountains. For example, Khuiten Peak is located at 4,374 meters above sea level, Nairamdal Peak is at 4,192 meters, Herder Peak is at 4,051 meters, Burged Peak is at 4,068 meters and Naran Peak is at 3,883 meters above sea level. Mountaineers start at the base camp and climb other peaks within 24 hours. We climbed them in 2020 and successfully climbed four of the five peaks in 16 hours.

Enkhnaranjav Tumurbaatar