In the following interview, mechanical engineer of the aerodrome section of Buyant Ukhaa International Airport, one of the founders of Horizon Club, mountaineer A.Battogtokh shared his mountaineering career and experiences. On May 9, 2022, he summited the Makalu peak, which is the fifth highest peak in the world. It is said that his desire and dreams led him to reach the Makalu peak, where no Mongolian had climbed before. There are 14 peaks in the world with a height of more than 8,000 meters. A.Battogtokh successfully completed the first ascent of the Mongolian Dream 14 Project, which aims to raise the Mongolian flag on those peaks.
During the snowy and frosty winter, mountaineers strive to summit the peaks to refresh their spirits. You must be one of them, right?
Mountaineers say, “Mountains call us.” Human is animal. Climbing a mountain is an indescribable feeling. People who work and live in urban areas miss that feeling and want to go to the countryside. I always intend to go to my hometown and climb a mountain. I am very attracted to nature. On winter weekends, I like to hike in the mountains with a backpack and a camera. I have been working as a technician, ornithologist and mechanical engineer at the Civil Aviation Authority and the aerodrome office of the Buyant Ukhaa International Airport since 2003.
Mountaineers are united by their desires and interests. When hiking in the mountains, you probably have interesting conversations with people who share the same hobby, right?
The circle of friends expands as you get to know and talk to people with similar interests and desires. After talking with my fellow hikers, I initiated the Horizon Club and formed a great group of people who came together for the same hobby. In 2015, together with Japanese photographer Tetsuro Shimizu, I climbed the snowcapped Tsambagarav Mountain for the first time. He takes pictures of leopards, nature and the unique lifestyle and domestic features of nomads. Since 1997, he came to Mongolia to take pictures more than 50 times and released five photo albums. My hometown is in Khovd Province. As a child, I grew up herding lambs and goats on the slopes of the high peaks and on the banks of the Khar Us Lake. Since I was young at that time, I did not go to see and admire the height of the mountains, but to experience their beauty. After settling down in Ulaanbaatar, I always miss the mountains and water of my hometown and go there every year.
I found it very interesting that you met photographer Tetsuro Shimizu and went to the Tsambagarav. How did you meet him?
I met him by chance. As soon as I got my regular vacation, I went to my hometown with my photography gear. My uncle, who lives in Khovd Province, was a driver who took foreign tourists to their accommodation. He said, “A guy like you is coming from Japan. He will get off the plane today.” At that time, I first met Tetsuro Shimizu. He made a 14-day trip to the western province of Mongolia, after carefully planning his destinations. I became a good friend with him during my travels.
Did the rare opportunity to climb one of the highest mountains in Mongolia with him leave an unforgettable memory in your life?
He often goes to the countryside to take pictures of leopards and rare animals. When I climbed with him to get to Tsambagarav Mountain, his back hurt, so I carried his luggage. When he said, “I can’t go further than that,” I left him there and went to the peak. Now I feel scared when I think that I went alone without tools, not knowing the risks and dangers.
Right after I went to Tsambagarav, I had a desire to climb Asralt Mountain, which is 2,799 meters above sea level, the main peak of the Khentii mountain range. It is said that this mountain is the threshold of climbers. Climbing requires a lot of strength, work and courage from climbers. For me, it was not difficult because I climbed with a professional team of climbers.
What peak did you climb after climbing Asralt Mountain?
After researching a lot about how to climb Altai Tavan Bogd, I got in touch with climber N.Surenjav. He eagerly accepted my offer, but because the team was not formed at that time, we postponed it and climbed the next year. Mountaineers respectfully called him Sengu. I almost became his assistant.
In 2017, he died while leading a team of mountaineers in Otgontenger Mountain. Luckily, I was one of the 10 survivors. It was very hard to see my friends who were walking with me in the mountains crash in front of my eyes. That year, my friends, who climbed many mountains with me, said that they would climb Elbrus. When I climb a high peak, I think that I am climbing with their dreams.
Are you leading the climbers’ team since you became the head of the Horizon Club?
In recent years, I am working as a guide with my club members, so I have summitted most of the highest peaks in Mongolia. I have not yet climbed Delgerkhaan and Deglii mountains, but I plan to visit them. I am more interested in seeing and experiencing the beauty of nature while climbing the mountain. I try to get information about the area before I reach the top. After reaching the Khuiten Peak, I had the idea to go to the Caucasus Mountains and climb Elbrus, the master peak of Europe.
How interesting was your climb on Elbrus?
Mountaineer D.Otgonkhuu, motorcycle and car sportsman B.Bat-Undral and I climbed Elbrus as a team. That climb was led by D.Otgonkhuu as he has more experience than us. After that, I went to Aconcagua, the lord peak of the Andes in South America, because I needed to prepare for the altitude to adapt to the weather and climate to climb the 8,000-meter peak. I think that those indescribable feelings and memories would not have remained if I had not been driven by my dreams and attracted to the mountains. Mountaineers must overcome their fear and muster courage to challenge themselves. That’s why we need to prepare our mentality carefully. At first, I was afraid to climb the peak, but eventually I got used to it as I joined the group of climbers. Mountaineers’ mistakes are the first and last. There is no going back, only forwards if you climb it. As a guide, I heard many times that two out of three people who climbed together said they would never climb again. But they meet after a few months and ask each other, “Do you want to climb the mountain?” Some people think that if they summitted, they achieved their goal. Mountain sports are risky. The most important thing is to get down from the mountain safely.
Do you pray before climbing?
Of course. Like mountaineers, I pray before climbing a mountain. I think that the greatest meditation and religion is to respect the country’s customs, mountains and water. Mountain climbers only experience reality. There, knowledge, education, roots and ethnicity do not matter. The mountain is a field of self-defeating competition. It shows the character of people, how tough and resistant they are. Some of the first-time climbers seem to be eager to compete with others. When I talk to them after climbing a few times, I feel that their thoughts changed. It’s amazing how the mountains open people’s eyes and give them a simple way of looking at life.
You are the first Mongolian mountaineer to climb Makalu Peak. How excited were you before heading to the top?
It was my dream to climb the 8,000-meter peak. I was so excited before heading to Makalu. Mountain sports takes large sums of money. My desire to go to Makalu came true with the help and participation of many people. I am still happy for the people who love the mountain and always support it.
Before going to Makalu, the Mongolian mountaineers told me, “We’ll see you soon.” International climbers go there. It can be understood that we are united by desires and interests. We don’t get too close, but we keep in touch. I got a big task from my friends to get back to them, so I climbed very cleverly and calculated everything so as not to lose their hope. At that time, the most important thing for me was to achieve my goal.
Eight of the 14 peaks above 8,000 meters are in Nepal, right?
Yes. Before heading to mountains, we do a lot of research, but it’s different to see it in reality. Last year, Ch.Ariunzul, B.Gantulga and I set foot in Kathmandu, Nepal, and each of us set off to climb a different peak. B.Gantulga climbed Annapurna (8,091 meters) and Everest (8,848), Ch.Ariunzul Kanchenjunga (8,586) and I climbed Makalu (8,463). We have to be careful and alert so as not to get distracted in the mountains. Mistakes are made when attention is slightly distracted. Therefore, climbers show less emotion. During the climb, it is better to go to the top when the sun is shining in the morning and the wind is stable. We happily met in Kathmandu on May 17.
How many meters of height affect climbers when they climb a peak?
Height changes affect us differently depending on our body type, how we are used to the height, and how much training we had. Usually, the change in altitude above 4,000 meters begins to affect the human body. I eat barley flour and curds while climbing. It’s not easy to cook in the cold and windy high altitudes. I mix barley flour with ghee in hot water and make a slurry.
When is the best time to climb 8,000-meter peaks?
It is better to climb the Himalayas peaks in Nepal, Tibet and China in spring, and the mountains located in Pakistan in July. For example, on May 27, 2022, Honored Athlete G.Usukhbayar climbed Everest for the first time. Then Honored Athlete B.Gangaamaa climbed the K2 mountain in Pakistan in July. Currently, I am training to climb Gasherbrum I. Two nearby peaks rank 11th and 13th in the world. The best weather for climbing is July.
Does the Mongolian Dream 14 Project include the Gasherbrum I peak that you will climb?
The project was started with the goal of climbing 14 peaks above 8,000 meters. Gasherbrum I is one of the peaks included in the project. Out of 14 peaks with a height of 8,000 meters above sea level, Mongolians reached seven of them. Particularly, G.Usukhbayar climbed Everest, B.Gangaamaa K2, Ch.Ariunzul Kangchenjunga, J.Byambasuren Lhotse (8,516), L.Boldbaatar Cho Oyu (8,201), L.Bayarsaikhan Manaslu (8,163) and B.Batbold Shisha Pangma (8,013). Among the peaks that the Mongolians did not climb are Dhaulagiri (8,167), Nanga Parbat (8,125) Gasherbrum I (8,080), Gasherbrum II (8,068) and Broad Peak (8,047 meters). Mongolian climbers are planning to climb six of them.
You like to read. What was the last book you bought?
My other hobby is reading. Most recently, I read books such as “Mountains in My Heart” and “Spirit Formula”. When I was a child, one of my cousins used to read a lot. I read most of the historical novels. On Children’s Day, I bought a historical novel about Chinggis Khaan with the money to go to the provincial center to celebrate. I am interested in what facts were written based on it, and I watch archeological finds and museums. I work as an ornithologist, so I study the bird species.
In 2013, there were more than 390 species of birds in Khar Us Lake, but now there are 510. My passion for nature photography made me an ornithologist.