“The beginning of the trip was much harder than we had anticipated. We struggled for 3 days just to reach the lake.”
On the morning of February 25 we hauled all of our bikes and panniers down 5 flights of a narrow staircase out into the courtyard of the Baikaler Hostel in Irkutsk, Russia to begin what we hoped would be the first ever human-powered winter circumnavigation of Lake Baikal. Opening the door to the outside was just like entering a walk-in freezer. The cold air looked like smoke as it poured through the rusted steel frame of the entry way and crept along the seams of the walls like a hungry phantom. It is safe to speculate that questions arose in all of our heads at that moment regarding the rationality of our proposed plan. There were many unknowns: the amount snow on the lake, the condition of the ice, the reliability of our equipment, and above all – the effect of sustained cold temperatures on our health. In the preceding three days I had met with many of my Russian friends and acquaintances who cautioned us to the dangers of Lake Baikal in winter. The ice of Baikal forms in plates and chunks of various sizes. These plates can press into each other and splinter, forming fields of jagged broken ice miles wide. Or they can separate, leaving deep cracks covered by snow, areas of thin ice, or even open water. Several cars disappear into the frozen lake every year, and few passengers survive. We were told that just a week before we left a driver had gotten out of his van to go to the bathroom. When he turned back towards his vehicle, it, along with its 3 passengers, had disappeared. The plate of ice which he had unknowingly parked on had flipped over like a pancake due to the weight of the van upon one its edges. The ice of Baikal moves at time as if it is alive. We were advised to respect Baikal’s capricious and potentially dangerous temperament.
The day of our planned departure turned out to be the coldest day of a two-week cold snap. Daytime temperatures were around -38 Celsius. We were tempted to wait a day or two for warmer weather, but our schedule had already been compressed to 35 days and we couldn’t afford to delay any longer. We packed our gear and set out.
We had planned to ride 65 kilometers from the city of Irkutsk to Lake Baikal along the frozen Angara River, reaching the lake in 2 days. It had seemed plenty reasonable behind a coffee table back in Eugene, Oregon. It turned out, however, that this year had seen an unusually high amount of snowfall, and the frozen river that I had easily ridden my cyclocross bike on 5 years ago was covered with 2+ feet of snow. We rode in the ruts of a track carved out by automobile traffic, our panniers often bouncing off the snow walls, knocking us off balance and occasionally sending us to the ground.
Eventually the track dead-ended at the mouth of an inlet and we made our first camp, covering only about 20 kilometers.
As the sun faded into the horizon we could feel the temperature dropping. Several questions came to our minds: “how cold will it get”, “will all this high-tech clothing keep me warm”, “What are we going to do if there is this much snow on the lake?” Battling the self-doubt that accompanies any significant endeavor we set ourselves to the task of pitching the tent and getting the stoves lit to make dinner.
It was at this point that we learned that in very cold temperatures liquid fuels such as kerosene and gasoline do not give off enough vapors to be flammable. After holding my lighter directly against the kerosene until I burnt my thumb I was ready to toss the stove into the endless white and eat frozen bread for dinner. Fortunately, Eric was more patient than I, and after tossing a half-dozen slowly-burning matches into the pool of kerosene, the fuel eventually heated up to the point where it gave off vapors, and ignited. Eric became the officially designated stove operator. After a dinner of freeze-dried chicken enchiladas we crawled into our down sleeping bags to await our first night in the Siberian winter.
That night I slept in full clothing: primaloft insulated pants, primaloft insulated jacket, expedition down jacket, and hat – all cocooned in a -25 degree down sleeping bag. It was not uncomfortably cold, but I had to cinch down the collar and hood of my sleeping bag to keep the cold air from stealing my heat.
The first thing I saw when I woke up was a small patch of light at the end of the tunnel of down created by my cinched-down sleeping bag hood. Long and jagged ice crystals had formed around the rim and inner 5 centimeters of the down reminding me of the exogorth scene in The Empire Strikes Back. Emerging from the comfort of the down sleeping bags and facing the morning chores with frozen hands was a challenge. After every task that could not be tackled with mittens on we had to spend 5 to 10 minutes warming our hands back up. My preferred method was swinging my arms in circles rapidly while clenching my hands into fists at the top of every rotation. This seemed to work pretty well, especially if I swung both arms together and jumped up and down a bit to get my whole body working. As entertaining as this exercise was, it got old quick, and after a couple days my shoulder joints began to ache from overuse.
The amount of snow on the river made us reconsider our plan to reach Baikal via the Angara River. From the inlet where we had camped we would have to push the bikes for 2 long days to reach Baikal. We decided to cross the river in order to reach the road on the north side of the river and ride the automobile route to the town of Listvianka, the most accessible tourist destination on the lake. We pushed our bikes for 4 hours before reaching the other side.
The road wasn’t exactly a piece of cake either. There were some tough hills and with our 2-speed single speed set up it was often the smart decision to push the bikes rather than risk straining a joint or a ligament. Our equipment was also taking a beating. The welds on our front racks became brittle and failed. We lost several hours to gear modifications and repairs. At the end of the second day we had travelled only 25 kilometers on the road and had still not reached the lake.
The morning of the third day we arose determined to reach the lake. We were very concerned about the amount of snow that we encountered on the Angara River. If there was that much snow on the lake our chances of completing a circumnavigation were non-existent. Pushing our bikes we could hope to cover at the most 25 to 30 kilometers a day. We needed to cover 60 kilometers a day. The success of our trip hinged on there being ride-able conditions on the lake.
We reached the lake in the early afternoon. The first thing we noticed was a large body of open water where the Angara forms a basin as it flows out of Baikal. Along the edges of the basin we could see what looked like blue ice in the distance. We climbed up and around a long bluff before finally dropping down to the edge of the lake and earning our first look at the oldest and deepest lake in the world, Lake Baikal. Refrigerator-size chunks of blue ice had stacked up against the shoreline and for as far as we could see the mirror-like surface of the frozen lake reflected back at us a confirmation of all that we had hoped for – blue ice! The expedition was now officially under way.