Walking Across Lake Baikal

In March 2017, Laura, my wife, and I traveled to Lake Baikal in Siberia to walk across its frozen surface. We started out from Olkhon Island, an area famous for Shamanism. You can actually find on this island,  Baikal’s most famous landmark, the Shamanka, or Shaman’s Rock. It’s one of the nine most sacred place in all Asia because natives believe that Burkhan, a modern religious cult figure of the Altai peoples, lives in the cave in this rock.

Before we left home, our main fear was that the ice on the lake would collapse beneath us. But our first encounter with the lake was in a convoy of mini-buses. Indeed, the ice layers on the lake during the winter as an average thickness of 1.5 meter. We had a good margin before it could collapse underneath us.

During the winter everyone drives on the icy lake.
During the winter everyone drives on the icy lake.

Our first time setting foot on the ice was a real novelty, but once we were over the initial excitement, we got dropped at the end of a peninsula, ready to start our walk.

The lake freezes solid every year. At the start of the frozen season, the surface is clear, blue ice. You can see straight down to the water below and it’s so smooth that you can skate on it, but by the time we got there, most of it was already covered in snow.

Thick Ice layer
Thick Ice layer
We are safe it won't break
We are safe it won’t break

We carried all of our equipment and supplies in plastic sleds (which the pros call ‘pulks‘) It’s very convenient to carry all of what we needed to camp, change, and cook along the way.

Most of the lake’s surface is as flat as a pancake but some sections were filled with jumbled ice as far as the eye could see (like the ‘pressure ridges‘ or ‘compression zones’ that form in the Arctic Ocean / at the North Pole) that make you feel like a polar explorer.

Passing over some pressure ridges
Passing over some pressure ridges
Sunsets are amazing on Baikal
Sunsets are amazing on Baikal
morning fresh Ice layer

At night, we pitched our tent on the ice but instead of tent pegs, we had ice screws like those that climbers use for mountaineering. Mornings and evenings were where we felt the cold most and whenever we ventured outside in the morning, everything was covered with a fresh layer of ice. It routinely dropped below -20°C at night and we kept warm with two camping mats and two sleeping bags each.

We carried all the food we needed for the trip: dehydrated meals for the evenings, chocolate and nuts as snacks, then bread, cheese and salami for lunches. We had to cut the latter up into small pieces before we left so that we could defrost them in our pockets before eating them. The defrosting didn’t always work though so we had several lunches of frozen bread and frozen cheese.

Given that it was so cold, the only way to get water was by melting snow with a camping stove. Unfortunately, ours broke.

I’ve fixed dozens of those stoves over the years and we had loads of spare parts but this time it was beyond repair which left us alone, in the middle of Siberia, with no stove and no water. Thankfully, we found a large crack in the ice (not something I had imagined looking forward to) so Laura smashed through the thin ice with a hammer and we were able to fill up our water bottles.

Laura is hammering the ice to get some fresh water to drink
Laura is hammering the ice to get some fresh water to drink

Then we joined forces with some Russians that were also out on the ice, walking a similar route to ours. They had actually started walking at the same time and place as us. They hadn’t returned our smiles at first but relations slowly thawed and they turned out to be legends. They kindly made us cups of tea to keep us hydrated and told us that they were aiming for a finger of land that stuck out into the lake. They reckoned we could make it that evening. We went with them and they cooked up a big stew for us. We stayed up late drinking tea and cognac, discussing everything from Baikal to Brexit.

Us and the russians
Us and the russians
Loaded with wood to replace our broken stove
Loaded with wood to replace our broken stove

In the morning, we loaded up our sleds with as much firewood as possible. The Russians were heading north but, with no stove, we had to make civilisation as soon as possible so set off on our own again.

Just as we had never intended to smash through the ice with a hammer, we had also never planned to start a fire on the ice.

But that’s what we had to do to get water that night. It wasn’t easy. As the fire melted the ice beneath it, the wood became damp, putting the fire out. But Laura persevered and eventually managed to keep a fire going for long enough to melt snow and cook dinner.

The following morning, with our water bottles replenished but our wood stock depleted, we got our heads down and marched towards the nearest village. When we eventually made it to town, we got a lot of funny looks dragging our pulks along the high street but some locals helped us out, found us a place to play and set us up with a banya (Russian sauna).

We've made it!
We’ve made it!

We had made it across Lake Baikal.

 

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2 Comments

  • Hi there

    I am planning on doing the same on around March 1st this year. I am leaving from Listvyanka. I am bringing a compass and GPS but I was wondering whether you ever lose complete sight of land? Also, are there buses that go across the lake towards Tankhoy? How isolated am I going to really be?

    Cheers

    Justin

  • Hi Justin,

    Great to hear that you’re interested in doing a trip across Lake Baikal.

    I don’t think you ever lose sight of land because the lake is quite narrow. I’m not aware of any buses that go *across* the lake (apart from the narrow strip to Olkhon Island) but I’m not an expert.

    You probably have heaps of experience already and know what you’re doing but, since I can’t tell from your comment, I’ll just highlight that venturing onto a frozen Siberian lake without a guide is a reasonably serious undertaking. We only got comfortable with attempting our crossing after several prior trips to the arctic, lots of polar research and many months spent camping at -10 to -20C. If we didn’t have that experience, we would have used a guide.

    All the best,
    Tim.

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