My numb feet plunge through brittle sheets of ice as I wade onto the rocky embankment. ‘Mate, I’m done. I’m going to have to stop paddling for today.’
My words echo downstream to Matt as he drags his boat out of the cold water. A few moments earlier, I had pulled my dinghy – a US Air Force emergency jet pilot life raft – free of the river.
It’s already encased in a thick layer of ice. I pound at the frozen lashing knots with a rock to unwrap my drybags, unearth a dry set of down-filled clothing and begin the laborious process of warming up my stiff, aching extremities. An hour later, with everything packed away and the rafts strapped to our backs, we walk on through a burgeoning snowstorm.
The Khovd River lies in Bayan-Ölgii province in the far west of Mongolia. Wide, fast-flowing and more than 300 kilometres long – but mercifully clear of major rapids – this watercourse is a novice packrafter’s dream.
Packrafting is the ethos of travelling on water using small, light inflatable rafts that can be carried in a backpack, making long-distance portages between rivers feasible. The inconspicuous nature of these little boats allows them to be taken to almost any corner of the Earth with a minimum of fuss.
A SIMPLE PLAN
Matt Traver and I had set time and a little money aside to test our improvised packrafting equipment on the Khovd at the tail end of a horseriding adventure in Mongolia. With no map of the area, our plan was simple, if somewhat naïve: four days of paddling from the town of Ölgii and then three days of walking back to our starting point. We only had three additional days in hand before our flights home, so getting lost wasn’t an option.
Our first sight of the Khovd, on the outskirts of Ölgii, was a shock. Waves of floating ice cruised past our vantage point in a ceaseless parade. The icebergs flashed white and blue as they bumped against each other in the otherwise dull grey water. ‘It’s going to be a cold few days,’ Matt said quietly, as we unpacked the rafts from our rucksacks.
Inflatable boats that are light and durable are difficult to come by. The few companies that make specialised packrafts attach price tags that run into the hundreds of pounds. With nowhere near that amount in our savings accounts, we had resorted to scouring eBay for suitable replacements.
Matt purchased a three-kilogram German military commando raft for £40; I bought the aforementioned slightly lighter US life raft of 1980s vintage for £100. We had tested the rafts on a couple of English rivers, but how they would fare on a remote, cold-weather journey was a complete mystery.
ICY CONVEYOR BELT
Moments after our maiden launch on the Khovd, the riverbanks began rushing by at an impressive pace. The floating ice made the river look like an enormous white conveyor belt capable of carrying us directly to the city of Khovd, some 300 kilometres distant.
Leaving Ölgii behind, we floated past the familiar signs of Mongolian rural life: whinnying horses tethered to grazing stakes; nomads driving goats to the river to drink; and white gers with puffs of smoke emanating from their chimneys.
To counter the potentially serious consequences of a fall into this wintry river we had invested in specialist kayaking cags and trousers. In the event of total immersion, we hoped that this clothing would keep the near-freezing water away from our cores long enough to allow us to reach shore.
As a further barrier against the omnipresent cold, I thrust my sleeping pad into the bottom of the boat. I hoped the air-filled mattress would lift me clear of any contact with the water, even though it looked ridiculous as it jutted from the inflatable’s nose at a jaunty angle.
A little later, an affluently dressed man and his sons emerged from between the trees on the riverbank. I paddled over to them. ‘Khovd? Khovd?’ the father asked, quizzically, pointing downstream. ‘Khovd,’ I replied.
‘No.’ He finished our exchange in English while shaking his head to signal the conclusion of this absurd conversation. I floated on, wondering what he had been talking about.
I didn’t have to wait long to find out. Around the next bend, the slabs of ice were cementing together. The air was filled with a crackling sound, as though we were sitting in a giant bowl of Rice Crispies.
I could feel the strength of the ice as it packed in from behind. The pressure forced my boat upwards until it was almost out of the water. By contrast, Matt’s heavier craft became encased in the pack ice.
When I finally got to shore, I chucked Matt one of our homemade throw lines to pull him to the bank. We continued our journey on foot. (The throw lines also came in handy around camp as makeshift washing lines, although most of our clothing froze before it dried.)
Our camp that night was cold beyond reason. The thermometer plummeted to –20°C. A least we had some space in the morning to stretch out and recline under the rising sun in our teepee tent.
A small herd of horses wandered past us as we cooked breakfast. After a helping of liquid cereal, chased down with watery coffee, it was time for us to get under way again.
The landscape became shrouded in a snowstorm. Without a warming sun, daytime temperatures plummeted towards their night-time equivalents. My boat – designed for the high seas with a kilometre of water underneath it – struggled to handle the river’s low winter flow, which at points was only five centimetres deep.
Whenever my raft ground to a halt on rocks I had to punt vigorously, which soaked the insulating gloves under my washing-up gloves. Then the raft would suddenly shoot on, slamming my backside into the next protruding rock. With a black and blue rear end, and with Matt happily drifting downstream in his better boat, I resorted to portaging my raft.
I waded through the water and ice in sodden socks, my feet bruised from the harsh riverbed. Angry and shivering, I threw a wet glove onto the riverbank, only to have it freeze within seconds. By the time I picked it up, the stiff and unbending glove had glued itself to a rock.
‘Wooohooo!’ cried Matt, as he shot past my riverside position on the next – blessedly warmer – day of rafting. I had decided to capture my partner’s progress on film by running along a riverbank with a video camera attached to the end of my kayak paddle.
We made good progress that day. Yaks bellowed in surprise as we cruised past, but nothing else disturbed the quiet serenity of our voyage across the snow-covered steppe.
A sudden revving noise snapped me from my reverie. I spun around in the water in time to see a mammoth Soviet-era truck plunge into the river. Before Matt or I could react, it climbed the opposite bank and disappeared, a mechanical spectre chugging away through the woods.
After several hours of rafting, and with thoroughly wet feet, we stopped. Matt collapsed on the bank and waved his legs in the air to return some circulation to his extremities, grimacing all the while from the encroaching hot-aches. My own feet felt reasonably okay, although I still had the same bruised sensation underfoot that I had experienced the previous day.
After deciding that the best remedy for Matt’s frozen toes was to start walking, we deflated our life jackets (a basic oral-inflation type that we found on eBay), shouldered our backpacks and prepared to drag the rafts behind us like improvised Antarctic pulks. However, a quick inspection of my boat put paid to the sledge idea when I discovered that its base was full of holes: mementoes of the battering my bottom had suffered the previous day.
After patching my raft with Tear-Aid, our final day on the river was spent floating past avenues of lifeless trees, imposing cliff faces and herds of wild horses. The equipment – my boat in particular – hadn’t made for a faultless ride; the temporary nerve damage I discovered in my toes when they finally warmed up attested to that. But we had found, bought, retrofitted and used all of the kit required on a packrafting expedition for the same price as one commercially available packraft.
All that was left was to deflate our military-surplus rafts, stick everything into our rucksacks and march across the steppe to Ölgii. We were no longer in the river, but it was still our guide. And as we walked along its banks, I gazed in cold wonder at this place where the ice flows by.
An ice-laden Mongolian river is a pretty unforgiving environment, and while Jamie’s slightly cobbled-together kit did the job, he would undoubtedly have been more comfortable if he had been able to afford everything in this list. Anyone thinking of packrafting somewhere cold will be sure to find some helpful suggestions here
1. Semi-dry jacket
Yak Pursuit Touring Cag
A durable top made from a waterproof and breathable material. Sufficiently adjustable to make it easy to doff it while portaging. Features a large chest pocket – perfect for keeping lunch within reach while paddling
Nemo Pentalite 4P
The central pole of this innovative five- sided pyramid-style tent can be raised or lowered to suit different terrains and weather conditions. This pole can be replaced with a kayak paddle to further reduce the overall weight
Yak Assault trousers
An ideal complement to the Yak Pursuit Touring Cag, the Assault is a durable trouser made from a waterproof and breathable fabric. Latex ankle cuffs and a neoprene waistband ensure that only a little water gets in after a full immersion. Essential if you’re paddling in near-freezing temperatures
4. Action camera
£200/142 grams (with battery)
A tough camera that allows you to shoot video from cramped locations and in fast-paced situations. Add the optional waterproof housing if you’ll be negotiating white-water environments
The packraft I would have bought if I could have afforded it. A tough, lightweight and simple boat, the Scout is designed for high-lake floating, canyoning, spelunking and other flat-water situations
6. Sleeping mat
Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Mummy
Although you’ll still be puffing away when other sleeping mats have been inflated, the Big Agnes will reward you with a terrifically comfortable bed. The outer vertical air channels are larger than the internal channels to help cradle you in the centre of the pad. Add an inexpensive closed-cell foam mat in cold weather for extra insulation
Nookie Xtreme Sox
These three-millimetre-thick neoprene booties help to keep feet warm and can stave off potential cold damage, as I can attest. On one occasion, I didn’t wear my Kevlar-reinforced Nookies while looking for a place to cross the cold river, which led to nerve damage in one of my toes
MSR XGK EX
This stove can burn most types of fuel. Regular cleaning is essential when using Mongolian petrol, which is the dirtiest fuel imaginable. The XGK EX can be dismantled and serviced in the field. I recommend carrying a spare fuel pump
9. Load-carrying aid
Designed and manufactured by my expedition partner, Matt Travers, the tumpline is a traditional carrying aid that helps to transfer the weight of a backpack from the shoulders to the head, neck and back. Although it takes time for previously unused muscles to adapt, a tumpline can ease load-carrying once you’ve got the hang of it
Lomo Emergency kayak paddle
A four-piece paddle that can be dismantled to fit into a backpack. Adjustable for both right- and left-handed paddlers. It has a selectable 0° or 75° feather. If you’re not too tall, the pieces can also be used as makeshift walking poles
This story was published in the February 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine