Day 3: Gobi Cold Camel Expedition
22nd Jan 2018
Last night was below -43, the coldest it's been in the Gobi Desert this winter. I can't believe we're setting out on our 300km ride today, it seems far too cold to be tackling one of the harshest environments known to man.
Somehow, someone left the door to our Ger open during the night so the fire was stone cold by midnight. We started the evening in just one sleeping bag, but we were all awake and adding layers once the temperature started rapidly dropping. It was a restless sleep, but it wasn't until morning that we realised how truly cold it was. Even with about a hundred goats and sheep to huddle with, and a lean-to and fence to keep out the wind, four goats and a cow froze to death last night just meters from our Ger. It was the lowest temperature in over a year and some of the animals on the edges of the huddle, up against the fence, didn't make it through the night. No wonder they bring the younger animals inside the Gers when the elements are that unforgiving.
Today I'm wearing twice as many clothes just to keep warm, but even through gloves I can't hold my camera the metal is so cold; it's still -40 and I'm shaking. By the time we go to ride I'm warm; I'm wearing several layers of thermals and mid layers, my sheepskin deel and an arctic 1200 down jacket from Norway (30% warmer than any other jacket in the world). I also have three balaclavas on, a fox fur hat, snow goggles and three layers of mittens. I can barely move, let alone ride a camel and my vision is hugely impaired; not only from ice fogging up on my googles, but from the fur which obscures my peripheral vision and the fact that I am so layered up I can barely move my neck. But I'm warm, even my feet are toasty with two layers of socks and toe warmers inside my Mongolian felt, leather and fur boots.
As soon as we're on our camels we're trotting and the pace is relentless. I'm on a new camel today because my one got loose during the night and ran away. The herders couldn't find it so I watched with interest as they rounded up their herd and lassoed a new camel to join us on the ride. This one is even more uncomfortable but the jostling warms me fast - too fast.
Soon I'm overheated but the two herders with us don't speak english and it's so nice to be warm I don't stop to remove a layer; my first big mistake. Soon I'm sweating and I can feel it running down my shoulder blades. Someone who hiked to the North Pole warned me of the danger of sweating and then chilling and in a panic I remove my outer jacket; my second mistake. Once you're sweating it's already too late. Without the expedition jacket I chill quickly and soon I'm shivering.
By the time we make it to our first stop, 9km into our ride, I'm shaking from the cold and I head to the truck to get out of the wind, sipping on a hot drink which Tess and Big Guy have waiting for us. Even that doesn't warm me and I'm cold to my bones, especially my lower back. The others are outside hiking up the dunes to see the views, and rolling down them having the time of their lives but I'm not even tempted to join them.
It's 6km till lunch but I'm too cold to ride, Big Man won't let me back on the camel anyway. The plan is to get me to a family Ger so I can be covered in furs and warm up by the fire. I'm hoping I'll be able to ride the last 18km after lunch once I'm warm again, but right now I don't feel like doing anything.
Just a few hundred meters into our drive the truck gets stuck in the sand; well stuck. Tess and I swap to another truck that's passing by and we leave Big Guy behind with a spade to dig his truck out. I'm freezing now and the sooner they get me to the Ger the better. Another kilometre on this truck also gets stuck in the sand. The driver hikes off into the sand dunes to try and find reception so he can make a phone call and I fall asleep.
A couple of hours pass and I wake in a panic, claustrophobic from all the clothes I'm wearing. I strip off my jacket and although most of my body is now too warm, my lower back and kidney area is still freezing cold. I've been chilled for about three hours now and it's a huge relief when Big Guy's truck appears in the dunes - it might have taken him two hours to dig his way out of the sand but we're back in business. We leave the spade behind so the second truck can dig themselves out and rush ahead to the Ger. The camels arrived half an hour earlier and everyones already eaten - soon they're back on the camels but I'm long past joining them.
Even sitting by the fire doesn't warm me and I'm wishing our second support vehicle was near by; it carries all our bags. I have heat warmers, extra clothes and a survival blanket in my day bag but that vehicle is also stuck in the sand dunes somewhere so it's not much good to me.
Soon we're back in the truck and we follow slowly alongside the camels once we catch up to them. The scenery is spectacular but I lay listlessly in the backseat barely watching and I regret not taking photos. We're about 3km from our night base when I start shivering and go downhill quickly. We rush ahead, speeding through the dunes and soon we arrive at our base for the night, an empty community hall where they hold meetings and elections.
Luckily our gear made it to camp and I'm straight inside and rustle through my bags in search of anything to keep my warm. The building is freezing and it's too cold to sit on the ground so first I lay down my thermorest foam mat, then blow up my sleeping matt. Next I wrap my lower back in a body sized heat warmer, then use the silk tie of my deel to wrap a survival blanket around my core. It takes a while for the heat warmer to kick in and I curl into a triple layer of bedding - first a silk liner, then a sleeping bag suited for up to -15, then my proper sleeping bag which is 1000 down mummy. As well as that I'm now wearing six layers on my top and bottom, plus my arctic 1200 down jacket. Yet still I'm cold.
Soon I'm alternating between being too hot and too cold... sweat, shiver, sweat, shiver - it's a never ending cycle. Every part of my body is too hot, yet my core can't get warm. I've been cold for about six hours now and I'm quite worried. One of the other girls joined me in the truck for those final 15km and she's not doing well either.
I sleep for a while, but I wake up when I hear the riders arriving outside and get up to look out the window. It's a gorgeous sunset and I have just enough energy to stumble outside and take a photo of everyone holding their camels, my only photo for the day.
By late evening I'm feeling well enough to eat dinner and I drink plenty of hot water - no matter how terrible I feel I know I have to keep eating and drinking otherwise I'll be in serious trouble. Just as I'm getting into bed a doctor arrives and I glance at Tess in shock, they've called someone from the closest town 30 kilometres away and she's here to make sure we haven't got phenomena or hypothermia. Now that I'm a little warmer I'm sure I'm okay but I let her take my temperature and blood pressure - both slightly low but in the normal range. I refuse the injections and drips they try to give me since they can't translate well enough to tell me what it is, and instead take two codine and a sleeping pill. That night I sleep in all my layers and although my back is still cold I'm generally warm.
I sleep well, so well in fact that I sleep through the guy next to me throwing up throughout the night. Everyone else hears him though and have a poor sleep. He's the fourth person in our group to fall ill now and it doesn't bode well for the rest of our trip considering we're only 30km into our 300km ride.
[This is the third update in a 15 part series, if you'd like to follow the rest of my journey in the Gobi Camel Camel Expedition LIKE my page for daily photos and blogs]!