Lake Baikal 2020 Crossing: Short Talk with Adventurers

Lake Baikal (Siberia, Russia) is the world’s largest lake by volume and every winter, it freezes over. Its sheer size (636km long) offers an incredible playground for cold-weather adventurers and record chasers. With easy access and manageable temperatures (February average is typically about -20degC), it offers a unique introduction to polar exploration.

In 2020, 7 adventurers attempted a solo unsupported full crossing of the lake and for most of them, this was their first cold-weather expedition. I was among them and wondered how our experiences compared. I emailed each of them ten short questions about their journey and received answers from all but one. There were some universal annoyances—waking up in the morning cold and melting snow—and loves—sunrise and sunsets on the lake and the Russian people. Like any real adventure, we all gained a deep sense of satisfaction from overcoming personal obstacles and testing our limits. Our responses are below. I hope you find them as interesting as I do and that they inspire you to take the step towards your next adventure.

James Redden (United Kingdom) was the first on the lake (mid-February) and he completed his crossing in under 13 days despite mild food poising. Lukasz Rybicki (Poland) started mid-February, but after moving fast for 300km, he had to pull out when he injured himself falling through a patch of thin ice.

Carlos Garcia (Spain) started late February. He experienced equipment failure and frostbite and had to resupply mid-way. But he persisted nonetheless and completed his crossing. Charlie Smith (United Kingdom), Oli France (United Kingdom) and myself, Roland Banas (France), all started early March and completed their crossing within days of each other, despite storms and deep snow in the northern part of the lake.

Early hours on the lake. (Photo: Roland Banas)

Tell us about one of the best moments of your crossing.

Charlie: Undoubtably the sunrise and sunsets; experiencing the birth and death of a day out on the lake was a privilege to experience in such a stunning environment. For a brief moment, the world stands still and floods the landscape in colour.

Oli: After a bad storm the day before, waking up on Day 14 to blue skies, crisp temperatures and freshly snow-covered mountains. The most stunning scenery of the trek!

Lukasz: Wanted to say – sunsets and sunrises but Charlie was first! Perhaps, the other great thing which I enjoyed enormously was listening to Baikal singing. One cannot compare it to any other music in the world – this is something very unique to experience!

Carlos: One night, I was resting in a fisherman tent in the middle of the lake, fishing omul at 3.00 am and drinking Spíritus drink.

James: Seeing wolf tracks in the snow. I’m rather pleased I didn’t run into wolves during my journey, although it’s pleasing to know that wildlife is still thriving on and around the lake.

Roland: This may sound backward. In the north of Lake Baikal, I spent a day fighting snowstorms, whiteouts, harsh winds and deep soft snow. It was rough. But as the hours went by, I realized that it didn’t really matter: I was strong enough to get through it.

Wind and snow on the lake. (Photo: Roland Banas)

How about one of the worst?

Charlie: One of the toughest was wading through knee-deep powder in the last section of the crossing, where there was significant snowfall and positive temperatures which not only slowed pace to that of a snail, but was physically exhausting to toil under the beating sun.

Oli: Day 13 was grim. 40mph winds, tornados of spindrift and lots of deep wet snow to slog through without any tracks. It took me 4 hours to travel 4 miles that morning and totally demoralizing.

Lukasz: Wind! And snow dunes! It was a tough everyday battle!

Carlos: Early in the morning the 3rd day near Listvyanka, I experienced a small earthquake. Everything was moving under my feet.

James: Being hit by mild food poisoning at the end of the first week. I was able to ignore the most obvious symptoms, but not the intense stomach pain exactly where my harness buckle sat.

Roland: At the end of my third day, my heels were so inflamed that pain was shooting up my legs every step. A freezing-cold wind was howling from behind and my sled was out of control. Hovercrafts loaded with tourists were flying by every 5 minutes. I had it. I nearly quit.

Something about your adventure that you weren’t expecting at all?

Charlie: Not so much that I wasn’t expecting, but I really appreciated the friendliness and generosity of the Russian people I met along the way. You really get a sense that people know how harsh the lake can be, and lost count of how many wanted to offer a hand or just check everything was alright. I have nothing but thanks for all those I met along the way, and really added to the overall experience.

Oli: It was a lot warmer than expected generally, and I was down to my thermals on a couple of days. This actually caused problems though as some things started to get wet.

Lukasz: Earthquake! I did not experience it on my previous trip. It was a very big surprise! It was quite scary but fascinating at the same time – being on the lake and feeling how nature plays Tetris underneath your feet.

Carlos: Both stoves out of service the same day and fire inside the tent.

James: Feeling the ice shift under me when I was camped in my tent. At one point I was woken by a deep boom. In the morning I discovered a crack in the ice a few metres from my tent.

Roland: The constant song of the ice. People told me about it. But like watching northern lights, it means nothing till you experience it firsthand.

Wolf tracks. (Photo: Oli France)

Tell us about a unique encounter on the Lake?

Charlie: Feeling the ice shake and boom as the lake “breathed” beneath you is quite amazing, you often forget you are on a frozen lake and the surface is ever moving and changing.

Oli: When walking in the remote far north of the lake, about 50 miles from the nearest village there was a beautiful knife lying in my path with a hand-carved and engraved walnut handle. It’s a unique souvenir!

Lukasz: Well, one afternoon I noticed a drone flying above my head. It happened when I was approaching Olkhon island – it turned out that the drone belonged to a group of tourists.

Carlos: Michael Stevenson (new speed record) reached me on my 13th day.

James: Meeting two fishermen at about 0300. They were amazed I’d be interested in walking so far (at this point the end was only about 50km away). We shared a cup of tea, a cigarette and some jokes in broken English.

Roland: There were so many. People were so friendly. On my last day, I met a fisherman who only spoke Russian. Through gestures and a few words, he understood what I was doing on the lake. He had a huge genuine smile and spoke quickly in Russian. No clue what he said. We waved good-bye and I kept going.

One thing you were looking forward to in your daily routine?

Charlie: Dinner was the highlight of each day, and often thought long and hard about what to eat that night, as well as looking forward to the hot chocolate to wash it down with!

Oli: I’m obsessed with efficiency, so enjoyed the process of honing my morning and evening tent routines to minimize faff. I really enjoyed this side of the expedition and learnt a lot from it through a fast process of trial and error.

Lukasz: Teatime! I was looking forward to it very much. A hot cup of tea was the most enjoyable time of my day.

Carlos: Sunsets. Really amazing. It means time to rest.

James: I got a real buzz out of eating a handful of toasted cashew nuts I took with me.

Roland: My second breakfast. A couple of hours after leaving camp. A warm cup of coffee and a Bobo’s Bar looking at the landscape in the early morning light.

Morning in the tent. (Photo: Roland Banas)

One thing you were dreading in your daily routine?

Charlie: Leaving the sleeping bag in the morning is probably the hardest to do, especially when it’s storming outside. Leaving that comfort took some discipline!

Oli: Putting my feet into my cold boots in the morning.

Lukasz: Finding good ice cubes that I could melt and prepare hot water for my cup of tea – this was the task that I hated the most in my daily routine.

Carlos: Early in the morning to wake up and go outside of my sleeping bag.

James: Travelling across bare ice. Without a covering of snow, the ice radiates cold.

Roland: Melting the snow and ice in the evening. It took ages and I was always starving by then.

One piece of gear that exceeded your expectations?

Charlie: I found the MSR XGK stoves were fantastic, and bombproof for this sort of expedition. I also was very impressed with using the Garmin InReach for communication and tracking, which was a worthy investment.

Oli: My Garmin InReach Mini was perfect for tracking and comms and a truly invaluable piece of kit.

Lukasz: Garmin Fenix 5X Plus watch and MP3 – best companions on my journey! One managed to keep me on track and motivated throughout the whole journey and the other helped me not to go crazy, lol!

Carlos: My Montane Smock jacket and my Hoka Thor boots are impressive.

James: My PHD Xero wind shell suit. Incredibly thin, the windproof material kept even the howling Siberian winds at bay. An awesome piece of gear.

Roland: My shoes (Icebug Pace3 BUGrip GTX) were great. Loved my Arc’teryx Cerium LT jacket.

Broken Ural Motorcycle on the Lake. (Photo: Roland Banas)

One piece of gear that let you down big time?

Charlie: Thankfully I didn’t have any major equipment failures/issues, but the trip did give me a host of little improvements going forward to make life as easy and as comfortable as possible.

Oli: My pan! On day three I somehow punctured a tiny hole in the bottom of this which made it as good as useless. Luckily, I had a frying pan/lid which I could use but the snow-melting process became more laborious. Next time I’d take a more robust set.

Lukasz: My tent (Vango Nevis 200) did let me down on the first night. And my Sorel shoes.

Carlos: The stoves (Primus Omnifuel and Optimus Polaris). Both leaked.

James: My cooking pot, which has been my constant travelling companion for over 5 years. To be honest, the failure was my fault – a slip of my ice axe put a huge hole in the side.

Roland: My solar panel Goal Zero Nomad 13 let me down completely early on. I couldn’t charge anything, and I had to forgo the pleasure of listening to music or books.

If you could have given yourself a piece of advice before going, what would it have been?

Charlie: “Focus on honing your routine and systems, these will save you exponentially more time in the long run than being that little bit fitter/faster in pace”.

Oli: The ice is your friend, and the snow your enemy. Seek out the ice!

Lukasz: “Lukasz, choose a good pair of shoes, this is very important! And tent! Buy a good tent, don’t be Scrooge McDuck!”

Carlos: Just enjoy!!!

James: Don’t take your gloves off unless absolutely necessary (frostbite hurts).

Roland: Knowing me, I probably wouldn’t listen. Especially advice coming from another me.

Home cold home. (Photo: Roland Banas)

Any future adventures?

Charlie: A few in the pipeline but for now focus on riding out the virus and taking what I’ve learnt from this trip, so I’m better placed for others in the future.  The one thing this trip has done is open my eyes to the possibilities out there and look forward to seeing where this all goes!

Oli: I’ve had a couple of adventures cancelled or on the brink due to the Coronavirus including what promised to be a unique trip to Syria in May. I’m going to use the down-time for researching future adventures but cannot be certain where that will be to just yet. For now, I’m enjoying reflecting on Lake Baikal.

Lukasz: COVID-19 slightly amended my plans for this year, so I keep my 2020 plans on hold. But there is something to look forward to in 2021 – this time I want to walk the lake around to see more nature and different winter landscapes. Can’t wait to be back!

Carlos: Climb Khazbek mountain in Georgia and ultracycling London-Edinburgh-London.

James: South Pole solo, maybe 2021.

Roland: A lot of ideas and dreams. Even more after this adventure. Finding the time and funding is the real challenge! For now, COVID-19, my family and my business are taking all my focus.