Traversing Siberia’s Lake Baikal: An interview with James Redden of TrekSumo

All photos by James Redden

What is Lake Baikal?*

It’s the largest freshwater lake in the world. Estimates suggest that the 400 mile long, one mile deep body contains one fifth of all the world’s fresh water. To give you an idea of the scale, it even has a 43 mile long in the center.

How did you learn about it?

Many years ago I was watching a documentary narrated by David Attenborough. The first program was aired on the BBC back when I was in my twenties, which is way back in the mists of time.

What made you decide to trek it?

I get a real buzz from arduous treks and expeditions. I’m a former soldier, my background being that I served in UK Special Forces for 10 years and, since leaving the Army, I been determined to continue to challenge myself in any way possible. Lake Baikal offered me an opportunity to travel alone through the wilds of southern Siberia, in winter. The combination seemed perfect to me.

Had you done any similar trips to this one?

This was the first long distance solo trip I’ve embarked on. In recent years I’ve been fortunate to be able to ski to the North Pole, ski/hike across Norway (twice). 2018 was another great year – I joined two former colleagues on a self-guided crossing of Greenland. That was a hard expedition and one I won’t forget in a hurry. Deep, wet snow slowed our progress and we came close to running out of food. But that’s a story for another day.

How did you prepare?

At first, haphazardly! I keep myself physically fit: running, mountain biking and general strength training are the three methods I use to maintain overall fitness. I have a training plan that spans an entire year and uses periodization to coincide with my trips. Closer in to the start date date of and expedition, or event, the training becomes more specific. For example, hauling a heavy pulka requires strength and stamina in the legs. Tires connected to a harness in series mimic the load and movement of a pulka.

Did you follow an established route?

Only insofar as what can be deemed a sensible route. Lake Baikal is a wild place and the frozen surface can be easy or incredibly hard to navigate. In places there is deep snow that makes hauling a pulka a strenuous task. Other areas are littered with ice rubble – a result of ice places pressed against each other and forming small mountains of fractured ice. These ridges are difficult and tiring to cross.

To be honest, there are no established routes. Each. year the ice melts and anything that be deemed a route disappears. There are tracks here and there, but the most part I avoided these as I wanted to maintain ownership of my journey. And, although there were a record number of crossing attempts this year, I was the second person to set off and the first to complete the traverse – so no trails for me to follow.

What was the distance and how long did it take?

The lake is 395 miles long, although my journey across the ice covered about 430 miles. Thin ice, rubble and cracks make straight line navigation nearly impossible. Most days involved finding alternate routes around obstructions. From time to time I was drawn off my line of travel by a curious sight that demanded investigation, such as the mysterious case of the abandoned motorcycle I found about many miles from the nearest habitation.

How did you handle re-supplying?

Ah, there were no resupplies. I carried all my food and supplies in my pulka, which weighed about 130 pounds  total. All of my trips have been self-sufficient – once I’m on the move I prefer to stay away from civilization for the duration.

What unexpected challenges came up during the trip and how did you handle them? 

Two challenges come to mind: the weather and the instability of the ice. Unlike many of my other destinations, the weather can turn in an instant. Let me explain – when I skied to the North Pole, the temperatures on the Arctic ice were a fairly consistent -25C/-13F. In Siberia the temperature is warmer, but when the sun goes down, or slips behind a cloud the drop in temperature is sudden and brutal. On a number of occasions I’d be running in my base layer, the sun keeping me warm. When the clouds gathered and obscured the sun I had to stop and add a layer in order to keep out the cold

Weak ice was another concern and navigating cracks and open leads presented a major challenge. The work of finding a safe place to cross added added miles to the trip. On the last leg of the traverse I traveled 68 miles in 36 hours, partly through the night. Moving in the dark on a compass bearing while feeling and listening for shifting ice is a hair raising experience.

Bugs and parasites are a constant threat. At the start of my second week on the ice I was hit by mild food poisoning, and all the worst symptoms that come with it (which we won’t go into). Looking back, I think I can pinpoint an occasion when I was less than meticulous about boiling my drinking water and for that lapse I paid an unpleasant price. Looking after our body is key to success. On this occasion, and having already traveled past the halfway point, I simply ploughed on and accepted the discomfort.

Injuries can be game changers. On the first day I twisted my left ankle whilst running across some ice rubble. Although painful, the injury didn’t slow me down. But on the fourth day I started to experience severe pain in my right shin. The pain, which has just been diagnosed as shin splints, was enough to slow my progress. On that day I struggled to cover more than 32 miles. Fortunately I was had plenty of anti-inflammatories that I used to take the edge of the swelling and pain. Planning for the worst paid off for me.

What were some unexpected rewards or pleasant surprises that you got from the trip?

Finding wolf tracks in the snow. A beautiful animal, one of my favorites, but I’m glad I didn’t run into one. A fellow athlete (I term I use lightly to describe myself), Ray Zahab, told me that the spotted wolves a couple of years ago. The pack was loitering on the shoreline and Ray said they were the largest wolves he’d ever seen. That story convinced me that a close encounter wasn’t in my best interests. I was happy just to see signs of their passing by.

And Lake Baikal has so many wonders it’s hard to put my finger on any one. I remember seeing strange, larval creatures thrashing around below the ice. Silhouettes of large fish flitting in and our of the dark depths. Huge birds of prey gliding over the mountains. So many rewards, rather than identify any one stand out moment I’d like to say that I’ve been incredibly lucky.

Did you meet any memorable people along the way?

Along the western edge of the lake, just above Ol’Khon island is a nature reserve. Rangers patrol along the fringes and deep into the forests and, near the frozen shore, I met Igor. He stopped me and checked I was carrying a permit (required when traveling within about 10km of the park), then offered me a coffee from his flask. We spent some time trying to understand each other (he spoke Russian and French; I speak English and German). After a time we gave up and shared pictures of our families.

What suggestions would you give to someone looking to do a similar trek?

Don’t be afraid to eat. A lot. Especially foods with a high fat and protein content. Every day I was burning between 5,000 and 6,000 calories and it was only my voracious eating habits that prevented malnutrition. That said, I did lose about 14 pounds during the 12 day crossing.

If you’re relatively seasoned, trust your instincts and knowledge. For example, someone who did the traverse a few years ago suggested I take a specific type of tent (a Hilleberg Soulo), one I hadn’t used before. There were many issues – the tent needed valances to reduce drafts (a fact that wasn’t mentioned). Also, the vestibule area was far too small to cook in – a practice that is discouraged, unless you’re working in extreme cold environments. While the tent is fast and easy to erect, it was too small for my liking. Usually I take a modified Hilleberg Nammatj 2 on my expeditions and I’ll be reverting to this model for all future trips.

Take time to enjoy the environment. We have one life. Even though I set out to break a record, there was still time to appreciate what was before my eyes.

What’s next for you?

South Pole solo, 2022. Maybe a North West passage crammed into next year.

James Redden is a former soldier, now technologist, who splits his time between family, expeditions, fund raising and his website, TrekSumo. When he’s not reviewing men’s down jackets or hiking watches, he can be found rambling through the countryside of the UK. Although his journeys take him to exotic locations, they have a purpose: James’s aim is raise funds and awareness for a number of mental health charities in England. As a seasoned public speaker, he also brings his stories into classroom and businesses across the UK.

* Pronounced BYE-kal

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