In March 2020, Wild Edge Founder Oli France embarked on a solo 405-mile journey across the full length of Lake Baikal, the world's largest freshwater lake, located in the frozen heart of Siberia. He would haul all of his supplies in a 60kg sled. This is a first-hand account of his journey.
It all started with a camel burger in Somalia. At least, that was my conclusion as I lay in a UK hospital bed a week later. I had contracted a dire concoction of illnesses. First, shigella, which causes fever and dysentery. Then meningitis, the onset of which made me feel like my brain might explode through my skull. I have never been so ill, and for a time I worried I might be fatally unwell.
It was early December 2019. I was forbidden to leave my room, and anyone who entered was entirely clad in protective clothing. My mind could barely focus on anything but the pain within it. I could however hear a radio from the corridor, and rumours of a new disease emerging in the Far East. Then, a cold draft from the window reminded me of Siberia.
In three months, I had planned to embark on my most demanding expedition yet. My goal was to cross the full length of Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake, which sits in the heart of Russia. Measuring 400 miles, it is forty times the length of England’s largest lake. Each winter, as temperatures plummet below minus 40 ° C, a thick slab of surface ice encrusts the mile-deep lake.
Like eating dubious burgers, it’s a journey which poses many risks. The ice, while one metre thick in parts, is constantly moving, cracking and shuddering in inordinate plates. This movement leaves swathes of ice rubble as big as cars. There can be massive open-water channels, and jagged four-metre-high pressure ridges. Thermal springs create treacherously thin ice in parts, and some remote sections are one-hundred miles from civilisation. Gale force winds are commonly channelled along Baikal by the surrounding mountains, bringing blizzards and whiteouts.
Though inhospitable, Lake Baikal holds a mystical beauty scarcely seen anywhere else. Its crystalline water hardens in magical patterns of cracks, spirals and bubbles. Local shamans view Baikal as a living beast, which thunders and roars. Such a place, with bone-chilling cold, immense scale and untold dangers wrapped in local mythology, commands a deep respect. Only the foolhardy would travel there unprepared. History holds countless stories of people suffering an icy grave in the black depths of Lake Baikal.
My legs looked thin and weak when I returned home from hospital. I had shed two stone, lost much of my fitness, and still endured crushing headaches and shallow lungs. Bad news compounded my physical decline, as I learned that my trusted expedition partner was dropping out of the trip, and a crucial source of funding had fallen through. As my mind ebbed from its haze, my focus remained gripped by Lake Baikal. I could not let it go.
Going solo brought doubtful questions from loved ones, but a whole new tier of preparation. From satellite phones, ice picks, and piles of cash for emergency Russian helicopters, to dark breathless evenings hauling a sled around a wet field in northern England. If I was going to do this, I could not afford to leave anything to chance.
Three months later in early March 2020, funding secured, kit prepared, and body primed for the challenge, I was deposited on the frozen lakeshore in the bleak Siberian village of Kultuk. It would be sixteen days before my feet would touch solid earth again. Stepping out onto the ice was a sight I had imagined countless times before. I was entrusting my life to the merciless forces of nature.
For months, nightmares plagued me in the small hours of the night. Each vision had me breaking through the ice never to be seen again. Alone on this expedition, I would have nobody watching my back, nobody to haul me free. Only a rapid self-rescue could prevent frostbite, or something much worse.
Though alone, I did have the company of a 60kg sled. This contained everything I needed to support my journey. On bare ice, I would use screw-in spikes in my boots to gain traction. On the snow, I’d skin along on skis. I planned for my days to be long, bordered by dawn and dusk, and to spend my nights camped on the ice itself.
On day one, adrenaline helped me to cover 28.5 miles. It was further than planned, and I felt a burst of confidence. As I checked my GPS position that night, however, it barely looked like I’d started. The sheer scale of Lake Baikal was beginning to dawn on me. My route would traverse the western flank of Lake Baikal. I would cut from cape to cape, rather than tacking along the deep lakeside bays. Often, I would be miles from shore. In the south, it is not unusual to see cars, hovercraft, and skaters using the ice for travel and recreation. In the northern half of the lake, however, there is virtually no civilisation, and there were reports of deep snow.
I set my second camp a mile from the town of Listvyanka, securing it with a dozen ice screws, yet a bright day had given me false confidence. At midnight, a gale force wind erupted, scouring the ice like a freight train. My tent was pummelled. I lay within it, my body now a crucial part of its structure. Spindrift accumulated inside the porch, the tent canvas bellowed, and the poles began to bend. It was a mistake I would not make twice. In the evenings that followed, I would not rest until I had built a protective snow wall around my tent.
As the days ticked by, I averaged a marathon each day, and carved out an efficient routine. I would journey for 12 hours, taking momentary breaks to refuel; part of my 6000-calorie daily diet. Evenings were spent melting snow, rehydrating meals, sending progress messages, and planning for the day ahead. While my snow walls had dealt with the wind, it was the ice which now kept me awake at night. Sundown always brought a sudden twenty-degree temperature drop. The ice responded with a nightly orchestra of bangs and echoes. Many restless nights were spent praying not to be swallowed by the lake.
After seven days I approached Olkhon Island, a 45-mile landmass marking the halfway point. By now, the soles of my feet throbbed from my 50,000 daily steps, my achilles were swollen and my hips and back ached from hauling the sled. My body was in a period of adaptation, from that of a globe-trotting expedition leader specialising in hot and hostile places, to one of frozen sled-hauling soloist.
The small towns near Olkhon island provide the last easy escape routes off the Lake. There was only emptiness for the next two-hundred miles. I got some rare bars of phone signal and decided to video call my wife, Emma, before leaving civilisation behind. What happened next would flip my expedition on its head:
‘I’m pregnant.’As I squinted into a phone screen, balaclava clad and with ice-encrusted islets behind me, I felt nothing but pure delight. My wife stared back from our bed where she had just awoken. An instant pull of responsibility overcame me. I had an urge to be back at a home with Emma, and to share in this excitement. As my phone signal faltered, I was back on my own in freezing Siberia and feeling a very long way from home.
That night, I set camp by a small island, thinking it might shield the wind. It was a bad decision. Overnight, my tent was rocked by terrifying booms, cracks and shudders, almost every thirty seconds for hours on end. I desperately feared that the ice below me might become rubble at any moment, and myself, another of Baikal’s victims. At 2am, my sense of danger peaked. I had to move, right now.
I swept everything into my sled and donned my warmest clothes. I was ready to go, but where? South was a faint glimmer of the last village, a final gateway to home. I was going to have a baby! Then I looked north, to a black emptiness pitted with broken ice and deepening snow. In that moment, I decided to do it for the little one.
With every northward mile, the temperature dropped and the snow deepened. Taller mountains gave momentum to brutal blizzards. After a big 33-mile day, my progress began to falter. In its remotest expanse, Lake Baikal almost pushed me to breaking point.
The weather was strangely warm, just above zero, leaving the snow heavy and wet. Gales brought icy torrents across the lake, and my hefty sled which once skimmed across the bare ice, now acted like an anchor in my wake. My pace slowed to one-mile an hour as my skis collected large clumps of snow. Every forward motion challenged my sore body and lonely mind. I felt it might take an eternity to cover the remaining 75 miles.
For a second, I remembered my emergency helicopter fund, and then I shook my head. This is what I had signed up for, and I had already come so far. Suffering is an elemental component of challenging expeditions. It is one of the things we seek, but we never quite know when it will arise, and it has a habit of arriving in our weaker moments. Depleted, I trekked on.
Four days later, as smoke and golden lights signalled civilisation, I knew that my epic journey was almost complete. I had held many doubts and fears about this expedition. As a polar novice my relentless planning had paid off. I called my wife to share that I was nearing Nizhneangarsk at Baikal’s northern tip. I was soon to become one of very few people to trek the full length of Lake Baikal solo, and I had done so four days quicker than I had planned.
At the end of our short call, Emma revealed the news that Covid-19 was rapidly seizing the world and there were only a few days left to get out of Russia. I needed no additional excuse to race home. I would soon turn thirty. If my twenties had been about wild expeditions to high-risk places, my thirties would, in part at least, be about my next generation.
Oli would like to sincerely thank EH Smith Builders Merchants, Lyon Equipment, Mountain Equipment, Optimus Stoves and Firepot Food for supporting him in making this journey possible.