The Altai

Exploration in Southern Siberia, 9th-28th August 2012

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It must be the other Belukha

30th March 2012, by George

Typing Mount Belukha into Google brings up a raft of relevant information (except in Google Maps: “Did you mean Belgium?”). Given the breadth of information available online when expedition planning, we would have been foolish to rely upon nothing more than Wikipedia as a source of basic facts about the mountain. However, when going into our MEF interview, we felt fairly confident that not only were we well aware of what Belukha was (the highest mountain in the Altai) and how high it was (4,506m), but also where it was:

Mount Belukha: Sitting visibly on the Russian (north) and Kazakhstan (west) border. Mongolia is to the south, and China to the east.

Of course, the fact that we would be climbing nowhere near it meant that we had conducted little further research on the matter. So imagine our surprise and slight concern when the first 5 minutes of debate centred around where exactly Belukha was located.

Quite how this situation arose we aren’t sure, but sitting around a table with seven of the great mountaineers of our age can be fairly intimidating. The Altai are a fairly novel venue for an excursion, so we had begun by looking for some familiar landmarks to help orientate ourselves. The highest mountain seemed like a good place to start.

However, they seemed convinced that Belukha lay well into Russia, well north of the border. We politely pointed to the Google Maps projection they had (along with the large pin marked “Belukha Mountain”), but they assured us that there are photos taken from the Mongolian border looking at the summit due North into Russia, and that Mick Fowler had climbed there many years ago and reported it as lying nowhere near a border.

We politely disagreed, and they toyed with the idea that Mick had “pulled the wool over everybody’s eyes”, after which the conversation ended with “well, the map marker must be the other Belukha”. Slightly nervous and keen to demonstrate we had at least done some research, we moved on hurriedly.

But in my head, the issue wasn’t resolved. So I decided to go and ask him...

Let’s ask Mick

A few weeks later, after delivering an Alpine Club lecture, I collared Mick as he was leaving with the opening line of: “I hear you climbed Mt. Belukha some years ago. Where was it when you climbed it?” After running through a little back story to this unconventional request, I sat back to await an answer to set us straight. But it never came. Belukha, he assured us, was nowhere near the Kazakhstan border and lay well within Russia.

Convinced that we, Google, Wikipedia, and every other expedition report reference couldn’t be wrong, I retired to the pub. And there I found the answer. We were both right:


The opening pages of the 1988 British Altai Expedition. Can you spot the answer?

The answer lies on the first page of the Alpine Journal’s report on Mick Fowler’s expedition. No further in than the subtitle. In 1988, Kazakhstan was in fact the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, a part of the USSR since 1936. This would have placed it well within Russia, nowhere near the (non-existent) Kazakhstan border, and visible North of the Mongolian-Russian border.

Mystery solved and lesson learnt: mountains never move, but borders do.