Ash Dykes earned his nickname from the locals on his gruelling trek across Mongolia last year. He talked to Chris Bond about surviving everything that nature could throw at him.
HAVING decided to walk across one of the most challenging and remote places on earth, Ash Dykes felt there was only one place to prepare for his epic journey – his mum and dad’s back garden.
Last year, the young adventurer walked into the record books after becoming the first person to complete a solo, 1,500-mile trek across Mongolia in aid of the British Red Cross. He battled raging sandstorms, heat exhaustion, severe dehydration and loneliness during a 78-day adventure that took him from the Altai Mountains, through the Gobi Desert, to the Mongolian Steppe, alone, on foot.
But the preparation for this gruelling test of endurance began in the more prosaic surroundings of his parents garden in Wales. “I trained using a tractor tyre, I spent hours and hours rolling it and pulling it around and beating it with a sledge hammer,” he says. Odd as it might sound it was actually an effective way of building his core strength which he would need in the unforgiving wilds of Mongolia.
Ash, who will be talking about his experiences when he brings his lecture tour – Breaking Mongolia; The Lonely Snow Leopard – to Sheffield Student Union next month, came up with the idea while he was working as a scuba diving instructor in Thailand. He had already cycled through Cambodia and Vietnam and learnt how to survive in the jungle with a Burmese hill tribe, and wanted a new challenge. “Mongolia was the one place people didn’t really talk about because it was seen as really remote, but I’d never been in a desert before and the more I thought about it the more I liked the idea.”
Having decided to trek across Mongolia he set about training for a journey that would push his physical and mental powers to the limit. He spent 14 months planning the expedition on a tight budget and shortly before he left the UK he managed to get sponsorship from a London-based production company which provided him with camera equipment to record his journey.
He flew to Mongolia last May and set out from the western city of Olgii, dragging with him a 120kg (18 stone) home-made trailer which carried his food and water, camping equipment and a small medical kit.
His longest day saw him complete 55km (34 miles) in the space of 14 hours. “It’s a vast country and you can go days without seeing anyone, I went eight days without seeing a single soul and then you’d come across a nomad. We didn’t speak the same language but we communicated through hand gestures and drawing in the sand. The people were really friendly and hospitable, they would invite me into their yurt for cup of cha (tea),” he says.
Many people would find the loneliness difficult to deal with but for the most part he says he enjoyed the solitude. “I’m probably never going to experience this kind of solitude again in my life so I told myself to enjoy it.”
Sometimes, though, that was easier said than done. “There were times when I was fed up with the same old grotty tent and smelly sleeping bag, but if I found myself dwelling on the negatives or moaning about something I would tell myself to snap out of it, I never questioned what I was doing.”
As well as the solitude there was the potential danger posed by wild animals, particularly wolves. “When I stopped at settlements the locals joked that I would get eaten alive by wolves but I didn’t see any, although I did find a footprint and I almost stood on a pit viper, which could have been nasty.”
However, it was the extreme weather that proved the biggest gauntlet. The worst moment and the closest he came to death was out in the Gobi Desert. “It was 40 degrees with no shade and I realised I was starting to suffer from heat exhaustion. I was running low on water and I was still three days from my next water source,” he says.
“There was no helicopter to come and get me, the only back up would still have taken a couple of days by land. So that was scary because I knew that I had to keep going otherwise I would die.” He found the resolve to continue but says at times it was agonising with such a heavy weight in tow. “I could only keep moving about 10 minutes at a time and then I would rest under the sledge.
“I found the Gobi Desert harder than the Altai Mountains because the tyres on the sledge would sink in the sand as I walked – it was like dragging a concrete block through hell.”
He finally made it to civilisation but had to spend the next seven days recovering and building his strength back up.
The temperatures veered from 40 degree heat to lows of around minus 15 in the mountains. “I got caught in one blizzard but it was the end of winter so it was nothing major, but there were plenty of sandstorms,” he says.
It was the unpredictability of the weather that made it so dangerous. “You could be walking in 30 degree heat and then it would drop to below zero in just half an hour and you’d get pelted with hailstones. One moment you were praying for rain and the next you were praying for the sun to come back out.”
Then there was the lightning. “When I was walking in the Mongolian Steppe lightning would strike very close by which was worrying because there I was lugging this steel trailer behind me.”
His story was followed back in the UK and it also piqued the interest of the Mongolians who even gave him his own nickname. “
My translator phoned me from the capital about a quarter of the way through and told me the locals were calling me the ‘lonely snow leopard’, because the snow leopard roams the land alone. I thought that was pretty cool and it gave me a bit of extra motivation to keep going.”
Ash finally finished his journey in the eastern city of Choibalsan exhausted, but elated.
Most people wouldn’t attempt what he did in a month of Sundays, but the affable Welshman says it was just about challenging himself. “As a kid I liked going out and exploring the land and finding out what I was capable of achieving and it’s something that’s just stayed with me, it’s about confronting my own fears.”
His record-breaking trek has established him as one of Britain’s most prominent adventurers. Even the indefatigable Sir Ranulph Fiennes, not a man easily impressed, was moved to say that Ash’s Mongolian feat showed “great determination.”
He has his eyes on another major expedition later in the year, although he’s keeping tight lipped about it for the time being.
But before then he plans to lead an expedition into north Mongolia. “It’s a 120km trek and it’s a chance to see snow leopards and grey wolves and walk across mountains and glaciers - nothing too physically demanding,” he says, enthusiastically.
Ash Dykes is appearing at Sheffield University Student Union on March 11. For tickets g o to www.tickets.sheffieldstudentsunion.co.uk