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My horse was breathing heavily climbing the steep muddy trail. Rocks rolled under his feet and he struggled to maintain his footing. Momentarily, I envisioned rolling backwards down the slope towards the other horses behind me, but consciously blocked any further thought of it. Once on the bare, exposed ridge, heavy clouds started rolling toward us preceded by bouts of lightning. We would not make it to the summit this time. As the rain and wind were getting stronger, we tied our horses to a lonely array of swaying trees. With our eyes fixed on the summit ovoo, we each prayed in silence to the mountain spirit.
Back in camp, a frenzy of packing ensued. Gers were dismantled, bags full of gear and equipment were loaded on the cars. The race with the big storm that was moving in was on. The roads in the forbidden zone are treacherous, full of muddy traps that can even swallow a big military truck. We were not fast enough; the storm hit us in full swing while crossing the river and the clouds spurted hail and more lightning. Through my foggy window, I looked at Altek Boro, the dog that has faithfully been following us during the last week. It was struggling to find shelter behind the moving trucks, a miserable and cold thing in the maelstrom.
During weather windows, we would get out and push the cars through the mud. Completely covered in mud, pushing with all my strength a battered Russian jeep uphill while inhaling its exhaust fumes, I knew that we would be alright. We are a strong team, and our Mongolian counterparts resourceful, patient, and positive in the most outrageous conditions. We have gained each other's trust throughout this three-year project and have overcome many similar adversities.
The night found us having covered the worst part of the road in one piece but still a long way from the steppe. Tents were set up in haste, dry noodles were eaten in silence. The sky was clear and the stars were shining bright. We were through the storm, it would be easy from now on.