From the 22nd August to 7th September, 11 students and three Mountain Bike Instructors deployed to the remote Mongolian countryside, to cycle 680 km across deserts, steppe, and mountains in an expedition nick-named Ex Mongolian Endurance. The aim of the expedition was to utilise the harsh Mongolian landscape to enhance the attributes of leadership, self-sufficiency, physical and mental endurance, teamwork, and risk management. Not only was the expedition extremely rewarding for all those involved, but the legacy is certain to live on in the Squadron’s memory for years to come and provide benefits for the entire Squadron.
The team flew from Edinburgh to the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar via Beijing and spent a day in the capital gathering essential supplies to sustain the group for the expedition’s duration. A local airline then transported the team to the expedition’s start point, Dalanzadgad, the ‘capital’ of the Gobi Desert. This marked the beginning of Leg 1: a three-day ride across the Gobi Desert to the Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes, the largest in the world outside Africa. The weather was hot and dry, and the terrain rocky and undulating. The ascents and descents we encountered provided an opportunity to build the fitness and bike skills necessary for the more technical sections we would encounter later on. Though tough, the team had ample time to unwind and enjoy their surroundings, including an evening spent on top of the sand dunes appreciating the surrounding wilderness and unblemished night sky.
Leg 2 took the team north away from the desert and towards the Arts Bogd Mountain Range. Not only did the distances to cover increase to around 70 km a day, but the terrain remained equally tough and the heat blisteringly hot. The cycling took the team past age-old extinct volcanoes; and through mountains, dried out river gorges, and seemingly unending steppe, dotted with sporadic nomadic settlements. The sixth day was used as a rest and transfer day, where we made use of the support vehicle to take us 300 km away to a settlement called Bayankhongor, in the foothills of the Khangai Mountain Range.
Individuals were provided with the opportunity to lead the cycling and establishing and packing away camp. This rotated each day, so everyone had the same opportunity to enhance the leadership and followership skills vital to the success of their unit, and indeed for officer training in the future.
Leg 3 was spent traversing the Khangai Mountain Range – a combination of rolling hills and winding rivers, many of which would have to be traversed each day. There was ample opportunity for the team to test their mental and physical resilience in the form of long and steep climbs over mountain passes. The distances also increased to at least 85 km a day. Upon reflection, having the days in the desert at the beginning of the expedition was smart, as they provided a good opportunity to warm up and build fitness for tougher and longer days ahead. This leg was broken up by the opportunity to interact with local nomads, and the team was fortunate enough to be invited into their homes and experience some traditional Mongolian hospitality. The final day of cycling was spent cycling along the Orkhon River Valley to the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire; Karakorum. Upon arrival, after a short but steep climb, the team descended into the city and visited a Buddhist monastery, before being transported back to Ulaanbaatar to commence the journey home.
“Ex Mongolian Endurance was a genuinely surreal experience, with a tremendous sense of accomplishment upon completion. It was genuinely inspiring to see our team work so efficiently together, with empathy on show, and so I am thankful for the opportunity.”
Officer Cadet Fraser Briton
The following are the two most notable learning points to come from the review and feedback process which took place throughout the expedition:
Clear and honest communication is essential to the success of any task in both a military and civilian context and was a notable learning point for the team of Ex Mongolian Endurance while in country and a key lesson for individuals to reflect upon back at ESUAS, and indeed in a civilian environment too. At various stages of the expedition, notably at times when individuals and team dynamics were stretched by a combination of tiredness, climate, terrain, and distance, communications from both the top and bottom of the team could become at risk of deteriorating.
What the team learned is that in these moments where communication was most essential, often due to fatigue of the leader, and stretched team dynamics, a decline of communication could lead to a mismatch in information being passed through the team, and ultimately a decline in morale, especially over (remaining) distances to be covered on that day.
On return to ESUAS, Ex Mongolian Endurance has reinforced the need for effective and clear communication at all times and in all contexts.
Action Centred Leadership
In dynamic and pressurised situations, particularly if there is an element of physical challenge, it is incumbent on the leader to ensure that the task is not prioritised to the detriment of the welfare of either the team, or an individual and indeed themselves. It is of paramount importance that a leader has the mental flexibility and empathy to juggle these three factors; there were times where a leader got ‘leaders’ legs’ and pressed on with the task where their focus should have perhaps been on the welfare of the team.