A Snowmobile Expedition with Russian Arctic Travel
Over tundra and mountains, through blizzards and white-outs, at Gulag ruins and Nenets’ camps – ten days on a snowmobile through the Russian Arctic.
Life is infinite when travelling; a friend once said to me. On the last slope, at full throttle, the momentum of the snowmobile is carrying us effortlessly upwards. Close to the ground, the wind is driving intricate snow ribbons towards us. I stop beside Vladimir on the crest of the pass, and ahead the already unearthly landscape is unfolding into a panorama of mindblowing grandeur.
We are looking down to the broad channel of the river Longotjogan, behind which mountain ranges rise, clad in immaculate snow. Blue shadows nestle into the valleys. It is about -25°C and life is infinite. Only when I try to open my eyes wide with amazement, do I realize that the lashes of the left one, narrowed to a slit against the sun for a few minutes, have frozen shut.
Salekhard. 40.000 inhabitants, situated at the polar circle
Chaos and catastrophes. If it weren’t my third year travelling with Aleksei – though previously only on visits to Vladimir’s nomadic Nenets family, rather than a snowmobile expedition of nearly 1000 kilometres in early February – I might be worried.
For four days Aleksei, Tony and I bounce back and forth between hardware stores and snowmobile repair shops. Somehow the snowmobiles get more and more broken with each repair. At least I made my Russian-language tutor teach me the “Five Pillars of Russian Cursing “, so I’m easily able to understand half the conversations these days.
Aleksei Tarasov, 38, is running his own outdoor adventure company in Salekhard, Russian Arctic Travel. Currently, he is managing a survey expedition, somehow keeping two errant geophysicists alive, while also saving our own. Despite everything, he never loses his sense of humour for a second.
From Charb to Seyda. 180 kilometres, 11 hours
Noon on Day 6. We’re standing in the central square of the small town Charb, in sunny -38°C, tying packsacks and cans of gasoline onto the sledge. Aleksei’s frustration is not showing even though he won’t be able to come along after all, due to the troublesome geophysicists. Instead, Tony, his friend and associate, has stepped in. Anton Kostyukovich, 31, is a pop-culture buff and usually in charge of snowshoe-treks and summer hiking.
The third member of our gang is Vladimir Laptander. He is familiar with most of our route, which will lead through Nenets’ territory. He’s driving a red Taiga Patrul with the cargo sledge, and I’m on a black Vektor with Tony behind me.
We are running late. Amidst the flurry of activity, Aleksei is trying to explain snowmobile manoeuvering in critical situations to me. Well. I’m far from mastering the higher arts of snowmobiling, which is not at all like driving a motorbike, where you turn the handlebars and make a curve. Nope.
In deep snow, it usually works like this: 68 kilos of Uebel would like to turn left. 400 kilos of snowmobile prefer to continue straight. Additionally, if there is a steep slope involved, it’s paramount to lean far, far sideways, uphill; otherwise the whole shebang will capsize. Even the thought of 400 kilos of downhill capsizing snowmobile causes a feeling of existential unease.
After our final hugs and farewells, we’re off. In this cold, white-blue emptiness, our breath is freezing to icy lumps on balaclavas, rims of hats, hoods, and eyelashes. The first two hours give me a hard fight. The driving resembles a damn rodeo, the ground is rough and covered with only a little snow, causing the snow-cooled engines to overheat. My goggles suck, they are icing up and leaving me blind, it has to – and will – work without them.
Just before dusk, the weather changes. A massive front is racing across the sky, the colour of anthracite. Within 30 minutes the temperatures have risen a mind-boggling 25 degrees. Along with the wind comes the snow. Horizontally.
Along with the snow comes the white-out. No visibility. Nothing left to see; no horizon, no heights, no dips, not even the ground right under the skids. It will be nearly midnight before we reach the tiny village of Seyda – tired, worn out, hungry, and, at least as far as I’m concerned, fundamentally happy. I love snowstorms.
It is love. Me and the polar regions. An addiction since I saw it for the first time, 17 years ago in Antarctica: The Utter Absence of Everything. My favourite polar hero Shackleton probably explained it best: Men go out into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by the love of adventure, some have the keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and others are drawn by the lure of “little voices “, the mysterious fascination of the unknown. All my life, I have heard those alluring little voices. Nowhere have I found any emptier spaces than out there in the ice.
From Seyda to Pym-Va Shor. 120 kilometres, 8 hours
A long day, made harder by the persistent snow. We cross rivers. Each time a maze of steep banks, deep snowdrifts and botanical barricades. I’m trying to learn how to manoeuver under challenging conditions. I manage. I manage again. Then I don’t and sink the Vektor pathetically into heaps and pits of snow.
Tony – fantastic, ice-bearded Tony – is, of course, and contrary to his claims, a fabulous snowmobile driver, and saves our asses. There follows repeated consultation of the GPS. None of us has ever been here before. Even Tony’s GPS doesn’t show a map any longer. Here the world is ending. Here will be dragons.
Around 7 p.m. the GPS claims the hot springs of Pym-Va Shor to be lying abeam. We commence pitching our tent, in darkness and driving winds. Tony shakes half a ton of poles and frames out of the bag. After we’ve accomplished the feat, I’m doubled up with laughter: the last time I saw a tent this big, the circus was in town.
Pym-Va Shor. Day of rest
A lazy day in our palace of canvas. Tony performs culinary miracles at the MSR-stoves; him not being able to cook has been another of those modest lies. I have to remind myself that he’s also doing this kind of trip for the first time. I admire his calm self-assurance.
An admiration for the Nenets is something we share. These proud people number only about 44,000. Although many no longer live as reindeer herders like Vladimir, their knowledge about living and surviving in the arctic is of stunning immensity. Where we go to experience an extreme adventure, the Nenets are simply at home.
Around midday we drive down to the spring, it smells sulphurous, and the water of its pool is below body temperature. Unanimously we forgo the bathing fun.
From Pym-Va Shor to Vorkuta. 170 kilometres, 11 hours
A howling gale, complete with white-out and vertigo while driving over invisible ground. A landscape nearly entirely devoid of life. The twigs and branches struggling out of the suffocating snow alongside the rivers are so scrawny, you feel pity for them. Our speed is good today, though: Rarely under 30, mostly above 40, sometimes above 50 km/h. We ride into Vorkuta on the wings of the snowstorm and right into the evening rush-hour.
Vorkuta. Day of rest
Vorkuta. The infamous Gulag city. Built on the bones of the thousands who perished in the labour camps and coal mines. Nowadays a shrinking, partial ghost town. Beyond the historic centre and its crumbling glory, the city is disintegrating into the drifting snow.
Initially, you pass still inhabited housing blocks, defiantly painted in bright colours like toy bricks thrown in rage into the emptiness by a huge child. Next, come abandoned housing blocks and the carcasses of grey industrial buildings. On the fallow ground, a few weathered wooden crosses just barely protrude out of the meter-high snow: the German cemetery. A small memorial pleads for ‘Eternal Commemoration Of the Sowjetgerman Trudarmists’. Whoever they were, those trudarmists, their eternal commemoration is sinking into time and snow.
From Vorkuta to Vera’s Camp. 100 kilometres, 4 1/2 hours
Across a plain of pristine white, under a gleaming sun, in a balmy -20°. On the eastern horizon mountains, an excess of gentle white undulations. We reach their foothills in the early afternoon and follow their valleys upwards. The peaks, which Tony says rise to 1200 metres, glow golden at first and later cool down to a dark shade of rose.
Finally, a black dot ahead. A chum, a solitary chum right in the middle of the grand Nowhere. A thin column of smoke rises from its tip into the evening sky. Living here is the family of Vladimir’s sister, Vera.
A chum, by the way, is something like a big tee-pee made of reindeer skins, warm inside and incredibly cosy. We are welcomed and instantly invited to an opulent table. The Nenets have five or six meals daily because, as every polar traveller knows quite well, the calory is a measuring unit of warmth.
From Vera’s Camp to the Gornokhadatinsky Nature Reserve. 70 kilometres, 3 hours. Plus 60 kilometre side trip
Magical hours in the crystalline morning. The sun is creeping further and further down the slopes; the snow is good and grippy, and we blaze along. All too soon we have reached our day’s destination – the ranger cabins of the Gornokhadatinsky Nature Reserve.
We come across two bright blue truck-trailers, both rather shabby and not currently inhabited. On the ground, a sign riddled with bullets proclaims that entry to the reserve requires a vast portfolio of various permits and authorizations. Of which we have none. We have two bottles of vodka as hospitality gifts instead.
We start our search for the muskoxen that reside somewhere around here. After thirty kilometres, we come across a fence. A fence? Here?! “The muskoxen”, says Tony, pointing towards dark lumps on the horizon. I break into laughter – this is definitely not a wildlife encounter of the high-adrenaline kind.
Tony, refusing to listen to my assurances that seeing muskoxen is not necessary for my eternal bliss, insists on proceeding despite the possibility of trouble concerning our lack of permits. Shortly after that we arrive at an ensemble of colourful little huts, sheds and a tube-shaped habitat, and are warmly greeted by two young rascals in camouflage suits: Vova and Denis.
We’ve been sitting for more than an hour in their cabin, sharing tea and pleasant chatter, before it dawns on me. Vova hasn’t been writing his lengthy memoirs or fleshing out the peace treaty for the Middle East all this time, but filing a charge against us. It’s the most pleasant, and protracted, criminal charge of my life so far.
Vova eventually produces a cornucopia of forms, all colours of the rainbow, from the nightstand between the two cots. He hands them over as a cat sharpens her claws on the wallpaper. It turns out that these two rough, tough guys keep the fluffiest little kitty cat I’ve ever seen.
From Gornokhadatinsky Nature Reserve to Vladimir’s Camp. 100 kilometres, 5 hours
We are beginning to wind our way up the first mountain pass. Strength-sapping traverses on steep slopes try to rip my arms out of their joints. Again and again, I think neither my abilities nor my muscles and weight will be enough to get us up here. I’m wrong. This is why you should seek out limits: to ascertain that you will cope, and maybe even thrive.
Finally, we reach the crest of the pass, looking out over a boundless landscape with alluring mountains. Below us meanders the icy ribbon of the Longotjogan. We pull up, kill the engines so not to disturb the silence and walk off a bit, each of us on our own. Eventually, we stand close again and marvel wordlessly. “Tell the people back at your home how beautiful it is here”, says Vladimir finally.
The steep downhill run is a sheer delight. At the bottom, where the valley spreads before us like a generous gift, I, at last, get the chance to open the throttle, 65, 70, 71 km/h – yay!
In the afternoon, we come to the Gulag ruins in a deceptively idyllic setting. A brick building for the generator, the skeletons of wooden barracks amidst brambles and a single burial cross; there will be more beneath the snow. Beside us, the Molybdenum River is sleeping under his blanket of ice, like the dead in their graves.
At third pass, we are snaking our way up a couloir, wedged in between bold escarpments. Deep snow hides gaping fissures. On a narrow curve is a steep incline that I can’t take sharply enough. At the apex, I feel the Vektor starting to tilt, which right here and now would be truly catastrophic. Tony is about to reach forwards for the handlebars in alarm, as I have a profound and visceral understanding of our weight and momentum.
In the moment I suddenly recall Aleksei’s instruction at last year’s training – if the snowmobile is tipping, fight your instincts and turn it downhill. We tip and fall, only now I don’t try to stop the force of a 400kg snowmobile and two 70kg humans in motion. I use our momentum, letting us plummet. An intoxicating second later, we’re dashing through the trough of the couloir and up the opposite slope. Triumph. We are still far from the top of the pass, but I’m grinning wildly.
Day of rest and fishing foray
Vladimir asked if I’d like to see how winter-fishing works. Picturing a little trip to the lakes of the valley, I said that I absolutely would. Unfortunately, I hadn’t planned on the weather.
After several gruelling hours battling storm and snow, we arrive somewhere high up in the mountains. We then dig and hack four holes in the snow, through the ice of the hidden lake below. Between the holes, Vladimir threads his gillnets. Again and again, I’m amazed by our species, which finds a way to survive under the most adverse conditions imaginable.
From Vladimir’s Camp to Charb. 30 kilometres, 2 hours
A bright, cloudless day of wonder, at -28°C. The last one. Joy and melancholy are pitched hard against each other. I don’t want to do without it, without this whole world of ours. I still have so much to learn. I guess tonight, at the sauna party with Aleksei, Tony and their posse, we will have to forge out plans for next year’s winter.
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