Written by Charlie
We picked up where we left off: the small cluster of buildings known as Sanovoj. It was early May and there was well over 300km to reach a small village called Pripolyarnyy from where we planned to send our ski gear home and continue south by foot. As we set out from Sanovoj our big concern was that Spring was coming and there wouldn’t be enough snow. If we became stranded in the snowless wilderness with our heavily laden sleds then it would be a very tough trek out indeed on painfully reduced rations. We carried three and a half weeks of food. I'd managed to loose one of our spoons so we were sharing one teaspoon to eat meals out of one cooking pot, alternating mouthfuls.
Following a valley due south through three days of light snowfall, we approached the tallest peaks in the Ural range. This knot of mountains isn’t high when compared to most ranges on Earth. The highest peak, Narodnaya, is only 1,894m. However, the surrounding landscape is significantly lower so the mountains increasingly loomed over us as we got closer.
One cold and miserable afternoon, with visibility too low to safely start threading a route through the high Urals, we chanced upon a wooden cabin. Ten minutes of digging out the 4ft snow gained us entry and we found everything we needed for a comfortable stay. The building was tiny; about three by four yards. I couldn’t stand up inside and had to take care when edging between the table (with a fork...hurray!), two low beds, and an antiquated stove. A small south-facing window, glass intact, let in plenty of light. There was a ruined cabin twenty yards away so, while Callie chipped off some of the ice on the floor, I dismantled half of the derelict neighbour and made a wood stack inside our home for the night. In the morning we left the place tidier than we found it and with a ready fuel supply for the next occupants.
Our planned route through the highest section of the mountains, programmed into the GPS, proved impossible. We’d been rushed and cavalier when plotting, and had drawn lines up impossibly steep slopes. So, we diverged and relied solely on the old Soviet military maps that we’d had printed on PVC. These weren’t the clearest guide and we were borderline lost for five days. As the daytime temperatures rose, the snow become sticky and energy-sapping in the afternoons. The solstice wasn’t many weeks away and it was only dark for an hour or two each night. We began starting earlier and earlier each day to utilise the firmer snow after the still-frigid nighttime temperatures.
Early one morning we progressed up an increasingly narrow ravine. The climb at the head of it looked passable on the map but the contours were faded and unclear. As the gradient steepened, we slowed. Finally we had to take our skis off and struggle forward in our boots. It became more precipitous and we found ourselves kicking footholds in the deep snow and progressing on all fours. Without the heavy sleds yanking us downwards, it wouldn’t have been too bad. As it was, every inch was hard fought. We were essentially on a snow wall. The sleds would slide back if given an inch of slack and so we couldn’t safely stand and rest for fear of being yanked off the wall and quite likely snapping a limb. Legs permanently braced and noses dragging on the snow, we struggled forward.
To compound the situation, the wind had crept up on us and slowly we were enveloped in a howling whiteout. We couldn’t see how much further there was to go and communication was increasingly difficult. I was ahead of Callie and to one side. She yelled up to me: “Don’t you dare fall, Charlie”. Outwardly she was thoughtfully showing concern for my safety but I knew she also self-interestedly didn’t want to be stuck in the mountains with a partner unconscious and/or unable to walk. I didn’t resent this. I had been thinking the same thing.
The angle crept further towards the vertical plane. I was reduced to climbing a couple of yards, stamping out a nest in the snow, hauling my 40kg sled up by hand, and dumping it in the nest so it wouldn’t slide back down. I could then move forward another two yards (as far as my sled lines would allow) and repeat the process. Each couple of yards took several minutes. At the steepest point, I carefully measured the angle with the inclinometer on our compass. It was 60˚.
When the slope mercifully began to relent and we finally managed to get our skis back on, I checked the GPS. In three hours we’d climbed 600m and moved less than a kilometer forwards. Still in a swirling world of white, we reached what seemed to be the pass and, exhausted, pitched the tent. The descent on the other side looked steep and perilous. In the morning we started down into the next valley. Callie fell forward five minutes in and knocked her head on a ski tip. She seemed dazed and distracted but her pupils were behaving normally and she insisted on continuing. Fed up with her sled running ahead and wiping her out, Callie unclipped it and let it go. It shot down, much further than anticipated, and disappeared into the distance.
When we finally found it we checked our coordinates and were devastated to discover this wasn’t the next valley at all. We must have become disoriented. We had dropped back into the same bloody valley! The hellish climb of yesterday had been a complete waste of time for we were now just an hour’s gentle, flat journey from where we’d started the previous morning. Worse still, we’d wasted a day of precious food rations. We found a more gentle pass out of the valley and continued our push southward.
Following a river up another valley, we came upon our first set of bear tracks. Spring must be starting if they were waking from hibernation. I knew that the Urals had Eurasian brown bears but I was unprepared for how big their paw prints would be. These were freshly pressed in soft snow and about 25cm wide. Between the prints, parallel lines were carved where the claws had dragged through the snow between steps. Bigger than grizzlies, males can grow to 2.5m long and weigh half a ton. The owner of the prints had been asleep for six months and would be hungry. He was heading south too and we followed him up over a pass and onwards for 15km.
We started protecting our food at night. We didn’t put it far from our tent as advised in North American bear country because we these bears would be afraid of humans unlike the cocky characters of Alaska and Canada. Besides, if they wanted our food they’d have to fight us for it. We’d be stuffed without it. I dug into the snow beside the tent and created a rudimentary box with the two sleds, running bungee chords tightly around them.
As we made our way over a nondescript pass and back into “Asia” one afternoon, we were wrapped in another windy white out and temperatures far below freezing. The hardy shrubs had a horizontal half inch of rime clinging to their leeward side. Later that day we rejoined our planned route and, no longer lost, finally began to make faster progress. With the worst of the mountains behind us, we shot down a valley and found a clutch of buildings; a small mining operation. Vasya, a chunky slav with a straw-brown moustache, emerged and welcomed us in for tea.
“Where are you going?” he asked in Russian.
“South. To Pripolyarnny,” we stuttered in Russian.
“Through the mountains. On skis.”
“No. You’re late. You’re too late. Don’t go.”
“Winter’s over. Tomorrow will be +10˚C. The snow is melting. The rivers will be deep and fast. It’s dangerous. Some Moscow tourists got in trouble a few years ago. They were rescued by helicopter. One was badly hurt. There is a track out of the mountains from here. It’ll take you to Saranpaul. There’s a hotel and a supermarket and everything you need. Please, go to Saranpaul.”
Callie and I held a quick muttered conclave as follows:
Me: “What do you think?”
Callie: “I don’t know. Local people always play up the danger.”
M: “But what if he’s right? And about the forecast?”
C: “Then we’ll start even earlier in the mornings.”
M: “He seems genuinely concerned for us.”
C: “How often have you disregarded local advice before.”
M: “Pretty much always, I suppose.”
C: “And how often have you got in trouble?”
M: “Fair point. Rarely.”
C: “So, lets go!”
We calmed Vasya by saying we would go to Saranpaul and thanked him for his help. Half a mile down the track we cut into the forest and back towards the mountains. We were semi-nocturnal from that point onwards. Our alarm the next morning was at 1.30am, just as it was getting light. It was uncomfortably cold and we had to move ceaselessly for five hours to keep warm. My beard was quickly thick with ice which didn’t thaw until I crawled into the tent at 2pm, ready for a 5pm bedtime. We joined a river which was still covered in 5 feet of snow and ice. It ran south and a tributary of it continued south when the main river swung westward. On the flat and even surface we were able to remove the skins from our skis for the first time on the expedition and advance quickly with much less effort expended. If the river was frozen all the way we’d be in Pripolyarnyy in excellent time.
Many bears had preceded us down the river and their galumphing tracks ran everywhere. We often camped on top of them and they were crossed by countless smaller tracks: foxes, arctic hares, wolverines, deer. As we continued, dark leads of unfrozen water were opening and then refreezing at night. A phalanx of thickly-treed mountains stood to either side of it. As the thickness of our zimnik (Russian word for winter road) melted thinner, we had to pick our way more carefully, constantly scanning the snow for darker patches which were prone to cracking or giving way. The alarm clock came forward to midnight midnight.
After six days we left the river, and not a moment too soon. It was no longer frozen across and we were weaving through forest on the banks. A sign announced that we were leaving Yugyd Va National Park and informed us that we’d been in a UNESCO world heritage site for the last three weeks. Running past the sign was a gas pipeline and an attendant track that ran the 40km out of the mountains and through the taiga to Pripolyarnyy. We’d reached the end of the Subpolar Urals and the end of our ski traverse. The Urals extended further south but no longer in a continuous, ski-able range. Instead, there was forest with a disconnected north-south string of rocky protrusions poking out of it. Over 1,000km lay between us and where we’d started our journey three months earlier.
The moment was strangely anticlimactic for both of us. Callie, a keen skier, was despondent. The rest of the trip – walking, paddling, cycling – was “too easy” to her mind and the big challenge was done. I had never ski-toured before. The journey had been so different to how I’d imagined. For starters, to my mind we’d hardly skied. I’d walked 1,000km in tortuous boots with heavy planks clipped to my feet that lead me to fall over regularly with comicbook clumsiness. And yet, it had been so much more than I’d dared to imagine before we set off. We’d been through places so remote and untouched that I’d felt an odd ownership over the landscapes. We had usually been the only people for many miles around and it was easy to feel that the place was ours, and ours alone. However, in reality, the mountains and the tundra had been the boss and had very nearly owned me at several points. It had been harder and less enjoyable than I’d expected. But I already know that this would lead to hindsight’s unexplainable turntable logging it in my memory as better and more worthwhile. Rosetinting usually spreads it’s sweet-filtered mantle over my memories in a matter of days.
We skied alongside the track for a while but the snow eventually disappeared and we were forced to walk along the rutted track, dragging our sleds through the cloying mud behind us. Just 6km from Pripolyarnyy, we were approached by an immaculately waxed Landcruiser. Out climbed Alexander, in a smart suit, and a couple of security guards with Gazprom badges on their arms. We back-and-forthed politely for a bit. They were offering us a ride which we graciously declined. They then said they’d take our sleds and leave them for us by the entrance to the village. Off they went and on we walked, feeling spry under our lightened loads. Twenty minutes later they returned with an English teacher in tow.
“You must come with us. This is actually a private road and you’re actually trespassing. We will give you a ride to Pripolyarnyy,” said Marina.
We could hardly refuse. On the drive, they asked us about our onwards plans. We explained we would post out ski gear home and hike south to the road network on tracks through the forest that we’d seen on satellite images. Once on the roads we’d continue to Chelyabinsk.
“But how will you find your way?” asked Marina.
“When we get online in Pripolyarnyy, we’ll plot a route on our GPS using the satellite images.
“But we have no internet. We are a small village. Only 2,000 people.”
We were driven to the only hotel, built and owned by Gazprom who, incidentally, also built the pipeline and the entire village. There were no police. Gazprom was the law. We were told that we were guests of Gazprom and should wash and rest. In the morning someone would visit us to discuss our options.
Konstantin was stern and brusque when he arrived but seemed keen to help us. He was the Gazprom commissar and effectively ran Pripolyarnyy. He showed us various maps and explained that we’d find thigh deep slush in the forest and that the tracks we’d seen on satellite images were only zimnik. When the snow melted they quickly became balota (swamp). In fact, much of Siberia becomes one vast, tree-tangled swamp in summer; a nightmarish mess of mosquitoes and squelchiness.
We were given a day to think things over. Marina took us to the school and showed us around before putting us on a stage and having the older pupils fire questions at us in impressive English. In the evening we asked Konstantin if we could either walk or hitch a lift along the east-west pipeline road until we found a more viable way south. He made a couple of calls up the chain of command but access was denied. He then made another call. When he hung up he turned to us.
“There is Gazprom helicopter flying to Sovietsky tomorrow. That is 150km south. Is on road network. You are welcome. Our guest. No charge. You will go, yes?”
He seemed impatient and probably wanted us off his hands. We felt we had only a few seconds to think about it. We awkwardly mumbled a few words back and forth between us. Naturally, we both recoiled from breaking our continuous line of human-powered travel, even if only for a relatively short stretch. However, we had wandered into a bit of a bind, a swampy cul-de-sac, and this would get us moving without biting deeper into our increasingly tight visa allowances. With gratitude and remorse we accepted and were soon climbing into the back of a large chopper with 18 other passengers. We all sat facing each other on two benches along the walls with a disorderly mound of baggage between. As we were whisked over the taiga, low and fast, we saw the white sky reflected in most gaps between the trees. The balota was already smothering the forest.
Written by Charlie
Inta is among the bleakest and least attractive towns I’ve ever visited. Needing rest and supplies, we hitched a lift to town from the mountains with some rangers from Yugyd Va National Park. Their off-road snow truck had 5ft high wheels. As we jolted through the coal-dusted outskirts of the town, the vista was an unplanned, unloved jumble of crumbling concrete. The dreary-faced buildings and snow-banked roads were threaded through with a complicated tangle of rusting water pipes; once a jaunty yellow, now flaking tubes of rust red. In the Russian north, all pipes run above ground for ease of access when they inevitably crack in the unspeakable cold of winter. The winter, however, seemed to be drawing in. Compared to the mountains, Inta was balmy. Much of the snow on the roads had melted to reveal a hopscotch of potholes.
We walked through the centre, stumbling under the weight of our bags, looking for an affordable guesthouse. The town square sports an aged, silver Lenin atop a red plinth. Right hand tucked casually in cloak pocket and left clasping an unidentifiable object, presumably of some great revolutionary significance; an industrial tool, perhaps, or a list of agitators that could do with dying. The statue strides ardently towards his vision of a fairer Russia. Nearby, a rotting row of derelict wooden houses harks back to the origins of Inta. A few years after Lenin’s death, his walrus-faced successor needed coal to fuel the new, industrial Russia rising from the flames of revolution. He began exploiting the far north.
Inta’s first inhabitants arrived by foot after a long journey first by sea, then by riverboat, and finally by foot. They carved clearings into the forest and used the felled trees to build shelter. They then built a railroad connecting Inta to the rest of Russia. They didn’t build a road. There still isn’t one. Then they started mining. The coal mines were hellish in summer. Dark, dangerous and sweltering. In winter they were equally hellish, but warm in comparison to the fierce conditions on the surface. Inta lies on the Arctic circle. Minus gifty degrees Celsius is not unknown. These industrious settlers weren’t exactly there by choice. They worked at gunpoint. They were a ragtag assortment of criminals and political prisoners; one small speck in the sprawling Gulag archipelago that reached from the Finnish border to the Pacific coast. Inta was a place peopled by prisoners and guards, a place people wanted to get away from.
Despite the Gulag closing in the 1950s, little has changed if I’m brutally honest. The town has 30,000 people: gruff men working the mines and unsmiling women working everywhere else. Children seemed in short supply. The inhabitants talk of the cities they’d rather live in and the cherished few times they’ve visited other parts of Russia.
As with all remote Russian cities, tourists are exceedingly rare in Inta. The authorities aren’t used to dealing with foreigners. The prevailing attitude is one of suspicion – a hangover from the Soviet era when the war of ideology was still being waged. Why the hell have they come here? Why on earth would they want to? We all want to leave. What are they after? There must be something they’re not telling us. Are they spies?
The police first came to visit us in our guesthouse. Three of them. They closely scrutinised and photocopied every single page of our passports. What they might want with Congolese visas and Indian exit stamps, I’ve no idea. We later received a message that we should report to the police station as they wanted to copy our passports again. When we arrived, we found Olga, the impressively cold head of police. There was also Yelena, an English teacher, called in for translation. She was friendly and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to practice her language skills.
Through Yelena we answered Olga’s endless questions about where we’d been in Russia, the exact dates we’d been there and how we got from there to the next place. This took an hour or so. She then became interested in our visas. The longest available Russian tourist visa is only 30 days. Therefore, we had obtained business visas for our visit. This is standard practice for travel in Russia. Olga wanted to know why we had business visas. We gave our pre-agreed story of scouting out a route for a potential commercial ski expedition for the respective (imaginary) tour operators we worked for. Olga’s questions became more and more obsessed with minute detail and she was tapping away at a document on her keyboard. She finally printed and placed it before us with a pen.
“Just sign here,” said Yelena while Olga thrust a painted fingernail at the bottom of the sheet.
“What is this document?” I asked.
“Just a declaration.”
“But what does it declare?”
“That you have broken the law and will be attending your court hearing tomorrow.”
“I beg your pardon! What law have we broken?”
“It says here: law 114-F3, created on 15th August 1996. ‘Travelling for purposes other than that stated on your visa.’ You came to Russia for commercial purposes but have been committing tourism.” The law was clearly to prevent people carrying out business while on a tourist visa, not vice versa.
“And what will happen if we are found guilty?
Yelena asked Olga who replied swiftly and simply. The translation came back: “a fine or deportation.” We were made to sign but scribbled in English on the document that we denied the charges.
We reported to the police station at 8.40 the following morning. With nothing but a nod, Olga led us for five minutes to the court. Her high heels wobbled unsteadily on the slush-covered pavement. We had the right to a lawyer but decided there was no point. Why complicate things further. Plead innocence and politely point out the absurdity of the charge was our loose plan. We were trying to see the funning side of the whole farcical situation. Outwardly, we felt fairly confident that it was less serious than it seemed. On the one hand, “committing tourism” isn’t exactly theft or murder. They wouldn’t really deport us would they? But, on the other hand, the very existence of Inta was a testament to the Russian justice system’s lackadaisical relationship with the concept of justice. Privately, we both worried that they might deport us. That would be curtains for the expedition.
Yelena arrived while we waited on a bench in a pastel green corridor. Olga sat apart, thumbing through Instagram on her phone. We were ushered into the court. A 10x10m room with a dock at its centre, a long desk to the right with several microphones, and a judge’s bench stood before three high-backed office chairs. The Russian coat of arms (a two-headed eagle holding a scepter and orb) adorned the wall alongside a droopy Russian flag. In the windowsill was bare brickwork with lazily splotched clumps of cement. It was sunny outside and the windows were closed. The room’s warmth was reflected by the sleepiness of the stenographer sitting behind her computer.
When the black-robed judge swept in, we resentfully stood and bowed as we’d been instructed. I was tried first. The case was gone over. The same questions were asked. Through Yelena, I stated our innocence. I explained that it was necessary for us to run this recce prior to sending commercial tour groups. We needed to ascertain if the Komi Republic (the region of Russia we were in) was ready for tourism, and if it would provide a welcoming, hassle-free environment for foreign visitors. Olga and the judge, a woman in her 40s, looked at each other and snorted when that was translated. A witness was called. To our surprise, in shuffled Yura, one of the park rangers who’d driven us to Inta. He confirmed that he had indeed seen the accused in Yugyd-Va National Park on the dates specified. He was then excused. His presence was a pointless pretense of legitimacy for the trial.
After forty minutes of these proceedings, the judge withdrew for deliberation. Olga returned to Instagram and Yelena chatted to us politely. After an hour the judge returned and pronounced the accused guilty. The verdict: I should pay a fine of 2,500 rubles (about £35). I was asked if I wanted to appeal. With both relief and irritation, I accepted the penalty and signed the papers. Then it was Callie’s turn. The court was just embarking on the same lengthy series of questions that I’d faced when Callie broke in and said her circumstances were the same and that she’d accept the same penalty. Thirty minutes later, we had paid up and were free to continue our illicit journey. The light fine seemed to be a convenience merely to avoid having to find us innocent. What had been achieved seemed little more than Olga and the judiciary saving face for wasting everybody’s time.
We gladly left Inta the following morning and returned to the harsh simplicity of the mountains.
Written by Callie
Ski. Pitch Tent. Cook. Sleep. Ski. Pitch Tent. Cook. Sleep. Ski.Ski.Ski. Curse the icy, sastrugi-covered terrain and the bulky, unfriendly sled that keeps nipping at your heels on any slight downhill. Navigate solely by compass bearing because the landscape is featureless and obscured by blowing snow. Argue over which line to take. Savor three decadent mouthfuls of the most delicious Snickers bar imaginable. Crave snacks. Crave snacks. Fantasize about the all the different meals you’ll make your friends when you’re home and can get whatever you want at a supermarket. A supermarket! Get lost in thoughts of consumerism, capitalism…. Ski. Ski. Pitch Tent. Cook. Sleep. Whew! That was an easy blog to write.
In all seriousness, the greatest struggle of a long traverse is the monotony, but it’s also the monotony that makes it beautiful. Every day, we wake up, shudder as we pull still-wet boot liners out of our sleeping bags (where we placed them, shuddering, the night before so they won’t freeze overnight) and force our boots onto aching, blistered feet. We pack up camp, load our sleds, scrape the ice off our skis, click into our bindings, and swosh, swosh forward. We stop for food breaks, pee breaks, map/compass/GPS breaks… and that’s it. Otherwise, we ski. We ski, and we get lost in our thoughts, which to me, is the beauty. There is a profound novelty in the life which has time, which has ample moments for reflection, and nothing more. I have time, so much time – to think, and I believe this period of daily, all-day meditation, is such an important reset for my brain and my well-being. These periods of solitude with my thoughts, on such a grand, empty landscape, are beautiful because I literally can do nothing but think.
On this leg, we skied 310 kilometers through the mountains, from Kharp to a “mystery village” that we located on Google Earth. On the previous leg, we had skied across tundra, and then briefly crossed the mountains and headed back into the lowlands in order to maintain the straightest possible line to Kharp. This had been a mistake. The lowlands are forested valleys with thawing rivers which make navigation maddening to impossible. This time, we wanted to stay in the mountains, above treeline and away from spring conditions. Unfortunately, Inta, which was the next re-supply town, is about 80 kilometers away from the mountains. Desperate to avoid this slog through annoying terrain, we pored over Google Earth looking for signs of settlements closer to the mountains. And we found Mystery Village. On the computer, Charlie followed all the various dirt tracks leaving Inta, until one led to a collection of buildings and tracks in the mountains, 80 kilometers south of Inta. The problem, of course, is that we had no idea if people actually lived at Mystery Village, or if they would be there in the winter; and there was no way to find out. We decided to take the gamble and head to the village, with a back-up four days of food in case the village was uninhabited and we had to walk or ski the road back to Inta in order to re-supply.
Plans made, we headed out, into very bad weather. Over a total of 21 days, we had 3 days of sunshine, and I think one was a half day. The wind is incessant and maddening, reminding Charlie and I both of days cycling across deserts, when the relentless wind steals all joy and no peaceful moments are possible. Though the weather is beginning to warm, the wind keeps everything brisk. Our faces remain covered, and most days it is too cold to take a real lunch break. We face away from the wind, taking gloves off just long enough to unwrap a sandwich. On the really stormy days, we wordlessly eat our lunches, without even taking our backpacks off, comment that we should get going because it’s getting cold, and start off again after a ten-minute lunch break.
On our first week, it snowed almost every day. It doesn’t seem to snow much in the Urals, we haven’t had to dig our tent out during the night, but it does snow often. It snowed about a foot and half over that week, which was very lovely, but we had a few days of breaking trail through deep snow, which happened to coincide with some big climbs, and that was hard. Charlie looked back on one particularly steep, deep climb and commented, exhausted, that he had just plowed a trench through the Urals.
Our sleds were also really heavy that first week, loaded down with 28 days worth of food and fuel, plus all our other gear. We had some pretty steep climbs to make it over, and it was a struggle to pull the sled uphill if we found ourselves on a slippery snowpack. One particular occasion, Charlie was leading, and led us up a steep, rocky slope where it was hard to gain purchase on our skis. I watched him struggle in front of me, but finally make it to the top. I was slipping and slipping, trying with all my might to gain six inches, then another six. Finally, I took my skis off; I felt absolutely worked, maybe close to tears, or curses. The sled hangs like a deadweight, and sometimes it feels absolutely impossible to budge. Charlie came scrambling down the hill; he had left his skis and sled at the top. “I’m fine!”, I yelled, stubbornly. “I chose the line, and it’s a bad one, just let me help you”. I wordlessly allowed him to unclip my sled, throw the line over his shoulders, and scramble on all fours up the slope. Beast mode. Without the weight of my sled, it was easy to follow him to the top.
That day just got worse; the weather set in and we found ourselves in a whiteout on top of a ridge, more or less fumbling through poor visibility, to get down to the other side. On the next climb, again, Charlie made it up, leaving me behind, again unable to gain purchase with my sled weighing me down. The whiteout set in, and Charlie disappeared. Charlie has this habit of going straight up things, which is great, because he can. I tend to think switch-backing side to side, making the incline less steep, is the best way up a hill. In this situation, I had no choice. I simply couldn’t make it up the steep part, and had to traverse out, making the slope angle manageable. On top, Charlie didn’t know which way I had gone, and had to scramble around a rocky ridge to find me again. We yelled some things back and forth through the howling wind, tempers flaring a bit.
We finally made it to the other side of the ridge, and faced a long downhill. Now, skiing downhill while dragging a sled, with your feet in walk mode (only toes clipped to skis), is not necessarily pure fun. It’s hard work. And this day, this absolute flat light, and our state of exhaustion, made the hill somewhat intimidating. But we navigated down through the deep powder and decided to camp right at the bottom. That was the first day of horrible conditions, and there were many more to come.
About a week later, we found ourselves facing wind of an estimated 50 mph, with gusts that were stronger. We were picking our way down a rocky, icy, windblown hill, slipping and just mentally exhausted by the continuously precarious footing. I skied up next to Charlie, and we yelled back and forth about the conditions. They were bad, getting worse quickly, and at this point, pitching the tent was sure to be a struggle. We decided to ski on, feeling like just moving to stay warm was the best option. A while later, a gust knocked me over, so hard that it knocked my head against the snow. It caught me so off guard, and felt so forceful. After that, we decided to camp. We skied around for a while longer, trying to determine where the ground might be flat. In winds like these, pitching the tent is a process, and it’s impossible to get all our gear inside without a load of snow.
That night, we were pleased with ourselves. The wind had calmed a bit, and we had pitched the tent securely and quickly, even in the ferocious wind. Then came morning. By this time, we were accustomed to traveling in almost any weather conditions. Every day was windy; every day seemed like it should be a stay-in-the-tent rest day. I’m being slightly hyperbolic, but only slightly. For several days before this one, I had lain back in my sleeping bag after breakfast, feeling so unmotivated to re-enter the howling inhospitable outdoors. Charlie had tried to motivate, “Come on, you’re making me feel like a slave driver. You know we have to go”. I knew, and after putting it off as long as possible, I’d unzip my sleeping bag. But this day, we knew the instant we woke up that we wouldn’t be leaving the tent.
About an hour before our alarm, we awoke to the tent pressing down over our heads and shoulders, forced by the wind. We wondered whether a guide line had come loose, or a deadman unburied. Charlie had gone out the last time, in the middle of the night, when a stake needed re-burying. I put on my Gore-tex and my overboots, pulled my buff over my face, and slid underneath the vestibule door. The wind hit me like wall. It was hard to stand up, and tightening windward guide lines was out of the question. I fumbled back into the tent, dragging in loads of snow. I sat there, breathing hard, feeling cold and irrationally upset by the snow I had just scattered all over my sleeping pad and bag. (It’s easy to get pre-occupied by snow in the tent – it’s always there, you just have to ignore it. It usually just find its way under our sleeping mats and doesn’t really matter.) “Everything seems secure. The wind is just really strong”, I reported back. It was too windy to cook, as we cook in the vestibules and they were both filling quickly with blowing snow. We huddled in our sleeping bags, occasionally shouting at each other over the wind. We tried to read, until the tent just seemed so ridiculously distorted by wind that we began to wonder again whether something was wrong.
Charlie went outside to check, and a few minutes later, he shoved various bits of a tent pole back in through the zippers. Crap. A pole had broken ,and when it snapped, it had even snapped the elastic cord that holds the pieces of the pole together. We were lucky that none of the pieces had been lost in the wind. Also, the broken pole had ripped an 8-inch gash in the rain fly that covers the top of the tent.
This is when the hard part started. We weren’t sure what the best course of action was. The wind was STRONG. At some point, Charlie commented that it seemed like hurricane-strength wind! We didn’t think that we could take the tent down and re-pitch it with the repaired pole without further damaging the tent or the other poles. But we worried that the weakened tent, down a pole, would not be able to withstand the storm. We worried that the storm might last days, and we couldn’t cook, it was really difficult to pee, and the tent space was getting smaller and smaller as snow packed in around it. By this point, the tent was folded nearly in half, with us huddled in the middle. We decided to flip around, putting our heads away from the wind, and laying with our knees up, trying to brace the remaining poles.
We laid like this for about nine hours, every so often yelling at each other, “You ok?”, “Yeah, you ok?” “Yeah”, “Do you still have your knees under the poles?” “Yeah, do you?” “Yeah”. Then silence again as we drifted in and out of sleep, our bodies going numb in various places as we were essentially unable to move. The wind would tease us, backing off for just long enough to begin hoping – please, please, please, be over! I wondered what we would do if the tent were shredded. It was so cold with the wind chill that we’d have to just keep moving. We were about 100 kilometers from Mystery Village at this point – we could get there in 3 days and nights if we had to, not stopping to sleep unless the weather got nice and we could bivy outside.
Around 3am we awoke to a fluttering stillness, and realized the pressure on our knees had subsided. Gratefully, we agreed that we could stop bracing the poles with our knees, and rolled onto our sides so we could get a few hours of sleep before morning. The weather remained relatively calm in the morning; we were able to repair the pole and devour a much-anticipated breakfast and coffee.
But by that afternoon, the skies were up to their old tricks. The wind returned in force just as we were attempting to climb a slick hillside. The wind-scoured icy surface was just too much for our skins, and we took off our skis, bootpacking to the top. We kept our skis off for the next hill as well, which found us fighting through a raging headwind and navigating our sleds around piles of black, snaggy rocks. Again, the weather was becoming unmanageable, but we had no place to stop until we got down the hill. Still walking, we let our sleds hang down in front of us, as if walking them on a leash. I briefly thought of getting out my crampons, but they were buried in my duffel, and in the wind, it just seemed too difficult and cold a task. Also, this slippery slope seemed like a moderate probability, low risk scenario. A slip seemed possible or likely, but there was nothing precipitous to fall off of, and it wasn’t too steep. Sure enough, I lost my footing, and my sled gained enough momentum in front of me that it was carrying me quickly down the hill. I had nothing with which to arrest my slide. I tried flipping over and digging my toes into the slope, to no avail. I yelled to Charlie, below me, “Look out! I’m coming right at you and I can’t stop!” Of course, he couldn’t hear me over the wind, but luckily, my sled was stopped on a rocky patch and I came to a stop as well. It wasn’t the scariest of falls, but enough to get my heart pumping and make us re-evaluate our travel plans for the day.
Just as I was feeling that we absolutely had to get out of this wind, Charlie spotted a giant boulder. We skied over, into the leeward side, and felt immediate relief. No wind! I giggled and hugged Charlie, “Yes! Best camping spot ever!” We were able to dig out a flat platform and pitch our tent in the security of the boulder. If you wandered over to the edge of the boulder, the force with which the wind hit you as you peeked out from the shelter of the rock was incredible.
The weather mostly continued to be windy and overcast, manageable but unpleasant. As we got closer to Mystery Village, the likelihood of people being there became our main topic of conversation. We had enough food to reach Inta if Mystery Village was uninhabited, but, as the days progressed and we got hungrier and hungrier, the prospect of eating all of our extra rations got increasingly enticing, especially for Charlie. I was mostly ok with the amount of food we ate each day, but Charlie seemed to be getting hungrier by the minute.
Finally, the morning dawned when we were 24 kilometers away from Mystery Village. That afternoon we ate our last snacks, and hoped we would be greeted in the evening with a hot cup of tea. But the day seemed full of obstacles. After complicated navigation that included lean ice bridges, rocky bluffs, disorienting forests and rotten snow over vegetation that was energy-sapping to travel through, we saw buildings. And then. “I see a light!” Charlie exclaimed. Our gamble had paid off. However, it turned out to be a bit of a mixed blessing.
We were greeted by an enthusiastic and very drunk man, Philip. He seemed to be the lone caretaker, with only his vodka bottle and dog for company. We were ushered into his dirty, dimly lit employee quarters, where he sat us at a table on which sat pots of boiled potatoes, smoked reindeer, grilled chicken and sliced bread. It seemed a feast. It’s hard to accurately describe just how grateful you are for a warm fire, a dry room and the ability to walk around without your ski boots on. I was exhausted, happy, relieved. We quickly downed at least three cups of heavily sugared tea, trying not to look too greedy as we picked at bread, meat, potatoes. As if food wasn’t enough, Philip had a banya (a rustic, wood-fired sauna) going. We stripped off weeks’ old clothes, and poured hot and cold water over ourselves, luxuriating in the feeling of clean.
And now, the reason it was a mixed blessing: Philip was a character. He was very drunk when we arrived, and kept drinking throughout the evening. He woke the next day around 3 am, which is when the sun comes up, and immediately poured himself vodka with his unfinished tea. The thing is, he didn’t get it, or didn’t care, that we couldn’t understand his slurred, fast Russian. He kept talking at us, and talking at us. If we were talking to each other, he would interrupt. If we were trying to read a book, he would interrupt. We felt bad, for one, because he was obviously a half-crazed, lonely alcoholic, but also because he had shown us hospitality and yet, we were annoyed with him. When you are exhausted, it is really hard to care about someone else’s neediness. I resorted to ignoring him, and poor Charlie, having more Russian, being a man and also more polite, got the brunt of it. Philip was constantly practically yelling at him, appearing frustrated when he didn’t understand, and repeating some Russian phrase that seemed to be a swear word. It got to the point where it felt like he was swearing at us, and it was uncomfortable, when we desperately just wanted to rest.
Luckily, three park rangers and a driver showed up that afternoon, and we learned that they would give us a ride into Inta the following morning. With huge relief, we sat down to a bountiful feast packed by their wives. Other than an over-enthusiastically stoked fire which caused us to sweat all night, it was all downhill from there.