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.