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Skiing south on the border between Europe and Asia


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 lose one of our spoons so we were sharing one teaspoon to eat meals out of one cooking pot, alternating mouthfuls.

Northern Russia expedition

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.

Northern Russia expeditionTo 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.

Northern Russia expeditionWhen 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.

Northern Russia expedition

“Where are you going?” he asked in Russian.
“South. To Pripolyarnny,” we stuttered in Russian.
“How?”
“Through the mountains. On skis.”
“No. You’re late. You’re too late. Don’t go.”
“Why?”
“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!”

Northern Russia expeditionWe 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.

Northern Russia expeditionThe 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.

Northern Russia expeditionWe 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.

Northern Russia expedition

Live updates from Charlie on his Arctic adventure on his expedition website. And information about donating to his chosen charity can be found here.

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