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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!”
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.
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.”
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.