Well, we’re back in Vorkuta, in the Russian Arctic, after a one-week first attempt. We have several reasons for the decision to turn back and re-group. First, we had planned to try to find some kind of lift, by snow tractor perhaps, as far north as possible, so that we weren’t spending over a week skiing just to reach our start point. We weren’t able to find a ride, so we took off on skis just 10 kilometers north of Vorkuta, with the intention of skiing north 200 kilometers to the coast, and starting our traverse of the entire Ural range from its northernmost point.
Temperatures were registering -30°C in the afternoons, and we aren’t totally sure how cold it got during the night. However, I think, due to the extreme cold, we were using much more fuel than I had anticipated! We were going through our 0.5 liter bottles in less than two days, which is more fuel than I had previously used even at 17,000 ft on Denali. At this rate of fuel consumption, we would have 18 days worth of fuel, which, combined with not getting a lift north, would not be enough to complete the first leg.
In addition to our fuel shortage and the general lackluster feeling of skiing north through freezing head/side winds simply to reach our starting point, Charlie had developed some pretty serious blisters on the inside arches of both feet. Looking at a three-month long ski traverse, it seemed wise to give his initial blisters time to heal and harden, before putting them through the relentless trek ahead.
We spent Friday and Saturday night drinking the only locally-brewed beer in town at the pub that our new friend Nadia also owns. We seem to be the only tourists that have ever been there, and everyone is very friendly and wants to say hello, take pictures with us, and herd us into the back room for illicit shots of whiskey.
Vorkuta is probably a difficult place to live; it’s extremely remote, there are no roads in or out, and it can only be accessed from Moscow via a 45-hour long train ride. Most people here work in the mining industry, and our friends told us that last year, a local mine exploded, killing thirty-six people, and resulting in about 1,000 jobs lost. Vorkuta was initially settled as a Stalinist-era gulag, which means that ‘political enemies’ were forcibly relocated here to serve out sentences of slave labor. In fact, one resident told us that the only foreigners he’d ever heard of in Vorkuta were Germans visiting their ex-POW grandparents who never made it home after being released, often many years after the armistice.
Before arriving, we found an article describing present day Vorkuta as an “economic gulag”, because people cannot afford to leave. I don’t know how much of this is true, but the city center at least is bustling with well-stocked shops and is livelier than I expected. It’s hard to get a real feel for a place in such a short time.