How do you relate to The Arctic

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The White Silence by Vasily Elagin

 by Vasily Elagin.
Translation from Russian by Ilya Kovalev

Although everything is now behind, and much time has passed since, every morning, you wake up to realize that in your heart you are still there, in the Arctic. While dream content isn’t particularly diverse: ridges, polynyas with open water or covered with thin crust of young ice, equipment repairs – constant sequence of images keeps bringing you back to the Great White Silence.

It so happened that back in the year 2002 I found myself in the role of driver engineer and a photographer in Vladimir Chukov’s expedition. Chukov is a professional adventure traveler, president of the expeditionary center “Arctica”, organizer and an executive leader in many of many a high latitude expeditions. The process of getting “hooked” on the Arctic theme progressed painlessly, yet rather intensively. Expeditions of 2004, 2005 and 2007 followed. Fortunately for me all expeditions used different vehicles of varying design, which gave me the opportunity  to experience and compare advantages and weaknesses of different designs. As the result of this a vague desire to build an all-terrain vehicle of my own design emerged. By the start of the 2008 season, two vehicles named “Yemelya-1” and ”Yemelya-2” were built and preparations of the expedition to the North Pole were under way. The route would be: Salekhard - Dickson – Cape Chelyuskin – Severnaya Zemlya – The North Pole, and back the same way. It did not take long for us to appreciate the full extent of our arrogance and carelessness. Heading off into the Arctic, no less, in newly built vehicles without field testing and breaking them in for at least a few thousand miles first, was a reckless gamble, indeed. That we learned quite soon after taking off. Problems with wheel disks began after only 200 km while we were  still on flat even ice fields of Obskaya Guba. Many breakdowns were to follow. Fixing them gave us the opportunity to master the skills of carrying out serious repairs in the harsh field conditions as well as to see certain weaknesses of the current design and to contemplate new solutions for the future models. “Whatever happens - happens for the best” – the experience of the 6000 km long adventure in 2008 showed us that given proper preparation and with some luck, the North Pole by car adventure, from a schoolboy’s dream become a difficult, nevertheless real and accomplishable project.
The fall-winter 2008-2009 were spent in active modernization of the vehicles, preparation and testing of various gadgets and implements designed to tackle and overcome obstacles posed by ice ridges, polynyas and especially water ponds covered with thin ice crust too thin to support the vehicle weight, however thick enough to prevent it from advancing forward once in the floating mode.
Just a few days before the our scheduled departure date, on he way back from test runs in the Ivankovskoe Reservoir, Afanasiy Makovnev throughs in an idea of reinforcing vehicle body around driveshaft entry points. The idea rapidly develops and grows into a solution. Mere days before the start of the expedition, having taken a deep breath, we plunge into complicated work of seriously altering the vehicle design. The entire expeditionary crew shifts to living in work barracks leaving the workshop at midnight and returning to it at eight every morning. Preceding the events I will point out, that the decision to redesign proved correct rendering vehicle bodies completely watertight.  
Next came an exhausting struggle for the permission to leave the country in a place not designated for this specific purpose, which eventually culminated in victory of common sense over the letter of the law. Then the lucky streak continued on. While designing the vehicles, I was only concerned with not exceeding road legal dimensions, without for even a moment concerning myself with limitations of space inside air transport cargo bays. Long story short: our “Yemelyas” on tiny passenger car wheels with fully compressed suspension ended up barely squeezing into the welcoming  womb of AN-72 air carrier of the Federal Security Bureau aviation department, with both vertical and lateral space margins of paper sheet thickness.
Having picked up diesel fuel in Vorkuta (Arctic grade diesel is hard to come by in Moscow), on March 16th we arrive at Sredniy island. The weather is proper: -37C and mild to fresh wind. In the hurry of unloading air transports get frostbite on my cheeks. Everyone present actively helps us with the unloading – pilots, border guards along with their officer in command. The chief of Polar Station of the Golomyaniy island – I.M. Lutchenko – arrives with Ural truck to help us bring expeditionary odds and ends to the Station, where we were to pack and prepare the vehicles for departure.
On March 20th, after four days of stringent preparation and packing efforts, our caravan hits the road. We advance into the Prolyv Krasnoy Armii strait famous for its icebergs, now days not as abundant, as they had been when Ushakov and Urvancev - the first explorers of Severnaya Zemlya archipelago were here and when the place still had its original name of: The Land of Nikolas II. We are drawn by the sights of icebergs to drive nearer to them for flashy photographs, but one of the trailers falling through thin ice into the water reminding us that the chance of encountering pot holes in the ice is greater closer to these beauties and keeping a respectful distance is the wiser choice.Vehicles advance cheerfully over relatively level snow covered surface with low erosion ridges. The rhythm of our movement is humane – we sleep by night after suppers of frozen muksun slices and 50ml of vodka. Muksun is a fresh water fish of Cisco genus, salmon family, grows up to 0,75 m in length and 8kg in weight.
On Machtoviy island, we pick up the fuel stashed from last year and take time to enjoy the views of the Severnaya Zemlya in miraculous lighting just right for the moment. Then we set course for the North-East (30-50 degrees) to clear the Cape Arcticheskiy and its famous polynya by some 100-130 km to the East. Realizing that we are leaving the land to go far away from it for a long  time, I become aware of that sensation deep down in my soul, that I had once before,
on the crest near before the peak of Mount Everest at altitude of 8500 meters. It was the realization of heading into the dead zone, where you are the only one who can help you. At the same time, we keep ourselves cheerful with the dream of reaching large expanses of pack ice which is a thick and smooth ice which having persisted through at least two years of melting and congealing has a flat and smooth upper surface that would enable us to practically fly towards our prized destination. The very first day of driving on the ice covered ocean brings us back down from heaven to earth. We begin to encounter areas where ice is fragmented and spend a lot of time searching for crossings between floes. Advancement rate drops markedly. Despite of this we still get to enjoy fantastic sunsets and the impressive sight of steam billowing over patches of open water. Approaching the edge of a crack in the ice, you stand mesmerized by the somber morose beauty of clear water through which you can clearly see the ice below.
Polynyas are becoming more frequent, though not yet very wide – 80-100 meters. We are learning to determine the support capability of the ice striking it with ice chisel and then observing its vibrations. Thus far we still argue at times over whether it will hold or not. We have not yet developed the clear realization that any avoidable adventures must be avoided, as there will surely be more than plenty unavoidable ones to deal with. Every evening I record current mileage along with distance remaining to destination. The ratio of total distance covered to the distance by which we approach the destination is 1,8, meaning that clearing obstacles takes a lot of fuel time and effort. Pack ice is not yet anywhere in sight. Three meter long aluminum ladders prove to be of vital importance in area of smaller cracks.  We implement them frequently to cross smaller cracks. This proves effective if trick business. In areas of shifting ice the ladders must be laid
down and aligned quickly and then the driver must bring all five axels of Yemelya and two of its trailers before the ice shifts. On one occasion the ladder slipped from underneath the wheels and one of our crew miraculously snatched it to save it from sinking. From this time on we began to secure the ladders with ropes. After sinking of one of our ice chisels, we decide to make it mandatory to secure them to our belts with a rope. The team unifies and tightens. Many decisions are now taken unanimously without the need for words.
On the sixth day we approached a substantial polynya: it was about 500 meters wide and to the left and to the right it extended as eye could see - to the horizons. As we were pondering how to tackle the obstacle, a polar bear sow appeared with a cub and naively, withiout any hasitation headed straight for us to take a closer look at our crew. Liska, the border guard dog, immediately intercepted and chased them both away forcing them both across the thin ice to the other side of the polynya. She kept making bluff attacks while chasing them, and had the ice given under her, the bears would have enjoyed a hearty breakfast that morning, as in the water, they are far more agile, than on land. It was an interesting site: large, bulky animals moving over thin ice crust, their hind legs sliding from underneath their bodies to their sides. The mother bear would at times crawl in its belly, but eventually the ice gave and she fell through into the water, but instead of wasting energy breaking the thin ice in front of her, she would dive under it and swim for a while, then breaking another whole in the crust from underneath surfacing to inhale and going under to swim again. Curious eared seal gazed at us for quite a while as well, which left us certain that we did present quite an interest to the surrounding fauna. The nature of this interest and the gastronomical aspect of it remain to be established.

Moving several kilometers to east along the length of polynya, we found it narrowing down to some hundred meters, allowing us to cross it afloat. The crossing took three hours, leading us to definitive conclusion that from now on we shall attempt to find drivable crossing over such cracks, whenever at all possible. While the crossing itself is rather quick in the open water, it is the breaking of thin ice crust, which Is too thin to support the weight of the vehicles, yet thick enough to stall any progress when afloat, that is time consuming. That, and the laborious process of plucking the frozen water off the vehicle bodies after the crossing. With the temperature ranging from 35 to 40 below, any water remaining on the vehicles, congeals immediately. “Yemelyas” feel quite comfortable in the water. The first vehicle crosses without the trailers in tow, overcomes the ice crust, climbs onto the solid ice on the other side and then simply pulls the second vehicle with all four trailers in tow over the water.
In the evenings, over suppers of concentrated and dried foods with frozen fish slices, a bit of vodka and tea, we often praise the virtues of our arctic cars especially their spacious interiors, which comfortably accommodate seven men all wearing thick layers of arctic clothes. We sleep on benches placed across the 1900 mm width of the vehicle interior. Nights are fresh. To the point of admittedly making Vladimir Obyhod wish he coluld squeeze into the sleeping bag without first taking off his arctic boots. One night this wish became a shared one and happened to coincide with the night when Vladimir himself forgot to properly shut the door closed.
After the bear incident, the dog was placed on a special, reinforced regimen which among other niceties shared by all team members, included vitamin supplements. We are all concerned over the “blondie’s”  refusal to travel with us inside the vehicles, as our previous canine companions did, which evidently exhausts her. Although unlike us, she seems to tolerate the cold temperatures with ease. Her fur is so thick, that the water does not soak through it completely, even after she swims in frigid water for an entire minute.
We were in luck all the way, so far as the weather conditions and the cold are concerned. The colder, the better, as the fresh cracks in the ice floes become covered again with ice quicker. There fewer whitouts than last time, which is a significant factor when driving over and around ice ridges and or searching for a suitable crossing over seemingly endless water cracks and polynyas, which despite all scientific forecasts appeared to sprawl over the entire Arctic all the way to The North Pole.
Negotiating polynyas is a science and a skill in itself! Nilas ice is the the major obstacle we encounter on the way to our precious destination. Winching a vehicle over it is a long and torturous process. Crossing by driving over it is extremely risky as if the ice gives under the vehicle a kilometer or so away from the “shore”, it will be virtually impossible to climb back up onto it again – as the fringes of the ice will keep crushing under the vehicle. Therefore correctly determining the thickness of the ice cover underneath prior to driving over it is the ultimate mastery upon which the entire fate of the expedition depends. Thus far we have four classes we use to rate the ice cover:
a)      afloat with a winch;
b)      vehicle alone without trailers, at full throttle
c)        vehicles with trailers in tow without stopping and a good distance from one another.
d)      solid ice.
The way we determine which class a particular ice cover belongs to is by the number of ice pick strikes the ice can take before the water begins to seep through into the dent. As for myself, I would have someone to strike the ice about a meter away from where I stood and depending on how the ice would fluctuate in response to the strike, I would make the decision to drive over it or not, and if so, then how to do so. Vladimir Obihod and Alexei Ushakov were unanimously recognized as most proficient ice scouts of all of us. Searching for the optimal route through the ice fields they were always able to make their own decisions on their own and subsequently use the gestures to convey to the driver which of the categories the ice belonged to and how to drive over it. It was by the degree of animation in their gestures that the driver would determine their meaning. We did, of course, have portable radios. High end, expensive ones, too. But they did not work. Another source of difficulties to be reckoned with were the segments of the ice where hummocking and ice drift were particularly active.  It was especially true when ice floes were smaller in size. Often after setting up an improvised bridge consisting of tied together aluminum ladders, we had mere seconds to drive over them before the floes would shift. A slightest error in piloting the vehicle over the narrow and often unstable rails of ladders could send it on its side down into the water amidst the huge and shifting floes of ice two meters and more in thickness. Consequences of such an incident are obvious enough. Clearing the tall ridges was a race against the forces of nature. The driver in the vehicle, observing the labors of his fellows outside would make the decision on when to proceed. Such rapid was the change of ice terrain, that the second vehicle would often need to negotiate the obstacle on a new and different route. Physical fitness and the conditioning of the crew were a major asset especially in the larger fields of shifting and hummocking ice. The scouts would have to browse the surrounding terrain in search for passage by running, and upon discovering it, they would have to run back to the vehicles before the scenery changed. All that in heavy arctic outfits and with weighty ice picks in hand.

The sound of ice hummocking is something to be heard and does not leave the most resilient of minds unstirred: hissing, rattling, crackling sounds at times partaking of handgun shots. Two meter thick ice floes are rising up and crawling over one another with seeming easy and effortlessness regardless of whether they weigh a hundred or a million tons. Observing this process of planetary scale one cannot help but realize what a man really is in this universe. The dog is scared of crossing over the moving floes on her own and we have to carry her over in our hands.
It is 04:00 in the morning, but the times of the day have, by now, become completely abstract notions to us.
Odometer is at 1262 kilometers, 403 kilometer left to our destination. Wind drift: 1km/h in direction 280о.
Nasty wind out of the east, thankfully the visibility is decent, temperature: -20 – 25, but it is cold. More polynyas. However we managed to find a good field of pack ice for accepting the drop off. AN-26 showed up at 21:00 hours, and in four approaches dropped three barrels of fuel. Cargo dropp offs in this weather are dangerous as the canopies are dragged along the ice mercilessly. “Doctor” managed to catch the ropes between the canopy and 200 kilos of fuel barrel and as the result was thrown against the vehicle, fortunately hitting the soft wheel. We unpacked the dropped off cargo, had supper and moved on. One kilometer ahead encountered another polynya. Will they ever end?
April 26 2009. 19:40 hours (Krasnoyarsk time). Odometer at 1934. Distance to destination: 0km. It is The North Pole!!!
Good field of pack ice, goo d weather, good vehicles and the crew isn’t bad either. All is well. But I cried inside twice today at the wheel of “Yemelya-2”. In these trucks – two journeys big as life itself and part of my soul. It breaks my heart to leave them here after all the perils and ruts they carried us out of.
I took a photo of my GPS navigator on the hood of one of the trucks with coordinates on the display. We are drifting south at 0,5-0,8 km/h. The North Pole is therefore slightly different and unique for each one of us. There is something about this.
Afanasiy pulled out a bottle of champaign (we had already marked the occasion with shots of pure spirit), but the rest of the crew did not seem to share in this sentiment. We are attempting to begin packing up for the airlift. But the last 72 hours without rest or sleep seem to impede the process and we resign to sleep. Shkrabin alone remain awake fiddling around with some tools. He wakes us up an hour and a half later and we continue our feeble efforts at packing up. Shortly after, we hear the sound of an approaching helicopter. Chopper crew are in a hurry and keep complaining that we take too long to load our gear. Taking off. From up above “Yemelya-1” and “Yemelya-2” partake of two lonely molecules amidst this endless white dessert… Obihod seems emotional, Kolya too. Over the time we spent living and traveling inside these machines, he came to see them as living creatures, the sentiment, probably, shared by the all of us.
Barneo base. Aircraft number 72015 has landed. Flight captain Roman Nikolaevitch Tkach greeted and congratulated us straight from the cockpit, unlike the airlift crew he was friendly and welcoming and even gave all of us welcome back hugs. An hour and a half to load and then off to the Ngranskaya border control outpost on the Zemlya France-Josepha.
On Zemlya-France-Josepha – border control procedure. One border guard asked us to write down our names on a piece of paper, then another one approached us with this paper and read the names back to us, subsequently informing us the border control procedure is now complete. Our passports were not required.
Moscow. Another exhilarating adventure of a lifetime is over now. It seems as if the whole life passed in “Yemelya” cockpit with its panoramic windshield. I cry as I write these words. I am still living on Krasnoyarsk time and therefore no one and nothing disturbs me.

Written by Vasily Elagin.
Translated from Russian by Ilya Kovalev.

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