Grandfather Frost

Cold is worse than hunger.
Varlam Shalamov. Kolyma Stories.

The coup of 1991 was fun, but it only lasted three days. I spent most of that time with my friends, hiding in the attic of a tall apartment building near Moscow's "White House". Between us, we had two portable missile launchers, a heavy machine gun, and a grenade launcher. One of us had a sister who was a secretary of some KGB official, so we knew that the special forces were supposed to storm the building from the air with five gunships. The KGB thought the crowd around the building was mostly unarmed, with only a few people having AK-74s and handguns. So we estimated that we'd shoot down two or three gunships before they figure out what's going on. The special forces eventually refused to obey the order. Otherwise I'd probably be among the first people to get the new "Hero of Russia" medal (most likely, posthumously).

For most people, these three days were an unexpected holiday, so the queues for beer and vodka were as long as ever. The breakup of the Soviet Union was a much greater shock after seventy years of imperialist propaganda. A few weeks after the coup was over, I took a vacation and spent a refreshing month in Ussuriland and Amur Basin, watching fall colors and bird migration. But it was such a blow to my finances that I couldn't get out of Moscow again until February.

The Soviet Era was over. Letters from scientific clubs, hitchhiking, and free rides were things of the past. Gone were the times when a lone naturalist could travel around with little money, breaking through bureaucratic barriers with the brutal force of sheer intellectual power. Now everything was either available for cash, or simply unavailable. All my travels over one sixth of our planet's land area from 1981 to 1991 had cost me about three thousand dollars. Now most trips would be impossible, or ten times more expensive.

Only in the most remote corners of the country did the spirit of Free Ride still survive in 1992. Knowing this, I spent whatever money I could get on an air ticket to Magadan. My hope was that hitchhiking would still be possible there.

The city had just been buried in snow by the first storm of the year (around the Sea of Okhotsk, the snowstorm season is mostly February to March). Icy fog was rolling in from the frozen sea. From Magadan to Kolyma River, I never had to wait for a ride for more than five minutes. Truck drivers not only picked me up, but also told the cooks at roadside truck stops that I was their assistant, so I could get free food.

In Kolyma Valley the temperature was minus sixty degrees Centigrade, and dense fog of ice crystals filled the air. But further west it was clear, and I found myself surrounded by the kind of winter beauty you can't see anywhere else. In the intermontane valleys around Ust-Nera, Oimyakon, and Verkhoyansk the winter is very dry and sunny. There is a lot of snow in the mountains, so the trees look like tall white cones there. But valley floors are almost snow-free: you can see dry grass sticking out. Mountains look strikingly blue in bright sunlight. The air is filled with tiny needles of ice, and seems to be on fire if you look towards the sun. The temperature stays between -50 and -70 Centigrade (-60 to -100 F). By the end of winter, trees, rocks and grass are covered with a thick layer of ice crystals, sometimes up to one foot long, that look like shiny white coral. Crystals of ice also cover house entrances, ceilings of colder buildings, reindeer harness.

Walking around is difficult, although cold dry air is much more easy to tolerate than cold wet air. Looking out of a cabin feels like being hit in the face with a snowball. After a few seconds outdoors, your eyelashes are covered with ice, and eyelids start to freeze together. The cold is also hard on the trucks. Drivers have to keep the engine running for the entire length of the trip, and if their company doesn't have a warm garage, they can't shut it down until spring. Most trucks have to be replaced after one year of service.

The Highway follows a slightly different route in winter: it goes to Ust-Nera and then to Oimyakon along frozen rivers. Small planes fly from Ust-Nera to remote gold mines to the North. It's a good idea to hitch a ride on one of them, because they fly over very scenic Indigirka Gorge. Another highlight of the area is Balagan-Tas, a volcano that last erupted as recently as 400 years ago. I liked flying so much that after getting to Oimyakon I got one more free ride, and it almost cost me my life.

I was having breakfast in the village restaurant, noticed two pilots at the next table, and asked them if they knew a good place to see wildlife. They said there was just such a place, a vacant cabin in a remote valley called Kherdennakh Khorgor. They offered to drop me there on their way to Deputatsky gold mine far to the north, and to pick me up three days later. The cabin was supposed to have a stove and some firewood. It would be stupid to miss such an opportunity. Three hours later our helicopter landed half a mile from the cabin, I jumped off, and they left.

The valley was flat as a saucer, with crooked larch trees sticking out here and there. The larches were probably very old: not tall, but half a meter thick, which was very unusual for the area. They were glittering with ice needles and looked like Christmas trees made of aluminum foil. The ground seemed to be covered with snow, but it was actually a thin layer of ice powder. The air was very dry, and the mountains looked like huge crystals of dark-blue glass. I liked the place and was very happy until I got to the cabin and realized what kind of situation I got myself into.

One of the cabin walls was missing. It couldn't be seen from the place where the helicopter landed, but now I saw that it had been missing for a long time, probably crushed by the winds in autumn. The wind also filled the cabin with snow all the way to its roof. Even if there was a stove inside, it was covered with many feet of packed snow and ice.

Suddenly I felt like a freeze-dried chicken. I was surrounded by landscape which hadn't changed much since the Ice Age. There was nothing but cold for hundreds of kilometers in every direction. I was walking on permafrost half a mile deep. Ice needles were flying in the air, like cobwebs in September. It takes less than five minutes to get a frostbite in such air, and two hours to become an ice crystal yourself if you stop moving.

I was absolutely sure that I had no more than a few hours of life left. The Highway was at least a hundred kilometers to the south. If I tried to wait for the helicopter, I'd be dead by dawn. It is impossible to start a fire without an ax when it is so cold. But I couldn't just stay there and wait for my body to start freezing, so I walked south. I tried to move as fast as I could to keep warm. Fortunately, there was no wind at all.

It still felt very cold, but at least I reached some balance with the environment. I had very warm clothes, but boots were not good enough. I couldn't cover my face completely (it would turn into an ice mask within seconds), so I had to leave a gap between my hat and scarf.

The sunlit world around me didn't look as deadly as it was. The pilots were right: the area was full of wildlife. Herds of wild reindeer migrated here to feed on almost snow-free grass. Hundreds of them were moving around, digging into the snow. They probably never had seen people, and could be approached to within fifty meters. Small packs of wolves were hiding into deeper snow under fallen trees, watching the area. I saw three packs, and in two of them the animals were white. They'd probably followed the reindeer from the tundra. In places with more larches there were lots of white hares. I saw a wolverine track once, but not the animal itself. It probably left the area when the wolves moved in, because there were not enough trees to climb in case of danger.

Once in a while I flushed flocks of willow ptarmigans. They burst from their burrows in the snow like huge snowballs. Reddish-brown Siberian jays were singing from treetops. They start laying eggs in late March, when the temperature is still well below freezing. I saw only one hazel grouse there. In winter they stay under snow for up to 23 hours a day.

It was all so nice that I started thinking about hiking all the way to the Highway. But I didn't know exactly how far it was, and I knew the night would be much worse. I was getting tired, but if I slowed down just a little bit, I started to lose feeling in my feet. I ate a chocolate bar I had, so there was nothing left in my backpack except for a tiny camera and a flashlight.

I do not know how I survived the night. The moon was almost full, and finding my way was easy, but it was so cold that I felt like there was no atmosphere at all. I managed to avoid losing speed, but still got frostbite on my cheeks. Sometimes my eyes started to freeze over, so I had to cover them with my hands for a few minutes, and then warm the hands in my armpits. Anyway, at dawn I was still alive, and I am very proud of it.

At sunrise I reached a low ridge at the edge of the valley. A small river was flowing out through a narrow canyon. Now I had some tailwind, and the snow was getting deeper. I had to leave the shore and walk on ice. There were lots of small blue ice banks, but it wasn't a good time to think of what would happen if the river breaks an ice dam.

Wild sheep watched me from the rocks. I saw a raven nest on a tree, but the birds weren't there. I only saw one raven back in the valley, feeding on a dead deer. Most ravens either leave this area in winter, or stay near villages. At some point I found myself in a "capercallie garden", surrounded by pink mountains. Black capercallies feed on larch buds in winter. They can only land on thick branches near the trunks, so they trim the trees by eating outlying buds first when the larches are still young. The "gardens" are easy to find, because trees look more slim and lush there. Black capercallies are widespread in Eastern Siberia, but very local for unknown reasons. The huge white-spotted males were already starting to make clicking sounds, getting ready for lekking in April. Gray females noticed me pass by, but didn't pay much attention.

The canyon opened into a plain with small hills. Far ahead I saw a dark line, and realized it was the Highway. I took a sheep trail from the canyon, but it turned back to the rocks, so I had to walk directly across the hills. Snow was deep enough there to get inside my boots from time to time. By the time I got to the Highway, I lost any feeling in my feet, and was sure I'd have to have them amputated. I kept walking westward along the highway for a few more kilometers, until a truck came from the east.

It was hot inside the cabin, but I felt cold for many hours, and couldn't take off any clothes. Next day it felt better, but if I tried to get outside, I started shaking as if electrocuted. Although I had no frostbite on my feet, white spots on my cheeks are still visible in cold weather, and I also had some lung problems for the next few months.

Meanwhile the road entered the Suntar Khayata Mountains. They looked even better in winter than in summer. It was relatively warm here, with lots of snow. The road was cut through avalanche cones. Rivers turned into cascades of blue ice banks and frozen waterfalls.

At one point the road was blocked by a rockslide. The driver said he'd have to wait for at least a week until it is fixed. I knew we were only an hour's walk from a village, and decided to hike there. It was a mistake. In twenty minutes I was shaking so badly that I almost couldn't walk. If not for a passing tractor, I would probably get much worse frostbite before getting to the village. During that shameful hiking attempt I saw a wolverine following a lynx track, probably planning to steal a kill. It was a good year for lynxes: hares were everywhere.

Before getting to the plains of Central Yakutia, you have to cross two small unpopulated ridges. This area is relatively warm: in addition to larch, it has some spruce, and lots of voles. I saw an ermine there, a lynx, and a white goshawk. Once I witnessed a breakup of an ice bank: with a thunder-like sound, the river below exploded, and a wall of steaming pink water rolled down the canyon, breaking trees and ramming the rocks with huge chunks of ice.

Just before leaving the mountains, I saw the most amazing thing in the entire trip. The road passed by a warm spring, a small pool of shallow water surrounded by snow. It is the only warm spring in the area (a village fifty kilometers to the west was named after it). The water was actually tepid, not warm, and the bottom was covered with ice. But a dipper was wintering there. It was strange to see a tiny bird feeding in the water and jumping around when the temperature was sixty below zero. It was the first record of dippers in Northeastern Yakutia. They probably breed somewhere in the mountains in summer.

The village of Warm Spring is a beautiful place. To the west you can see the endless plains, to the east is the steep white wall of Verkhoyanski Ridge, thousand kilometers long. From there to Yakutsk there is nothing to see, unless a fox or a sable would cross the road in front of your truck.

In Yakutsk I managed to get on a top-secret airplane which was to collect diamonds from some remote mines and deliver them to Moscow. The flight took more than a week, and was very boring. There was nothing interesting in Western Yakutia, except for diamond mines and unusual salt hills near Kempendyai. The winter is very cold there, too, but not always sunny. By the time I got home, my body had completely lost its ability to maintain constant temperature. I was shaking all the time, and felt cold even in warm rooms. I had to spend a few hours a day for almost a week in a hot tube to recover.

And it was a good thing I recovered so fast. Two weeks later I suddenly found myself back in the Arctic, because I got the most fantastic free ride of my life.

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