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"Around the Polar Circle by Motor Vehicle"

"Moscow today & tomorrow", 2002, September, pp. 42-49

The idea of a "round-the-world" expedition around the North Pole first emerged many centuries ago. Both famous and unknown travellers set out to circle the globe's northern cap along the imaginary line known as the Arctic Circle. Driven by the need to constantly change transportation facilities, these men of courage travelled in dog sledges, sailed in kayaks and yachts, moved on foot, skis, and snowmobiles, and even flew in balloons.

For more than 20 years the Arktika Centre of the well-known polar explorer Vladimir Chukov has been arranging exciting expeditions to the most inaccessible areas of the world, polar regions. The Arktika explorers can pride themselves on many achievements that rank among the most significant events in the exploration of the North. Among these are the world's first independent ski expedition to the North Pole by an eight-member team; the world's first independent transpolar ski expedition, during which four explorers crossed the Arctic Ocean on drifting ice, moving from Russia to Canada through the North Pole; and the first international Antarctic expedition involving 90 participants from 20 countries, during which skydivers made the first mass jump in the history of Antarctica, wheel off-roaders made a unique and amazingly fast 10-day crossing from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole, and for the first time in the history of the ice continent a balloon soared into the sky over the South Pole.

Today we present Vladimir Chukov describing his new Arctic expedition called Polar Ring.

The Polar Ring expedition planned by the Arktika Centre required a vehicle that would serve in the tundra, in Arctic undergrowth, on ice floes, and on stretches of open water. It was decided to upgrade the Antarctic wheel off-roaders, assembled for the expedition to the South Pole in 2000. The result was a motor vehicle that accumulated the positive experience of all the previous off-roaders and was also more reliable and efficient.

With our new motor vehicles ready for travel we set out for the circle route along the coast of the Arctic Ocean. The route, totalling over 25,000 kilometres, was divided into three stages. The first was along the Russian coast, from Yamal to Chukotka. The second will link the Russian coast with the shores of Greenland and Canada via the North Pole. The third and last will take place in the summer of 2004 from the Canadian Arctic settlement of Resolute Bay, then along the Alaskan coast and across the Bering Strait to finish on Chukotka.

We completed the first stage by covering over 6,000 kilometres in fifty days. The new vehicles proved their efficiency, we had no serious problems. But we did have plenty of adventures, as expected, enough to fill many adventure movies.

From the Diary of Vladimir Chukov

April 4, 2002. First day
Salekhard, capital of Yamalo-Nenets autonomous district, official start of expedition.

First opportunity for many to see at closer range the unusual vehicles that would carry us thousands of kilometres east.

Moved quickly, 45-50 km an hour keeping close to each other. Descended onto ice of the Ob. Easier, pleasanter and faster to advance on fresh snow than on road pressed by heavy trucks. In deep tracks we went down to very bottom. Vehicles thrown from side to side, at times tyres flying off discs.

April 14, 2002. Eighth day
Tazov Bay, Antipayuta

First week over. First breakdowns, first repairs. On the whole, happy with vehicles. Advance steadily. Vehicles cause little trouble. Arouse great interest everywhere. There's no Arctic "Volkswagen" as yet, nor are there roads either. But distances tremendous. Helicopters too expensive to solve all transport problems. Reindeers carry little. Small wonder, all attention on our vehicles.

Amazing hospitality of northern people. Strangers welcomed us as if long expected. Treated us to fresh-frozen sliced nelma (Siberian white salmon). This has become increasingly prominent in our meals. Dark, leaden cloud blocked horizon. In a few minutes we found ourselves in a blizzard. Snow beat windscreens. Nothing but white wall ahead and behind. Zero visibility. Lucky to have reliable radio communication. Saved us from losing each other. We reduced distance between vehicles and moved close together. Caught in headlights, snow whirls seemed fantastic sparkling balls rushing ahead of vehicles along dark Ob River.

April 17, 2002. Eleventh day
Yenisey mouth, Ust-Port

Behind us Gyda Peninsula. Decided to move straight across rather than zigzag along riverbeds. Route far from easy. Tundra covered with stunted Arctic birches and small bushes, cut by deep ravines with numerous rivers and streams. No direct way. Even locals take shortcuts rarely and only in fine weather.

But our off-roaders deserve their name. They advanced steadily, crushing birches and clumps of bushes and safely avoiding such treacherous traps as snowcaps above ravines and deep holes near sudden twists in river.

Days in this season still short. Evenings we move with headlights on. Soft snow covering thick scrub on riverbank suddenly gave way under off-roader ahead of me. At full speed the vehicle went down up to the roof with all six wheels, windscreen cutting deep into snow. Headlights shone from below, under snow. But other vehicles were moving behind, still on the track. So there was a way out - to back up with the help of nearest vehicle and look for denser snow. 15 minutes later we were back on track and advancing.

Night gloom is nothing compared to the white gloom occasional here. This natural phenomenon destroys your ability to find your bearings. You feel as if you are inside a ball of soft cotton illuminated from outside. Try as hard as you can, you can't make out anything. You can't size up objects that come into view. So I got out of my cabin and led the way on foot - to avoid unpleasant surprises. Several times we managed to stop a vehicle just in time: its front wheels already overlooked a cliff. It was dangerous to back out. We had to pull it away from the cliff by hand. One vehicle did slip off. But at the last moment driver Nikolay Nikulshin, very experienced, managed to head the vehicle vertically down the slope, preventing it from rolling head over heels. Though the cliff was high, the front wheels took the impact well and rolled forward.

April 26, 2002. Twentieth day
Dudinka, Kayerkan, Norilsk, and Talnakh, most populous section of the route, now behind. The route ahead was explored centuries ago by Russian pioneers and merchants looking for a shortcut to Yakut furs in the unexplored lands of East Siberia. Tundra has given way to patches of leafy trees. Snow softer. Hard to make headway. Wheels gouge out trenches. Particularly hard on leading vehicle. But we keep on moving toward our goal.

Khatanga, one of Russia's northernmost towns. Here we feel like old-timers: most of our northern expeditions have started here.

Everybody interested in our undertaking, particularly in vehicles and equipment.

May 11, 2002. Thirty-fifth day
Leaving Tiksi. Yesterday spent in workshops putting vehicles in order. We had covered larger part of route, and they had suffered: difficult ice hummocks near Bolshoy Begichev Island, sandstorms in Olenyok Strait, and first spring floods. With temperatures rising to zero, snow melted in the sun.

Huge delta of the Lena has numerous sand shoals, inlets, and islands, and low banks. Hard to know whether we are moving on ice or ground. Winds from land blow with such force on river that snow does not pile up on the ice. Just a dense grey mass rushing across the delta north to the Arctic Ocean, tearing off sand and small stones from frozen sand dunes. Sand fills the air, slashes face and hands, and hammers on clothing and vehicles. Dangerous to open eyes even slightly. Sand fills the vehicles through tiniest cracks and piles up sand hills in unsuitable places.

May 16, 2002. Fortieth day
Left Makar Island in Yana Bay.

Much warmer after a vicious blizzard. Water dripping from roofs, snow saturated with water, ice crust on road reduced to slush.

May 24, 2002. Forty-eighth day
Ambarchik Bay

Spring in full riot. Tundra hurriedly shaking off snow, coming to life. Birds everywhere: geese, seagulls, great skuas, cranes, swans... All so much engrossed in spring problems that show no interest in our vehicles.

Hills appearing along banks. Fantastic scenery in early morning and twilight. River rising with every day. Makes us nervous. We still have a long way to go. Particularly hard time in mouth of the Kolyma. Swollen snow makes driving difficult. Open water looks more dangerous though it is only surface water, so far. Underneath lies safe ice. Later we realized it is easier to move on water.

May 28, 2002. Fifty-second day
Last day of our difficult trip. It has turned out to be one of the richest in events and impressions.

All rivers and streams swollen with melted ice are now turbulent flood waters eating away steep banks.

Tied the vehicles in pairs. Playing it safe and helping each other, we moved several kilometres away from the bank. First experience of moving through large open expanses. Vehicles kept afloat by six large wheels. No special engine for water. Only revolving wheels kept us moving. In some places vehicles reached down to ice but most often they simply sailed along, up to the headlights in water. In cabins water almost reached seats. Head wind tried to turn vehicles on sides. Move in right direction only using six-wheel drive. Scene from a science-fiction movie, worthy of a painter. Reached Pevek in early morning. Last hundred metres of the 6,000-kilometre route behind us. For four hours struggled to climb onto bank from ice of Pevek Bay. With average temperatures of plus 10 Celsius, reaching plus 15 at times, the ice disappeared before our eyes. Climbed stony bank onto road leading to town.

We have reached a big and well-kept Chukotka town, the world's northernmost. Ahead of us is a long flight to Moscow across all of Russia. The first part of the Polar Ring expedition has been a success.

Our vehicles will remain on Chukotka to work in the Wrangel Island Nature Preserve. By next spring we will have other off-roaders to take us first to the North Pole and then on to Greenland and Canada.


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