February 14, 2005 Week 37: Blizzards and Frostbite
Siberia is living up to its reputation for extreme cold. Temperatures are hovering between -45 and -35°C and the wind has been relentless, blowing at speeds of 65 km/hour. This wind chill causes the balmy temperature of -45°C to drop to -100°C ! Making it even worse, a blizzard bombarded the team for several days last week, creating severe headwinds and reducing visibility to less than 5 feet .
The team has been traveling by bikes and skis. Both work reasonably well in the terrain, however their progress depends on the weather conditions to a large extent. When battling headwinds their progress can be as slow as 3 km/hr but this becomes significantly faster when conditions are calmer.
The extreme conditions have also taken their toll in other respects. Both Tim and Colin have first degree frostbite, also known as frost nip. This is the mildest type of frostbite and presents itself as numbed skin that has turned white in color. The skin is stiff to the touch, but the tissue under is still warm and soft. They are taking all precautions to minimize additional frostbite and have administered proper treatment, which means that there is very little chance of blistering, infection or permanent scarring. The guys have had to shave off their beards to try to prevent additional frostbite. Colin describes "iceballs the size of baseballs" that form in their facial hair, making eating difficult to say the least. Their face masks also adhere to their beard making removing the masks a very painful process.
Besides frostbite, the team also has to worry about polar bears. They have crossed the Arctic Circle and are nearing the Arctic Ocean . The world's densest concentration of polar bear birth dens lies slightly north of them, off the Siberian coast of Wrangel Island . Approximately 85% of Siberian female polar bears build their maternity caves in this area. Polar bears are the world's largest land predators, with males weighing in at 775 - 1,500 pounds and females at about half that. They are at the top of the food chain in the Arctic , although fortunately their meal of choice is seal not adventurer!
February 21, 2005 Week 38: Whiteout Dangers
One of the biggest dangers of trekking through remote frozen lands is becoming separated from the group without adequate survival gear. This is exactly what happened to Colin. The team was traveling by skis and bikes, with Colin being the only one on a bike. The bike allowed him to travel significantly faster than a skier and Colin had to ride ahead and then double back to the team so that he was constantly moving. Colin was wearing just enough clothing to keep him warm while he was exercising and as soon as he stopped he quickly became cold.
This technique worked great until the whiteout conditions of a sudden blizzard set in. Colin could no longer see the rest of the group and the warm clothes, tents, etc. were in the vestihod with the team. In these conditions it would be impossible to find the team and by searching he risked getting lost. However, he was not dressed warmly enough to allow him to rest and wait for the team. His only choice was to build a snow cave that would provide him some insulation from the elements. Colin spent 7 hours in the cave until the visibility improved and he was reunited with the group.
To those of us at home this is a frightening reminder of how quickly things can go wrong. Colin calls me almost nightly using the satellite phone, but this night was one of those rare exceptions when I did not hear his voice. Yet, at the time I did not worry. His frequent calls and the confidence with which he describes the daily events has lulled me into believing that he is capable of handling any situation that presents itself. I sometimes suspect that he protects me from knowing the full extent of the difficulties and this was one of those situations. It was not until I opened the weekend edition of the Vancouver Sun, that I read about the snow cave misadventure!
We all know that they are capable, experienced, well equipped and able to persevere through extraordinary hardships, but it is still difficult not to worry. Many of you have sent in words of encouragement to the team and I want to thank you for your kindness. There have been some truly inspirational and heart felt e-mails that I have read to them over the phone. E-mails that provided encouragement when I didn't know the right words to say.
February 28, 2005 Week 39: Easy Rider
The terrain has finally become a little easier to traverse. The path the team follows is harder packed, which enables them to ride their bikes with a little more ease. The metal studded tires grip the snow and ice, and they are able to move at about 80 km/day. Not a bad pace considering just a little while ago a 30 km day was an accomplishment.
They have just reached the town of Pevek , which is the most northern city in Russia . It is above the Polar Circle, at a latitude of 69'40 North and longitude of 170'11 East. With a population of less than 10,000, Pevek is the main city of the Chaunsky District of Chukotka. Pevek rarely has foreign visitors and apparently they have never had anyone arrive by bicycle. What a surprise!
Bema Gold Corp. has an office in Pevek and the team has been enjoying their generosity as well as that of the locals. Good food, a warm bed and friendly conversation are all luxuries that the team savors during their short stays in civilization. After a few days rest, they will leave Pevek and hopefully continue to move forward at a good pace.
March 7, 2005 Week 40: Communication Void
For the last little while communications with the team have been difficult. Usually, we rely on the satellite phone, but the extreme Northern latitude complicates the reception. Fortunately, the team is moving southward and the normal high quality phone reception should soon return.
The team arrived in Bilibino this week and organized their support team for the upcoming leg. Bilibino is a small town that seems to be best known for its nuclear power plants. On Monday they left for Ust Nera, a city on the Kolma Highway . It is expected to take them 3-4 weeks to reach Ust Nera, which will be a significant achievement in the expedition. The difficult terrain the team is traveling through should ease once the Kolma highway is reached.
March 14, 2005 Week 41: Great Progress in Yakutia
The team has left the territory of Chukotka and has entered Yakutia. Yakutia is the largest republic within the Russian Federation , covering an area of approximately 3.1 million km2. Chukotka forms the territory's eastern border, the upper reaches of the Olenyok River end its western reach, Stanovoy Ridge borders the south and the Arctic Ocean is to the north. The republic occupies the basins of the great rivers flowing to the Arctic Ocean-the Lena, Yana, Indigirka, and Kolyma-and includes the New Siberian Islands between the Laptev and East Siberian seas.
About 1 million people live in this republic with many residing in the capital of Yakutsk . Sakha natives comprise a third of the population of Yakutia, which is also called the Sakha Republic . Their traditional way of life continues to center around reindeer herding, cattle and horse raising, hunting and fishing, although most Yakuts today choose a more urban existence.
In the week since the team left Bilibino, they have traveled a record 650km. Their good pace is a tribute to the conditions of the winter road that they are following. The first 4 days the road was a path plowed clear on a frozen river, very much like a highway except without the hills. Now they have moved off the river and their pace has slowed to 60-70 km/day. They have also gained elevation, which has reduced the temperatures and even though it's spring in Vancouver , it's still cold in Siberia .
March 21, 2005 Week 42: On the Road
Things are still going smoothly and thankfully I have no obstacles to report. Although the communication continues to be extremely difficult, it is expected to improve shortly as the team emerges from the mountainous region they are currently in.
The mountains that the team travels through are populated by Even and Evenk tribes. These tribes are thought by some to be the most ancient people in Asia . They are nomadic hunters that once traveled with small herds of domestic reindeer between the Pacific Coast and the Urals.
Even though they continue to head south, the weather remains cold. At 5-6 AM, when the team wakes the temperatures often are -40°C and during the day they can warm to as high as -10°C . The air in the canyons is moist and it only takes minutes for one's lungs and face to become frostbitten, and less than half an hour to freeze to death without propoer equipment. Oimyakon, the coldest inhabited place on the planet is only 150km away. Temperatures there have been recorded at more than 70°C below zero. However, this area is also one with some of the most significant seasonal differences as temperatures in the summer can reach 42°C .
Another interesting geographic feature encountered, are bright-blue glacier-like ice shields that they have travelled over. These are called naled in Russian or taryn in Yakut. They are created by numerous floods with some stretching to more than hundred kilometers and melting completely only once in few years.
Now, the land is constantly changing and by next week it will again be different.
March 28, 2005 Week 43: Easter in Siberia
(Update posted from Siberia by Colin Angus)
At last the Vancouver-to-Moscow team has hiked, skied and bicycled across Siberia's northeastern-most state, Chukotka, and reached the town of Ust Nera on the Kolyma Highway. This is their greatest triumph since Tim and Colin succeeded in reaching Provideniya, Siberia after rowing their boat across the stormy Bering Sea . Ahead lies an interconnected system of roads and railways all the way to Moscow . Behind them is 5000 km of roadless wilderness and ocean stretching from Fairbanks Alaska to Ust Nera, Russia that, until now, had never been traversed by human power.
It has taken Tim, Colin and Yulya seven months to trek the 3000 km distance from Provideniya (their port of arrival) to Ust Nera, averaging only 14 km/day. The hardships and obstacles encountered went beyond the worst-case scenarios previously envisioned. The small group endured starvation, half-frozen rivers blocking their path, -100 degree wind-chilled temperatures and extreme isolation. As well, Colin was hospitalized in Anadyr, followed by an emergency flight to Vancouver for surgery. As if the physical hardships weren't enough, bureaucratic wrangling almost halted the expedition permanently. Fortunately, Canada 's embassy in Moscow offered their assistance in solving this problem.
The journey through NE Siberia also took its toll on the expedition budget. It cost a whopping eleven thousand dollars for the support machine that the government required the team to have for the latter half of their trek. Colin's medical emergency absorbed another large chunk of the dwindling expedition funds. Fortunately Bema Gold, a Vancouver based mining company that has coincidentally staked one of the largest modern-day strikes right along the expeditioners' path, came to the rescue and offered the team financial and logistical assistance.
The difficulties have been tremendous, but the same can be said of the rewards. Dappled waves reflected off foreboding ocean cliffs, cavorting walruses and wary grizzly bears are just a few of the inspiring sights seen on a daily basis. The joy of reaching the first conifers at the Siberian tree line after eight months without is indescribable.
Ahead the team has 9000 km still to travel along rutted dirt roads and railway beds. It will be a difficult and dangerous journey but the expeditioners are in good spirits. Spring has arrived and Chukotka is behind them.
The team would like to pass along their thanks to the individuals and organizations that assisted in so many ways to make this latest leg a success. These include Julie Wafaei, the folks at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow , Frank and Jackie at Wallace and Carey, the folks at the Westin Bayshore, Vladimir from Egvekinot, and Bema Gold.
April 4 2005 Week 44: Road of Bones
The team is now cycling on a road network, which makes travelling significantly easier. The motorists on the roads repeatedly stop throughout the day to offer them food and conversation. The weather is still on the cool side, -40 C at night, warming to - 10 C during the day, but spring is slowly approaching.
The team has decided to travel seperately for the next leg and reunit in Irkutsk . Colin is travelling solo, while Tim and Yulya will travel together. This will Colin to travel at a faster pace so that he can work on his book while he waits for the team in Irkutsk .
This next stretch will continue to be a very culturally interesting journey as the friendly Yakut people embrace the team.
April 11, 2005 Week 45: Yakutsk
Arriving in Yakutsk brought with it a warm welcome. Colin pulled into the bustling city a week ago and Tim and Yulya will arrive shortly.
Colin's bike was in dire need of maintenance work but bike parts and tools in Siberia are not easy to come by. Luckily, Yakutsk has a generous and enthusiastic bike club who graciously helped him. He was able to replace his bottom bracket, tighten bolts, secure his racks and make other minor adjustments. Even though Yakutsk has a bike club, parts are not available for sale in the city and the bike club members often need to order their parts from Moscow . Without the help of the club, Colin would not have been able to find the tools and parts he needed.
Not only did the club help with his bike, they repeatedly took him out for meals and entertained him with their stories. They even brought him to a pagan ceremony in which he was blessed and given an amulet to protect him. When Tim and Yulya arrive, Yakutsk will celebrate by officially announcing the start of bike season.
Colin is now 600 km down the AYAM highway, a road that is still mostly unpaved. In a few days he will be 180 km from the Chinese border. He then turns onto the M53, which will lead to Moscow . Tim and Yulya favour a different route that will take them on the Lena River . In the winter, the frozen Lena becomes a 2200 km road that is used by motorists and will take them to Ust Kut. The advantage to following the Lena is that it will shorten their travels by 1800 km . However, the concern is that spring is fast approaching and the river will soon be melting. The winter road on the Lena is officially closed on April 15th, after which it begins to melt and the surface turns to slush. If they do not make it to the end of the 2200 km Lena by the time it melts, they risk being stuck at the side of the river without a road to follow out.
April 18, 2005 Week 46: The Route
Colin has been in a town of 70,000 for the last three days. This town has been his home while he recovers from bronchitis. The last week was cold, snowing, raining and all around unpleasant. However, spring should be around the corner and it is anxiously awaited. Colin continues to average about 100km a day and is scheduled to arrive in Irkutsk in 3 weeks time.
Unfortunately the satellite phone has stopped working. It is most likely a problem with the antenna, which they should be able to fix in Irkutsk . They have sent ahead a package to Irkutsk that contains the supplies they were unable to carry including a spare antenna for the phone. Although communication is more difficult now, both Tim and Colin will be able to send e-mails periodically from towns enroute.
Tim posted the update below from an internet cafe in Yakutsk , Siberia .
Yulia and I are heading south toward Nurungri, Aldan , and the Trans-Siberian Highway . It was tough not to take a tempting route along the frozen Lena River, which opens a window into Russia's distant past, when Cossack warriors traveled east through Siberia, down the Lena, to found Yakutsk in 1632. Their legacy was a string of villages 40 km apart, all along the river, because back when mail was delivered by horse, new horses were required in every village. Today the villages remain, but the rest is wilderness. 1,453 kilometres , however, is unpaved winter road, and as spring progresses, many sections of this are softening. In late May the as break-up occurs, fighter jets drop bombs on the river to prevent floods from ice jams. From this deep wilderness, the only escape route would be ATV tracks to the BAM railway, hundreds of kilometers of rough travel without access to immunization from a notorious tick (species Ioxodes) very active in the region at this time of year (one of ten bites is deadly, but immunizations are available in cities such as Irkutsk). With this in mind Yulia and I opted for the newly completed trans-Siberian highway, through the Amur watershed (home to the Siberian Tiger).
My Xtracycle cargo system, Norco bike, and Yulia's conventional rack-equipped Norco Bigfoot are showing their merits as they hold up over some incredibly rough road. The smooth ice of Chukotka, the Kolyma River and Road of Bones are a thing of the past as the spring melt exposes potholes like craters and copious mud. Sometimes Yulia and I cycle at night, to avoid the deep mud.
Yulia and I would like to extend a big thanks to Rayil Zaylyalov, our host in Yakutsk . Rayil previously hosted Ewan MacGregor on his trans-Siberian motorcycle adventure, and we were given the same kind hospitality and help navigating the largest city in Russia 's northeast. Rayil works for the ministry of tourism, speaks English, and runs private tours for anyone visiting Yakutia.
A special greeting to the people of Grand Forks , BC , from the homeland of their Dukhabor ancestors!
May 2, 2005 Week 48: Cycling Through the Thaw
My apologies for the missed update last week and for causing any of you concern. Fortunately, it is only technical difficulties and not the dangers of the expedition that are to blame.
The team continues to cycle on mostly rough roads that weave their way through the Siberian landscape. They are not traveling on any of the river networks anymore. Spring has sprung and it is just too dangerous. One of the concerned e-mails I received was from Joan, who heard about a Siberian river that thawed in a "very ugly way". This could have been a significant risk had the team decided to continue on the Lena River .
The Lena River causes residents concern nearly every year in the late spring when ice blocks the flow of water at the mouth of the Lena River and gives rise to floods across the Siberian plains. When the frozen river begins to melt, water upstream thaws earlier than water at the mouth of the river. As the southern end of the river melts, blocks of ice travel downstream to the frozen delta, pile up, and obstruct the flow of water. Flooding may occur at different spots each spring and if it is severe enough explosive charges are used to break up the ice jams.
The roads seem to be a much better place to be at this time. Small towns dot the countryside that they pass through and food is easy to obtain. Communication however continues to be hard. We aren't able to communicate regularly by phone and e-mail access is also sporadic. Thus I can only report what I know, which is that they are safe and continue to cycle across Siberia . By next week I hope to have some first hand stories to share with you.
Also, I am happy to report that Men's Journal has named Colin one of the world's top young explorers in their May 2005 issue. "For their contributions, and for testing the limits of human endurance (and sanity), Men's Journal honors the new breed of explorers."
May 9, 2005 Week 49: Muddy and tentless
Colin arrived in the town of Chita last week and I was updated on the events for the last little while. Almost a week before arriving in Chita he lost his tent while cycling. It simply slipped off the back of his bike never to be seen again. He cycled back some 30 km to look for it but luck was not on his side. Without a tent, he had to find a makeshift shelter that would protect him from the elements. He found a tarp. By wrapping the tarp around himself at night he had some protection from the wind, snow and rain. As you can imagine, the camping circumstances were less than ideal.
In many places the roads are quite rough and in some spots they are just mud. When the temperature reaches a certain point that mud clumps inside the bike's wheel and freezes, making cycling impossible. Colin pushed his bike through kilometers of this mud with his head held low to shield himself from the wind and sleet. He finally arrived in a small town where a farmer took him in. With typical Russian hospitality, the family fed him and allowed him to spend the night.
Tim and Yulya have also had their share of unexpected events. Tim writes "One afternoon in a small village, I froze in terror as a randy bull scraped the soil, then charged me with muscles rippling and sharp horns poised for impact. Yulia jumped between us, shouting "Foo! Foo!" and waving her arms, which meant "Don't gore the Canadian!" and the surly beast galloped away with a snort."
May 16, 2005 Week 50: Traveling through Siberia
The team continues to move forward as the Siberian climate seemingly transforms directly from winter to summer. A new danger has replaced the perils brought on by ice, snow and cold: ticks. Although ticks are usually relatively benign, in Siberia many of these parasites act as a vector delivering a type of fatal encephalitis. It is said that one in ten of these creatures are infected. Although none of the team has been bitten yet, there have been several close calls.
The warmer weather has made cycling and camping conditions much more pleasant and Tim and Yulya are in the town of Neriungri , 800 km south of Yakutsk . Tim has recovered from his respiratory infection and he and Yulya will soon be moving on again. Colin has reached Irkutsk , 3200 km from the Yakutian capital. Irkutsk is a special milestone for Colin, as it is the city where he and his team converted a dory to voyage down the Yenisey River system on his previous expedition.
A few people have inquired into why the team is traveling separately and what does this mean regarding the teamwork aspect.
The most complicated and treacherous aspect of the Vancouver to Moscow expedition was bridging the 5000 km gap of wilderness and ocean between the North American and Russian road systems. Most people knowledgeable of what the team was up against deemed the journey impossible. Coordinated and harmonious teamwork between Tim, Yulya and Colin would be the only way the small group could achieve what so many have tried.
Eight months after Tim and Colin left the last roads in Alaska they arrived triumphantly at the Kolyma Highway in Eastern Siberia . For the first time in history the Beringian gap had been spanned by human power! The team had faced massive storms during their one-month crossing of the Bering Sea , faced grizzly bears on a regular basis, trekked through temperatures bordering Ц100 degrees Celsius, endured starvation and countless other hardships. But they made it.
After reaching the established road system of Russia , the dangers and difficulties faced by the team were vastly reduced. The roads have regular traffic and some of the most generous and hospitable people in the world inhabit this region. The difficulty of travel could be compared to cycling in rural Canada , and it was no longer necessary for the group to remain in a tight pack in order for the team to move forward.
As can be imagined, after almost a year of traveling in extremely trying conditions, usually within metres of one another, an opportunity to gain some personal space was a welcome change. One of the most important aspects of teamwork is to have harmonious dynamics and positive attitudes with the group. Taking measures to try maintaining these qualities is essential.
Two years ago Tim and Colin had a dream: to be the first to travel by human power from Vancouver to Moscow . Together they pursued this goal and, within a few months (barring any serious accidents or illnesses), they will ride together into Red Square . Whether the team chooses to ride together or apart for the final stages through Russia , it is unlikely either decision will affect the team's chances of success. Like a carpenter going for a quiet stroll by himself through the park, the house still gets built.
It would be a lie to say there have been no fights, no hard feelings, and no periods of sulky silence, for this is a team of humans. When Tim, Colin and Yulya ride their bicycles into Red Square and complete one of the most arduous and logistically complicated expeditions in modern history, it is hoped this will be the gauge as their success as a team.