A Good Old-Fashioned Death-Defying Expedition

| 1/20/2012 2:51:10 PM

Siberian gulag graveyard 

The modern wilderness expedition is typically a heavily sponsored, satellite-uplinked, closely tracked affair, with the expeditioners often just a distress call away from rescue. Magazine stories chronicling these canned adventures often rely on dramatic overstatement to punch up their otherwise predictable narratives, so it’s a breath of fresh air to read an expedition account that truly takes you to the edge of adventure and to the limits of human endurance.

“Crossing Kolyma” is the understated title of Russian Life magazine’s incredible story of two men’s 10-month, 2,000-mile trek through remote, far eastern Siberia in 2004-2005. Author Mikael Strandberg and his travel partner Johan Ivarsson set off on their journey with a fair bit of hubris, intending to live off the land by hunting and fishing and, having been “born, bred, and still living in the Scandinavian outback,” to outperform the legions of city-born adventurers who have left the short history of polar travel “a record full of frostbites and death.”

Their main aim for the trip was a cultural one, “to widen the western world’s knowledge about the Russian and Siberian way,” writes Strandberg, who is keenly aware of the region’s history as the site of Stalin’s infamous gulags. Their trip, however, soon turned into a fight for survival and sanity as they endured impenetrable forest, a typhoon-driven flood, menacing bears, frostbite, and frozen stove fuel at temperatures as low as -70 Fahrenheit.

Mikael Strandberg in SiberiaHere’s a typically bleak scene from mid-journey:

“That’s more frostbite,” Johan despaired through his facemask. “That means I’ve got it on every finger.”

He was having another bout of diarrhea. It was the third time in an hour he’d had to squat and drop his trousers. And his three sets of gloves. On every occasion he had experienced that burning feeling followed by numbness in one of his fingers. The first stage of frostbite. I could barely make him out in the eternal darkness of midwinter and I shivered violently. The way I had every day since we’d left the settlement of Zyranka four weeks before, in the middle of November.

“I think we’d better move on,” I whispered.

I exhaled, coughed and heard the familiar tinkling sound of my breath turning into a shower of ice crystals. In Kolyma they call it “the whispers of the stars.”

Strandberg and Ivarsson ended up spending a month “thawing out” in the Yakut settlement of Srednekolymsk, then forging on to their final destination in Ambarchik Bay.

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