Comrades on ice

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A few days before Christ­mas, 1989, his brain and body weary after a business collapse, Graeme Dingle stretched out in his hot tub and picked up an atlas. The page opened at a map of the Arctic Circle.

He looked at the map and a shiver went through his bony frame. No one had ever followed that dotted line that etched such a perfect circle around the globe. Dingle studied the map for a full hour, with rising excitement. “Then I decided,” he said. “The first circumnavigation of the Arctic Circle would be my next adventure.”

In February 1992, mountaineer and adven­turer Dingle, by this time joined by fellow outdoorsman Kim Price, set out. They are calling their expedition Arktikos, and it will be the longest polar journey ever undertaken: 25,000 kilometres through five countries in 250 days. They are travelling at temperatures of minus 50°C—temperatures so cold that metal shatters and fuel turns to jelly; so cold that if you inadvertently put a metal object in your mouth it will freeze instantly to your lips and tongue.

With them is a Musco­vite, Tolya Chernishov, who works for a private adventure tourism company in Moscow. Travelling ahead of the team is their radio operator and manager, Aucklander Annie Bradshaw.

The expedition started—and will finish—on the shores of Bering Strait at a small Siberian town called Uelen. From there they are travelling by foot and snowmobile some 10,000 kilometres across the Siberian Arctic, then by ship from Murmansk in Russia across the Norwe­gian and Greenland Seas to the coast of Greenland. Here they will begin the most treacherous part of their journey: crossing the notorious Northwest Passage between Greenland and Canada. This is the passage that merchants long dreamed of as an Arctic shortcut to the Orient; many died in pursuit of the dream. In this stretch of water and thick pack ice, which the team will travel across by inflatable raft,icebergs as big as the city of Wellington travel at speeds of up to 10 miles a day. Compasses will be of no use because the mag­netic North Pole lies within the passage.

Once through, the team will travel up the Macken­zie River in Canada to the Yukon, then across Alaska and back to the shores of Bering Strait.

As we go to press the men are boating up the coast of Greenland—a distance twice the length of New Zealand. Later in June they will cross the 350 kilometres of open water of Baffin Bay to Grise Fiord in Canada, where the North­west Passage begins. A 1000-litre fuel tank has been installed in the boat, and the trip is estimated to consume 860 litres—which leaves little room for an emergency. So heavy is the weight of the fuel that should the inflatable capsize, it would not be able to be righted by the crew. A mechanical “right­ing mechanism” is being installed—it will be a slim thread upon which three people’s lives will hang if the boat flips.

The story of the team’s experiences with their machinery so far has been a sobering one. The crew were to start their journey with three Russian-built machines capable of taking them across the vast Siberian expanse. In the trials before the start, however, two of these had to be abandoned, and after leaving Uelen the team endured one breakdown after another. Dingle recounts one of the frustrat­ing episodes, early in the journey, in their “Slavamobile”— named after its crusty Russian driver, Slava.

“There was a sickening clunk, whereupon Slava looked under his seat and Tolya said, ‘Car is broken.’ The half shaft had become detached from the diff, a problem that Slava de­scribed as being common with Volga diffs. ‘Vulgar diffs, all right’, I muttered. Then began one of the most bizarre afternoons of my adventuring career. We found that it was possible, with several forceful kicks, to drive the offending half shaft back into the diff, and as I wore heavy climbing boots this became my job—every 150 metres for the next 10 kilometres.”

And their luck, unfortu­nately was not to change.

In late March the team limped into Pevek, one third of the way through their Siberian leg. A town of 15,000 inhabitants, Pevek began life as one of Stalin’s gulags. Now, many of the town’s best citizens are the children of those prisoners. Tall steel chim­neys belch black coal smoke in a constant effort to provide life-giving heat to the town, and the sea ice and surrounding snow are stained black with soot. “But Pevek was full of human warmth, hospitality and goodwill to Arktikos­a legacy that our support team Annie and Russian translator Alexei Krylov were responsible for.”

Dingle continues: “Here, at Pevek, determined to have reliable machinery, we hired a vehicle called a GTT, a nine-tonne cross between a tank and a locomotive-powered vibrator.

“From the outside the GTT looks pretty much like any other armoured troop carrier, except that we had plastered it with the brightly coloured decals of our sponsors. It is a two- by three- by six-metre steel box with tracks, with a mean looking snout and small savage eyes at the business end. Once every­one takes up their positions and adjusts their ear protectors, Sasha (the driver who came with the vehicle) looks around, grins and gives the thumbs up. The oil pump whines and the six big diesel pots explode into life. With the clatter of the steel tracks, even shouted conversation at close range is impossible.

“We departed Pevek with Annie filming and Slava following up in the Slavamobile. This was the last we were to see of the tough little Russian and his desperate machine. A few kilometres across the sea ice the mobile broke down for one last time. Slava nursed it back to Pevek where it was sold, and he departed for his home town, where it was time to put in his spring crop of potatoes.

“As we clattered into the wilderness in our GTT towards our next goal, the town of Tiksi (the half-way point of the Siberian leg), the navigator kept his eye on the Trimble satellite navigation system, plotting progress on the map and indicating by sign language the course to Sasha. It was not quite the romantic voyage across Siberia that we had dreamed about. We reached Tiksi at 4am on April 16. We drove into the harbour on the sea ice, past ships that had been frozen in all winter. A full moon floated eerily over the city.”

At this point in their travels, Dingle was not to know that the GTT was also to go the same way as the others. On the last leg of their Siberian overland travel, from Tiksi to the port of Dudinka, a worried project director, Rob Mounsey, could do nothing while he listened in Auckland to reports of daily breakdowns while the sea ice cracked up under the team.

“In parts the ice was moving under the vehicle, and they would have to back off and find a safer route. Meanwhile, the breakdowns continued, and at one stage Kim and Tolya had to ski for three days to the nearest village for help, while Graeme and Sasha waited with the vehicle,” Mounsey says. But in spite of the prob­lems, on May 16 the team made it into the port of Dudinka. From there, in a much-welcomed break which will stand them in good stead for the coming sea voyage, the crew hitched a ride on a research vessel to their last Siberian destination, Murmansk.

In the relative warmth of a 10°C-plus New Zealand winter it is perhaps hard to understand why a group of New Zealanders should want to go through such grim physical—and sometimes spiritual—conditions at the other, alien, end of the earth.

Reading between the lines of the problems and hardship of the expedition, another story emerges, as a paragraph from Dingle’s letter early in the journey shows:

“In the evening we went out in a tracked vehicle to recover the machine and its driver, Slava. We stopped on a point overlooking a gulf. In a moment we knew why we had come to the Arctic. Why we had suffered storm and bureau­cracy, risked bankruptcy and frostbite: for 300 unspoiled degrees we had a vista of gulf and hills. No trees, no rocks, no sharp edges, just gentle curves, and as the weak sunlight slanted through the atmos­phere, it dyed everything a pink and mauve as if it were filtered through gold and diamond dust.”

There is still more of this journey ahead. After it is completed later this year, New Zealand Geographic will tell the team’s story in full.

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