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The Pole of cold

  • Written by  Felicity Aston
  • Published in Explorers
The frozen River Lena provides land access to villages that are cut off during summertime The frozen River Lena provides land access to villages that are cut off during summertime Felicity Aston
01 Dec
2014
Recipient of the 2013 Land Rover and Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Bursary, Felicity Aston found driving to the coldest place on Earth a test of willpower, a reliance on sturdy equipment and the gathering of local, if unusual, knowledge

The mercury in the thermometer attached to the outside of our red Land Rover Defender had disappeared. As the temperature dipped beneath –55°C, we found ourselves driving in weather cold enough to make metal behave like plastic, give rubber the consistency of dried clay and turn lubricants into solid wax. None of these transformations were good news for our long-suffering vehicle.

Gísli Jónsson, the expedition’s mechanical expert, coaxed the vehicle along the Siberian track that was the only road for 1,000 kilometres in any direction. It was an endless lane of snow-filled ruts, ice-smeared lumps and worryingly deep potholes.

The vehicle shook violently as we rattled on. Its 2.2-litre diesel engine seemed to stop and start in a series of uneven lurches. Then we came to an abrupt halt.

Almost immediately, I felt the temperature within the cab plummet. Heaters normally enveloped us in a bubble of warmth, but without power, the bubble burst and within moments, I found myself sitting in an icebox three times colder than the freezer in my kitchen. Although I was wearing plenty of cold weather clothing, I hastily secured the facial baffle of my down jacket across my mouth and nose.

We had been brought to a spluttering halt by the inferior-grade diesel that we had unwittingly taken on at our last refuelling stop. We had already been stymied by the bad fuel several times during the previous hour, so I knew what I had to do.

With my fingers going numb inside a pair of thin gloves, I jumped out of the vehicle. The air was so cold and dry that I coughed every time I inhaled. I pulled out a gas blowtorch from under my down jacket, where I had been keeping it warm.

Following Gísli’s instructions, I lit the blowtorch and ran it across the outside of the Land Rover Defender’s fuel tank. A few minutes later, the engine rumbled back into life, but I knew it was only a temporary repair. Within a few kilometres, the fuel would re-freeze and my blowtorch would be back in action.

 

LIGHT AND COLOUR

We had already travelled a long way. As the recipients of the 2013 Land Rover and Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Bursary – an award aimed at those who want to take a journey beyond their limits and in which a Land Rover Defender 110 plays an integral part – our plan was to make an overland journey from London, chasing the onset of winter as it set in across northern Scandinavia and Russia. We wanted to drive to the coldest permanently inhabited place on the planet, a hamlet called Oymyakon in northeast Siberia. After recording a temperature of –71.2°C in 1929, Oymyakon became known around the world as the ‘Pole of Cold’.

As we traversed Eurasia, we asked people how they’ve adapted their lifestyles to the extreme cold and explored their perspectives on winter. We summarised our aims by asking one question: ‘What does winter mean to you?’ The answers we received surprised us.

In Arctic Norway, we had visited communities that experience the long polar night. While there, we were repeatedly told by the locals that the coldest season of the year does not, for them, equate to darkness. On the contrary – winter means colour. The fleeting daylight gives rise to spectacular skyscapes as the sun skims the horizon, and the enveloping night introduces skies striped with the ghostly green, red and purple hues of the aurora borealis, or northern lights.

In Finland, we spent time with the Skolt Sámi, for whom winter means reindeer. Thousands of these animals are rounded up from the forest in winter so that the herd can be managed.

At one point, I stood in an enclosure crowded with reindeer and was amazed by how silent the animals were. The only noise I heard was an extraordinary clicking sound, generated by the tendons in the reindeer’s feet as they moved. It sounded like hot fat spitting in a frying pan.

 

LOCAL EXPERTISE

Now we were driving across Siberia’s most northerly regions and learning that, to Siberians, winter is all about preparation. The small, isolated communities we visited have few, if any, services so they need to be self-sufficient at this time of year. For Siberians, preparing for winter requires a great deal of forethought.

In a similar vein, we had prepared our expedition vehicle so that – fuel aside – we could remain largely self-reliant during this, the coldest and most remote part of our journey. We carried a comprehensive complement of tools and spare parts to allow Gísli to fix a variety of mechanical problems. On the roof, we had stowed winter camping equipment – including tents, sleeping bags, stoves and dehydrated rations – so that we had a refuge to which we could retreat in the event that something catastrophic happened to the vehicle.

Travelling as a convoy of one, we had a winch bolted to the front of the vehicle and a steel anchor secured to the back. The addition of a hi-lift jack maximised the chance of a successful self-rescue should the vehicle become stuck.

Other modifications included the addition of shovels, a roof rack, extra lights and studded winter tyres. A second fuel tank increased our range to around 900 kilometres, a specially prepared engine lubricant continued to work in temperatures up to 20°C colder than the point at which standard grease freezes, and a heater warmed the engine before we engaged the ignition.

Despite our pre-departure preparations, we were keen to learn from the inhabitants of the Siberian city of Yakutsk about how else we could ‘winterise’ our vehicle. Several local drivers were quick to give us the benefit of their hard-won experience.

To begin with, we were instructed to buy thick felt with which to insulate the engine and cover the radiator. Next, a trader cut sheets of glass that were taped to the top half of our windows in order to create an insulating pocket of air to prevent condensation from freezing on the inside of the windows. Finally we could see out of the Defender as we drove – until then, every window except the heated windscreen had remained stubbornly frozen over.

 

LORD KEEPER OF THE COLD

Upon our arrival in Oymyakon, we spotted the monument to the Pole of Cold. But I was confused to find a large concrete sculpture of a bull standing next to the replica thermometer displaying the coldest temperature recorded outside of Antarctica.

It was explained to me that when the Yakut people migrated into this region from Central Asia during the 12th century, they found what appeared to be the horns of gigantic bulls buried in the permafrost. This suggested to them that the cold temperature of the soil was created by the breath of these gargantuan subterranean bulls. As a result, the bull became a regional symbol of the cold. (We now know that what the Yakut had actually uncovered were woolly mammoth tusks.)

Striding around the monument was a figure clad in a magnificent floor-length coat of shimmering blue trimmed with white fur and studded with colourful beads that tinkled like broken ice when he moved. Wearing a headdress in the shape of entwined bull horns, he carried a staff decorated with white horsehair. He introduced himself to us as Chyskhan, the Lord Keeper of the Cold.

In Yakutian mythology, Chyskhan is responsible for distributing winter across the globe. Every autumn, a dozen or so of the 25 official Santa Claus equivalents from various cultures around the world gather in Oymyakon to collect symbols of cold from Chyskhan. They return in spring to hand back the tokens.

‘People should not be afraid of the cold,’ Chyskhan told us. ‘Cold keeps the balance. Cold brings people together. It binds communities. People should be smiling in the cold and accepting cold as their friend and not as an enemy.’

His words were painstakingly interpreted for us, one sentence at a time, and as the minutes ticked by, we began to feel the bite of the temperature, which was approaching –60°C. Our interpreter’s voice quavered as he tried not to shiver. I dug my fists deeper into my pockets and did my impression of a tortoise, retracting my neck into the collar of my jacket. Chyskhan continued his monologue.

Eventually, we thanked Chyskhan through chattering teeth and clambered into the reassuring warmth of the Defender’s cab. A minute later, the interpreter poked his head into the vehicle. ‘The Lord Keeper of the Cold asks if there is any chance that you could give him a lift home.’

Felicity Aston and the members of the Pole of Cold team pursued winter across more than 36,000 kilometres of Eurasia. www.poleofcold.com. For details of the Land Rover bursary, visit www.rgs.org/landroverbursary

The Turner Contemporary is hosting an exhibition of the expedition’s photography until the end of January 2015. Find more details at: www.turnercontemporary.org.

 

GROW YOUR OWN ICE

The roads in the region around the Pole of Cold are in such a poor state of repair that in summer, they are all but impassable. Winter is seen as a better time to travel because the extreme cold hardens up the mud and sand that constitute a substantial proportion of the region’s road surfaces. Although this process of solidification makes the roads easier to negotiate, many people prefer to abandon the roads altogether in favour of a network of frozen rivers.

Major rivers such as the Lena, Kolyma and Indigirka run for thousands of kilometres. They freeze with a thick layer of smooth ice during winter and are turned into highways, complete with road signs and, in some places, dual lanes that are ploughed after heavy snowfalls. These ice roads provide access to areas that are isolated for the rest of the year.

The city of Yakutsk can only be reached by crossing the River Lena. In winter, traffic simply drives over the frozen river because the ice is sufficiently solid to support the weight of the majority of vehicles.

But in order to enable the heaviest lorries to cross safely, local workers ‘grow’ the ice. Holes are punched through the river’s frozen skin, allowing liquid water to bubble up and flood across the surface, before quickly freezing to form a thicker layer of ice.

 

ESSENTIAL GEAR

Chasing winter across northern Russia means tackling sub-zero temperatures, frozen lakes, reindeer and wandering ‘Lord Keepers of the Cold’. For Felicity Aston, that meant essential equipment such as reliable thermometers, blowtorches, protective clothing, a car with tyres capable of dealing with any surface and decent chocolate...

 

1. Expedition vehicle

Land Rover Defender 110

from £22,000/2,000 kilograms

The classic ‘go anywhere’ vehicle requires engine heaters, double glazing, panel insulation and winter tyres before it can go to Siberia in winter. It will start after a night in the open at –50°C, but leave the engine running otherwise lubricants freeze and the engine will seize.

 

2. Blowtorch

Go System Work Mate Torch Kit

£25/288 grams

This torch head screws into a standard butane and propane gas cartridge to create a handheld blowtorch. It can be used at any angle, making it useful when working in awkward places.

 

3. Rations

Éclat Chocolate Good and Evil Bar

US$18/75 grams

All of my expeditions are powered by chocolate. Produced by chocolatier Christopher Curtin, with chef Eric Ripert and author Anthony Bourdain, it’s a fine reward at the end of truly tough days.

 

4. Dashboard camera

Garmin VIRB

£270/170 grams

These ‘dashcams’ are ubiquitous in Russia to guard against police corruption and insurance fraud. The wi-fi- and GPS-enabled VIRB can take photographs and capture high definition video footage.

 

5. Winter tyres

Nokian Hakkapeliitta LT2

from £140/from 15.7 kilograms (per tyre)

A specialist winter tyre specifically for use with 4x4s. The tread and studs provide relentless grip while retaining vehicle handling and comfort. The tyre’s steel belt package contains 60 per cent more metal than passenger car tyres.

 

6. Portable digital recorder

Tascam DR-07 MKII

£105/127 grams (without batteries)

Professional reviewers rate the DR-07’s superior sound quality and ability to use external microphones in lieu of its twin integral mics. Of more importance in cold weather is the DR-07’s glove-friendly buttons and AA-battery power source. Recordings can be downloaded to a computer via a microSD card or USB cable.

 

7. Down jacket

Montane Deep Cold

£350/1.1 kilograms

In cold environments, a long down jacket that covers your thighs and backside is essential. As well as its length, the Deep Cold has an extended collar and face-protector and lots of nice details, such as a microfleece trim in areas that are likely to come into contact with bare skin.

 

8. Base-layer gloves

Montane Power Stretch Pro

£25/48 grams

A staple for any cold-weather expedition. The pre-curved, box-construction fingers are thin enough to wear while undertaking fiddly tasks, yet sufficiently warm to allow you to touch metal without harming your skin. Fingertips are woven with conductive thread for using touch-sensitive screens.

 

9. Roof storage boxes

Zarges K-470 Universal Container

from £110/from 2.6 kilograms

These stackable aluminium storage boxes are lightweight, weatherproof and perfect as roof-top storage boxes. The K-470’s lid has a stainless-steel hinge, polyester restraint straps and a polyurethane-foam seal. Front clasps can be secured with padlocks to deter theft.

 

10. Thermometer

TS window thermometer

£10/100 grams

It’s difficult to find a thermometer that could measure temperatures lower than –40°C. This inexpensive –50ºC model isn’t a scientifically calibrated instrument, but it provided us with a general idea of the outdoor temperature. It can even be fastened to the exterior of your vehicle.

 

This story was published in the December 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine

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