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.
Here’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.
Amazed by Strandberg’s account of this epic trek, I tried to find out what he’s up to these days. His website reveals far more about the personal aftereffects of the Kolyma trip than he lets on in the magazine story:
Siberia changed my life completely. And it ruined it. It was the best time in my life. It had everything I have ever dreamt about. The enormous taiga and the extreme cold gave me and my partner Johan Ivarsson unlimited freedom. We hunted and fished to survive. We met the best people on earth, the native Siberians. It felt like I had finally understood. Also, I felt like it doesn’t matter one bit if I die now. I have seen all. Returning home was a disaster. It completely ruined my life for the next three years. A tragic divorce with the worst of consequences. I faced bitterness, hatred, shame and personal ruin.
Strandberg wouldn’t be the first high-stakes expeditioner to find the transition back to “normal” life challenging. Perhaps the psychological toll of Kolyma was greater than he ever let on, and perhaps the lingering memory of the Siberian cold is what set him on his next great journey: a camel trip across Yemen.
Source: Russian Life (article not available online)
Image copyright Mikael Strandberg; used with permission.