The Putorana expedition in winter has been the biggest project I’ve been involved to date. It was about going with a group of Spanish and Russian alpinists (ice climbers), to a remote place in search of ice falls that had never been climbed. We did it. Not only they had never climbed, some of them were not known to exist, because nobody had been before.
Putorana is a plateau, located in the Russian Arctic, in the Taymyr region, on the northwest edge of the Siberian Central Plateau. The closest and most important city in the area is Norilsk, a peculiar city, with restricted access for foreigners, (special permission is required to enter), which has nickel extraction as the main source of income.
Putorana is itself a National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an isolated mountainous system that contains arctic and sub-arctic ecosystems intact to date. Its remoteness, very extreme weather conditions (in winter exceed 50 degrees below zero), the danger of avalanches, the amount and management of the necessary permits to enter, among other factors, makes the ecology and biology of this place keep practically unchanged by man.
And here, thanks to Miguel Angel Julián, is where we got Rafa Vadillo, Dani Gantona, David Graells, Ivan Temerev, Vlad Golub, Fedor Kopytov and myself, Ramon Dies.
We recovered Miguel A. in the second part of the expedition, which consisted of visiting the Nenets brigades, nomadic reindeer herders, who in the Taymyr, along the west bank of the Yenisei River, have their easternmost territories. The Taymyr nenets have certain peculiarities due to the influence of the Dolgans, another indigenous ethnic group from this area of the Taymyr. Other ethnic groups such as the Nganasans are also typical of Taymyr, but their original territory is much further north and they no longer graze, since the government forced them to sacrifice all their reindeer, reportedly due to a contagious disease.
We arrived in Norilsk on Saturday, April 6, 2019, with very mild temperatures of around -10 º C. Logistics was a challenge. Although for all my previous expeditions in the Russian Arctic, I know that the logistics are “complicated”, even for the Russian guides, this one took the prize.
In this expedition we coined the phrase: “In Putorana, the best plan is no plan“.
The way of doing things in Russia is different from what we are used to, and in the Russian Arctic it is even more special. Manage the permits, give a thousand explanations, it is very complicated and the logistics and communication with the people who have to help you, is not at all easier. Even if they spoke English, and that is not the case.
Things as easy as arranging a meeting at a time in a place, managing a phone card with data, drawing up a plan or a calendar … In short, anything you have spoken or agreed to do, even though it has been perfectly understood, most likely it does not resemble reality at all. And you will have to fit the real situation and adapt it in the best way possible to your project, to be able to perform as close as possible to what you had in mind. It is a typical phenomenon of the Russian Arctic.
I will always remember the last sentence of Miguel A. when we said goodbye at the airport in Barcelona: “Whatever happens, be patient, be patient” Miguel A. is a wise man. And that I already knew what I expected from other times. (Yamalia: “The Migration Nenet“, “Arctic expedition on a snowmobile” Chukotka: “The great ethnic adventure of Chukotka“, “Lorino: Whales and Whalers, Living History“)
We arrived at the Plateau de Putorana after traveling 160 km to the Base Camp, with a lot of personnel and several vehicles. Not because it is planned, simply because it is what appeared there.
Three huge 6-wheeled trekols appeared, which belonged to the National Park, (we found out after we returned), 3 snowmobiles, and many people. At the end we had even a cook (Tanya) during the expedition, a luxury, which also helped to control everything. A ranger of the National Park, Tim, a big and strong guy, also a snowmobile driver, who turned out to be a great person and now a good friend. Other drivers, who drank more than a sponge, and people that we found on the way, hunters, fishermen and even more sponges.
The meteorology and the conditions of the snow and the land, is another key factor so that a planning in the arctic can be twisted. Our trip with the trekols was very slow and difficult for the drivers. Not only for the wiski or samagon, but also because the so mild temperatures of the last days (-5ºC, -10ºC) combined with previous temperatures much lower and maintained in time (-40ºC, -50ºC), made the snow over the lakes and rivers, (in arctic territories usually these are the roads), hide huge puddles with liquid water. A trap for these 6-wheel giants.
This phenomenon is called overflooding or наледь, it can be for two reasons.
In very cold conditions, -40ºC -50ºC for several days, the water of rivers and lakes freezes to the bottom. Then the water that emanates from upwelling can not pass under the ice and passes over it. If afterwards it is not cold and it also snows, the water remains in a semi-liquid state, mixed with snow. A quicksand trap.
The second cause is due to the weight of the snow, which sinks the ice layer, it presses the lower layer of water in liquid state and this overflows by the margins, accumulating liquid water above the ice)
Thus, a long journey of 1 day became 3 days on the road. Eh, but it was very interesting! I learned a lot. On the way, especially at the beginning, we cross with ice fishermen, hunters and housekeepers, with whom we share food, but above all drink and talks.
(Types with a lonely life, very happy when they see people, usually drunk from the first hours, in the afternoon they are no longer people)
Even one day we went fishing and we approached a cabin inside the forest where there were hunters. A little more talk and drink. The samagon works miracles when you know little Russian. It seems that you speak and understand perfectly.
Once we arrived at the base camp, we had 2 days, of the 5 initially planned to explore the valleys adjacent to the main valley at the end of Lake Sobache (озеро Собачье).
But again the conditions of the snow, and the terrain were not the best unless you want to play Russian roulette on Russian ground. The first day of exploration, then, ended up being a great day of ski-daytrip, with all the climbing equipment, which we returned it to the base camp without taking out of the backpack.
(The flanks of the mountains of the Putorana plateau are huge slopes of angles of about 40º, without trees or anchors for the snow layers of any type.) Uniform and very extensive slopes, avalanches scars of hundreds of meters in length and their debris are seen reaching the bottom of the valley, in the widest valleys. In narrower valleys, perpendicular to the main wide valley, an even small avalanche would be a deadly trap)
A lot of soft snow, ideal slopes for the initiation of avalanches and sun; the thermal contrast at noon was more than remarkable. In addition, most did not have ADV’s. (Avalanche Detector Victim)
(When the logistics were decided months ago, it was agreed that each one would bring their ADV, only the shovels and probes for each one would be obtained by the Russian team in Norilsk. On arrival, none of them had ADV, and they only had 2 probes and 1 shovel)
(Shortly after entering the secondary valley, after seeing the great scars of slab avalanches, we find the first mousetrap, a distance of no more than 100 meters – 150 meters.) The Russians passed without even thinking about it, with David. Rafa, Dani and me stood, observing the situation, to pass by without knowing the stability of the snow uphill was to play “Russian roulette.” In this situation, you miss the avalanche broadcasts a lot. While the rest of the team had made their decision and waited on the other side, we decided to turn around, climb a nearby, more secure slope and observe the situation from above. After thinking and checking for a long time, we decided to move on. The rest of the team was already gone, and they waited us up the valley).
(A few hours later, the valley was boxed in even more than the first time, big slopes of 40º to the right and left, uniform and smooth.That was too much, and with all the safety equipment we thought we would go there). Vlad, who is from Norilsk and knows something about the mountains there, said he was “really scared” and did not want to go too. I think that if we had not been, I would have followed the other 2 mates in spite of everything).
At the end, Ivan and Fedor, when arriving at a waterfall of about 15 meters, covered with snow, despite being vertical, they also turn around.
The second and last day. The last opportunity, or all or nothing. We chose a slightly more open valley, about 6 kilometers long, and it seems to have a waterfall just below a hill without dangerous slopes laden with snow above. There were many waterfalls but it seems feasible in a single day and also “safe”.
So we began to go up the valley, without feeling so much those lumps in the throat, by the danger of avalanches. After going up a slope trying to make a path through the larch forest and some birch, we came to a river, which we used to continue up. There, I entertained watching tracks and signs of wildlife: Martens, partridges, wolverines, eagles nests, and the previous afternoon we could see a pretty close up muse (a pregnant female). We were already inside the inner protection zone of the park. A beautiful place, lonely and wild. After a few hours, At the end of climbing the valley, we reach an even more beautiful circus, which is seen only at the last moment, when suddenly appear, some of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen. .. Is it because of the emotion of the moment?)
The climbers could climb already in the afternoon – evening, to almost 30 degrees below zero. Then it was time to pick everything up, pretty stiff already, and we started the return. A downhill with X-country skis, in survival mode, making the angel figure with the snow several times, but falling face to face instead of back.
It turned out to be a great day. And although we were able to explore and scale much less than expected, the accumulation of lived experiences, all we learned, the people we met, and that epic ending was most rewarding and satisfying. We have a thousand reasons to return. There is a lot to explore. And now we know how to do it, with whom and where.
If you want to know more about this story, there is a lot to tell, you just have to wait for the movie to come out. That will come out. Do not miss it!