Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Day 345: Faster than Without Water

You know, I’m glad I have the kind of life where I can frequently shift my priorities from “I wonder if anyone is going to read my blog today” to “I wonder if I’m going to break my leg and be eaten by a bear today.” Especially when those last two are indistinguishable. Leg breaking = bear eating. It puts things in perspective.

Never fear, I have not broken anything recently, nor have I had any negative encounters with bears. What I did do is peak a Siberian mountain that was ridiculously difficult considering its frustratingly pathetic appearance.

Before everyone starts saying “Psh, that’s nothing, you’ve never tried Mt. Killseveryone” I’ll have you know that I am a decently experienced hiker, throughout California’s significant mountains, so I’m going to go ahead and make a big drama about this trip despite the fact that no, I might not have tried Mt. Killseveryone and it may indeed be very much worse.

So much for disclaimers. So there I was, staring up a thousand foot cliff of shards…oh wait, no, I was staring up a gentle green slope. But lets start at the beginning.

There’s some kind of special bird that nests in the rocky slopes of some Siberian mountains, and the Swiss birder’s wanted to try this mountain to see if they could find any. What with there being no roads in this region, we decided to drive a little boat to a small settlement near the base of the mountain to start the trip. I came along for the view and to get a bit of exercise. Here’s what the mountain looks like from the station:

Not exactly Kilimanjaro. I shouldn’t even embarrass mountains by calling it a “mountain”, it’s really more of a glorified hill. The top comes in at mere 580 or 620 meters (1700-1900 feet), depending on if you believe in a hand-held GPS or the Russian government. The mountain, local river branch, and nearby settlement are all called Panteleihka, or “Mountain River”. So if you say you’re going to Panteleihka, who knows what you mean.

The day we went out was very cloudy and nice and cool, perfect for a little mountain climbing. We landed at Penteleihka (the “village”, which around here defines anything between 1-10 buildings). Our boat was docked to a huge half-sunk barge, embedded half on land and extending nearly to the center of the stream.

Settlements along the way:


The village appeared to be nearly deserted, which it nearly was. According to our guide (Sergei D) the village was very old, established around 360 years ago. Many of the buildings had been built by the Cossacks throughout that long period. After the ravages of the end of the Soviet Union, the village had been mostly left to decay. During the summer, a few families live there for hunting and fishing, and during the winter only one or two people hang around for winter hunting.

Sergei D led us to one of the summer families, who lived in a small green house adorned with metallic sheet posters depicting various Russian themes. I should mention that the mosquitoes were already going crazy over us, and I was very thankful for the cool weather which made wearing a hat and my faithful gloves bearable.

So we met the family – a hunter who’s name I believe is Slava, and his wife Vera, and their teenaged son who’s name I couldn’t make out. They live in Penteleihka (village) during the summer, and for the rest of the year they live in Cherskii where Vera is a math teacher at the school. Vera spoke a small amount of English, and we were invited inside for coffee. The house – a small single-room box shed attached to a screened-in outdoor kitchen – exemplified the extremely basic living conditions typical of the region. The two small beds doubled as seats for the table, which we were ceremoniously seated around and offered drinks and snacks. After this ever-awkward ritual – my god I wish I spoke more Russian – Sergei D announced that he would be leaving us now, and that the family would lead the birders and me to the base of the mountain path.


Green house and posters:

Outdoor kitchen:

Son inside:

Dining table:

We set out through the forest, Vera and I leading the way with the Swiss birders, the son, and Slava coming behind with a rifle. Sergei explained that it was “very small chance that problem with bear” and I was perfectly inclined to believe him, knowing that the area only held usually harmless brown bears. Only a about a hundred meters into the forest on a barely-discernable hunting path, we saw evidence of some of the larger mammals of this region – enormous moose tracks in the mud, literally big enough to twist an ankle in. As much as I would love to see some animals, the ever-thickening underbrush made me more worried about running headlong into a moose than a bear. At least I’m vaguely the size of a small brown bear. I might be able to take one on.

Starting off:


A few minutes through the forest brought us to a plowed out road typical of the wilderness regions. Repeated running of massive tractors over the frozen ground has permanently scarred the terrain with huge muddy ruts. There are some areas in permafrost regions where a single vehicle driven across the tundra leaves its tracks behind for decades (you can see many examples on Svalbard). This road was only drivable in the winter, when it freezes and snows over into a semi-level highway. This “highway” led from Penteleihka (village) to the region’s electrical source – a nuclear power plant 300 km away.

Everything was feeling pretty good, barring the marauding mosquitoes, and I had started up a basic form of communication with Vera, who seemed to have taken a particular interest in me, especially after her shocked discovery that I was only 22. A few minutes down the road, I recognized a pair of massive, decently fresh bear tracks under my feet. They were certainly in the area.

Poor little dried salamander:

The journey continued, and the base of the mountain seemed to get no closer. After branching off the road and following another small forest path, we were lead to a pile of old wooden boxes, which – if I interpreted the conversation correctly – were left from old geological expeditions a few hundred years ago.

"Stalin" carved into the wood:

Interesting side note – I might not be able to speak Russian, but I’ve gotten pretty good at communication with the bare minimums of English and general gestures. One of the birders spoke a bit of Russian, but I was amazed to find that when Slava and Vera couldn’t understand him they turned to me to interpret, and visa versa. And it usually worked.


A Swiss birder:

The Swiss birders by this point had seen a number of things to photograph, and the family seemed to be getting somewhat impatient. Once along the road again, it became clear that the rest of our journey would follow no road – we needed to branch off perpendicular from the path to head up a small saddle and hit the lower base of the mountain. Vera drew us a small map on the back of a box of matches (sweet, although completely unnecessary) and she and her family took off at speed up the mountain. Apparently they had decided, having come this far, to complete the peak themselves.

Drawing the match-box map:

The first low foothill seemed like a fun adventure. There was no path whatsoever to speak of, and we had to just force our way long the least vegetated areas. Luckily, it was a treeless area, so most of the plants were less than 2 meters tall and it was easy to keep track of each other.

At the top of that ridge, we could see that there was another level of foothills to cross before truly reaching the base of Penteleihka. Things started being less fun. Although it was steadily up hill, it certainly wasn’t remotely steep, but the vegetation was fierce and the bugs worse. Before parting, Slava had indicated that I should take off my wool hat – something I was perfectly desperate to do already in the heat of hiking, but it helped keep the mosquitoes off my scalp and forehead. I preferred boiling to the itching insanity that I knew would come.

As we got higher, I could smell the rain starting to fall in the distance, and it looked like it would take a few more hours to get near the mountain. Having come this far, we decided to go for it anyway. Well, to cut out some hours of slogging up the foothills, eventually we did indeed reach the base of the rocky mountain skree.

Incoming rain:

At this point, having reached the rocky slopes, I was somewhere in between one birder and the other – one had gone ahead and started looking for the special bird, the other had fallen behind to photograph some birds on the foothill. My bad foot was starting to tell me that it was not happy with the situation, so I decided I had gone far enough, especially considering that we still had to hike home.

So much for that! After a bit of a rest, the second birder caught up and asked about starting for the top. At my hesitation, he said “I’m Swiss! I have to go to the top!” Well I can’t turn down that kind of challenge, so up we started.

The view was simply stunning the whole trip up. It wasn’t so hard, not too steep but threateningly rocky. During our frequent rests we could see a huge rain storm slowly sweeping across the taiga – its so flat, its impossible to take in everything. Unfortunately for the birder, there were no birds at all in the rocks. Fortunately, a heavy wind picked up to drag away the mosquitoes.


Once again to cut out some time of hiking, we finally reached the top, where we were greeted by Slava’s family. An old wooden observation tower was at the peak, which we all climbed up a few feet before getting terrified back down again by the rickety wood. Scads of photos were taken with every combination of camera and people. It was a wonderful feeling – the view was incredible, the rain was just starting to fall, and we had an awesome bonding experience with Slava, Vera, and son.

At the top, looking a little rough:

The whole gang:

Rain coming:

Decently tired but ready to start the downhill trip back, we parted ways again – the family took the same eastern route down, while we decided to take a western route so the birders could check another side of the mountain. Hoo boy. Initially, this bought us down through a similar rocky skree as we came up through. We hit another saddle and starting walking on moss, which felt awesome to our tired legs after fighting to stay upright on the slippery slopes. In the distance we could see the road to get back to Penteleihka (village) and we plowed forward.

At the base of the saddle, we entered a nightmare. The vegetation got thicker and thicker, until we were plowing through shrubbery with no clearings in sight. For hours. Other than steep slopes, it was some of the worst possible hiking conditions have ever been in. It’s not like wading through grass – its like trying to walk through a solid hedge that your grumpy neighbor has installed to keep the kids out. Except underneath you have absolutely no idea what you’re walking on – it might be moss, or a huge hole, or a pile of barely-balanced rocks. Or your legs can’t even break through the plants so you balance on a pile of spindly branches. And interspersed are thorny vines, huge clouds of bugs, and piles of mystery animal feces that clearly came from something very large. It’s vaguely comparable to wading through waist-high snow over unknown terrain…except you’re not going to freeze to death, I guess.

And out here the distances are very deceiving. It was the never-ending hike of torture through this shrub land. At one point we started heading toward what looked like a clear area, only to find the ground beneath us turn to bog as we ran into a swamp. Heading back into the vegetation, I could only be thankful that there are no snakes in Siberia. I couldn’t see my feet, I could hardly see anything below my waist, and in the many, many times I fell down everything would disappear completely. Sometimes the others would fall, and it looked like some giant green hole had simply swallowed them entirely. By this point, the only thing running through my head was a string of increasingly nonsensical curses against the mountain, my feet, and everything within sight or thought.

Finally we came across a very faint path through the brush – a very old branch of the road we were trying to reach. Although covered in vegetation, it allowed some small area that was easier to walk through. By this point I was exhausted. My bad leg had given up on me long ago and I could barely rely on it to stay balanced in the tricky terrain – I am frankly amazed that I didn’t end up breaking an ankle. All in all we got back to the road, which meant we only had another hour of hiking to go before getting back to the village.

A photo that very accurately depicts how I felt at the time:

Let me tell you, I thought I was pretty tough but I have never been so close to my body absolutely refusing to follow orders. I hit the point where it hurt more to stop than to keep plodding on, then I hit the somewhat startling point of realizing that I couldn’t make my legs do what I wanted. They would go neither faster nor slower and progressed on autopilot.

Despite the dire scenarios running through my head, we did make it back to the village, ending a 9-hour, 18 kilometer (about 7.5 miles) journey, smelling completely disgusting, covered in bug bites, and with aching feet. We were treated to a dinner of fish stew by Vera and Sergei D came to collect us. I fell asleep in the boat on the way home as it started to rain on me.

Slava and Vera wave goodbye:

Near home:

All in all, a pretty awesome day!

I guess that’s my sort of thing, as long as the leg-breaking and bear-eating doesn’t happen. Well, it seems pretty awesome now, after recovering from a sleepless night tormented by fingers stiff with mosquito bites and a cramping leg unused to strenuous demands for the past seven months.

Usual end-of-blog random comments:

I found a copy of “Never Cry Wolf” by Farley Mowat in my cabin. Everyone needs to read this book. Forget the movie, read the book. It’s brilliant.

While I only have a few interesting things happen in the typical course of a week, I tend to get behind in talking about them. Technically, here’s what’s actually happening in my life: the birders left today, leaving me the only visitor for the rest of my time here – a mere 2 weeks. I’ve gone on a few interesting walks recently, the photos from which I will share with you next time.

If anyone knows of any awesome jobs, let me know because apparently I need to enter the real world soon.


Anonymous said...

I like the love moss.

Anonymous said...

Your hike was no fun - but well described. I've tried something similar myself (in heavy rain) - it's awful.

I've been following your blog for a while, as I'm moving to Longyearbyen in a month's time (we will be staying in Jørgen Berge's house, while he's away).

Great pictures - wonderful adventures! Good luck in the "real world".

Anne from Bergen, Norway

Laurel said...

Hey Anne! Yes it was quite a hike. Thanks for saying hi, I always love hearing from people who read the blog. I must say I'm already jealous - I miss Longyearbyen! Have a wonderful time out there...

Unknown said...

Laurel, I miss you. That heart rock and dessicated salamander were both amazing. You're going to have to lend me some of your hiking mojo. I'm starting to crave the outdoors, and hiking is readily accessible. See ya soon!

sam said...

Sounds like an intense hike!

One tangential thing I'm curious about: property rights. Who "owns" all of this land (Cherskii, the villages, Pleistocene Park)? Does that distinction matter to anyone? I guess Siberia is awful huge, and awful empty compared to the western US, but it just seems strange to be able to see something in the distance and walk to it, like you're just on public land.