As winter sets in, WideWorld has decided to publish, for the first time, the diaries Swedish explorer Mikael Strandberg kept on a past expedition to Siberia – when choosing the right kit meant the difference between life and death. Just remember: leave the fur hat at home.
“Every single piece of equipment we are using on this expedition to a grey and overcast Srednekolymsk is the result of ongoing development which has taken place since the father of all polar travel, Frithjof Nansen, in the late 19th Century, started looking for the optimal equipment to use during his travels in cold climates. And at -55°F, Srednekolymsk in Siberia has a terribly cold climate.
Every single item we’ve brought along – from our stove, to the clothes we use – had to be carefully selected in order to survive in this extreme cold. Arctic legends like Nansen, Robert Peary, Roald Amundsen, Knud Rasmusen, A.E Nordenskiold and Robert Falcon Scott have tried and used pretty much everything you can think of: fur, canvas, leather, wool, cotton, felt and nylon. And they tested it under circumstances far more demanding than we’re experiencing at the moment.
Archaeologists believe that natives of this region have lived here for more than 300,000 years. A Russian scientist, Yuri Mochanov, found proof along the northern part of river Lena, at an excavation site called Diring Yuriakh. That means there was a small pocket of life surrounded by an immense continental ice shelf long before the dates we´re being taught in Scandinavian schools today! With this in mind, before leaving Sweden, I initially wanted to get my hands on proper fur clothes before setting off on skis – determined to emulate the way the natives dressed. But then I changed my mind.
As a result, every single hunter, trapper and fisherman we’ve come across since leaving Zyryanka, has been utterly shocked and worried when they’ve seen how we’re dressed. They just shake their fur-clad heads, look us in the eye and say: “This is no good at all” before pointing out what clothes and boots we ‘should’ have worn.
But what they don’t understand is that when the native Siberians head outdoors in this extreme climate, every single step and thought they have, has to do with either getting food, making as few mistakes as possible; they never stress or overwork themselves and they try to preserve as much heat as possible. They´re not outdoors to do any sporting adventures which involve sleeping in a tent with no heating. They travel either by snowmobile, walking (slowly) or, occasionally, by skis. The natives of Srednekolymsk dress from top-to-toe in fur; thin and thick garments in layers. And these are by far the best choice of clothes if you ain’t moving too fast and you want to keep the cold at bay – and if you have a warm log cabin to return to in the evening.
Sweat = bad
But if you’re out there pulling a 100kg heavy pulka/sledge behind you, going through rough terrain and sleeping in a tent, fur clothes are on the verge of being dangerous. They make you sweat enormously and sweat is no good at all. Adventuring is hard work and so sweating is inevitable. And as anyone who’s sweated in fur garments knows – it turns to ice in no time, adding to the risk of getting frostbite. Even in our light wool underwear we sweat tremendously, even in temperatures like -58°F and at times we have woken up in the morning, after freezing all night, having to thaw out the ice of the long underwear. That is a reality I don’t wish anyone to have to experience.
The technical development of the clothes we wear in the extreme cold has taken a big step since the ‘old days’. We also understand the importance of what food to eat, what training and what type of preparations are needed, the full potential of the human body and the mental aspect much more. This also applies to the choice of equipment and clothes. We’ve learned from the experience and mistakes of all those earlier travellers.
The human body is a phenomenal heat source as long as you’re moving. Which we do all the time, except when we’re inside the tent. Therefore, we dress to avoid sweating too much: a light set of underwear, a shirt, a pair of trousers and a Gore-Tex jacket with a hood is more than adequate to travel in, even at these low temperatures. A thin balaclava with a face mask and a pair of wind-proof gloves are essential, as are two pairs of light socks inside your boots. But, the second we stop, even just to go to the toilet, we immediately whip out the thick down jacket, the thickest down gloves and the thickest hood out of the pulka – otherwise it could be deadly.
When it’s time to camp, it’s boots off immediately and on with the down boots (bivvy boots). Inside the tent we get the stove going, climb inside the sleeping bag and hope for a relatively warm night. Modern clothes dry much faster, they’re more comfortable, they´re wind-proof, but they’re still breathable and much lighter. Fur clothes are really heavy; uncomfortable after a while and clumsy to handle. And once they freeze, they’re impossible to work with. They’re great for hunting or working in the forest, but not exploring!
There’s no doubt, however, that we’ve been freezing too much lately. Dangerously so. And we will freeze even more once we start skiing again. The reason for this is that temperatures will continue to be low plus that there will be more snow and, worst of all, blizzards. And so, ironically, we’ve come to realise that some of our modern clothes are just not sufficient when the weather drops below – 58°F. We need to add on some sort of solution involving fur – as additional protection. Our hands have taken too much damage already. So we´re presently working on a pair of big wolf skin gloves, with fur on the upper hand and normal leather in the grip of the hand, to pull on quickly over the other gloves when needed. We´ll see how they will turn out.
What can the modern developers of polar equipment and clothes learn from the Siberians?
First of all, I think it is, once again, important for them to properly understand how extremely inept, slow and awkward all movements become in this extreme cold. The longer you’re out there, exposed, the worse it is. (I have a feeling that most gear today is made to last the length of a normal, modern polar trip – a maximum of two months.) Gloves shouldn’t be too tight; arm sleeves neither; there shouldn’t be any unnecessary or complicated ‘solutions’ such as too many zippers. The pocket openings have to be wider and longer. Our ski bindings broke immediately when temperatures went below -58°F. Luckily, there wasn’t too much snow so we were able to walk, but if this hadn’t been the case, we would have faced serious problems. It wouldn’t have been a problem at all, of course, if the manufacturer had added two simple square holes on the sides of the bindings, where we could have slipped through a piece of string to keep the boot in the binding. This back-up solution would also have made the binding lighter. A Siberian binding is just a piece of leather tied over the front part of the boot. If it break, there’s a spare at hand immediately. This solution is no doubt much weaker, more uncomfortable and is made only for shorter trips, but it’s a back-up, and we didn’t have one.
We’ve definitely progressed a lot since the day of Nansen, but there’s still some distance to go to complete perfection.”