All news

How Belka and Strelka were snowkiting 750 kilometers across tundra

Over nine days in the Russian Arctic, Mila Polyakova and Evgeniya Kotlyarova once ran from a polar wolf and a few times suffered equipment failures

MOSCOW, June 18. /TASS/. Mila Polyakova from Novosibirsk and Evgeniya Kotlyarova from Togliatti are experienced athletes, who have been on many kitesurfing routes, including in the North. The two sports had dreamed to be the first in an extreme adventure. Over nine days in the Russian Arctic, they once ran from a polar wolf and a few times suffered equipment failures. However, the positive impression, which will remain forever, is their meetings with people - kind and supportive.

Belka and Strelka

The girls, who used to be competitors, became a team in 2013. They had great experience in sailing and both wanted to take part in endure competitions (where participants travel off road, conquering natural and hand-made obstacles on days-long extreme routes).

"Previously, women have never participated in those wild adventures, we know only a few mixed teams," Mila said. "Why not to be the first? - we thought".

"Those were exceptional emotions," Evgeniya joined the conversation. "The wild nature, undiscovered conditions, the state of permanent mobility, and - most importantly - the responsibility for the partner. In such an endure voyage, unlike in competitions, where your first thought is the speed, you care for the partner, worry about the equipment. We were not rushing, but anyway faced what not problems. We have received enormous emotions and experience like in no other competitions".

The girls, who took nicks of space dogs, Belka and Strelka, divided responsibilities from the very beginning. Belka-Mila was responsible for food during preparations for competitions and during voyages, medical kits and the route planning. Strelka-Evgeniya was responsible for the navigation and equipment. It took them quite long to get adjusted to each other. They used to argue, but, as the time went on, they learned how to distribute roles without extra words. A partner is a long-term choice - with this person you overcome problems and exhaustion, she added.

Their team competed for four years. The third attempt was to pass a complicated 500-km northern route in Norway, and in 2016 they won the world cup in endure kiting when they won stages in Finland, Norway and Russia. After that, Mila gave up endure-kiting and became a coach, and Evgeniya found another partner.

In winter, 2021, Evgeniya planned a kiting voyage across the Russian Arctic. Her new partner, Svetlana, was supposed to make her company, but refused two weeks before the start. Evgeniya invited Mila, who, as she said later on, doubted greatly, as she had not trained for the voyage, but in the long run she could not afford bringing down the partner, even the former partner.

"I was happy, as with Mila we had participated in many competitions for four years, we know and understand each other very well. Mila has an incredible willpower and the desire to win," Evgeniya said.

Every kilo matters

Friends helped them to make the route. The girls were to cross three regions - Yamal, Komi and Nenets.

"Our friend, geologist Sergey Strizhov spent nights working with maps to make a safe route. It is very important as the tundra may be very tricky. On the map it may seem fine, but looking at pictures or when you are there - here are swamps, canyons, or even a sheer rock. Sergey made for us a safe route and uploaded it to GPRS," Mila told us.

Two weeks before the start, Evgeniya had equipment from Togliatti delivered by a logistics company - there were too many things to use a plane. On April 26, the girls took a flight to Salekhard - the city is most close to the starting point - Yar-Sale in the Yamalo-Nenets Region.

"I can remember, how I was there at the airport with three huge bags with skis, with sleeping bags, and, surely, with food. Shift workers were shocked - they could not imagine, why a girl would pull the huge bag, the ski cover and the enormous backpack," Mila said.

A car drove them along the ice-covered Ob to Yar-Sale. On those days, the region celebrated the traditional herders’ day, and the girls were shocked to see how huge the celebration was. The locals welcomed the guests, and wished them luck on the route. The region’s Governor Dmitry Artyukhov also wished them all the best.

The night before the start, like always, was uneasy. Evgeniya was packing. The girls knew, how every kilo matters on such routes. You must take everything necessary, minding how much the sleds may carry.

"When packing, it’s always about weighing things. I took two tins of beef, then put them aside, they are heavy. I continue packing, and my eye catches them - I put them back. You know, I put and removed them a few times, and then remembered an alpinist once told me - you may sacrifice anything but tinned beef," Mila joked.

Thus every girl was pulling a sled with almost 40 kilos of food, clothes and equipment.

Delayed start

Normally, endure kiting expeditions start in the morning. That time, the weather changed the plan, and the girls could go on the route only in the afternoon, at 3 pm. The forecast promised two perfect days for kiting - sunny and windy. On such days, they could cover 100 km daily.

The girls used a GPS tracker, and were disappointed to learn the device receives information and lays routes using points, which are not more than half a kilometer away from each other. The tracker, which could show, where the girls were, was not reliable either - any tracking required to keep the button pressed at all times.

The only working device was a satellite phone. Mila remembers with a smile, how happy they were to text the families using a phone, which had nothing extra, just buttons.

The landscape in reality was far from what they had seen on the map. "For example, we expected a valley with transparent bushes, and in reality there was a forest. It was too thick to go through it - the kite wouldn’t fit. We had to improvise, to change the route," Mila said.

On the first day, they covered 65 kilometers. They put up a tent for the night in some weird place.

The first night brought strongest impressions - it was the coldest night, the temperature dropped to minus 16. The girls were too afraid of wild animals to fall asleep easily.

On the route, they met partridges, hares, arctic foxes, deer, and even a polar wolf.

"When kiting on an overcast day, you begin feeling as if you are inside milk - white sky and white snow seem inseparable. Only rarely they could see something different: a tree or some geological equipment with which geologists mark every kilometer of their route. Thus, seeing a hare or a partridge with a dark tail was such a delight for the eyes," Mila said with a smile.

Polar Urals

The severe region welcomed the girls with all shades of grey and absolutely overcast. Those two days were most tough. By then, they have covered 230 kilometers, and yet were far from the Baidaratskaya Bay. After lunch they felt exhausted, and at 4 pm local time they lied for the night.

Both girls love coffee, and clearly even on expeditions its aroma stirred every morning, except for the first two mornings, which were most difficult. They used a USB grinder. The girls had power banks, for the total of 40,000 mAh. Every day, they replaced batteries in the GPS trackers.

The food stock was shrinking quickly. On such routes, Mila said, high-calorie breakfasts must leave travelers full, since on the road they may have only snacks. The explorers had tea, dried fruit, venison, cereals, nuts, pressed bread, salines, bitter chocolate, cereal bars and lots of dried food. As for dried food, Mila told us, showing dried soup, travelers may take what not - the only condition is: it must be dried.

"You know what’s interesting about Evgeniya - she normally begins eating only on the third day, and the first two days she lives only on tea and chocolate. This is not for me. I’ve followed advice of a friend, an alpinist, and literally every 30 minutes resorbed a candy, which I had plenty," Mila said.

The girls did not carry any water: the snow in the tundra is clean, so they melted it.

On the third day, they had to resist the headwind. On such days or if in case of no wind at all, they had to pack kites, unfasten the skis’ back part and walk, pulling the sleds. The girls were lucky: under the top layer the snow was rather hard, and they could walk on it without falling through.

The wind changed, so did the landscape. They could see the Polar Urals Mountains in the distance. On the route, they had to cross many rivers.

"It’s a very interesting view - ice on the river. It is transparent. For example, on Baikal it is dark, here it was light. Both breathtaking and frightening," Mila smiled.

As they continued walking, the snow did not remain that thick already. Peaking rocks cut the skis. When crossing another river, they saw a polar wolf nearby. The animal ran ahead of them, and remained on the other side waiting for the girls.

"We got frightened. A minute later we saw a dead deer, and realized the animal must have guarded his food. But anyway we were so shocked that chose to kite another ten kilometers before we decided to make a tent for the night," Mila said.

First problems

The weather was favorable, and next morning they got to the planned point - Lake Manisei. For the locals, it is a sacred lake. This point for the travelers prompted they had finished the Polar Urals part. All the grey faded away together with the mountains. Since that day on, to the very finish, the travelers enjoyed sunny days.

The cheered kiters moved on. Soon, however, Mila felt somebody had jumped on her sled. The problem was: all the connections on the bottom had torn apart. The same problem was with Evgeniya’s sled.

The numerous connections could not stand the speed, which sometimes was about 50 kmph, on the uneven snow. Without connecting the parts, they could not move on. They used a reinforced tape from the stock to mend Evgeniya’s sled and put all the stuff on it. Evgeniya was pulling, and Mila, in the rear, was pushing.

Moving this way, they made another five kilometers to the ice road, hoping to meet workers there, who served gas pipes. In vain, however.

"I used the satellite phone to call Sergey, who had promised help. Clearly, in that situation our hope was silly. We also had a flare gun, and we fired, but with no luck either," Mila said.

It was for the first time that panic grasped them: they panicked from uncertainty and from being bewildered. Very soon, they could see a truck in a distance. The shocked driver feared he saw a mirage. "Girls, what are you doing here? - this was the most popular question during our journey," Mila laughed.

Taking lift from any passing transport, they got to Vorkuta. "Everyone was surprised to see that in such situations we remained positive, laughed and joked. Some told us we were irresponsible, but later on got kinder and offered assistance," Mila said.

Warmth in the North

The girls got to Vorkuta by the evening. They stayed at the Sever (North) hotel, where they met a young man, who had plotted to walk across the tundra. He had to stay in Vorkuta to repair a broken heater. Evgeniya and Mila advised him to have more than one ‘device’ of the kind, and said they were shocked how brave he was as none of them would have agreed for a solo voyage - even though from time to time they did meet truly kind people.

One of them was Evgeny Pavlovich of the Severtrans Company, who fixed their sleds.

"We know that argon welding is not cheap at all, but he made everything for us for free. By 2 pm local time everything was ready, but as we were near a high-voltage line, it was dangerous to kite on. We continued the journey only next day. He invited us to stay overnight at his place," Mila said with gratitude.

In the morning, the man’s friends gave a lift to the girls and took them outside the city.

For some time, everything went fine, until a ski on Mila’s sled crashed. That time, the girls got assistance almost immediately: they saw a snowbike, and a few minutes later Dmitry and Zhora examined the broken ski, and it took them 20 minutes to fix it.

On that day, they had to cross one river after another. It was impossible to see how thick the ice was. Their speed dropped, but anyway the day was positive, and the girls were happy.

Final spurt

April the 11th was a benchmark. A storm was forecasted by 5 pm, and the girls were looking for the best place to rest. At midday, they found a perfect place, but had to refuse from it.

Quite unexpectedly, the temperature was going up, the snow on the rivers retreated, and the ice was melting. Snow stuck onto the skis, and along southern slopes they sled on top of moss, sometimes had to walk across knee-high rivers. Crossing a river could take a few attempts and a few hours - they saw new cracks on the skis.

When crossing another river, they saw footprints of a wolverine. In the afternoon, the wind grew into a storm, and the girls had to move at a "crazy" speed. With the failed sleds and with almost no snow around, Mila and Evgeniya thought it better to return to a winter ice road, they had crossed earlier.

They were lucky - almost at once Rosneft’s car gave them a lift to their final destination - the Khasyrey settlement.

Grand finale

On April 12, they passed the route. They stayed overnight at a local hotel, and next morning together with the 140-kilogram cargo the girls were brought to Usinsk. They remember the kindness and openness of people, who they met on the route.

"We were top lucky, and we received great assistance. Even on the last day, everyone in the Khasyrey settlement seemed to worry whether we had enough food. Food there is limited, but we were treated as guests," Mila said with a smile.

"Coming back gives new hopes and power to continue," Evgeniya said. "My plan now is not to repeat, but to extend this route, and we will do it. When we returned, I spent two or three weeks studying the map to see, how we could have moved, what could have happened otherwise. This time, we had strict time limits for preparations. In addition to this, my dream is to make a similar voyage in the Antarctic, and then - in Greenland".