We sent our most disposable employee, Katy 'Sang-Froid' Willings, to Siberia, with some maps and gadgets, to try and find an Ice Run route up the mighty Lake Baikal. Then to figure out just how our nine Pioneering Teams might follow in her skid marks in a few short weeks.
How hard can it be though? Get on the ice at the bottom, go north until you're at the top. Maybe pull a few doughnuts and get a nice new Facebook profile pic of you and your Ural perfectly reflected in the mirrored surface of this most wonderous of natural wonders. No?
No. She reports thus:
The Recce Team
It would be hard to assemble a more cracking crack team for this mission (excluding myself, of course). Meet Dmitri and his mothership, our home for the six days on the road and ice. Dmitri quietly boasts encyclopaedic knowledge of the lake, survival techniques, and motorbikes. He has a keen appreciation for these surroundings and is comfortable in difficult conditions thanks to forward planning and some engineering ingenuity; here is a man we can learn from.
And we will need to learn fast, to survive this Ice Run, which even he conceded is a rather ambitious challenge on a vintage Ural, (he just kept laughing....and laughing....) carrying all your own supplies and camping on the ice. Happily this is exactly what is going to happen since Dmitri will be training our teams for a weekend pre-launch.
This has been an exceptionally mild winter in Siberia, with temperatures in the -5 to -12 range. This is a full 15 degrees milder than would be considered normal, which has meant there are still huge swathes of open water, particularly in the south. This hasn't happened since 1959 apparently.
Near the shores, where the ice is generally thicker, ice like gravestones and grandfather clocks rear up from the surface requiring punishing efforts with a spear to break them up and create a pass. And occasionally, digging out as you beach the chassis on deep snow and sharp slabs of ice.
The ice sighs and creaks, and - all too frequently for those with a nervous disposition - makes great booming gunshot sounds, as new cracks form. The lake is a living thing, unstable, and absolutely treacherous for the uninitiated, ignorant or complacent. Which, let's face it, are the very hallmarks of your average Adventurist team. Happily we've commissioned some above average Pioneers for this edition.
We made camp one evening on what looked like a good patch of ice, and toasted the sky and the ice with some local Buryat fishermen, who cleared us out of vodka in no time. The next morning a huge fissure had opened up running parallel to the shore to our East, effectively trapping us against the shore in the roughest of rough ice. Progress forward was punishingly slow. The crack to our right was brand new, I put a foot right into the water and felt a huge lurch of terror as I realised it was a mile deep. One of the Ladas returned, speeding along on the other side of the crack. The chaps were still drunk, and trying to convince us to try and jump the crack and get onto the smoother ice further off-shore.
"Where's your other car?", asked Dmitri. "Stuck in the crack", came the reply. Hmm. We politely declined their advice and continued fighting through the crevasses and ride-ups.
Several cars have been lost under the ice, and several more have had to be rescued off "rafts" of ice, as chunks the size of your sitting room have broken off the main ice sheet and effectively floated away. Because of this we'll be starting the teams on forest tracks running parallel to the lake, and hitting the ice roughly half way up, where the ice is generally better.
The teams are heading up the western shore to Severobaikalsk, where they will be able to re-supply, de-frost, make any more serious repairs and eat their own body weight in mayonnaise. To do this, they're going to have to respect the prevailing conditions, and more than anything else, work together.
Our team has left a fuel drop, cannily disguised under great slabs of ice, since the range of the Urals will not get them right the way up the lake. If the pioneers cannot navigate successfully to this drop due to incompetence or changes to the ice conditions, it's going to be a long walk.
Assuming they do make it to the northern shore, a whole ambrosial land of hot springs, Nerpa seals (the only freshwater seal in the world), and best of all, prepared and marked zimniks, awaits them. The fastest way home is in fact a glorious skate down the eastern shoreline, where they may encounter heavy traffic. Perhaps 2, even 3 other cars per day. No motorcycles of course, no Russian would be daft enough to be out on a bike in the middle of winter...
So - they might starve, they might freeze, they might run out of fuel, they will definitely slip over a hundred times trying to push the damn bikes over difficult ice, they'll literally shit their pants going over "juvenile" cracks after a tentative poke with their ice spear, their hands will seize up as they try and wrestle snow chains onto their wheels for some additional grunt and traction out there, and at the end of every day, exhausted, hungry, scared, they'll hunker down in a tent and contemplate doing it all over again some sun-up. Is it really going to be worth it? I'll let the pictures below answer that one.