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We slog up towards the pass, our boots ankle-deep in summer meltwater irrigating the tundra. The way ahead becomes stonier as a stream bores its way through a narrow chasm in the bedrock. Concealed by thick soggy cloud, the surrounding hillsides remain elusive. I begin to think grudgingly that perhaps we will never see them: allied with a piercingly cold wind blowing off the ocean to the north, it’s rained almost incessantly ever since we started our trek several days ago. Energy-sapped and gear-soaked, we find a spot to anchor our tent at the top of the pass in the lee of a jumble of boulders. Nearby, the empty eye-sockets of a reindeer skull seem to stare back at me, probably the victim of a wolverine. I emit a wry smile to think we have made it here.

Stand on top of the Malvern Hills dividing Worcestershire and Herefordshire and look due east. You can’t see them but the next highest ground, some two-and-a-half thousand miles away, is the Urals. I had long been curious what lay there. While school geography lessons had imprinted its name in my memory as the physical divide between Europe and Asia, it remained in name only, its valleys, rivers, and mountains shrouded by a fog of ignorance.

Nearby, the empty eye-sockets of a reindeer skull seem to stare back at me, probably the victim of a wolverine.

 

Dusting off my atlas one day, I traced my finger along the spine-like length of the Ural mountain range. Rising out of the Kazakh steppe in the south, I followed it across the page northwards through Russia, before coming to pause on the shores of the Arctic Ocean far above the treeline. I tried to imagine what it looked like. The atlas didn’t reveal much: only a spot height that informed me the highest peak scarcely topped six thousand feet. While one of the “great” ranges of the world, they were clearly no Andes or Himalayas.

But that didn’t bother me – I’ve always been drawn to the places that guidebooks don’t see fit to mention. In fact, I could hardly find any English-language account of anyone having properly set foot in the far northern Urals. Divided into several subranges, I soon set my sights on completing a traverse of the extreme tip of the range, the Polar Urals, which constitutes a vast Arctic wilderness of mountain tundra of nearly 10,000 square miles – an area larger than Wales.

Read the rest in the Spring 2016 edition of TGO

Photo copyright by Björn Nordkvist

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