Back in the summer, I travelled to Russia with my friend Björn Nordkvist. Our plan was to complete a traverse of the Polar Ural range – the northernmost extension of the Ural mountains which divide Europe from Asia. After a 48-hour journey by train north of Moscow, we arrived at the end of the line above the Arctic Circle in Vorkuta – infamous during Soviet times as a gulag town and today still dominated by the coal mining industry. At first sight, it is a grim place with many buildings seemingly crumbling from neglect into the tundra, and yet, we met with some wonderful hospitality. Welcome to the real Russia, our host Misha had told us.
Despite it being the beginning of July, snow had fallen on the streets of the town just the day before we arrived. To the east, we could make out the Polar Urals blanketed in snow from top to valley bottom. A cold wind ripped across the tundra from the Arctic Ocean, it being well above the tree-line up here. Trying to get to the mountains by accessing a Gazprom road proved to be a false start. We were driven back to town in the back of a police car. Changing our route, and after another 9-hour train journey and several days of trekking, we finally made it into the heart of the range.
Sculpted by millions of years of erosion, the Polar Urals are geologically an ancient range. Many of the mountains are low and rounded. The highest peak in this part of the range is only 1375 metres high. Nonetheless, we still encountered some impressive peaks with a real wilderness feel. Travellers here are few and far between. It was still early in the season and much of the snow had only just melted, making it hard going at times across water-logged terrain – and not helped by the 35kg load of our rucksacks. We also carried pack rafts with us for paddling lakes and rivers. A highlight was encountering nomadic Nenet and Khanty reindeer herders who live all year-round in chums, migrating to the mountains in the summer.
You can see a slideshow of some photos below. Thanks to Björn for some of them.