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Overland Challenge - Week Ten

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Overview | Week One | Week Two | Week Three | Week Four | Week Five | Week Six | Week Seven | Week Eight | Week Nine | Week Ten | Week Eleven | Week Twelve | Week Thirteen | Week Fourteen | Week Fifteen

28 February 1994

Man sat in lorry, windscreen frozen over

Pipin to Lavrentia (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

The call was for 6 for the breakfast maker. I rose with them and paced back and forth again. Vladimir Ilyich Monastyrny, I was told, would be with us first thing in the morning. The day before, I'd witnessed his first thing as 6. By 9, he wasn't with us so I ordered the convoy to move off five kilometres to Pipin proper.

'Take the initiative!' I exclaimed to Victor, Victor and Valery. 'Don't wait for people to come to you, go to them.

It gave me a chance of getting a feel for Pipin.

And, thank goodness, it was precisely as my instincts had predicted. Vladimir Ilyich Monastyrny, who had a clean bedroom and an old, vast but very serviceable radio, first said no to coming further.

It took an hour and a set of Maverick spare tyres to tempt him into changing his mind.

By 11 we set out over country where no man had driven before, towards Lake Ione.

It was very slow progress through the daytime hours. The wind came then went. As did the sun.

For a short time, Victor and Valery argued briefly in Russian on the radio that we should go back.

But Karputkin put on his best 'This is the time to keep going. Richard and I expect every man to do his duty" speech made out of his truck driven by Nikolai at right angles to the column.

Many people thought it was a joke but I had no doubt he was right.

By lunch, our pace was agonisingly slow. So Victor, Rupert and Vladimir set off in the two-tracked vehicles to see if they could find a route to the lake. One GPS and the maps went with them and we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere.

On the brighter side, it wasn't snowing. The boil-in-the-bag food was made to eat cold in emergencies - it wasn't bad. And we'd enough fuel to turn back if Rupert and Victor couldn't get through.

For hours, there was black humour on the radio. Russian and English:

'Where's Victor ?' 'Halfway across the Bering Straits'.

'On British television it will look as if the Mavericks are pushing the Urals'.

'Our estimated time of arrival in Lake Ione is exactly three years'.

Four hours after nightfall, after being on the go for over ten hours, we'd made less than 20 kilometres' progress. Outside, the wind made the minus 30 temperature feel more like minus 45.

The jokes ended and were replaced by a serious impatience.

'Richard C, can you hear me ? Do you realise we haven't gone anywhere for half an hour?'

By 11, there was a call from Volodya to stop and pitch camp. Nikolai wanted to press on. I backed him. We had a guide - we'd follow his advice.

The advice was to go back seven kilometres - two hours' struggle thrown away. He reckoned that the track vehicles had come this way but had turned back because they'd found the going impossible.

We U-turned. And then the tanker truck six-wheel drive mechanism broke. For all the wrong reasons, Volodya had his way; we pitched camp. It was too dark, cold and windy to do any repairs now but it had to be repaired. Volodya said they'd sleep and start first thing in the morning. It'd take 7 hours.

I could feel my gamble going wrong. I slept in the truck cabin so I could be awoken straightaway throughout the night.

1 March 1994

Pipin to Lavrentia (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

Not a lot of sleep and well awake by 6.

By 8, Volodya radioed in to say that the repairs had been started at dawn. There was no sight or sound of Rupert and Victor. Valery and Nikolai asked if he could take Truck 2 and go and recce the route.

Saying 'yes' to that meant the convoy was to be split into four, something I knew the books said you should never do.

But books aren't leaders, I said 'yes'.

The good and bad thing was that the sun was out in a bright blue sky. We should have been on the move but it helped the waiting and the repairs.

In fact, the repairs were finished by 10 but it took another two hours for the tailend of the convoy to get to us at the crossroads and for us to set off. The convoy was now split into just three which was a bit better at least and both Nicolai's and Victor and Rupert's tracks were easy to see. Nicolai took a different route over harder ground and less snow but the Urals made hard work of it, especially the two towing the Mavericks. Foot by hard-won-foot in magnificent (mountainous) surroundings, we forged on throughout the day.

The English-speakers were feeling useless. No Mavericks to drive, in fact the only two a burden on the Urals and nothing to do. The spirit of the team could shift from high excitement to accident-prone boredom in less than a day.

Route Found

Just before dark though, my spirits rose like the sun at daybreak. First, we heard Rupert on the radio then saw the truck's tracks and eventually we met. It was one of the moments of undiluted joy and massive Russian bear hugs as I greeted Rupert, Vladimir and Victor.

They'd broken through to the lake by road which many people had said couldn't be done. It had taken over 28 hours as they'd fought their way through snow blizzards and up and down false tracks before finding the right valley.

They also left crosses in the tracks to show where not to go. Nicolai must have missed one the night before.

Now all we had to do was make it there which shouldn't have been too difficult under the cloudless sky. But the going was slow and at 10 some of the Ural drivers packed up shop and retreated to their sleeping trucks.

A Mini Mutiny

A mini mutiny had taken place between the time the tailend of the convoy which included me and the front had reached a good overnight stop.

Vera had a word with Volodya but there was nothing to be done. He couldn't get them started again until 6.30 the next morning. Part of it was the breakdown the night before which many of the drivers saw as a direct result of our working them and their machines too hard.

They were going to bed and that was that. I was mad. To make things worse I was thirsty and discovered we'd reached the end of our water supply.

The solution was easy. I was far too angry to join the rebelling Russians (not all of them) in sleep so I could take that out by making water. After all, at the end of the day, that was an Association responsibility and I was the Association.

Jeff who also found doing nothing difficult was quick to help, as were Jeni and Vera. We got a system going, filled the flasks and then Jeff and I kept going until 3, producing a milk churn full of water. And it was good; we talked a lot and for the first time I found out all about the wonders of the GPS system.

By 3, we were nearly done. I collected a dozen lots of snow which reduced by about 25% more than normal because the snow up here had so much more air taken out of it by the cold.

Permission to Leave

And by 3 in the morning, I was feeling pretty good. By five past 3 I was feeling really good. Nicolai and Valery had returned.

In halting English Valery explained 'We want to take both Mavericks and go to lake. Snow and wind coming but now it's fine. Nicolai fantastic driver can tow both. He's fantastic'.

I asked whether they had enough fuel, checked that I understood they were prepared to tow both cars. Yes, but Mavericks could drive some of the way - it was hard snow. But it wouldn't be if there was fresh snow coming.

And yes, they had diesel. They didn't need any help from the sleeping Russians.

It appeared like luck in the making. An opportunity for the Mavericks to drive on as I'd wanted had fallen into my lap and I grabbed it. Dieter, Deon drove one. Paul, Mark the other. Kees and Richard decided to go in the back of Truck 2 so they'd be together with the equipment.

I slept like a log again until 6.30 when the alarm bells rang loud.

2 March 1994

Pipin to Lavrentia (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

Snow blizzard - a real one. It came out of the blue. The Ural drivers were desperate to get away. From the very start Rupert had to walk ahead of the convoy to point out Nicolai's tracks. Doc followed him. They could stand it only for about half an hour before Peter and Jeff took over. White noses and faces in the bitterly cold wind were commented on and warmed up.

The convoy moved at a walking pace and slower because the Urals got stuck in the snow just as they had the day before and the day before that. The one advantage of this slow pace was that people could walk from one truck to another as the convoy moved.

The English-speaking crew were able to do something for the first time to help the convoy. Walk ahead of it at a snail's pace. But even that was stopped when two Ural drivers decided they were doing that wrong.

Volodya, our Truck 5 driver was feeling terrible. Earache, headache, chestache. To his great disappointment, he was replaced by Valery halfway through the day.

One by one, we ground to a halt, just before reaching the valley through which we had to pass to reach Lake Ione. The track was over gravel and there was no longer any snow to show the way.

Then freak weather conditions got us through to Nicolai on the radio. He had also stopped, 17 kilometres further on, halfway between us and the lake.

The halted convoy was split in two. Both self-contained and at least we were in touch, able to get warm if frustrated. And both with food enough for a week.

Not So Snug

In the Arctic bus which had now become the English- speaking 'snug', things were not so snug - the heating didn't work, there was no food and most of the personal things like books, games - all the things that keep you going in a whiteout were with the Mavericks in Truck 2.

Jeff was convinced that although the storm was bad, it wasn't so bad as to be unsafe to move on.

On hearing that the Russians were preparing to wait out the storm, which could easily take three days, Jeff, Rupert, Peter and Doc set out to see if they could follow the tracks for a little way, with tent pegs and rope to make sure they wouldn't get lost.

And they could; the tracks led down to the valley which we had to go through and were easy to follow.

Storm Walk

Half an hour later, I went down with Jeff to see it for myself so that I could report back to Volodya. It was a memorable walk. A whistling wind was coming straight in from the north Arctic with no trees and no hills - because we were on the top of one - to break it. We had to walk backwards into the wind on the way back. Snow whipping up all over the place from the blizzard making it impossible to see more than a few metres.

Jeff was a terrific companion giving me an experienced helping hand as I struggled back up the hill to the trucks. My next job was to convince the Ural drivers the best thing to do was to go out in this.

I called a meeting of Volodya, Jeff and me to discuss where to go next.

The meeting was in Truck 4, the Russian-sleeping truck. We arrived about 4 to see that they were just hitting party mood. Food galore everywhere, tea out, no vodka yet but in high spirits.

And outside it was a frozen hell.

Thickest coats, outer trousers, balaclavas, two hats, gloves were all zipped, tied, jammed into place covering every single inch of skin just to walk from one truck to the other. This was frostbite territory in a big and horrifying way.

Rupert proved it with his wrists caught in the open for less than a minute and ringed with a burn mark.

Vera was literally swept off her feet, flying backwards by yards not feet into the side of Truck 5 before her feet again touched the ground. Paul Wilson's cheeks were fire white.

Storm Meeting

I started the meeting with the premise that the storm would last for at least three days. So we wouldn't be discussing waiting to see whether it went away in a couple of hours.

This was what they wanted to hear. They had been told to be prepared for a long wait and they were. The conditions were dangerous and it was impossible to go forward. If Truck 2 had been with us to give the English-speakers a comparable camaraderie instead of the freezing Arctic bus, if this had been two weeks ago instead of now when our goal was Lavrentia and if the Bering Straits were looming just ahead, I would have thought Truck 4 was great, as the Russians clearly did. As it was, I knew Truck 4 was in itself the single biggest block to getting the convoy going again.

I knew at the start that this meeting was simply going to set the tone. Many of the Russians were secretly pleased the convoy was stuck. They'd said all along this would happen and felt I hadn't taken properly into account a real storm. Now I'd have too. To drive home their preparedness they asked about the front convoy - which I cleared to go. It might have food, fuel, accommodation but did it have wood in case the heater stopped ? But they didn't labour the point. Winning it would mean they'd have to move to help.

We argued that where we were was the windiest part of the trail so far. All the better, they countered. If we got stuck in the valley...

The only point that I won in the whole discussion was that moving at night was better than moving by day because you could see more with the headlights and they were resting now. That got a laugh. And in their shoes. It would have for me too. My only hope of moving on was to talk with Nicolai.

Storm Radio

The only radio that could (just) reach Nicolai was in the tanker truck. And at most, only four could fit in the cabin. One of those had to be Victor Nickoliavitch who was convinced by now we should have taken the northern route. His worst fears were being played out in front of his eyes. I therefore decided that Rupert, Vera and Jeff should go in my stead. I went to the Arctic bus to wait for news; Jeff came back minutes later to say he'd been squeezed out.

The report back was hopeless. Nicolai was stuck in a 5 metre blizzard.

His advice was to stop where we were. Not to move. That gave me no more than a joker to play with in my next meeting with the Russians and everyone knew it. That kind of news really spreads like wildfire. To give myself any room at all I had to speak to Nicolai myself with just one Russian there because there was a chance, I thought, he had been goaded into saying we should stay put by the presence of Victor Nickoliavitch and others in the cab. Vera agreed.

And when I got through, the picture had changed. Nicolai was preparing to move to the lake with both Mavericks in tow. He would drop them off there and then return to us.

I yelled 'No, don't go to the Lake. Leave the Mavericks where they are and bring everyone back here." but the radio failed.

I wanted Nicolai back. At best he would prove the road was passable. At worst we'd be back together to wait out the storm.

But at least I had a couple of fives now. Nicolai could move so couldn't we? The next meeting was scheduled to be at 6 and started at 7.30.

I had no idea how to win the 'move on' argument but Jeff and Rupert being angry we'd stopped, and Nicolai moving were my only cards.

Storm Meeting 2

Volodya took the initiative and began;

'We have already decided what we think. The conditions are very bad; it would be irresponsible to move.' He was disappointed with Nicolai, he thought he was cleverer than that. The right decision would have been to come back to the convoy if he could move. We should stay here overnight and reassess the position in the morning. If the commandant tells us we should go on, we will but we think that would be a bad decision'.

I said I was also surprised that Nicolai had decided to go to the lake. I agreed that this was bad weather and that it was only sensible to have stopped. But ours was an recording breaking attempt at being the first to cross Russia. And doing that meant we had to take decisions that were not in the book.

That was why we had split the convoy up on a number of occasions. And I hadn't regretted it although I agreed it would have been better if Nicolai had taken emergency wood as an emergency precaution. I was very pleased with how UralAZ had done.

I asked Jeff to outline what he had achieved on his expeditions, how he had managed it and how the determination to go every kilometre whenever you could was what had brought him through when different decisions had killed others.

Their challenge was to make it to Lavrentia, the furthest any vehicle had ever driven in Russia.

But if the weather really did beat us then I might be forced into asking for tracked vehicles to meet us and that would be a major disappointment for Uralaz. We should, therefore, always try to move if it was possible and safe.

I agreed that we must now wait until Nicolai got back but that when he did, if he decided we should move on, then we should. We should also be prepared to move on if the wind abated.

Everyone was in agreement. Volodya praised Jeff but said that it was different on this expedition - it wasn't all tough explorers, we had a responsibility to be cautious.

Storm Luck

And with that, Nicolai walked into the truck wearing just a sweater as if he hadn't the time to put on anything else!!!

He had the air of a chief scout in the Wild West and he had urgent, urgent news. He had come straight to us. Everyone was now here.

But the weather was worsening not improving. We had to move now or the tracks that he had made would be filled. There was no alternative; we had to leave immediately. I'd never seen a mood change so fast. The Ural drivers were ready to hit the road there and then. If anyone ever says I'm lucky, they need look no further than Nicolai's extraordinary entrance into Truck 4.

I will never forget it.

The convoy took time to get going. Concrete-hard snow was everywhere; all the windows were layered in ice and swirling dust-snow covered everything in sight; the seats, floor, dashboard, everything was white.

There was no doubt that in nearly any other circumstances, the only sensible solution would have been for the convoy to have stayed put. But expeditions demanded different actions. And being first entailed taking risks. This more than any other time was the time I most regretted having so many people. But if I could get them through, the triumph would be that much the more glorious.

For the first time, I had real doubts though. If one person died...

We left the hill after 9. I didn't know how the convoy looked, you couldn't see it. The radios were in constant serious use. No banter as there had been for every other kick off and the pace was agonisingly slow. Visibility was down to five metres and the tracks were already disappearing in the gale force wind. And Nicolai, still towing a Maverick, was continuously stopping the convoy to make arcs and circles to find more concealed tracks.

Four hours later, we'd got less than two kilometres and the strain on the trucks was apparent.

Volodya's Green Dragon was the first to go down.

3 March 1994

Pipin to Lavrentia (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

At about midnight, in the middle of a whiteout, just as we arrived at the place where Nicolai had dropped the Mavericks, his Ural truck refused to start and needed two hours of repairs on the fuel system. Just stopping split the convoy. We were less then two or three hundred metres apart but in this visibility, it may as well have been two or three kilometres.

Visibility was fluctuating between 5 and 20 metres in the swirling snow. Understanding how people died just five kilometres from safety was now all too easy. By the time we were ready to go, Valery, now driving Vera and me in Truck 5, we could see nothing but snow.

Valery drove twenty metres, but by then we had no idea if he had gone forward in the right direction or was heading just off course in a direction which would separate us irretrievably from the head of the convoy. Unbelievably, Nicolai turned back from the front of the convoy to collect us.

He should have had the Maverick in tow but, as had happened twice just outside Pipin, the bar had broken. As he turned 180 degrees to join the head and tail of the convoy, the drivers closest to him could see that the Maverick was lost.

The radio crackled. 'Lost a Maverick'

Missing Maverick

It could have been anywhere. I had warned David Hunt that we might lose a Maverick but I'd never foreseen losing it in circumstances like these. Finding it in this weather would take time and lives were at risk. 'Dump it', I decided and was about to ask Vera to tell Nicolai to forget the Maverick when I saw the dimmest of shapes twenty metres to our right in the instant of a swirling black hole.

L8 Maverick. Living up to its name.

As I clambered into my coat, balaclava, fur hat, scarf, gloves and prepared to leave the warmth of Truck 5 for the freezing outside, I saw Valery with his heavy-duty torch struggling towards L8.

The car looked like what it was, a broken freezer dumped in the arctic where the wind-chill factor was now down to minus 60. I wrenched open the driver's door. The inside was flooded with snow. It had got in past the door seals. Under the snow-filled bonnet it was even harder to believe; you couldn't see the engine. I slammed the door.

'We have to tow it,' I told Valery. 'Its impossible' he said pointing at the windscreen which was layered in cement-hard ice. 'Have to'.

I fought my way through the wind which was cutting through my clothes, especially my trousers as I hadn't had time to get into my outer ones. It was viciously cold.

Wrenching open the rear door to Truck 2 and struggling up to the three-foot- high floor had me panting. Inside was warmth and sanity, except for the nagging noise of the raging gale that was howling outside.

'Mark! Paul !' I shouted. 'Where's the green strap?'

'On the floor front passenger side. What's happened ?'

'Tow bar broken.'

'I'll come.'

'No - I'll be fine.'

Valery climbed into the truck clutching two thick Russian outclothes - jacket and trousers. They'd been in the Maverick and looked as though they were made of just snow and ice and cold. 'I'll get mine.' I said, ungratefully. And fell back into the grasp of the weather as I inched my way to Truck 5, the back cabin and my bag

The shackles which had held the now-broken tow bar in place had iced up solid. It took Valery and me five minutes to curse them, coax them and finally free them. The green strap went on easily and as I climbed into L8, Valery went to get Nicolai and I saw its light loom out towards me just 20 metres away.

Storm Tow

Inside L8 though you could see nothing, not even the glare of the Ural truck lights through the iced windscreen. I set about carving a matchbox size square out of the ice on the windshield - just enough to see Nicolai's number plate: 46 26 4b0 before I was jerked to a move.

Half an hour later, Rupert climbed in beside me. We stayed there, pulled and dragged by Nicolai who led the convoy towards the lake.

Four hours later, Nicolai had towed us to within two or three kilometres of Lake Ione. It was the most amazing feat. But we could go no further. Nicolai was exhausted, the weather, if anything, was worse, our track lost and the reflection of daylight shortened visibility for the drivers.

We stopped. Day fell into night and I fell asleep for a couple of hours where I was sitting and then grabbed another in Truck 5 before getting up at 1 to work out what to do. Volodia, Nicolai and I agreed that we should move on again come nightfall when the tracks would be easier to follow.

Rupert Gets Frostbite

First, though, they had to be found and this was achieved in the howling whiteout by Rupert, Peter, Doc and Jeff who struggled out with tent pegs for markers and the GPS and found it. But the price was frostbite over Ruperts wrists and frostnips for everyone.

Some of the Russians would still have liked to bed in but the majority were for getting the hell out of there to a place where we at least stood a chance of being found. The lake was only two kilometres away and I gambled that once we were there we'd at last have our winter road and be able to crawl further on during the night.

Our planned 6pm move didn't happen - Volodya's Green Goddess, wouldn't start again. I agreed to a proper repair rather than a temporary one. We left at 9 o'clock.

By now, the storm was worsening still more. Nicolai set off without using the help on offer to him from the English- speaking team. And had to return. Peter, Doc and Jeff went out again to show the way, this time with Vera because of Rupert's wrists.

But we reached the lake well before 10, I suggested we should carry on. The spirit of the whole team was snowballing; there were now no dissenters at all.

At the lake were six chuchuk astonished that we'd come in this weather. They don't move in it; no one does. We nearly didn't.

Just as the mood had metamorphosed to one of pushing ahead at all costs, the first of a series of two-hour repairs to the Urals started. We were all seated, ready for the off, when it became clear the Arctic bus couldn't move. The hydraulics had gone and the gears wouldn't engage. The convoy didn't get going again until 1.30.

4 March 1994

Pipin to Lavrentia (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

That night, a further four agonizing hours were lost to repairs, mostly to the hydraulics systems. Volodya showed me why. The airpipes were solid with snow. Urals were made to go in blizzards, he told me but not this. I could feel us having to wait out the storm. So near. The cry of the north. I thought up an age old truism.

'If you don't move when you could, you won't when you should'.

Doubts inevitably returned about staying and going.

And then the mood really transformed. Volodya's chest pains were getting worse. Doc Paul had been called in which meant it was serious.

Vera, Jeff, our leading Arctic man and I went to see him with Doc. The diagnosis was angina which had re-emerged because of his extreme fatigue and an unspecified virus which was making his temperature go up and down, hot then cold.

And, in truth, Volodya had changed overnight. From a fit fifty year old, who I felt put me to shame, he'd become a weak, beaten man. He didn't have to be told not to drive, he simply couldn't.

We now had a sick man on board and nothing would stop his colleagues, the Russian drivers from pushing on. And I caught a glimpse of his anxious expression. Volodya Glebov was now worried about running out of fuel. Something that was impossible to admit because Ural would blame him for not having the foresight to get enough on board but he asked if I could let London know about Volodya's sickness, suggest track vehicles were sent to help clear the road and say it wouldn't hurt if they brought more diesel.

It was also clear we no longer had enough fuel to go back. We'd crossed a rubicon without me realising it.

I wrote an emergency fax:


Sick Ural driver. Driving throughout night in impossible conditions. Please send tracked vehicles. Diesel would be appreciated.

Failing Fax

But the fax wouldn't go off; all the recharging units had been frozen solid in the Mavericks. We'd have another go later when they thawed.

We tried to leave at 9 but another truck went down with hydraulics problems - the blizzard was winning. We finally made it away at 10.30 and inched our way forward with a series of breakdowns breaking up the day.

We tried the fax again at 7. It did go off. London would soon know exactly where we were and my heart was slightly cheered by the knowledge that, provided we could keep to the winter road, we could be located.

In the meantime we kept going with Tundraman, as Nikolai had been respectfully christened, in the lead. Nicolai kept everything on. Coat, balaclava, hat, goggles and like this he stuck his head out the window to catch the four-week old tracks.

Truck 4 fell into a four-foot snow hole and had to be winched out. Two more hours of delay in the wicked wind and cutting cold.

At times, the English-speakers, led by Rupert, Jeff, Peter and Doc, volunteered to walk up front. Nicolai felt this was too dangerous. He put on more clothes and we set off again. By now, those in Truck 2 were becoming exhausted by having to drive the Maverick under tow, one hour on, one off. And it went further than most because of Nicolai's constant circles. I asked to transfer the Maverick to another truck.

And only then realised that only the tanker truck was in proper working order. All the others were down with something - no brakes, 4-wheel drive instead of 6, hydraulics making gear changes almost impossible.

'Like dinosaurs crashing in linen to go to their grave' was how Doc Paul described it and, despite the courage of the Ural drivers, he was right. These trucks could do this journey - just - but tracked vehicles or skidoos would one day replace them.

5 March 1994

Pipin to Lavrentia (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

At midnight, we came to a stop again, this time by a river. I struggled out to find that the Green Goddess needed a new tyre. But the wind was dying down. I could see across the river now.

Was this just a lull? Or were we seeing the wind say goodbye to us? It didn't allow me a chance to look around. I then discovered that the tow bar on the tanker-towed Maverick was also going. The welding snapped. Both Mavericks would now need a strap and a driver in order to be towed.

At 2, we began again. I was determined to stay awake but just couldn't. As I tried to open my eyes at 5, I learnt that during the last three hours, Maunia had caught her thumb in the door, Truck 5 in which I'd been sleeping needed its hydraulics doing again and we'd moved less than five kilometres.

Storm End

But the wind was dropping.

The tracks hidden in so many parts by snowdrifts which had made the going so difficult were found more easily.

By midday, the sun was shining. The landscape was virtually snowless, because the storm had blown all the snow away. We moved up to 10 kilometres an hour and even stopped at a river crossing in bright sunlight for a breather

This was the last leg and my turn to in the tow-seat. I couldn't see it because the Maverick windscreen was covered with ice, but the sun was out and my speedometer showed that we were at last averaging 20 kilometres an hour. The breakdowns seemed to have stopped.

After an hour and a half of arm wrenching tow, we stopped.

I emerged from the Maverick to find a camouflaged helicopter landing right in front of the convoy. Our fax had got through. They'd come for Volodya and brought diesel.

But we happily sent it away as by now we'd beaten the blizzard - just. Also Volodya wanted to stay and the Urals would make it to Lorriam, a fishing and deer farm village just forty kilometres short of Lavrentia. We got there by 2, had a last two-hour delay taking on board tanker fuel and semi-repairing two more trucks before moving on to Lavrentia.

The end of a most extraordinary journey. My mood was high, one of scarcely restrained exhilaration.

We'd driven further than anyone else any other team in Russia ever. And had only 40 kilometres to go to make us unbeatable.

Arrival of the Second Camera Crew

And then I saw the second camera crew led by director Mike. Expecting a tired-but-happy-to-see-them team, they were met by me at my bluntest. I'm not sure how I would have reacted if I hadn't been so tired or gone so far. But I had and I suspected I'd changed. I was brutally clear.

'I don't want you here as I said in my fax to Mike. Nothing personal but you'll get very little co-operation from me'.

We agreed to talk in the morning and I left them to return in the back of their seatless tracked vehicle dazed with surprise that they weren't with the team.

And the team mood had changed from despair, doubt and fear to one of overwhelming happiness, confidence and 'we've done it'. The Russian CB radio played music as all the drivers realised what they'd achieved.

We'd driven through one of the worst bad storms and come through. My eyes were filling with tears as we drove into Lavrentia soon after 7 that night.

I got my kit out from Truck 5 for the last time. The saddest thing was seeing Volodya milling around it, having so nearly driven his truck every kilometre of the way, but he was, of course, delighted we'd made it. We had.

As the Ural truck drivers came into the restaurant for dinner, postponed from 9 to 10, they received spontaneous applause.

What a great end to one of the great journeys. I should have been on the top table with the chief administrator but now I'd made it, I stayed with the team.

Whether or not we make it across the Bering Straits, I knew that we’d succeeded in doing something no one thought possible.

And my toast, the first for weeks, was simple: 'Before, when asked what Russia was, I would describe the landscape. By the time we got to Yakutia, I was saying it was the people we met on route. But now it's you, Nicolai, and the Ural drivers who got us here will always be in my mind when I'm asked what Russians are like'.

And the toast ended with everyone moving from their seats to hug each other and smile tiredly.

Did I sleep that night.

6 March 1994

Lavrentia (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

I was wide awake at 7. Today was the day for the meeting about who would cross the Bering Straits in the Arktos.

I'd thought and thought about it but now we were here. Rumours that not everyone was going were sparking round the team like lightning, and everyone was waiting to see what the outcome would bring for them.

In my heart I knew the outcome, but there was one piece of the jigsaw that wasn't slotting into its place. What happened to those that were not going to be going in the Arktos ? How were they to feel involved ? Gleaning all the information I could second-hand because telephoning was so hard, I knew that the Arktos was scheduled to come in tomorrow, March 7 on a Hercules that would then take out the two Mavericks, as much baggage and, requested Gerry, as many people as possible. I was also told that a Russian MI-8 helicopter would be able to fly overhead all the way to Wales.

Problem solved. The minimum number in the Arktos, one European, one Russian, one North American, and the rest of the team in the helicopter. If the weather really was good then some or all could come down for a spin in the Arktos.

All I needed to know was whether or not the helicopter was big enough to take the team members that couldn't fly in the Hercules. Rupert, Jeff and I walked over to the airport, which was five minutes from the hotel, and where the Ural trucks and the Mavericks had been parked overnight.

The helicopter, the coastguard M-I8 that had come to meet the convoy what seemed like a year ago, was sitting on the tarmac. The co-pilot who was there locking the door after checking something, I hoped for the sake of something to do, was catatonic. He managed to let us in to have a look. There was lots of room for the team.

The day gave us a totally blue sky. As Jeff said, we should be on the Arktos now. Happy I'd got a solution, I knew that all I had to do was wait for Stepan to come in from Provideniya with Igor and Olga just to check that he was sure the MI-8 could fly to Wales. And just as every jigsaw piece was slotting into place, the drone of a helicopter turned our heads south and Stepan's helicopter arrived in the Lavrentia circuit.

Plan in Tatters

It was immediately grounded. No, the MI-8 definitely couldn't go beyond the Russian airspace. He'd told Gerry that. It wasn't to do with Americans saying 'yes', it was to do with Russians saying 'no'. The pilots had no exit visa. And of course that made sense - how else does the state make sure people don't abscond across the border but for very strict exit visa rules for the military personnel ?

But it meant my plan was in tatters and I walked back with Jeff to decide what to do next. The only thing I was sure of was that I didn't want too many people in the Arktos but I desperately wanted to be fair.

I decided the meeting should take place after lunch. In my room, minor lobbying from team members desperate to cross the Bering Strait had been going on throughout the day. Stepan waded in with a major lobby.

No one else would tell me but I was wrong. I should fill every available seat in the Arktos with people - provided they knew the risks and wanted to go. If there weren't enough seats, everyone should draw lots. Stepan felt very, very strongly about it.

Stepan's Story

He told me a famous story of the north - ten people and seven seats on the evacuation plane. He told me he had talked to so many people and this is what they thought would be fair and that I wouldn't be able to live with myself if only Jeff and I went (no one knew my real plan) which would make the world think that we were keeping the glory all for ourselves. He added that I had already lost my ability to think clearly three times during the journey because I was so tired.

Vera came in to say everyone was downstairs waiting. And ten minutes later, with my mind in fresh turmoil, I found myself in the cold, lifeless and barren atmosphere of the hotel's restaurant sitting at the end of a table as if chairing a board meeting for potentially the most difficult meeting of the expedition. I'd hoped it would be informal, in my room, but Kees needed better lighting than the two 40 watt bulbs that were there.

The meeting was long and tiring, the gist of my message was that there wasn't enough room on the Arktos for everyone but until I'd seen it for myself, I didn't know how much space there actually was.

However much space there was, a decision had to be made about who would and wouldn't go. I explained that I had explored every possible option - from everyone going to Big Diomedes and walking across, to those not going, going in the helicopter and being involved in the journey from there. But the only sensible option now available to us was the worst. Those who didn't go in the Arktos would fly to Nome in the Hercules, which, as planned, would arrive tomorrow with the Arktos and leave with the Ford Mavericks.

My Preference

My own preference was for a minimum crew because of safety. However, there was an argument to say all available seats should be filled and the best way to decide how to do that was to explain the dangers and then draw lots for those who wanted to come. If we did that, I would be determined to extend the lots to Paul and Mark who were by now indistinguishable from the official drivers' team.

We then discussed the dangers. Jeff left no doubt in anyone's mind that there were many. Peter voiced his opinion that a serious decision had to be taken by everyone about whether or not they should go. He, for example, had four young children.

But the meeting inexorably came round to working out how to decide if there should be more than the minimum crew and if so, who? Doc Paul was the first to say if there were to be any lots, that would trivialise it and he, for one, wouldn't take part. Paul Wilson said there was no way he would let himself be involved in drawing lots either; Mark honourably backed him although it was clear they would both have given almost anything to go in the Arktos across the Strait.

Others took a silent approach and then, flatteringly, Robin said he'd just done an interview with Nicolai, the hero of the Tundra. And Nicolai had said at length that he was very impressed with my decision making, that every decision he had watched me make since Moscow had been right.

Lonely Decision Maker

Robin therefore thought that I should make the decision about who should go and that everyone must abide by it. And that was how it was left, with me saying I wouldn't make my mind up until the morning and people should feel completely free to lobby me.

Dion was the first person to, very gently emphasising how good he was with the fax, radios, GPS. Jeni, also very gently, said that she was convinced women should be represented on the crossing. Robin said that to do his job he'd need to be in the helicopter and coming down to the Arktos frequently. Paul pointed out that I needed to change his contract if he wasn't around as he was supposed to be with the convoy 24 hours a day giving cover.

With the Hercules arriving the next day, the sands of time were running out on us. With an exhausted Ural team and a very tense English-speaking team, we sat down to the farewell dinner. Jeff, Jeni, Richard B and Paul all made terrific speeches. Small gifts were exchanged and my farewell speech started, "You've heard me lots of times and you'll know that what I do is think for ten minutes and work out a beginning, middle and end to every toast. And you'll have seen me thinking now, but I've failed. I'm too sad". I was and I knew it would be even worse tomorrow because at breakfast I'd have to tell everyone what I'd decided.

Overview | Week One | Week Two | Week Three | Week Four | Week Five | Week Six | Week Seven | Week Eight | Week Nine | Week Ten | Week Eleven | Week Twelve | Week Thirteen | Week Fourteen | Week Fifteen

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