Overland Challenge - Week Eleven

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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

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7 March 1994

Arktos Arrives

Lavrentiya (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

I was up early and I knew exactly what to do. A lazy shower, a proper breakfast, the meeting just after it. But time ran out for me again half way through the shower - the Hercules was due in early and everyone was awake, expectant. So I held the meeting immediately. I had decided on a minimum team of one American, one Russian, one European and a cameraman only. In other words Victor, Jeff, Richard B and me on the Arktos which would be run by Bruce Seigman, the Arktos skipper and his crewmen Vernon and Norman. Overhead in a covering helicopter would be Kees, Robin, Doc Paul, Rupert and Duncan Ferguson, the Arktos designer. Everyone else would fly out on the Hercules with the two Mavericks.

All of us rushed down to the airport and for a while disappointment was suspended amidst the excitement of watching the Hercules come in. On board was an English-speaking Russian navigator. On the tarmac, some were aware that the runway was just a little too short for the regulations. And this was the second day of a three day holiday during which airports, like Lavrentiya, are usually closed. Indeed, this was the second attempt to get the Hercules in. On the first, the weather closed in on Lavrentiya while the plane was stuck in Provideniya. This time though it was fine. The Hercules took up half the runway and was cheered as it came to a standstill.

Gerry came out beaming with happiness, and I too felt deeply relieved. It was here after weeks of agonizing. But the first bad news hit quickly.

The Hercules couldn't take any more than five passengers. There was bags of space but no emergency kit on board for more. The pilot was adamant.

Gerry and I went back to my hotel room.

I had to completely rethink - a helicopter, which had been booked for us to recce the Strait was re-routed to fly the disappointed team members to Provideniya. It would mean opening the airport for the third day. Bering Air, a Nome-based airline, was standing by to fly them there to the USA.

Back on the tarmac, the emotion spilled over as the Arktos was unloaded and people saw and climbed over it. It looked huge from the outside, but most of the space was taken up by what looked like very old engines. The Mavericks were driven, yes driven, into the airport after a spin round town. They had been blown dry by Paul and Mark and started up immediately.

Soon the Hercules left with Paul and Mark and the three Beta camera guys that I had been so rude to. And before long, the helicopter for Provideniya was ready for boarding. It was an extremely tearful goodbye. The grand departure from Russia wasn't meant to be like this.

And it was bitingly cold.

Suddenly, the Arktos became my number one priority. It needed a garage for the night, otherwise it would have to be left running and would waste precious fuel. Finding a garage on the runway turned out to be easy; getting the Arktos into it seemed to take an age - over an hour later and it had hardly moved.

Caught between sadness and excitement, Jeff, Victor, Doc Ford, Rupert, Kees, Richard B, Robin and I went back to our now empty hotel for lunch and a three hour wait for the helicopter which was returning from Provideniya and which would then fly us over the Bering Strait.

Standing in the noisy space so they could see through the cockpit windscreens, Jeff, Bruce and Duncan were delighted. The ice was much firmer than they'd anticipated, and the route we'd always predicted was undoubtedly the best - a positioning drive up to Uelen and then the crossing, probably just North of the Diomede Islands. Their first estimates (later lengthened) was that it would take 10 hours to get into position and 20 hours to get across.

Sitting in the back of the M I8 with Richard B, Doc, Robin and Kees, I had a different view. I was hugely relieved that only a minimum crew was coming. The Bering Strait is no place for any passengers. It looked full of open water and water freezing into ice and blood. This is Polar Bear country and the Strait is their butcher's shop.

The clouds were coming in and the wind could be seen dancing with the snow below. To Jeff the explorer, the only person to have sailed the North west Passage, the weather was perfect. To me, it looked immensely cold and horribly uninviting. Robin leaned over to say that if the team had seen this most wouldn't have volunteered to come. Doc was clearly growing keener on the helicopter than the Arktos.

When we arrived back, I went to the hangar and climbed into Arktos for the first time. As an evacuation machine it could take 12, 25 at a push. But then so could Truck 5. As a home for well over 30 hours, six seemed a sensible number. We were already one too many.

For the rest of the evening and night, I went through all the emotions a dozen times. Still elated that we were here, relieved that I was no longer able to worry about a big team, appalled that people were still in Russia when they should be relishing the total change of America, full of anticipation about the Bering Strait.

8 March 1994

Lavrentiya (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

Today started badly and got worse before it got better. I was on my way down to breakfast when Duncan and Bruce called me into their bedroom - they hadn't slept.

The Arktos had taken as long as it had to get into the garage because something was wrong with the axle. They didn't know what. It might be nothing, but then again, it might be something bad. Best case, it would take an hour to strip down and find everything is fine. Worst case, they'd find something very wrong and would have to get the part made in Vancouver. Either way there'd be a delay - we wouldn't hit our schedule to leave at noon.

Outside, it was windy and sunny just as it had been for three days. Golden days in the Arctic which is renowned for its bad weather especially at this time of year. A mechanical delay that coincided with bad weather had always seemed to me to be fine but delays that coincided with good weather could, I knew, throw us back a long way behind schedule.

Nevertheless, my immediate reaction was,'Don't worry about it. Let's find out what's wrong and get it put right.'

And then Igor caught me on the stairs. The wind was very bad in Provideniya - the other half of the team were stuck there and probably wouldn't fly out to Nome today. That was almost worse news. I knew that, more than anything else, they needed the neon lights of the USA to even begin to lift their spirits from the disappointment of not going on the Arktos and being split up from us.

And just to make sure that there was a third piece of bad news, Rupert's frostbitten wrist had become infected and Doc Paul had decided to give him a strong intravenous dose of antibiotics. If that didn't work, Rupert would have to be flown out to the west.

Four hours later, the first piece of lousy news got worse. Duncan and Bruce reported a broken drive shaft. A new one would have to be machined in Vancouver. They didn't yet know how it had happened, but couldn't believe it. Drive shafts don't break which is why they hadn't got a spare. However, I was learning that cold weather does break drive shafts. Indeed, this was the third that had happened on this journey - on a Maverick, the Ural tanker and now the Arktos. Each one of them, much to the surprise of those in the know, had lost a drive shaft.

Duncan looked as miserable as any person could so I assured him that this was the best place for it to go wrong. Had it happened in Anchorage, you could have replaced it more easily but we'd still have the nightmare of getting the Arktos to Russia on our hands. If it went wrong during the crossing, it could have cost us the summit of our expedition.

Gerry Brennan had brought a briefcase satellite phone with him. We should have had one from the start, but had got away without it. Now we couldn't have done without it and we had one. I was lucky even in bad circumstances. Vancouver was 21 hours behind us and within hours a plan had been set up.

The part would be machined first thing the next day (today by our standards), the 8th. It would be driven south across the border by the Cairman of Aquamarine to the nearest USA airport and then flown to Nome by courier via Seattle and Anchorage. On March 10, weather permitting, it would be flown from Nome to Provideniya and from there by helicopter to Lavrentiya.

The Arktos should be up and running by midnight on the 10th, ready for us to leave for the crossing on the 11th. WEATHER PERMITTING

However, the wind was picking up. The walk to the Arktos and the Ural trucks was face-stingingly cold. Inside the garage, the drive shaft was being pulled out by Norm and Vern. It was a clean shear and what had happened became obvious.

The Arktos we were using was the prototype built ten years ago to prove the design worked. Since then far bigger production models had been made for the Canadian government and the Chinese government. Others were interested in acquiring them, but these were too big to fit into a Hercules. The prototype, which had been sitting outside the factory for five years, was therefore refitted just for us. It had already broken lots of records and it would be a terrific climax to its life.

During the refit they had found the bearings for this one shaft had to be wrenched off. Rather than make a new one they had sleeved it, a straightforward practice, but during the job the machines had made a minor mistake and weakened the shaft. The cold on the tarmac of Lavrentiya had quickly cracked it.

There was nothing I could do so I was surprisingly unworried - Duncan was definitely doing enough worrying for both of us. My concern was for the rest of the team, still stuck in Provideniya.

But they weren't. While I was looking at the broken shaft, the wind had eased, Bering Air had got into Provideniya and the team was now in Nome. Things were looking up.

During the evening, I wrestled with what best to do with the Nome team. Should they get up to Wales and wait for us ? Or get up to Wales and start the snowmobile journey, leaving three skidoos for us to catch them up on, or take all the snowmobiles leaving us to catch them up by air ?

Robin and Jeff were adamantly against the third option. In their view, one person had to complete the entire journey otherwise the expedition would be invalid. That, I thought, may be difficult for the team in Nome to swallow but it was better to be part of a team that completed the journey properly rather than part of team that hadn't reached the summit of its journey.

9 March 1994

Lavrentiya (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

This was the first enforced rest day of the project. I had nothing to do but sit and worry. I couldn't relax.

Jeff, Doc Paul and Rupert tried to get the VH radios to work. Rupert had a needle stuck in his right arm ready for the intravenous dose of antibiotics and his left arm in a sling. Duncan and Bruce spent most of the day on the phone to Vancouver where the part was being made with amazing speed - by midday our time, it was complete, a new shaft was being flown to Vancouver from Toronto. Gerry Brennan worked out the passage for getting the part from Seattle to Provideniya, at vast expense.

And I had one of the most expensive telephone calls of my life - to Roger. Life in the UK sounded as tense as in Lavrentiya. The minimum crew hadn't helped, especially as some of the 'stars' of the ITV programme weren't part of it. And my sending Mike and his Betacam crew packing to Alaska on the Hercules hadn't helped. There were also difficulties with Ford. They wanted us to end the challenge at the New York motorshow, not the United Nations headquarters. The ITC was against this, the UN would have the majority say. But the first question was would we make New York in time for the motorshow. The answer was uncertain.

I went over my options for the Nome team - with the favored one being to let the Nome team get going and we'd catch up with a small group fast. Roger understood this but emphasized that the media was only interested in the crossing, and if the Nome team went on they would be out of the picture.

That was difficult news. What I liked most about the project so far was the way the team had kept together and now I was worried my decision about who should go on the Arktos, compounded by the delay and possible further delays could split the whole thing asunder.

And then Jeff talked to Art in Wales. Art said that there was little or no snow in Alaska. That the first half of the skidoo run was exceptionally icy and bad, not good for beginners and he strongly recommended that we were only one-up on a skidoo.

I couldn't believe it for a while. Why hadn't Gerry told me when the question of how many snowmobiles was being discussed ? I suppose it was so as not to worry me, and I suppose in a way he had tried to and I hadn't taken it in.

Gerry was also very worried about my idea of splitting the team up by letting some go ahead on the snowmobiles; there would be no doctor for the most difficult part of the route. And what about Art and the guides and all that had been planned for this one, very difficult passage ?

Having said that, he added that the team in Nome was champing at the bit to get started. All in all, his solution was for them to do that and the Arktos team to catch up by plane. 'NO,' said Robin and Jeff and they meant it.

It wasn't until late that evening, I staggered across the only solution. We must keep together as a team, and if that meant we were late in New York, so be it. Bad for television and the sponsors perhaps but in the long run it was the only solution. But I thought of it late at night. What would I think in the morning ?

10 March 1994

Lavrentiya (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

By the morning I had sorted out my priorities. The first was cross the Bering Strait and take the time that was needed. The second was to unite the team and keep it united - no leap-frogging. The third was give ourselves the time to do the skidoo trip and the drive from Fairbanks to New York safely, and the last was to get to New York on time.

If achieving the first, second and third meant we missed the fourth, then so be it. Gerry should work out how long he expects the journey from Wales to take. Once we've got to Wales and not before, we'll know the date we get to New York. If it shows we'll be late, it should give television at least a couple of weeks to re-organise.

After breakfast, I talked to Peter in Nome. There was a film camera at both ends - the Nome team had spent ages discussing the conversation I'd had the day before and had decided to go up to Wales, wait until the 14th and then move off whether not or the Bering Strait team was there. I then outlined my set of priorities and they went away to discuss that.

In the normal last minute rush, we were told the flight from Nome with the shaft was already in the air. Kees and Rupert got ready to set off for Provideniya taking rushes, baggage and my fax for the Power of Attorney for Wendy. These would go back to Nome. And they would return from Provideniya to Lavrentiya with the new shaft, other kit that we had requested and the cash that Stepan desperately needed.

Minutes later, we were told that it was impossible to fly to Provideniya because of the weather en route. However, after a lot of persuasion from Igor and Stepan, it was eventually agreed they'd try for it and that the pilot would be left free to decide if the helicopter would land at Provideniya or turn back before they got there.

We decided to take advantage of the lull to have the safety lecture that Bruce had to give before we all climbed aboard Arktos. It consisted of a long, as always, common sense list of do's and don'ts. My major recollection was that Igor interrupted the meeting once too often and was told by Bruce to "Go away" which bitterly offended him and Stepan. The whole thing nearly ended, but I was back pouring oil on troubled waters because the reality was that Bruce, as skipper of the Arktos, was legally bound to give us the safety lecture, or else he couldn't let us set off.

Victor sprang to life when he paraded around like Mr Blobby in the survival kit, and at the end of the meeting we were left in no doubt that this was a serious and dangerous project.

At lunch, Igor wasn't talking to me. And Stepan had gone quiet too. They were both very tense primarily, it turned out, because they had persuaded the helicopter pilot, with Kees and Rupert on board, to fly from Laverentiya in very bad conditions and they were appalled at the consequences if it crashed. This safety lecture had only contributed to their mood.

And then Vera phoned. She wanted to talk confidentially, away from Robin. It was a difficult line, every sentence from her followed by a two or three second delay, so that it turned into a question and answer session. It was clear that the team was in a very raw state. The confidential part was to relay a fear that Robin would go on the Arktos across the Bering Straits, and if that happened the team would feel very hard done by. I assured her he wouldn't be and that they should phone him tomorrow after we'd set off.

The other concern was why had I changed my mind about drawing lots and there was a strong feeling that I had done that in case I didn't go. They also couldn't see why they, the Nome team, shouldn't set off for Fairbanks on skidoo, leaving the Bering Strait team to catch them up by plane. And lastly, Vera wanted to know when we would leave - the only way to heal the wound, caused by the split, was for us to all be one team again. Too right, but when we left depended on the spare part.

It arrived at 4.45 in the middle of a very gusty afternoon in which I am sure the standing orders would be 'don't fly'. But by now Lavrentiya was caught up in the spirit of the project and Jeff's determination that expeditions demand emergency-type action was coming through even here at Russia's Eastern frontier.

At 9.15, I called Roger, 9.15 his time too but in the morning. They'd obviously all been debating my decision to forget about the New York deadline because they had talked to Gerry. I was beginning to drool for the instant communications of the West. And then, as an aside, Roger said there was a great debate going on about whether to leave in a sequence in film four questioning my leadership. Karen thought it should come out. Roger would arbitrate.

I argued that I should be treated like anyone else, but after the call did ponder hard on the enormous challenge of getting a large team across the world, the fact that some would never think I made the right decision on the Arktos, and the dangers of leading a team live on television.

That evening and night was spent in a machine shop and then in the garage, re-assembling the Arktos. It was done by 1.00 when Jeff and I left the garage for a windy walk home.

Everyone was now geared up to leave at 9.00 the next day.

11 March 1994

Bering Strait (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

At 8.00 Duncan came to my room, looking serious, to say that he felt he had to register that he was worried about the communication on board. The VHF radio sets, which were going to be our lifeline were clearly not going to be of any use. We had got them to work but only just, and not via the antenna that was fitted to the Arktos and not in a usable fashion, indeed we had only been able to hear snatches of conversation from other users.

There was nothing we could do, but Duncan felt it was important that I was formally told of his concerns - in case anything went wrong and people asked him why he'd said nothing.

By 9.00, everyone was still trying to get out of the hotel. The bus had gone off for refuelling - why that hadn't been done the day before, I'll never know, and my internal clock was saying that we'd be lucky to get away by midday.

Setting Off in the Arktos

We got away at 1.00. We were four hours late after customs and passport control. This gave the wrong impression, as that kind of hassle normally implies huge frustration and angst. In fact, the delay was caused by the frontier police, who had been flown up from Provideniya to help us get away with minimum fuss, and who turned out to be so delighted at their day out and the memories it would leave. Cameras, a special stamp indicating we crossed the Bering Straits, and four hours worth of smiles caused the delay.

We left on a real high. The Arktos gave us enough confidence to leave the satelite phone behind with Doc, Rubert, Kees and Robin.

And judging from the afternoon's drive, it was well founded. The Arktos took us through some water, over some ice rubble (at two to four miles an hour)under a blue sun-filled sky over the snowcovered land. Just as the sun was setting, Doc, Rupert, Kees and Robin flew over in the helicopter, landed and filmed us. We were on our way in what was clearly an amazing machine.


Small problems, however, were raising the heads above the parapet. With Duncan's communications concerns still in my mind, I discovered, that closer to home Vern's headsets weren't working. Something that would be a big problem very shortly.

In the pitch dark, we were steering via GPS. Pitch dark raised the red flag. That meant there was no snow. We must be moving over windswept rock. Bruce did a circle to try and find a better route. We seemed to be climbing a lot - Bruce assured me the Arktos can easily take on 'mountains'. In fact we were going over a rock field. Bruce stopped. He had a good look round and was about to set off again when Vern, who can't communicate to us via his headphones, threw open the cabin door.

That was alarming. The only way to get from his engine den to the drivers cabin is by climbing over the tracks. He'd lose a leg or worse if they moved and dragged him down. 'What the hell !'. 'A
track has come off!'

We were in trouble. I felt my heart stop as I climbed up through the cabin hatch, swung round, and saw that the back left track was gone. It was the beginning of a nightmare. We had no satphone. Our radio communication was one way, all we could do was shout Mayday into the void.

Duncan and I begin to look for the lost track in the dark. A bad idea, as Jeff pointed out, this was polar bear country, there was no moon to see them by and our one small bore gun was okay for show, but hopeless as the real thing.

The track wasn't close by. Goodness knows where it came off. We returned to the cabin to await daylight, sleeping in our boots on top of boxes of food.

12 March 1994

Bering Strait (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

Thirty minutes after first light, Bruce, Jeff and I found the track, a good 300 meters away from the Arktos. Norm and Vern were appalled at what had happened. 'Right way, wrong way, Bruce's way'.

Casting aside blame - I've never seen the point in looking backwards - we worried about what to do. The track weighed over a ton. We decided to split the track in two, roll out the Arktos steel winch rope, strengthened to get the Artktos out of trouble, and prepare to drag each half to the Arktos.

The rope snapped, recoiling like a vicious, furious, 300 yard long, steel-scaled snake. No one was killed. At least one of us deserved to have been.

For the next two hours Bruce, Jeff, Victor and I huffed and puffed, strained and sweated as we dragged half a ton of track towards the Arktos. Richard B filmed and kept an anxious eye out for Polar Bears. Norm and Vern searched the skies for the helicopter which had agreed to rendez-vous with us sometime that morning. Our radios, of course, weren't working.

By midday the first half of the track had been manhandled to the Arktos. There was no sign of the helicopter, which of course had no idea where we were, but must have assumed we were making good progress, not stranded like a lame dinosaur.

By three that afternoon the second half of the track was ready to be re-stitched onto the first half. Norm caught sight of the helicopter, miles and miles away. And then lost it. Flairs were dragged out for when it returned.

Bruce, to his huge credit, had worked out how to fix the track back on the Arktos, even in the appalling conditions. He planned to lay it out behind the Arktos and reverse the machine onto it. 'Bruce's way' was Norm's comment.

Jeff was inspecting the underside of the Arktos and inspecting the damage that had been done during the 300 trackless meters over the rocks. I was determined to look on the bright side - how else do you achieve the impossible - but was as able as Jeff to see that some damage had been done. I suggested we point it out to Bruce if, or when, the track was back in place. Jeff was clearly very fed up.

At around 5.00 the helicopter can be heard in the distance. Norm and Vern grab the flare's and set them off. The helicopter appeared to be moving away from us, then turned towards the Arktos. They were distraught that we'd made so little progress and been so badly damaged. We agreed that Duncan should stay behind to help Bruce, Norm and Vern, and that the next day we'd ask Volodya Glebov, the hugely competent lead Russian Ural truck driver to lend a hand too. The helicopter, which could only fly VFR (visual flight rules) had to leave before sunset. The cold and the dark forced us to stop work by 7.00 in favour of a hot meal. I slept in the back cabin. Victor, who had found some whisky stashed away, was soon snoring his way to sleep.

13 March 1994

Bering Strait (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

Jeff, who didn't sleep a wink, was angry. Bruce, using optimism to keep himself going, made the mistake of being cheerful and stepped right into it. Jeff's full fury at Bruce's incompetence unleashed itself. Richard B stoked the flames by grabbing the camera - film people like arguments. I staggered in from the back cabin right into the middle of it and immediately set about diffusing things - team leaders hate arguments.

But Jeff and Richard are not prepared to be silenced. They think Bruce is irresponsible and the Arktos is badly prepared and consequently lethal. Richard goes further than Jeff and decides to go on by helicopter, even if the repairs are successful. Clutching for good news, an addictive habit when I'm up against it, I at least look forward to news of this getting through to the rest of the team.

Norm and Vern are also very angry when out of sight of Bruce but continue to work with him on repairing the Arktos. The helicopter brings in constructive help in the form of Volodia Glebov, the extraordinary lead UralAZ truck driver, who, despite endless breakdowns, got the trucks through the storm. And with his help the Arktos is finished and, by about six pm, is ready for the off. Richard agreed to keep going. Jeff calmed down. Duncan returned to the helicopter. Volodia, who I never saw have a drink, joined Victor in the Whisky Galore - the new name for the back cabin. Victor, to be fair, has been surprisingly calm throughout the track catastrophe.

Once off the rocks, the Arktos continued as if nothing had happened. But we stopped at nightfall to make 'camp'.

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