For me a mountain needs not be impressive, but it must be highest of an independent territory, so-to-say the maximum of independence in itself. And when all European countries and their highpoints are already ticked-off, autonomous areas must be in for it as an extension. I find 17 of them alone in the European part of Russia; one of it is the Autonomous District of the Nenets – Ненецкий Автономный Округ, Nenezkij Avtonomyj Okrug – north of the Polar Circle on the shores of the Barents and Kara Seas of the North Polar Sea, 177,000 square kilometers of flat land, half the size of Germany, however populated only by 42,000 inhabitants, a thousand times thinner than Germany. The administrative „capital“ Nar'yan-Mar alone hosts almost half of the entire population. The rest of the country is almost empty. Anyone living there must be independent, self-sufficient, free, and a mountain anyhow.
Flat is the land, and yet there must be a highest point somewhere in the tundric loneliness. For this highpoint I yearn, if I take my hobby seriously. Because independent I am not, alas! I depend upon the mission of my hobby.
Who are the Nenets?
Mountaineering means for me foremost: exploring the environs. The Nenets traditionally were nomads of the group of Samoyeds, but were in part been forcibly alienated from their roles as fishers, reindeer breeders and hunters during Soviet times. They speak an Uralic tongue, remotely related to Finnish and Hungarian. Their physiognomy is noticeably Asiatic, provoking the question whether I am still in Europe there at all.
The ethnic Nenets, however, represent only 19 percent of the population, in itself already extremely thinly spread across a vast territory, 7,900 souls; Russians clearly make up the majority.
Where is their highest mountain?
A glance into my old school atlas of 1948 shows that the Nenets live in a thoroughly low moory and boggy marshland. There are almost no settlements worth mentioning, nor are there connective roads or railways. However right in the district's extreme north-east, farthest away from civilization, I discover a hill chain named Paj-Choj with an altitude quote: 563. 40 kilometers south east of the last settlement at the edge of this world, Amderma, on the shores of the Kara-Sea. Gosh-dammit, out there I must go, no matter what it costs!
„Costs“ mean here mainly the planning effort. I estimate a run-in period of one year. First I need a map of the entire area, so detailed that I can locate and identify the highest point for sure. The excellent map distributor of Jāņa sēta in Stabu iela 119 in the Latvian Riga can satisfy this need with a good map, scale 1 : 1 million. Even the government-owned Russian agency Roskart – Federalnoje agenstwo geodesii i kartografii – Roskartografija (Federal Agency for Geodesy and Cartography) in 117997 Moscow, Uliza Krschischanskowo 14, Korpus 2, can ruminate over the question how to mail the old Soviet Generalshtab maps 1 : 200,000 against advance payment; indeed their service is so impersonal and sullen, that I sense the cultural barrier separating Europe from Asia. Or should I say: from the Soviet Union? I can only advise against clicking at http://roskart.gov.ru, unless you want to invite viruses. But no need to be concerned: the essential map can be downloaded from the right-hand portion of http://mir-map.ru/459495.html, if I only take pains to sniff around in kyrillic in the Russian Google. The desired mountain, still nameless, appears there as only 476 m high, but who cares!?
From the map I calculate the coordinates of the summit as 69° 25' 30,6'' N 62° 12' 31,65'' E and feed my GPS accordingly. And: Though the altitudes in the more modern maps are not precise, the isohypses in the old Soviet map and the altitude quotes in the area surrounding my target ARE. From them I determine the „true“ height of the summit among the given alternatives as 423. The reliably working Soviet geodesists were right; 476 and 563 are exaggerations, full of fantasy.
How to get there?
Internet must help again, carrying me ahead. Amderma appears to be linked with the external world only through a spin-off of Aeroflot, Nordavia. Once every 14 days in summer they fly the 1,080 km straight line from Arkhangelsk north-east to Amderma. Just to be able to read Nordavia's flight schedule I must learn to read Cyrillic, an art to be acquired within one hour, and, in addition, I must consult a Russian-German dictionary. Although the flight schedule is also available in English, it turns out it lists only the „usual“ flights. The flights to Amderma, flight # 5H139, with an Antonov-24, can only be discovered on a hidden subpage of www.nordavia.ru and are, different to the „usual“ ones, not bookable online. Average German travel agencies capitulate: not contained in the electronic „system.
All of a sudden I require know-how to climb a silly little mountain other than knots, belay techniques and abseiling!
From Moscow's Yaroslawskij railway station I will reach Arkhangelsk in a 20-hour and 46-minute ride by train # 016Я of Russian Railways; so their schedule at http://rzd.ru. No problem, if I only want it. And I want.
So beautiful can Russian railway tickets look like. Here it is Москва — Архангелъск
But how to book a flight ticket?
Now the matter becomes complex, if not complicated. The lady on the phone at Nordavia in Arkhangelsk speaks only Russian. I hardly manage enough Russian myself to extract from her that the flight schedule is only a „plan“. Whether they really fly would depend on the weather and the number of passengers, she says. At least five people have to assemble for the pilot to take the control stick in hand. It seems to me I have to involve a travel agency specialized on Russia.
The first one that I approach, in Berlin, staffed with a Saxonian radiating the aura of the late DDR, immediately collapses under the challenge confronted with: „I was in Russia for a long time, you know, and I tell you you will not reach these places in the north without more ado. Up there, all is off-limits. You know, they drill for gas and oil there, all in the hands of the military. Do you have contacts in Arkhangelsk?“ No, I am afraid, I do not have contacts. „Then we cannot help, the risk of failure is just too high, and afterwards you may hold us liable. No, thank you, bye.“
But there are Russians living; two of them, Laura and Svetlana Hohnstein, run an agency for travels to Russia, in Zwickau. They turn out to be the hit. Not only they make it a point of honor – „We have already worked a couple of times for crazy ones like you“, the best compliment that one can make to me – they also know the way to take. And I support them as much as I can: The Internet supplies the address of Intourist, the former governmental travel organizer and expert on site in Arkhangelsk: http://www.intourist-arh.ru/. Surprising is that the Internet also provides the address of FSB in town – Федеральная служба безопасности Российской Федерации / Federalnaya Slushba Besopasnosti Rossijskoj Federatsii, Federal Agency for Security of the Russian Federation: http://www.spr-szo.ru/checkcorrect.php?id_firm=522284; this is the Russian domestic secret service to whom the border militia report, a sub-structure of the notorious KGB. These are the comrades that have to give me a special permit to enter the area around Amderma, a so-called própusk.
How to get the própusk?
It is evident that the própusk ranges prior to the plane and rail tickets. Without própusk I need not set out on this journey. I am told in addition that I can book a flight only if I can present a própisk, and this all within 3 days before taking off from Arkhangelsk.
It is all about finding out first, whether I can get a própusk in principle, especially since I am a foreigner with a sinister touristic aim in mind.
Naïve as I am, I resort to my neighbors – Russian Germans –, let them translate a corresponding preliminary note sounding out the situation and send this electronically via FSB's contact form. Never will I get a response. I learn: FSB does not correspond with foreigners. I must rather channel the request for information through Intourist Arkhangelsk.
Said and done. The response comes. Yes, in principle would it be possible to issue a própusk for me. First break-through.
How to reach Archangelsk?
Now I am at the point of no return. I have to take the risk of failure into account and simply trust that everything will turn out fine. Applying for a visa at the Russian embassy, buying a plane ticket to Moscow-Sheremetevo-2, these are the simpler modules. Also how to commute from the airport to the Moscow city center, take the metro for a semicircle from Belorusskij to Yaroslavskij railway stations, and to order a rail ticket to Arkhangelsk are rather easy parts of the construct. To this effect you should know that one can buy railway tickets only 35 days ahead of time at the earliest, but then it is recommended to do this as fast as possible, if one wants to get hold of good places (Купе = Kupé = 1st class 4-person compartment, or Плацкарт = “Platzkarte“ / reserved seat = 2nd class with up to 80 fellow-travellers in the car).
Then everything runs like clock-work
Yuliya of Intourist picks me up on the platform in Arkhangelsk, collects the própusk within one day (second break-through) and has already bought the flight ticket, on the basis of FSB's preliminary approval.
And finally: third break-through. The flight takes place indeed; 24 passengers board the Antonov-24, just as many as the small plane can take. Again this proves the value of involving Intourist: had I come last-minute to the check-in counter with my própusk, it could well have been that all seats are already sold out.
Touch-down in Nar'yan-Mar, capital of the Nenets district. When re-boarding for the onward flight to Amderma my própusk gets checked for the first time, in a special chamber of the border militia, into which I as a foreigner am solicited separately. The militiaman lets his thumb carefully glide over my passport number and compares it with his forefinger gliding over the same number on my própusk. And what if both numbers had not turned out exactly identical?
Then I am in Amderma. Sergej of the local aeronavigation survey station picks me up and directs me to a flat in Lenin street # 10, where I will stay for the coming 8 days, in one of the few still functioning houses. Amderma has become a ghost town; 600 people survive from over 5,000 that had lived here when mining for fluorite was still active.
Sergej proposes that I ramble alone through the nearby tundra for one day on my own, just to develop a feeling for what it means to plod with rubber boots through bottomless morass. Afterwards I give up the idea to approach Gora More-iz on foot. For twice 40 km I would spend up to 4 open-air bivouacs, possibly cold and wet. And if not, then millions of moskitos will probably be buzzing around me.
Houses in Amderma can look like this one, when grounded in permanent frost for 44 years.
Lenin street in Amderma after a night's rain
Victory on the mountain
With Sergej I arrange for the next fair-weather day according to forecast. On that day Sergej would transport me in a chain-driven kind of tank 40 kilometers to the foot of that tundra hill, for which I have shouldered all this burden. In half an hour I have stormed the gentle ridge and enjoy the endless view from the triangulation signal on top. Тур = Tur is the Russian name for such a pyramidal iron rack typically marking highpoints. From time immemorial I am the first German up here. Infinite sight over undulating tundra, moors, lakes, stones, moss. No sound, not even the humming of an insect. Total silence, complete solitude. Only the bright nordic summer sky above me.
423 m high is the little hill, as indicated on the old Soviet Generalshtab map, not 476 as more modern maps want to make believe, and not at all 563 as shown in my old school atlas. 69° 25' 30.6''N 62° 12' 31.65''E
Sergej with his tank
The only useful means of transportation in the tundra is the tank.
Gora More-iz in all her beauty, from 2 km afar
On the summit of Gora More-iz
Fish soup, wind-protected by the tank
And a cup of tea afterwards? No problem with the propane-fuelled flame-thrower
Still life: Tea pot and tank in the tundra
Same procedure in reverse
After having stepped on Gora More-iz this is now a children's game. On the way back we make a break on a lake. The fish soup and tea, prepared with a propane-fuelled flame-thrower, taste excellent. A few more days of waiting in Amderma, and, quite surprisingly, I can escape already on the ninth day, unscheduled, by helicopter to Nar'yan-Mar and catch a regular flight to Arkhangelsk, the tickets for the railway back home already in my pocket.
Encounter in the tundra: nomadic Nenets keep huge reindeer herds.
Nenets on a shopping tour in the city. The reindeer span is parked in front of the „magazin“.
And what is now the exceptional?
The unique accomplishment, consisting of arranging a logical sequence of modules. The feeling that even when I get older I can still reach mountains unclimbed by others. The solitude of the vast tundra, the free view, the confrontation with nitpicking pettifoggery of the non-alpinistic sort to open my way. The cordiality of the Russians, the self-assuredness that stems from having successfully muddled through, the new encounters with people of a different world, the never-ending line of surprising events. Why do so many people still climb only „normal“ mountains?