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BITTER WINTER

Crossing Central Siberia with Thirty Sled Dogs

“YOU’RE CRAZY!” With some variations, this was the unanimous response of Siberians to the news that we would try a dogsled crossing of the mountains between Lake Baikal and the Lena River in the dead of winter. And the Siberian winter is no myth. For three months of the year, while we would be traveling with our thirty dogs, the temperature dips constantly into the extreme range. The hardest thing at -60° F is getting through the night. It is impossible to sleep for more than an hour at a time, because your breath freezes and the frost cakes up and blocks the small opening through which you breathe, swaddled in your sleeping bag.

It’s impossible to heat the tent. It would take hours of work in the evening to collect a sufficient supply of firewood, and someone would have to stay awake watching it to make sure the tent didn’t go up in flames. This is

the great paradox when you’re dealing with extreme cold: You are always either too warm or too cold. There is no middle ground.

After the freezing nights came the days and weeks of exhausting walking through a country where the sun had stopped shining. To make matters worse, our team was no longer functioning as a unit and had long since stopped trying. Each member retreated into himself, a cure worse than the illness. Soon the days brought nothing but suffering, and the cold was the least of it.

Only the wolves howling under the varied and astonishing displays of the aurora borealis and the grandeur of a country still untouched by human aggression gave us any reason to go on, to continue plodding northward, advancing also toward the spring that would bring back light and sunshine to the earth, which, despite its pettiness, is enduringly fascinating.

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