Photograph by Randy Olsen
Republished from the pages of National Geographic magazine
The view was magnificent—mile after mile of flat-topped mountains receding to the Artic horizon—though it was difficult to appreciate if you were on your hands and knees on the side of one of those plateaus, clinging to shards of scree. Vasily Sarana, the 33-year-old chief of the Russian Geographic Society's Putorana expedition and a mountaineer who seemed capable of bounding up vertical walls, was not in such an undignified position, however. Standing tall, he turned around on the vertiginous slope and scanned the horizon of his favorite corner of Russia—the Putorana Plateau, a wild, uninhabited tableland the size of Nevada, cut by canyons, rivers, and waterfalls. We were 200 miles (322 kilometers) north of the Arctic Circle in early September. Snow had fallen in the night, throwing into sharp relief the striated flanks of nearby plateaus.
Sarana and I were searching for Putorana snow sheep, as we had been for nearly two weeks, with no success. The sheep, Ovis nivicola borealis, are rare—estimates range from 2,500 to 6,000 in all—and among the hardiest of animals. The biggest rams weigh up to 220 pounds (100 kilograms) and have thick horns shaped like commas. Both rams and ewes are clothed in a gray-brown wool that provides extraordinary insulation on the plateaus, where winter temperatures plunge to minus 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
The sheep's fondness for end-of-the-Earth locales led me to this precipitous slope, struggling to find a way up without somersaulting 600 feet (183 meters) down a field of jagged basalt rocks. When Sarana and I at last reached the top of the mesa, we were confronted with a bleak winter scene—an expanse of treeless plateau whose surface was studded with snow-covered boulders. It was hard to believe that anything could inhabit this moonscape.
"Winter has arrived," said Sarana, and, bracing against the frigid wind and spitting snow, I had to agree. "The moose and wolves will live in the valley now, but the sheep will stay up here. It will be a real battle for survival." The Putorana sheep spend the winter on the plateau tops, where high winds sweep away the snow, exposing grass and other plant food.
Sarana began scouring the ground sheep sign. He soon found what he was looking for—the distinctive two-pronged tracks, the piles of pebbly scats, and a cluster of indentations where sheep had rested. Excited, he hustled to the edge of the plateau. He scanned the ledges and promontories below, where the sheep often feed, then studied the plateau that lay a half mile (0.8 kilometers) away across a deep valley. Nothing.
Pick up a map of Russia, point to the center of the enormous country, then drag your finger north to a blank spot in central Siberia not marred by the names of towns or villages. This is the Putorana Plateau. Though its topography is reminiscent of the plateaus and mesas of America's Southwest, Putorana is no desert. It is crisscrossed by scores of unspoiled lakes and streams teeming with arctic grayling, char, and other fish. Its valleys are thick with long-lived larch trees that shelter brown bear, moose, wolverines, and great herds of migrating reindeer.
Part of Putorana was designated a nature reserve in 1988, and at 7,290 square miles (18,881 square kilometers) it is the fourth largest of Russia's 134 reserves and national parks. The roadless upland's only inhabitants are a half dozen wardens who live there up to ten months a year.
Over the past century several waves of explorers and scientist have studied Putorana, and in the latter decades of the Soviet era a small number of geologists, fishermen, hunters, and white-water rafters dropped in by helicopter. But the collapse of communism in 1991, followed by a sharp increase in fuel cost, curtailed these forays.
That is why Vasily Sarana and the Russian Geographic Society keep coming back: Putorana is one of the few remaining places where they can bask in the feeling of being hundreds of miles from civilization. Recalling the first time a helicopter dropped off his group and flew away, Sarana said, "It left, and we were surrounded by these mountains. The silence was deafening. There was no one around. I can't even tell you what I felt. It was a sense of the scale, the size of our country, the sense that nature is untouched here, and if something should happen to us, no one would save us. One feels small and helpless here."
Sarana's ragtag group of mountaineers and adventurers, some of whom use their alpinist skills to cobble together a living in Moscow washing windows and making repairs on tall buildings, operate on a wing and a prayer, scraping together corporate donations and hitching rides on scarce helicopters.
In addition to observing and photographing the snow sheep, the expeditions—joined by visiting Russian scientists—are trying to augment the scanty knowledge of the plateau. They have cataloged and analyzed the 20 or so small glaciers in Putorana; mapped and photographed some of the hundreds of waterfalls; measured the depths and acidity of lakes and rivers; observed the rare gyrfalcon, which nests in the sheer basalt cliffs; and collected samples of mosses, lichens, and flowers.
To reach the heavenly precincts of Putorana, you must first pass through an Arctic version of hell: Norilsk. Founded in 1935 as part of Stalin's gulag, Norilsk grew into a sprawling metallurgical center in which an estimated 350,000 political prisoners toiled in mines. The forced laborers are long gone, but the gigantic nickel and copper smelters and the surrounding nickel mines are still working. Today the city is home to 200,000 people.
From the air Norilsk looks like a city on fire, with plumes of brown and gray smoke belching forth from dozens of smokestacks, merging into a thick pall that blots out the sun and can be seen 50 miles (80.5 kilometers) away. Norilsk pumps out 8 percent of all the air pollution in Russia—more than 2 million tons (1.8 million metric tons) of pollutants a year, mainly sulfur dioxide, according to Vitaly Savchenko, chairman of the Norilsk Regional Committee on Environmental Protection. In Norilsk the air fills your mouth with the taste of burnt matches. Fortunately the prevailing winds are such that this endless stream of noxious material rarely falls on Putorana, the western edge of which is just a few dozen miles from the city. And even when the wind blows toward the reserve, the upland's basalt ramparts tend to deflect the pollution.
Our ten-person expedition took off from Norilsk in an orange-and-blue MI-8 helicopter packed with food, tents, and supplies. The day was sunny and chilly, and as we flew toward the southern edge of the tableland, we passed mile after mile of dead larch forest, part of a contaminated zone extending southeastward 75 miles (121 kilometers) from Norilsk.
But soon we were over Putorana. Patches of snow dotted the brown plateaus. Canyons and ravines were etched in the landscape like cracks in an elephant's hide. Putorana was created 250 million years ago by a process known as plume volcanism, in which a huge body of magma rose to the surface from 1,800 miles (2,897 kilometers) inside the Earth, then erupted through fissures to form a blanket of basalt 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) thick. Over millions of years cracks in the rock filled with water, forming the rivers and long, narrow lakes that distinguish the region today. Some scientist believe the enormous quantity of magma, ash, and gases released during the creation of Putorana may have drastically altered Earth's climate, playing a role in the so-called great dying, the largest mass extinction ever, which killed off perhaps 95 percent of all ocean species and 70 percent of all land vertebrate families.
After a two-hour flight we arrived at the first of the three camps we would be lifted into, this one in central Putorana at the confluence of two rivers, the Dulismar and Yagtali. Stepping out of the helicopter, we inhaled the cool, sweet air. A stone's throw away a waterfall rumbled; all around plateaus rose to nearly 5,000 feet (1,524 meters), partly covered in verdant larch. When the helicopter lifted off for Norilsk, I was struck by the same feeling Sarana had described—the unsettling thrill of being dumped into a true wilderness. But I could imagine no better group with which to be marooned than the gang from the Russian Geographic Society.
Sarana, who is studying for Ph.D. in glaciology at Moscow State University, has been fascinated with Putorana since hearing about it as a schoolboy in Ukraine. "I was in love with the mountains, and I remember this area drew me like a magnet," said Sarana, a handsome, brown-haired man of medium height and stocky build. In 1991, after going on several Siberian expeditions, he became actively involved with the Russian Geographic Society—one of the world's oldest, founded in 1845—just as federal funding was drying up.
"I thought it was a shame that all the programs were falling apart," said Sarana, who is an unpaid volunteer for the society. "I thought that Russian explorers' traditions should continue. I live by this—traveling, exploring, discovering. Many young people were going into business and looking for ways to make money, but I wanted to remain a geographer."
Gathering together a handful of mountaineering buddies, Sarana set his sights on Putorana, terra incognita to most Russians. In 1993 he and three other men hitched a ride on a helicopter from Norilsk into Putorana, then spent six weeks floating 375 miles (603.5 kilometers) down rivers and bushwhacking another 125 miles (201 kilometers). Carrying few supplies with them, they survived mainly on fish, berries, and mushrooms. They have since mounted seven more expeditions, financing them out of their own pockets and with some small corporate contributions.
Two men from the original Putorana expedition were with us this time, Vladimir Kurger and Anatoly Kayukov. Kruger, 42, is a wiry, bearded man who wore an orange bandanna and shot ducks and snipe with his 1928-vintage, double-barreled shotgun. An accomplished climber, he has scaled 23,406-foot (7,134-meter) Lenin Peak in the Pamirs on the Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan border. He drank his share of vodka and smoked but kept a blistering pace on our climbs. He was fearless, as evidenced one evening when he spanned the high walls of the Dulismar River with a pair of logs, shinnied out on them, and lit up a cigarette while sitting 40 feet (12.2 meters) above the crashing waterfall.
Kayukov is a 40-year-old mountaineer who works for a construction company and plows any spare money into the Putorana expeditions. "I've been all over Siberia, but I've never seen nature like this," said Kayukov, a well-built man with thinning blond hair. "Putorana was all I had dreamed of. This is one of the few such places on the planet. It's probably very hard to find a place this big that is practically virgin."
Our expedition included Sarana's wife, Katya, and Nikolai "Kolya" Anisimov, a 43-year-old mountain climber, natural-born poet, and physical fitness aficionado. Nearly every day the deep-voiced Anisimov would stand in our camp—framed by Putorana's massive plateaus—and boom out verses, such as the following, which he attributed to miners who worked in the harsh Siberian Arctic:
We're not afraid to down nine shots of vodka, or eat cabbage pickled in permafrost.
For you see, we're the guys, we're the guys, of the 70th parallel!
Also with us were Gennady Shklyarik, a geologist from the Norilsk nickel plant; Valeri Ivanov, a 23-year-old hydrologist from Moscow State University, who bathed in the frigid rivers morning and evening; and Tatyana Karimova, a 32-year-old botanist, also from Moscow State University.
We spent a week at the Yagtali. Ivanov mapped a 10-mile (16-kilometer) stretch of the river and took water samples. Some of us hiked through the surrounding forest and plateaus, discovering waterfalls and signs of wildlife: fresh moose tracks, bear scats, and the remains of reindeer killed by wolves.
The only evidence of man was the reindeer corrals and sable traps laid by the Evenk and Dolgan, aboriginals who inhabited this land for millennia before collectivization disrupted their traditional way of life. The last native people left Putorana in 1982, forsaking the rigors of migratory life to work in state reindeer hunting collectives or to settle in towns northern Russia.
As an angler, I was astonished at the abundance of arctic grayling in the Yagtali. These exquisite fish, with their sail-like dorsal fins, milled around by the score in deep pools below the waterfalls. I caught my share on a fly rod, Gennady Shklyarik, who has spent a dozen years on geologic expeditions in the Russian Arctic, turned them into a delicious dish of raw fish marinated in vinegar, salt, and pepper.
"Grayling," he said, "have fed the whole Russian north."
Moving on to the eastern reaches of Putorana, we touched down in the swampy grass next to Lake Kharpicha. As I walked away from the MI-8, I took in the panoramic view: The lake, about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) wide and 18 miles (29 kilometers) long, was surrounded by plateaus, the larch trees on their slopes already turning gold. To the west, where the Kotuy River flowed into the lake, was a wide plain, with buttes and mountains in the far distance. We set up camp in log cabin used by fishermen during the Soviet years. An old boat shed and rusted fuel drums littered the landscape.
The surrounding mountains were prime snow sheep habitat, and Sarana wanted to spend a week searching for the animals. For the first three days a steady, cold rain fell, making climbing treacherous and confining us to the lakeshore. When the rain finally stopped, Sarana led a small group to the top of the plateau behind our camp. Following a reindeer trail, we wound our way up the steep, boulder-strewn slope. As we emerged from the tree line, we were treated to a view of the dark waters of Lake Kharpicha. But no snow sheep.
The next morning we awoke to find that snow had fallen on the plateaus. The lake was black and dead calm. A fine white powder was sprinkled over the sides of the mountains, the tops of which were shrouded in clouds. We had been in Putorana two weeks, and the place was starting to seep into us all.
"Here your way of thinking changes," said Kruger. "At home you worry about a lot of little things, like leaky faucets or fixing the car. You run around like a windup toy. Here you start thinking clearer."
Our last chance to find snow sheep came at our third and final camp, located on Lake Duluk, a narrow 3-mile-long (4.8-kilometer-long) body of water wedged between two towering plateaus in the north of Putorana. In the early 1990s the nature reserve established a sheep observation station at Duluk, but budget cuts had closed it down. By the time we arrived, on September 4, the peak of autumn had passed, and the needles on the larch trees had turned a drab straw color and were falling off in profusion. Sarana said the Duluk area held a large concentration of snow sheep, and I could see why: It was the most rugged, forbidding terrain we had yet encountered.
On our second day of scouting, when Sarana painstakingly led me up the scree-covered side of plateau, we found abundant evidence of sheep but no sheep themselves. With darkness approaching, we were about to scramble back down when he abruptly motioned for me to kneel. About a hundred yards below, I saw two brown-and-white rumps disappear over a rise.
We crawled to a rocky hillock. Slowly I raised my head, and there, not 50 yards away, stood three ewes and a lamb. Their dun coats were a perfect camouflage against the somber brown flanks of the plateau. They were munching on grass, but the largest female—perhaps 110 pounds (50 kilograms), with short, thick horns—was wary. I lowered my head, and when I looked up again, she stopped chewing. I froze. For more than a minute man and sheep locked eyes. Then with a nimble step she led an unhurried retreat to basalt outcroppings so precarious that not even a wolf could follow.
Elated, Sarana and I raced the darkness back to camp. The next morning, convinced that we could find still more of the animals, Sarana organized a small group to return to the same area. It was cold and gray when Anisimov, photographer Randy Olson, Sarana, and I set off, following a narrow, swiftly flowing river to the west.
We humped to the top of the plateau and were met head-on by a biting wind. Seeing no sheep, Sarana grabbed Olson's telephoto lens, placed it on a tripod, and scanned the opposite plateau, whose massive flank presented variegated shades of brown earth, gray scree, white patches of snow, and yellow swatches of grass. After a minute or two Sarana held the lens still. I could see nothing with my bare eyes, but when I peered through the lens, I saw a big brown lump—a ram lying on a grassy incline. Turning the lens on another broad, grassy area, Sarana located four more sheep, all rams.
We scurried down one slope, clambered up another, and headed for the sheep that had eluded us for weeks. Crawling to a low basalt wall, Sarana motioned for Olson and me to follow. He pointed out several big rams grazing about 200 yards (183 meters) away. Spread out on a gentle slope with a 360-degree view, the sheep would be difficult to approach.
We circled around to the top of the plateau, hoping to creep up on the animals from above. I took a position in a boulder field, and Olson hid behind a rock about 150 yards (137 meters) away. Five rams were grazing, and one was lying down, his white rump plainly visible. Now and then the sun emerged from behind thick clouds, throwing columns of hazy light across the landscape.
Olson crept forward, hoping for a good picture. When he closed to about 75 yards (69 meters) , the rams spotted him. Leaning uphill, their powerful torsos taut with alarm, they stood like statues. Just then I noticed three more sheep climbing in my direction. I lay motionless on the boulders. Up they came, two ewes and a lamb, oblivious to my presence. At about 30 feet (9.1 meters) the ewes saw me and stopped. They looked straight at me. I admired their fluffy dark coats, their V-shaped white noses, their brown eyes. They lingered nearly a minute before scampering toward the top of the plateau.
When Olson was 50 or 60 (46 or 55 meters) yards away, the rams bolted downhill for the safety of some cliffs. I hustled after them, scanning the basalt escarpments, streaked with snow. I looked up the valley, where Putorana's plateaus rolled like waves to the horizon.
The sheep had vanished.
On our next-to-last night in Putorana, the Arctic displayed its wonders. But first, as we sat outside at a makeshift wooden table eating Kolya Anisimov's signature dish of rice pilaf and downing vodka (bottles stashed for weeks kept appearing on the table), Sarana screamed and dashed up a slope behind me. Turning, I saw flames leaping out of his tent. A stove had set the fabric on fire. Sarana managed to rescue his beloved Siberian husky, Lama, from inside the tent, and we stomped out the flames.
"It's only a tent," someone said, and the toasts continued.
Next, the seemingly fixed Putorana clouds cleared, revealing a sky shimmering with galaxies and stars.
We drank to the heavens.
Just before midnight Gennady Shklyarik, the geologist, looked up and pointed out a pale green glow. Sheets of ghostly green light flickered and danced, playing across the entire sky. "Aurora borealis," some one said. At times it looked as if an enormous light was flashing overhead. At other times shafts of ephemeral white and green light shot up like volcanic eruptions from behind the plateaus, illuminating the hard black lines of the mountains. The display continued for nearly two hours. When it ended, the polar veterans gathered around the guttering campfire pronounced it the most spectacular they had ever seen.
Volunteers risk their lives to vaccinate children in Islamic State-controlled territory in Syria. Video.