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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bumbling Travelers Forget Cold and Bears

Www.timcopejourneys.comCope cycling in Siberia. The tips of two toes had to be cut off due to frostbite.
Yury Nadezhdin, a rescue worker in the Far North, does not like winter. For him, it means people doing stupid things -- and killing themselves in the process.

"I always look toward winter with a feeling of dread," said Nadezhdin, who has led the Murmansk region's search and rescue team for the past decade.

This winter has been relatively injury-free so far, he said, but six thrill-seekers died last winter on the slopes of mountains that his team had marked as off-limits.

"I will never forget the girl from St. Petersburg who was caught in an avalanche last winter," Nadezhdin said. "She could have survived. We found her quickly, a half-hour after receiving the call. But all our efforts to resuscitate her were in vain."

The 29-year-old woman was among a group of four covered by an avalanche while snowboarding on Aikuaivenchorr Mountain, near Kirovsk, 150 kilometers south of Murmansk. At least one of her companions, Alex Mamontov, also could have survived because he was buried under only 80 centimeters of snow, Nadezhdin said. Rescuers failed to find him in time because he had neglected to wear a snowsuit with a satellite tracking device.

"We told those guys to wear the devices," said Nadezhdin, whose team is part of the Emergency Situations Ministry. "We also warned them that a snowboarder had died in the same place just a month before they came, and we had put up warning signs that prohibited skiing in the area."

Risk taking is not confined to Murmansk or to Russians. It seems Russians and foreigners alike tend to forget that Russia really is a gigantic country where winter temperatures are frigid and the odd insomniac bear can prove deadly.

While many Sakha residents prefer to stay indoors when temperatures dip to minus 50 degrees Celsius, this is the time that foreigners like to visit the Arctic region.

"Most travelers exploring Yakutia in minus 50 degree weather are foreigners," said Vladimir Burayev, an official in Sakha branch of the Emergency Situations Ministry. The Sakha republic is commonly referred to as Yakutia, its old name.

Northeastern Siberia -- which covers 1.5 million square kilometers and takes in swaths of taiga, numerous mountain passes and the North Sea coast -- exists in travelers' minds more as a myth than reality, Burayev said.

Gavril Scryabin, a mountain biker from the region's capital, Yakutsk, recalled the odd sight of running across a group of shivering Japanese bikers last winter.

"We felt like we were seeing French soldiers outside Moscow in 1812," he said. "They seemed to have dressed themselves with everything they had, including plastic bags."

Visitors wishing to venture into the region's wilds are urged to first contact local rescue officials, who can help draw up a travel route and keep in touch with them by satellite, Burayev said.

But some risky souls still travel independently.

Nikon Senin, 30, said he was glad he came back alive from a solo journey above the Arctic Circle. "I got sick and crawled in the snow for four days unable to eat. I am now ready to tell everyone that my idea to travel alone was really stupid," he said.

Two young Australians, Tim Cope and Chris Hatherly, learned quickly about the risks of the Russian winter when they pedaled their bikes across the country, struggling to cover six kilometers per day.

"Villagers ... cried seeing us ride by," Cope recalled in his Internet journal.

He said they understood why soon enough. They suffered severe frostbite while cycling through Siberia in minus 20 degree weather, and the tips of two of Cope's toes were amputated in an emergency operation at a village clinic. An elderly woman let them stay with her for 10 days as they recovered from the frostbite.

"We have learnt appreciating life as a whole," Cope said.

In southeast Siberia, 19 foreign tourists and two Russian instructors got caught in an avalanche last winter near the settlement of Vydrino, on the border of the Irkutsk region and Buryatia republic. Six were initially lost, but rescuers found four of them quickly thanks to the tracking devices sewn into their snowsuits, the Emergency Situations Ministry said. The other two -- Christophe Sevrvignat, 38, and Jean-Francois Charut, 56 -- died. Charut's body was only found in June after the danger of more avalanches forced the rescuers to call off their search.

People who make jokes about the Russian cold and Russian bears have not usually seen either, said Lilia Dragutsan, a rescue coordinator in Sakha. She said the danger of meeting wild animals in the forests during the winter was real, especially in Sakha's Nerunga district.

"Most of the bears are hibernating, but there are some who are insomniac, as well as wolves, of course," Dragutsan said.

She said this fall was unusually long and warm, and some bears did not go into hibernation. These bears are hungry and extremely dangerous, she said. In an incident last month, a bear attacked a resident of the village of Kalya who had ventured deep into a forest, local media reported. The man has no recollection of how he escaped, but he managed to reach his car, which was parked on the edge of the forest, and drive to the hospital for help.

"He must be a really lucky man because he survived even though his leg, arm and shoulder were broken and he suffered a loss of blood," said Georgy Tsvetkov, head of the Severouralsk Hunter Association.

He said the hunters were keeping a lookout for the bear. "It is very unlikely that the bear will go into hibernation after this meeting, and nobody knows where it will go," he said.

Bear attacks are also common in Siberia, the Urals and on Sakhalin island.

Last December, Andrew Zimin was torn to shreds by a bear during a hunting trip in an Irkutsk forest, a local newspaper, Oblastnaya, reported. His brother went into the forest several days after Zimin disappeared and was attacked by a bear near the remains. He managed to shoot and kill the animal. Local residents said bears were not hibernating after a poor berry season left them hungry.

Bear sightings during the winter months were rare two decades ago, but with villagers increasingly moving to the cities, the bears have become braver in villages.

Despite the need to be careful, the winter does offer its rewards, said Ilya Gurevich, a Russian traveler who writes about hard-to-find places in Russia. He said the only way to visit Rdeisky Monastery, built between Pskov and Novgorod in 1666, is to travel there in winter.

"In any other season, the traveler will most likely be sucked into the peat bog," he said.

The monastery is surrounded by one of the largest peat bogs in Europe. Locals like to tell stories about seeing a giant monkey scampering around the bog and supernatural fluorescent plates flying overhead. In winter, though, the bog freezes over.

There are many ways to enjoy the Russian winter without putting yourself at risk, said Harry Brokop, a German who spent last year's winter vacation traveling across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

"I was warm and safe, but such a trip changed my whole perspective of Russia," he said.

"Traveling nonstop for four days and nights by train only took you halfway through the region. The forests, cottages and thousands of telegraph poles, slowly but relentlessly slipping into the bogs, seemed endless.

"I guess that if either Hitler or Napoleon had ever traveled like this, they would have reconsidered their belief that they could conquer Russia."