Overland Challenge - Week Twelve

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Watch The Video for Week Twelve.

14 March 1994

Photo Diary - Week Twelve

Bering Strait (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

The Arktos sets off as the sun rises in a clear blue sky. Jeff and I walked beside it to discuss strategy. Jeff and Richard B are still upset and concerned. They don't want to set off across the treacherous Bering Strait in a machine that's not up to it, with a skipper that's, in their view, irresponsible. To support this view, Jeff argues that you need to look no further than the appalling lack of internal communication between Bruce and Norm and Vern to know that health and safety rules have been blown asunder and danger is all around.

Deaf to any critisism, Bruce and the Arktos are going well. The helicopter arrives and Rupert, Kees, Robin, Doc and the others on board are surprised at our excellent progress. The sun continues to shine. I'm all too aware of being lulled into a false sense of security, especially as that's something I want so badly.

As we crest a small, windsmoothed, easy-to-climb hill, the Bering Strait comes into view gleaming beneath the warming sun. In the distance is Big Diomede. Jeff and I both feel we could walk it.

The helicopter team leave the satphone for us to use, promising to return the next day. Peter George phones from Nome asking when we'll reach Wales, Alaska. I hear myself offering Tuesday as a possibility. Jeff concurs with an eyebrow raising sideways nod. Hope was undoubtedly getting the better of us. A semblance of sanity returns with nightfall.

I'm back in the front cabin with Bruce, Jeff and Richard B. None of us can sleep and in the early hours a discussion quickly turns into a row. Jeff and Bruce on opposite sides. Richard B jumping from the shelf to Jeff. Me in the middle. I heard myself trying to sound reasonable but clearly taking Jeff's side: 'There is a strong argument to say we aren't completely ready to go:

  • Internal and external communications are poor
  • There's not enough fuel to cope with an emergency
  • The rocks holed the hull
  • The caterpillar arms look damaged
  • We need more food

Jeff immediately jumped in with: 'And as captain you're completely responsible for this mess and should never have allowed ...' I could see Bruce reeling. He appeared like a desperate boxer fighting his way to the end of the round, banking on a better one with the sunrise. I knew that as the 'owner' I would have to sort things out. But tomorrow, not right now. Fitful sleep overtook us all.

15 March 1994

Bering Strait (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

5.30 rise - 7.00 scheduled start. Beautiful clear skies light up Big Diomede just 26 miles out in the Bering Strait. Bruce starts getting more fuel cans out to top up three-quarter-full tanks at 7.15. Today's biggest problem woulld be frustration at wasting good weather and stopping Jeff from jumping ship to do the crossing in a skidoo. I stop Bruce from fetching more fuel cans and we set off at 7.45. Two and quarters hours, five miles of journey thrown away.

Jeff marched ahead of the Arktos on perfect flat ice. His vibes of anger and frustration seemed to slow us down even more. Ninety minutes later we come across an ice rubble field. This is where the Arktos should be at home - it certainly was on the first afternoon. I asked Bruce to keep going which he did until Norm screamed "FIRE!"

Smoke was pouring out of the engine room.

As the Arktos climbed majestically over a medium-sized ice hurdle I turned round to see smoke pouring out of the front pod of the Arktos. The fire turned out to be caused by an electrical fault. Easy to fix but the time to sort it gave Jeff the opportunity to scrutinise the articulated caterpillar arm, which was arched because of the ice hurdle. The arm was pulling away from the pod. A clear demonstration of how much damage had been caused by the 300 metre trackless journey over the rock field.

Bruce was all for going on, as emotionally was I - anything to keep going. Volodia insisted we stop there and then to weld it before the damage was exacerbated. A generator, welding kit and mechanics would have to be flown in. We stopped.

None of our radio messages were picked up. The satphone found only the receptionist at the Nome Nugget and we couldn't get through to Lavrentia to talk to Rupert, Kees, Doc, or Robin.

So we wait for the helicopter to find us. An enormous row erupted between Jeff and Bruce. Bruce desperate to get the Arktos across the Bering Strait - blind to personal risk. Jeff countering with safety and responsibility, but inwardly happy to kill the Arktos stone dead. He insisted he would only proceed if we had full helicopter back-up.

Return to Lavrentia.

5.15 in the afternoon sees the arrivial of the helicopter and another completely wasted day of fine weather. We decide that everyone except Victor and a guide should return to the hotel in Lavrentia. I thought it might just give us a chance to be reenergised by the overwhelming goodwill of the team who have bonded with Duncan and are still as keen as can be for us to make it across the Bering Strait.

At 11.00, Duncan comes to my room. He is still confident the Arktos can be made to work, but he is very worried by the on going fight between Bruce and Jeff. Duncan wants me to take over the role of Captain. I know, of course, that I can't - it would be wholly irresponsible as I knew nothing about the Arktos. But it gave me something to sleep on.

16 March 1994

Lavrentiya (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

The Arktos repair team helicopter left at 9.30 with a heavy, built-to-work-anywhere generator slung underneath. Volodia and Duncan see eye-to-eye about the welding repairs. It was another beautiful day, wasted good weather was my glass half empty take on that. Stefan insists that Art Mortvedt, our Alaskan guide and radio specialist, comes to Lavrentia to install them properly. Peter, sitting with Art in Nome, disagrees and instructs Art to take them to Providenia, to explain to Rupert and Jeff how they work, and to return to the sanity of Alaska, USA. I decide to fly to Providenia and decide whether Art should stay or fly back myself.

Time is at last on our side. I have breakfast with Jeff who is in 'demand' mood. He will only board the Arktos again if - Bruce is not the captain, the helicopter is with us all the time, if everyone is ordered to evacuate the Arktos should the need arrive (which Jeff was convinced it would), that he, Jeff, not Bruce, make the evacuation decision. The nightmare of the Arktos track coming off and Verne having no radio to tell us of this, the damaged caterpillar arm and the fire have pushed safety to the very top of Jeff, the explorer's, priority list.

Art Comes to the Rescue

The flight to Provideniya, over stunningly magnificent land, was hugely invigorating and exciting. I've always been refreshed by taking to the air in small flying machines and took up flying in my early twenties only to give up shortly afterwards because of work and family commitments. I determined to right that when I returned to England and get flying again. Seeing Art was even more invigorating and exciting.

Art Mortvedt is a former Park Ranger, experienced bush pilot, established Alaska guide. And he looks every bit the part. A magnificent Alaska-style fur hat and striking red jacket with expedition's labels inluding our Ford Overland badge. This covered a powerful man whose huge rucksack, full of emergency kit (enough I suspect to enable him to walk back to the USA if he needed too) was slung casually over his massive back. Help, I knew, had arrived. Art agrees to come to Lavrentia where I've no doubt he will be able lift morale.

The helicopter flies low, beneath the incoming clouds, on the return journey to Lavrentiya proof that our good weather spell is on the turn.

A Plan Emerges

I talk and talk and talk to Jeff, Doc, Jeff, Robin, Stefan all through the afternoon until a plan emerges. On the Arktos there won't be a captain as such. Instead we'll think of it as we did the Fords and the trucks. I'll be expedition leader, and if for any reason, I can't fulfill that role then Jeff will take over. During the crossing the helicopter will be around as much as possible, and to make sure that any arguments between Bruce, Jeff and me don't affect safety, the helicopter team will initiate the crucial decisions about turning back or evacuating. The next morning I had to sell/tell (depending on which way you looked at it) the plan to Bruce.

The welding team returned with the sunset. Bruce told me that the welding went well but Norm hurt his head - I never found out exactly how.

17 March 1994

Lavrentiya (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

Everyone involved with the project, Russians and English-speakers alike attended the early morning meeting. I briefly outline the plan, side stepping, on Duncan's advice, the Captain issue and move quickly on to talk through what has to be achieved this morning. The radios have to work and be installed, we need to make another helicopter recce of the Bering Strait, more fuel is needed for the Arktos, and more food. In the afternoon the Arktos recce team, will fly out to the Arktos, move forward to the launch point and be ready for departure at first light.

Any questions? Jeff pointedly asks who will be captain on the Arktos. Bruce is surprisingly calm, with a twist of the knife at the end. Richard is the boss. Duncan, his mate, has his life in his hands. Not Jeff, who is nothing like as great as he thinks.

The recce was excellent, so much so that the helicopter was able to land on firm ice four times in the Bering Strait and takes us up to Big Diomede. Stepan in confident mood decides that he will go on the Arktos. Piece of cake. For the second or third time during the expedition, I was aware that Stepan thought I should be taking a firmer hand, and this time he would make sure I did. In fact, taking Stepan on the Arktos would be impossible for a host of political (with a small p) reasons but I decided to leave that until the afternoon.

Last Chance

In the meantime I have to return with Stepan to Lavrentia to persuade customs and immigration to let the Arktos team stay overnight on Russian ice and leave the next morning. Back in the hotel I find they're not happy. All they've done for the last two weeks is wait for us and they can't return to Provideniya until we're clear of Russia. If we don't reach Little Diomede (the USA) tomorrow we will go with them to Provideniya and leave as passengers on the first available plane to Nome. And there's more last chance news. John Raymond, in London, sends a fax saying that must be no more spent on the Arktos.

Before setting off for the Arktos I'm told by Art that the radios don't work. This is the last straw for Richard B who decides not to come with the Arktos team. Our return to the Arktos suggests this is a wise decision. The Arktos had been bogged down for over two hours, and only just winched out. The ice is turning mushy we must move to firmer ice. The helicopter pilot is worried and keen to leave for Lavrentia. The good news is that Jeff and Bruce have worked well together during the Arktos winch. Doc tells Richard he's made exactly the right decision not to stay on this deathtrap a minute longer. Stepan is chastened and gives up on the idea of staying with the Arktos. He would be back at first light in the helicopter.

That night Jeff's main worry was Polar Bears. I didn't share them and grabbed what little sleep I could.

18 March 1994

Bering Strait (Chukotka, Siberia, Russia)

Jeff was right to worry. At first light we staggered out of the Arktos to find Polar Bear footprints all over the snow. It had clearly been padding round and round, sniffing for food. Our imagination quickly made it the biggest Polar Bear in the region. So much for my not taking Jeff's concerns seriously.

At five, we head straight out towards Big Diomede. It looked huge and so easy to reach in the clear early morning atmosphere which was filled with hope for what the day might bring and shadows cast by the rising sun.


The first ten seconds were great. The Arktos moved forward without a care in the world. Ninety seconds later (or less) it fell, quite serenely, through the hard crust of ice in slushy near-freezing water. And however hard its giant tracks thrashed and turned, it couldn't move. Just like a car in sand.

It was a sceptics dream come true and the last thing I expected.

Two hours later with huge use of winches the Arktos was pulled back to where we'd started with the Polar Bear footprints, and the helicopter arrived, with our back-up mates and the immigration/customs team, who were determined to see us leave for the USA, one way or another.

Volodia had been patient, hardworking and constructive throughout. Bruce also worked his socks off and was, I jotted down, frenetically calm.

Gut Feeling

Duncan took off almost immediately in the helicopter, which was ours for the day, to scout the best route across to Diomede. He told us the direction he would have recommeneded was exactly the one we took. And I knew then that our attempt to reach the summit of the whole expedition was doomed. I also knew that we must struggle all day to give Bruce the greatest possible chance to prove my gut feeling wrong. Indeed, if we could struggle just a few miles away from the mainland and its surrounding craggy shore ice, across some of the icepans on the Bering Strait, there was still a chance.

And indeed, for the next couple of hours, failure was suspended as the Arktos, keeping close to land, journeyed two maybe three miles north to Mys Dezhneva (East Cape). There we had would turn east and head for Big Diomede.

It was one of those perfect days. Crystal clear, you could see for miles. Jeff was lobbying hard to be given the opportunity to walk to Big Diomede. Doc supported him, but during a banter with Jeff and Rupert, fell through the ice. Stepan, Art and I climbed into the noisy helicopter to plan for the worst. Jeff had given me an idea. We could rescue something from the debacle by taking the helicopter to Big Diomede and walking across the International Dateline into the America.

Plan B

Stepan went to put this to the immigration/customs team. Art took the helicopter to the Diomedes to set up with the villagers on Little Diomede. The helicopter would return to Lavrentiya to get the baggage of all the English speakers who hadn't expected to get to America so fast. I agreed to give Bruce as much daylight time as I could to pull something out of the hat, and to keep the Plan B to ourselves.

By early afternoon, with Volodia walking ahead, picking out the least bad route, and Bruce pushing Arktos on for all he was worth, Arktos reached Mys Dezhneva. And promptly sank down in to the mush for the third time. Sensing inpending doom, Bruce through caution to the wind and crashed his way up the shore-ice rubble. A gash was cut into the side of the Arktos, above and below its waterline. The pumps were unable to cope.

You can't push on a piece of string said Duncan as he, Jeff and I agreed that the only way forward was to abandon the Arktos as it could move neither forward not backwards.

Expressions of everyone face spoke so much more than words. This was a desperately sad end to a dream that almost came true.

As everything that could be salvaged from the Arktos was being taken off I reflected on the scale of what we'd lost. The summit of the whole journey, from London to New York, was now unattainable. It was as if we'd got to with 100 yards of the top of Everest and been forced to turn round and descend. But as I reflected on this I was also aware that from Bruce and Duncan's point of view it was just as bad. They were pinning the success of the Arktos on this project, and now their dream, like mine was in tatters.

Reality returned with the helicopter. Art had fixed for us to stay the night with the villagers of Little Diomede. Stepan had the agreement from the immigration/customs team for our novel exit from Russian soil. We climbed aboard the helicopter and watched Duncan, Bruce, Norm and Vern beside the abandoned Arktos shrink from view. The helicopter would return to take them back to Lavrentiya after dropping us of at the International Dateline.

And We Walked from Russia to America

Even here on the ice frontier between Russian and America, where few if any had legally crossed from one great continent to the other the contrast between the two was striking. As the heavy, reliable, noisy M-18 helicopter droned off into the distance, taking with it Volodia, Stepan and his team we were welcomed by a fleet of quick and nimble snowmobiles that carted away our baggage, leaving us free to celebrate our giant step from Russia to America over a line, that according to our GPS marked the frontier. And as we stepped across so we lost a day.

17 March 1994 (again)

Little Diomede(Alaska, USA)

For the second time on this trip I could feel the glass emptying, no longer half full. Indeed if I could keep it at half full I argued to myself that I'd be doing well.

But walking into America across a mile of ice up onto Little Diomede, with a genuine welcome from the curious villagers, was quite something. First things first I phoned home to tell Wendy I was well, but very disappointed. Yes phoned, with real ease. Just picked up the phone and dialed. This was definitely America.

And that night in the school gym where we would sleep, the Little Diomeders performed an Eskimo welcoming dance. And bit by bit I felt my huge disappointment being chased away. It would come back, for days, weeks, months and years to come. But I also knew that one day it would properly go away.

18 March 1994 (again)

Little Diomede to Wales (Alaska, USA)

We woke up from a restless night, to find it was yesterday again. Almost as if that painful day had never happened. As if ...

But I'll never forget the morning in the village on Little Diomede which looks directly at Russia's Big Diomede, just a couple of miles away, where a dozen or so soldiers still stand guard in case of an American invasion through the back door.

Not that long ago, in the fifties, there was no boundary and the Little Diomede villages thought of Big Diomede as their larder, full of seals and wildlife that they hunted for food and survival. On the shore, waiting for the summer, I found a sealskin whaling boat and the carcus of a whale which would have supplied food for many, for ages. It was a morning when life stood still. As I looked across at Russia it was difficult to comprehend that we had broken two great records - driving through the Channel Tunnel and driving across all of Russia. For now the disappointment of failing to cross the Bering Strait was raw and about to be made more so. A light plane landed on the shore ice with provisions for the villages and we left on it for Wales. Twenty six miles flying over ground which had we driven it would have crowned out expedition.

In Wales, the whole team was once again united. A great lunch in a delightful house - I should have found out the name of the kind people that owned it, but was too tired, lazy or exhausted to ask. In the afternoon we were introduced to the skidoo.

The budget was running out and I'd lost all our bargaining power with the failure to cross the Strait so we had only ten to be shared by seventeen of us even though for long journeys all the 'locals' recommended travelling solo. Most of the team fell instantly in love with these hands-on machines. I didn't give them a chance and quickly decided that I'd be one of those doubling up, so freeing one for a solo ride. Robin had a piece about our Bering Strait attempt published in the UK's Daily Mail Newspaper. Not bad, not good, not what we'd so hoped for.

19 March 1994

Wales to Teller(Alaska, USA)

I woke up to the early symptoms of flu, or was it exhaustion? Whichever, there was nothing I could do but keep going.

We had a thankfully late start after a futile attempt in the early hours of the morning to get into the 'City Hall' where the phone was, to answer press calls. When we eventually got in I found a Creasey book in the small library and had a long phone dicussion with Karen Mellor, one of my most trusted executives in London. Karen reported that my sending the Beta crew back home, might have been understood if we'd reached our summit, but was now being seen as proof of my emotional instability. Her advice was for me not to blow it with Meridian. Roger Laughton, the CEO there was still supportive, but others thought we'd failed and the time had come for us to fly straight back to the UK. From my point of view that simply wasn't an option.

Snowmobiles mostly have two stroke engines that are light and don't mind the cold, because the oil is in the petrol mix. Ours had pull starts, because batteries don't like the cold either. Pull starts need an expert touch and a giant pull, especially in very cold weather. I knew from the start that to enjoy them I should have invested much more effort into learning all about them. I hadn't so my first impression, which stayed with me, was of a muscle aching, sore, chillingly cold, worryingly slippery ride.

After twenty miles of the seventy we had to travel to our first stop-over. That meant Vera was promoted to driver. And she thoroughly enjoyed it, racing along like the best of them, upset only that she had a 'sack of potatoes' for a passenger.

The scenery was starkly beautiful like Siberia. In fact it was Siberia, or Russian anyway, before being sold to the Americans in 1868. My scanty diary talks only of flu. What a waste.

In Tella, Vera dragged me straight to the school canteen for some great meat and potato soup, cake and coffee while Art arranged with Dean and Tina Herried to let me sleep in their spare room and get a proper night's sleep. The rest of the team slept in the school gym. Thank you Dean and Tina. I wish I'd been better company but your kindness was very much appreciated.

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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