A pounding on my cabin door brings me upright from a deep sleep only just begun. Sunlight slanting through the portholes is disorienting me––my clock says 3 a.m.––but then I remember I’m on a Russian icebreaker out of Murmansk bound for the North Pole, somewhere in the vast snow-covered arctic ice plains, smashing our way to the top of the world through endless days of endless summer. I’m on assignment for Condé Nast Traveler to cover a group of environmental scientists and wealthy adventure tourists. Fully dressed and expecting a wake up call in case of polar bear sighting, I jump up and grab my cameras.
Opening the door I see the ship security officers Sergei and Ivan, both ex-KGB and carrying shotguns. They are on board because our icebreaker is nuclear powered. “Helicopter. You come now,” says Sergei as he pulls me through the door, marching me onto the deck where the ancient, massive cargo chopper is warming up. I can see seven or eight passengers, mostly attractive women dressed for disco and a few men from the crew who live below decks where there is supposedly a clandestine prostitution and gambling ring. They appear to have been partying all night and are passing around a clear bottle of what I assume is vodka. I am pushed on board and strapped into an observation seat facing out the open door. They pass the bottle to the pilot who takes a swig and starts revving the engines. I get the bottle and realize I’m drinking de-icing fluid. Clearly they expect me to take pictures of something and I get the idea that I’m now part of the entertainment. As we start lifting off I spy a giant cotter pin on the landing pad. I can’t help but wonder about the standards for air craft maintenance in the collapsing Soviet empire.
We immediately fly into a swirling arctic fog, losing sight of the ship and all visibility. I remember that I was told yesterday this craft has no functioning navigational instruments and will only be used on clear days. A short while later we descend onto the ice, the powerful twin rotors whipping the surface snow around us into a perfect roaring white out.
I’m tensed and ready to shoot whatever is going to happen but completely blinded and turn my head back to Sergei and Ivan to shield my eyes. They are smiling, watching me expectantly, drinking. I motion to go up and am ignored. I look up through the swirling, opaque snow and suddenly make out a looming shadow across a curtain of fog–– it’s our own massive ship, rising up and bearing down on us as it smashes its way through the ice. As the bow makes contact leads are opening, shooting lighting bolts of cracking ice in all directions, the widest lead heading straight for us. I shout to go up, up, up, but the crew is convulsed in laughter, thoroughly enjoying this game of chicken while the leads streak towards us. Just as the biggest lead rips into our skids exposing the black water below us–– so cold you die in minutes–– the pilot skillfully blasts forward and up, rising and turning the chopper like a matador spinning away from the bull, flying just beneath the bow of the icebreaker, now yards away and blasting it’s horn.
Looking back, it was a crazy gift in terms of pictures, but the whole episode was a suicidal, snow-cowboy joyride designed to impress and entertain the women. A few days later I became the 3014th person to stand on the North Pole, a destination many died to reach over the years and at the time only reachable by air, submarine or this Russian icebreaker. The US icebreakers are not equipped with nuclear power and are not built with strong enough hulls or propellers to withstand the weeks of pounding. You can try it via dogsled but the odds are very good you will join the legion of missing explorers. When we arrived at the pole it turned out the Russians didn’t have GPS and after two hours of math and guesswork the captain turned to a passenger who produced a handheld GPS device to pinpoint our location within a few meters at 90 degrees North. The Russians winched a car, stereo system and huge barbeque onto the ice below with cases of vodka. An impromptu disco party began. The last thing I remember before blacking out hours later is being cornered below decks by the very tall and formidable first mate shouting into the face of a young American scientist next to me, “Look in eye! Are you man or woman?! Drink the vodka!!” We drank, we drank.
Journal entry, aboard the Yamal, August 1994.