One would think Swedish explorer Mikael Strandberg wouldn’t need to travel farther than a few hundred miles north of Stockholm to find the coldest place on Earth. But he spent February in the Russian Far North-East with the Even nomadic reindeer herders. How cold was it? The average was -40. At that point it doesn’t matter if we’re talking Fahrenheit or Celsius.
Mikael Strandberg: It is a well known fact since the days of Stalin’s gulags, that the areas Kolyma, Verkhoyansk, and Oymyakon are the coldest inhabited places on earth. I long ago realized that the warmest people on earth come from the coldest parts. This was a recon tour. Since I love the people of the Russian Far North-East, I wanted to do a historic trip where I can highlight the Even, the true reindeer herders, and their ability to survive on gear that has been used for thousands of years, with a few additions. I want to compare them with me, a modern day explorer with a lot of modern gear. So, we have decided to do an historic trip with reindeer, and to fish and hunt to survive next winter from their home on Oymyakon.
MS: On this trip, the lowest was around -55 minus, the highest around -30. The thing with Siberia is that most of the time, especially during mid-winter, it is more or less the same low temperature day and night!
MS: This is a great debate over here and opinions are many. For me personally, it is hard to judge after such a short time, since we saw no settlements. But if I talk to the older locals, like Jegor Makarov, who really knows this part of the world like the back of his hand, he says it has less snow, is warmer in general, and has more freak climate changes, which kills a lot of the local fauna. The wild Yakut horse died in the thousands about ten years back due to a heat wave.
MS: There are no Swedes used to these low temperatures. The Siberian winter is different than any other inhabited winter climate. It’s a 24-hour, same-temperature freezer pretty much all the time during five to six months! I am used to odd things, like blue sparks flying from falling timber, petrol freezing, brandy turning into syrup, all metal equipment breaking, people loosing the tips of their noses, poo freezing before it hits the ground, etc. But on a short trip like this, well, everything which is liquid—like toothpaste—will freeze, all cables will break, like on cameras and head torches, but most dramatic is when it is below 50 and somebody exhales, one’s breath is transformed into a shower of ice crystals, followed by a tinkling sound referred to as “the whispers of the stars.”
MS: Most of them have done military service or attended Soviet schools, can speak Russian, and have adopted Russian society to some extent, but they live far away from everyone, particularly those who still live along the isolated, freezing, and inaccessible part of Oymyakon. I have spent more than half my life in more than 120 countries, but I have never come across as warm, gentle, funny, strong, and easygoing people. They survive out here, because they want no other life.