Life Is a Chilling Challenge in Subzero Siberia

May 12, 2004

The explorer featured in this story appears in Going to Extremes: Cold, which airs on National Geographic Presents II in the U.S. Thursday, May 13, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel.

Going to extremes is a way of life for Nick Middleton. Middleton splits his time between teaching geography at Oxford University and venturing to remote, extreme locations—the hottest, coldest, wettest, and driest places on the planet—to investigate how indigenous people have adapted to harsh environments.

In an interview with the National Geographic Channel, Middleton recalls his trip to Oymyakon, in Siberia, which holds the chilly distinction of being the coldest permanently inhabited place on Earth.

Oymyakon sits just a few hundred miles south of the Arctic circle, about 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of Yakutsk, an industrial center on the banks of the river Lena in northeastern Russia. Temperatures here have plummeted to a record low of -96.16 degrees Fahrenheit (-71.2 degrees Celsius).

Why would people choose to live in such an inhospitable place?

Before the 1920s and 30s, Oymyakon was a seasonal stop for reindeer herders. But the Soviet government, in its efforts to settle nomadic populations—claiming they were difficult to control and technologically and culturally backward—made the site a permanent settlement.

What is there to eat so far north?

All people eat is reindeer and horsemeat. Medics say the reason they don't suffer from malnutrition is that there must be lots of micronutrients in their animals' milk.

There is a short summer season during which people can grow things. But for the most part people don't eat fruit or vegetables.

How do people keep warm?

Fur. Fur is considered a luxury in the West but it is the only thing that keeps you warm. Most of my crew wore synthetic fibers, and they were cold and miserable. My hat was raccoon, my coat was made from the skins of a flock of sheep, and I had knee-high reindeer boots. Reindeer fur is particularly good at keeping you warm, because the shaft of each hair is hollow, and the air [in the shafts] has an insulating effect.

You had a pretty icy introduction to Siberia when you arrived. You became a member of the Walrus Club [a group of people who swim in rivers and lakes in winter, sometimes called polar bear clubs in other parts of the world]. How did it feel to take an ice bath in the frozen river?

Continued on Next Page >>


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