Life Is a Chilling Challenge in Subzero Siberia

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It was short and sweet, but my biggest concern was that I would have a heart attack. It isn't so much the water but getting out that is the worst—that brief moment between the water and contacting the air, which is about -22 Fahrenheit (-30 Celsius).

I lost it within minutes of getting out—it was as if I went into a state of shock. I began to lose feeling in my body and, for about 24 hours, walking was tricky and I felt out of it. It was difficult to think and remember, and I felt groggy, as if I had a bad hangover. I have no doubt that if the walrus club had not been there, I would have frozen to death.

You say these walrus clubs are becoming pretty popular up there. Is this just a macho tourist gimmick, or are there health benefits?

People really do believe that there are health benefits to bathing in icy water—they believe it is a way to avoid colds and pneumonia. And it's not restricted to the men; women and children also participate. It's a real community event.

There might be some truth to the stories. After all, the one member of [Robert] Scott's last Antarctic expedition who doused himself in icy water every morning was the only member not to get frostbite.

What are some other consequences of living in such a frigid environment?

Dealing with dead people. In permafrost zones, where the top few feet of ground tends to thaw in the summer and then refreeze, large buried objects tend to rise to the surface. This is particularly bad when buried coffins rise to the surface after several years.

The whole tradition of burial is not a Siberian one—it came from Europeans. Siberians used to perform sky burials where they would wrap the bodies in canvas and hang them from the trees, but the Soviet government probably discouraged this.

Sadly, a little girl died from pneumonia while we were visiting. To dig a grave, the townspeople lit a long bonfire for about an hour, which allowed the ground to thaw a little, then dug a couple of inches and repeated the process for a couple of days before they were able to bury the coffin.

Transportation can't be easy in those temperatures. How do people get around?

Cars and trucks housed in heated garages are fine. But diesel freezes at -58 Fahrenheit [-50 degrees Celsius]. It's a pretty common practice to light a bonfire beneath the fuel tank to keep it from freezing. Axle grease also freezes and is warmed with a blowtorch.

What effects did the cold have on your expedition? Did you run into any problems?

Pen ink freezes. Batteries lose power faster. Metal sticks to skin. The first time I tried to take some stills with my camera the metal stuck to my nose.

We had severe difficulties with filming. The eyepiece froze, and you couldn't see through it. The camera lenses did strange things, because the metal casings and screws holding the lenses in place were made of different metals that contracted at different rates and distorted the images—so really we had absolutely no idea whether we were actually shooting anything.

All the electronics in the video camera froze so film was the only technology that worked. But even the film would get brittle and crack.

What adaptations have the people of Oymyakon had to make to live in this environment?

In the last ten years, post-Soviet Union, people have returned to a more self-sufficient lifestyle. Everyone owns some livestock, and they rely on this livestock for food and for barter.

There are times when coal deliveries are irregular and the local power station—which makes indoor life bearable—must burn wood to keep hot water flowing to the homes. If the power ceases, the town shuts down in about five hours, and the pipes freeze and crack.

One of the guys who runs the power station hasn't been paid in nine months, but he keeps doing his job. There is a great sense of community. People do what they need to do to survive. For them, extreme [subzero] temperatures are normal.

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