Having chills but not getting cold feet: How Moscow school students explore the North Pole

Having chills but not getting cold feet: How Moscow school students explore the North Pole

The Big Arctic Expedition sent two student groups from Moscow schools to the North Pole. The Pole team headed by Matvei Shparo conquers the top of the world on skis, and the Barneo team headed by Ivan Smirnov carries out research at the Barneo Russian drifting Arctic station.

RIA Novosti correspondent Yulia Osipova went with the young people to see how the Arctic was not just a tourist route but a unique educational space.

 Standard pre-expedition situation

The first day of waiting at Zhukovsky Airport was spent under the slogan "Standard pre-expedition situation": the ice had broken up on the Barneo station's runway. The second day brought news that the ice had been "glued" together and the runway extended, but Norwegian Spitzbergen did not allow the Russian EMERCOM transport to land: another "standard pre-expedition situation"… Our flight appeared on the screen at 10 am on the third day. But it was no cause for joy: registration closed without even opening. We set out at night. During this time, I was trying to understand these Arctic "standards" and figure out who these kids were and, what's more important, why they were doing this.

The Big Arctic Expedition is an educational program Russia is holding for the tenth time now. The current expedition is financially supported by the Moscow Department of Education. The total project cost (including several themed events like geographic dictation, attended by over 8,000 students) is 30 million rubles.

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The team, 14 teens aged 16‒18, has earned this trip to the North Pole. They defended their own scientific projects at the Arktika contest, bested others at geographic dictation, taken part in the Barneo is Waiting summer training course and passed the Rubicon obstacle course as well as a ropes course and a polar quest.

The young people, as it turns out, have already studied the snow cover, researched plankton, learned how to determine the snow freshness as well as polar life conditions and even tried on waterproof coveralls designed to survive cracks in the ice (training was held at Strogino Boatyard by Strogino Patrol rescuers: the ice had not yet broken up at the time). In addition, they were prepared for a possible encounter with a polar bear.

"We are responsible for the kids, but we are glad they show so much interest"

I asked the students' school principals why these small fragile kids would need to explore the North Pole. Principle of School No. 446 Dmitry Isayev, Principle of School No. 892 Yury Verzhbitsky, Principle of School No. 444 Pavel Severinets and Principle of School No. 329 Alexei Ponomaryov flew to Spitzbergen with us to see the students off to the Barneo station.

"For them, this is a chance to leave their comfort zone, test themselves and show their leadership qualities and skills. Children will certainly keep these memories for the rest of their lives, and maybe it will be their brightest experience," one principal said. They also noted that Moscow teens need tourism and country-study activities to get them off the coach, put their tablets aside and go explore mountains, rivers, and the North Pole.

They believe the Department of Education is encouraging this activity, and as a result school students have finally started hiking. Even parents who worry a lot are involved in the process: they start by sending their children hiking in the Moscow Region, see how responsible and professional it is and then allow them to go on more remote and extreme hikes. "Of course, we are responsible for them, but we are glad they show so much interest," one principal said. He added that the centenary of the young naturalist movement was marked this year. One hundred years ago, young naturalists were the founders of the tourism and country-study activities that are being successfully developed today.

"We must not forget the students' dreams for high rankings"

"Today, Moscow schools have very high KPI (key performance indicators): they must provide financial results, extracurricular education, gold medals, rankings and other things. But the kids should dream. We must not forget their dreams for high KPI," this is how Expedition Head Matvei Shparo explains the idea (son of Dmitry Shparo, head of the first expedition to ski to the North Pole in 1979.)

The North Pole experience is about that: goals and dreams. Reaching the pole means a dream come true. At the same time, according to the traveler, the Arctic expedition is not held for the 14 teenagers.

"The kids will return to their schools and start sending out the right attitude with the necessary and up-to-date values about how to be friends, be responsible and be less selfish," he noted and added this is impossible to learn while sitting at home playing a computer game, no matter how realistic it is. 

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Answering my question about possible risks, Shparo said: "There are no completely safe activities. Everything has at least some risk. We can die from an icicle falling on our heads. Our expedition can be much safer than rafting on the Moskva River. The students and their escorts are very well-prepared. The equipment is thought out to the last detail. We have three different communication systems (first is the Sapsan system, second, a satellite phone, and third, a satellite tracker.) I was the one who initiated the expedition, I accompany the young people and I am responsible for them."

"Not very fit, but my strength of will is okay"

Zhenya Golubeva, an eleventh-grader at School No. 1811, is a member of the Pole team. For seven days, the team will ski to the North Pole; they will be picked up by a helicopter on the way back.

Zhenya Golubeva: It was easy for me to write the geographical dictation, because our geography teachers are good. Now I am preparing to enter the sports university (Russian State University of Physical Education, Sport, Youth and Tourism), where I will study to become an instructor in recreation and sport and health tourism. My parents were very supportive of the idea to go to the North Pole: "Zhenya, you can do it! We believe in you!" But, to tell the truth, I was worried when I found about the serious physical level of our group: there even are several candidate masters of sports. I am not very fit, but my strength of will is okay. I hope it will be enough. What am I afraid of? I am afraid that a killer whale will attack us when we're asleep. This is perhaps a kid's fear.

Dmitry Mozhayev, a tenth-grader at School No. 192. His scientific project is "Comparing the main stratigraphic parameters of Arctic deposits."

Dmirty Mozhayev: I aim at the process, not the result. We will be sitting at the station catching plankton. Do you know that there has been no good reference book on the local fauna for exactly 70 years?! The last one was dated 1948, although it is easy to discover new species in this area. For biology, this area is very interesting… I have been interested in biology since I was 2.

Nikolai Rusev, a tenth-grader at School No. 2030. His scientific project is "Preserving the polar bears."

Nikolai Rusev: You shouldn't run if you come across a polar bear. It's better to be with friends, so you can stand in a group and stomp on the ice creating the illusion that there is something big in front of the bear. The main thing is not to talk: the bear determines its rivals' size based on the volume of their lungs. It hears the sound and somehow feels the body mass. I have a global goal at Barneo: expand my horizons and see that there is another world.

Daniil Alekseyenko, a medical course student at School No. 1272. His scientific project is "Diet specifics in Arctic conditions."

Daniil Alekseyenko: The main point is that caloric intake must be increased by two or three times. My goal is to carry out physiological research and test the equipment we are bringing.

Chukotka sled dogs: Arctic wonders for 1,000 euros

While the young people sorted out their Arctic luggage, the cases to transfer dogs arrived at Zhukovsky Airport. The EMERCOM's superjet must carry eight Chukotka sled dogs to Spitzbergen. This is a rare local species bred by the people living in the northern and eastern Asian part of Russia. One pup costs about 1,000 euros. This is the price for the breed's unprecedented working qualities.

Chukotka sled dogs are used to the harsh Arctic climate: they have strong pads and a special paw structure that provides good adhesion to ice. Those who value this breed say that Chukotka sled dogs are very friendly and accept their masters as they are without ever getting angry at them.

"This is not true! Once a sled was led to a race, and the dogs stopped at the starting line. They never moved until the race was over. In the end, the snowmobiles had to pull the sleds for 20 kilometers. Later the owner admitted that he had just said something rude to the dogs," said Yelena Potseluyeva, a dog specialist who works with sled dogs.

©Julia Osipova

She was one of the first people to take up dog sled racing in Moscow. Now she has 24 dogs and a contract with the Arctic Tourism Center. She plans to move her entire kennel to Spitzbergen in several trips and for two years to develop tourist routes with dog sleds from Moscow.

According to Yelena, polar scientists know each other by their sled dogs. A while ago Dmitry Shparo "let" Yelena out in the Arctic, and later she began consulting on many Arctic projects involving dog sleds. "Now the Arctic is a very popular subject; and Spitzbergen won my heart by being close to the Arctic: the fantastic Arctic landscape is just a four-hour flight away," she added.

Spitzbergen, where it is impossible to be born or to die

This is exactly how it went. Four hours later we landed in Norwegian Longyearbyen, a settlement on Spitzbergen Island, which is also the most northern town where about a thousand people live. The locals say that it is impossible to be born here: pregnant women immediately leave the town; and it is also impossible to die: human bodies do not decay in the permafrost, and there is a high chance that they will rise to the surface.

It is prohibited to leave the city without a rifle. There are signs warning of polar bears everywhere. Shops do not allow people with weapons inside: guns must be locked away in a safe at the entrance. By the way, the murder of a polar bear is considered equal to the murder of a human and is investigated as thoroughly with all that that entails.

This strange place at the end of the world is where the ‘Doomsday' vault is. The seedbank is located 120 meters deep in permafrost. In case of a catastrophe, the seeds will ensure the survival of the human race. The seeds are sealed in packages and then placed into plastic containers on metal racks. Low temperatures and limited access to oxygen slow seed aging.

There is a small piece of Russian territory with Wi-Fi at Longyearbyen Airport: a huge iron hangar that stores everything necessary to build an Arctic camp each year at the beginning of March. The hangar becomes a gateway to everyone who wants to get to the North Pole. It turns out there are a lot of them. During the last decade, the Arctic has once more become interesting for the state and for people. Today it occupies an important place on the social agenda and in tourists' demands. And the demand will always be met.

Barneo, where people see colorful dreams and spend big money

The Barneo Russian drifting station has been built on a good piece of ice near the North Pole every year since 2000. No other country has a similar station. The station name differs from the tropical island of Borneo in only one letter (polar explorers like to choose "hot" names for their settlements; for example, there is a village of Africanda in the extreme north.)

The camp is situated on the ice about 100 kilometers from the North Pole. At first, polar explorers set up a temporary camp and begin looking for a suitable piece of ice. By the way, the specifications are strict: at least two kilometers long, a kilometer wide, two meters thick and no less than two years old. The ice must be flat. The first thing to establish is a runway. At the same time, explorers erect a camp.

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Tents and public modules are heated with diesel generators. There always are two helicopters that can take off at any moment. After the structure is completed, the camp is ready for both scientists and tourists who wish to share the glory of the Arctic explorers. Probably everyone will have colorful dreams there: this is how the human mind compensates for the endless white, snow, silver, white-blue, and pale pink.

The station operates for a little over a month: since mid-March (the beginning of the polar day) until late April (when the ice starts to break up and melt). The approximate cost of the annual construction is 2.5 million euros. It is strange, but the station pays for itself, and the economy is very simple here: a two-day visit to Barneo will cost a tourist at least 20,000 euros, any additional options such as an under-ice dive with equipment, a helicopter flight or skis are separate. A small bottle of Russian vodka costs 3,000 rubles (40 euros) at the camp.

About 500 people per season visit the station. These are mostly foreign tourists. A worker at the station explains: "Foreigners have money and desire to visit the North Pole. Russian tourists with money do not want to go to the North Pole. Those who want to can't afford it."

We flew from Spitzbergen to Barneo aboard an AN-74 aircraft. This is the only aircraft that can land on the ice runway, and only in good weather conditions. Polar scientists say these conditions can change every 15 minutes. The flight lasts 2.5 hours, which means the weather can change 10 times.

We were lucky: there was no snow, wind, or fog at Barneo when we landed; only the shining sun, freezing cold and the endless polar day. My iPhone died immediately; my hair was covered with ice, and my eyes filled with tears. All meridians and time zones met at one point.

Barneo Team: Studying ice and polar scientists' health

The Barneo Team is headed by Ivan Smirnov, PhD in Biology, biology teacher at School No. 171. He said that his team was planning to calculate the equipment's heat losses, test several solutions for a study of Arctic systems and make some recommendations to update them.

Another area of work in the next seven days is to study zoo- and phytoplankton. Most plankton research is carried out during the summer, from research vessels, when the ice situation has already changed. The Moscow students' research will be carried out during the polar day, and the data they gather may prove valuable in order to understand what happens in the Arctic seas during that period. Plankton will be collected with manual plankton nets, and the collected material will be examined later in Moscow, at the Ocean Research Center at Moscow State University.

Ice will be another subject of the research. Years-old ice is decreasing and will probably be more fresh now. It is planned to map the ice around the station and add the salinity level at various points and depths.

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The team members will count their rations and calories themselves. They may use digital laboratories and medical training equipment, with which they can monitor the health of each expedition member.

Polar Team: Team spirit is like a shattered glass edge

Alexei Seikin is Matvei Shparo's deputy and the expedition doctor. I realized he was a doctor as soon as I heard him lecturing a girl for wearing a cotton T-shirt under her thermal clothing. While the inexperienced explorer was changing, I asked Alexei several common and philosophical medical questions.

Question: Alexei, what medical problems worry you most?

Alexei Seikin: The most important is to prevent the most frequent difficulties such as corns, colds, frostbite, crusting and sunburns. I know how to treat these. We have a good medical kit. We always have satellite communications if emergency transportation is needed.

Question: Is it true that you don't carry potable water with you?

Alexei Seikin: Yes, we will have no liquid water there except oceanic under the ice or in ice lanes. We get water by melting fresh snow. This is a difficult process, because snow has low density compared with water. To get 10 liters of water you have to melt a 100-liter bag of snow. It takes three or four hours.

Question: How will the duties be appointed in the team? For example, who is responsible for cooking?

Alexei Seikin: We appoint duties each night. They watch the burners, the melting snow and the food. We assemble the camp. Regarding food, we have a special alpine diet: high-caloric and light. All products are dehydrated. First, it solves the problem of cooking speed, and second, we don't have to melt it. Freeze-dried products are cold, but not frozen. Pour warm water on it and it comes back, and 20 minutes later you have your usual buckwheat with meat. The rations are based on alpine experience.

Question: Is it cold to sleep in the tents at night (relative night, because the sun never goes down)?

Alexei Seikin: We have a very robust American tent that costs several thousand euros. It is a storm tent designed specially for polar expeditions. While we are cooking, two gas boilers are on. It is very hot inside: you can sit there wearing only a T-shirt, although it is about 20‒25 degrees below zero outside. But when people on duty finish melting the snow and everyone else falls asleep, we turn the boilers off. The temperature doesn't drop below 5 degrees because the tent is large and has two layers, and there are a lot of us. However, there are several specific details: the tent must be stretched evenly and covered with sledges from the windward side so that the wind doesn't blow away the heat from underneath the tent.

Question: Are you sure that these kids' minds are strong enough?

Alexei Seikin: I would laugh at anyone who says he or she is sure of something. That's unprofessional. There is always some risk. We just need a plan for every situation.

Question: The expedition members are adolescents; their hormones are not that stable. Do you take this into account?

Alexei Seikin: These adolescents will use skis and sleds. The girls' sleds will weigh at least 40 kilos, and the boys' are even heavier. In addition, the weight on sleds is different from the weight on the back: the sleds slide and you have to pull it, which is difficult. A ski trip is a lot of burden: the body spends calories on heating and overcoming the icepack. This is not just a flat field. Each several kilometers there are places where the ice has formed ridges that we must get past. It can be a 30-meter-wide range with 1.5-meter-high packs. You must crawl over carrying the sled on your back. This requires a huge amount of calories. In the evening everyone is very tired but content with life and warmth.

Question: What, in your opinion, will these young people acquire on this trip physically, spiritually, and intellectually?

Alexei Seikin; The feeling that there is no limit to self-development. Everything else is details and different phrasing. The kids that pass all the selection processes and preparations are very motivated. They are full of desire to help each other. At the North Pole, team spirit feels like a shattered glass edge.

Weather "at home"

This year, icebergs appeared near the Barneo station for the first time: they are 15‒20 meters high and have steep slopes. They are unbelievingly beautiful. Experienced explorers say there have never been so many icebergs at these latitudes before. They conclude that the icebergs have come here from the Novosibirsk Islands.

©Julia Osipova

As Barneo Expedition Leader Viktor Serov told me, the seasons differ. For example, three years ago, the temperature at Barneo was minus 10‒12 and once rose as high as minus four. Today's minus 20 degrees Celsius is common in the Arctic, he said.

The weather forecast at the North Pole for Monday, April 23: wind: 9‒14 meters per second, occasional snow, air temperature minus 18º С. Coordinates at the beginning of the route: 89*17.31*N., 135*37.68*E.