Russia’s Expedition Trophy. Quite possibly the world’s ultimate 4x4 challenge.
A race all the way across Russia, 16,000km from Murmansk to Vladivostok, 16 days, mid-winter… But it wasn’t just the words, numbers or temperatures that told me the Expedition Trophy was about to be much harder than I imagined… at the hotel in Murmansk, 300km north of the Arctic Circle, there were no mamby-pamby insurance forms to fill in. They weren’t worried about getting me medical treatment if I needed it, they just gave me a dog-tag with my name on it…
On the side of a wind-swept mountain under a giant orange lighthouse a priest wonders around in the pre-dawn dark offering blessings and sprinkles holy water on a giant pink bunny. This is not a surreal dream from drinking too much vodka, just the start… but the real craziness begins when the details of the first stage are handed out. If the fact that the teams would only see each other again after 1800km on sheet ice roads didn’t sound tough enough, they also had to find check-points scattered around the frozen Arctic landscape. There were nervous grumbles that the time limit was only 52 hours… and this was just the first stage!
But before they set off there was also a ‘special task’ to complete. A bank of snow was piled up on a frozen lake with the approach taped off into corridors for the 15 teams of 2 cars. To get over crews could use anything they had in or on their vehicles so spades, sand ladders and winches were readied… as well as chainsaws! Momentum was the first choice but it was digging that mattered and a friend of mine, Sabin Akterina, dug so hard that she broke a bone in her hand! But the time she was in hospital was still time ticking away from the team on the stage…
I got a lift south with the Russian Top Gear team and from the back seat looked ahead at the corridor of trees which was unbroken for an incredible 900km! The only signs of civilisation were the run-down fuel stations staffed by surly old women whose only joy in life was to bark instructions for how the antiquated pumps worked… some of which dispensed 76 octane!
Two days later at the shore of a frozen lake outside the town of Veliky Novgorod the next task was handed out. 2200km to the next meeting point… but to make it just a bit more of a challenge the check-points weren’t in one place this time… teams were given a train timetable with 19 different routes criss-crossing the way east over the next two days, each carrying a stamp. In a café called Bummer the team the organisers put me with sat around a sticky plastic table, looked at it for a few minutes, and then ripped it to pieces. “No chance,” Igor said. “We’ll go to Ekaterinburg the nice way. On the back roads!” But talk of back ways in a café with such a name was doomed from the start and a detour around a closed road confused the GPS so much that all through the night we were doing U-turns down forgotten tracks that no one had felt the need to plough. Something else I found quite shocking was that just 500km from Moscow villagers weren’t sure how to give directions to the next town!
Another team not interested in chasing trains was Oleni and they chose the fabled Golden Envelope, inside of which were details of a task so hard I heard it talked about with a mixture of awe and dread. Complete it and you wouldn’t have to do any other task for the rest of the race. Fail and you are out. Oh, did I mention that 1st prize is a cool $100,000? Forget any other 4×4 event you’ve ever heard of and consider this for a moment, just one task in this 16 day event was to drive south into Kazakshtan and search for crashed satellites somewhere in the vast frozen plains. The area to look in was roughly the size of France… But this is Russia, Land of All Possibilities as the sign at the border proclaims. The Land Rovers were parked and the team hired two helicopters to scour the landscape. And yes, after a day or so of trying they managed to find the satellites!
Ekaterinburg. 5 days non-stop driving and the organisers congratulated surviving teams for completing the easy part. On the map I looked at how small the squiggle of the 4000km we’d done so far was compared to what was still to come… A 5-hour re-group and then off again but apart from the chronic lack of sleep and days of rushed truck-stop dinners, another factor began to come into play; the rough Russian roads were beginning to hammer the cars to pieces. The big tyres on the Team NEC Nissan Patrol GR I was in were playing havoc with the steering, the then brakes failed… then the lights… “With the steering wheel shaking, not being able to see where you’re going and not being able to stop… it does help keep you awake,” my new friend Konstantin smiled.
Ever eastwards, day and night. The Ural mountains came and went. A bright blue sky above a frozen landscape, a snow storm through the night and nearly a week from a bed it all seemed to fade into a blur where all concept of space and time were lost. I looked out at the snow, sky and trees with no idea where I was or even what day it was. The Expedition Trophy is so incredibly epic that less than half way in it seemed utterly endless. Another road-side pee stop, a black eye from falling asleep with my face against the window and the GPS says 2200km to our next destination, turn left in 1724km. Somewhere there is a task to drive 200m through a field of metre-deep snow but everyone would rather sleep than dig… and then after 10 days, hearing stories of teams falling off the road because the drivers just couldn’t stay awake we somehow manage to get to lake Baikal. Its mystical majesty is enough to wake us up and I see something I’ve missed for days; smiles! Cars are battered, eyes bloodshot and stubble has bloomed into full beards, but as we stagger around sharing coffee, stories and man hugs there is a sense of achievement like no other event I have ever been to. And something more to celebrate, we are over half way! …although standing on the bright white faults in the ice and looking down into the dark abyss below I wasn’t too sure if we’d be going much further…
But we’ve learned by now that there are no points for standing still and the massive frozen lake is the scene for another ‘special task’… GPS points were scattered all over the metre-thick surface but ice doesn’t freeze smooth, near the edges are glass-sharp shards… and of course the organisers chose places like this to put the points. There were also big fissures to contend with and snow crunching under the tyres sounds rather unnervingly like ice cracking… But after so long on Russian roads I seem to have become immune to the dangers.
And then another Golden Envelope task for the new team I am with, Sabine’s friendly Team Yeti. Those not wanting, or needing, points headed off on the main road towards Khabarovsk, but we were to make a slight detour to follow a railway, the Baikal-Amur mainline, or BAM for short. Such easy words. A ‘detour’ in Expedition Trophy language is 1400km and they call this a ‘winter road’ because in the summer the mud is so deep that you simply cannot drive a vehicle there… and if a Russian says it is impossible you know it must be hard! But judging by the number of cars we had to stop and pull out of the snow banks it was hard in the winter too. We were all so unbelievably far past the point I thought the human body would succumb to exhaustion yet at every shoddy bridge we jumped out to pull frozen planks across the gaps or inch down to cross the icy river and then winch up the other side. And it was here that I came to see the true strength of the Russian soul. Each of the three teams doing the route in convoy were endowed with such an incredible tenacity to keep going that I was constantly amazed. Always there was someone sleeping on the back seats, bouncing around under a pile of coats, but it wasn’t out of laziness, they’d soon be ruffled awake to take the wheel when the current driver could tale no more. And even if there was time to stop there is no camping in -28C… and so we never stopped. Not for 3 days… or maybe it was 4… I don’t really remember…
We’d began this frozen, white-washed odyssey an age ago near the border with Norway and 12 days later had a few moments to stop at the Chinese crossing. The moment was almost as surreal as the bunny blessing priest… but we knew that there wasn’t so far to go now… after what we’d done so far the 2-day drive to Vladivostok felt like a pop to the shops!
Teams with the lowest number of points had been getting dropped out at each meeting point but the final task, which seemed laughably simple compared to what else they’d been through over the last two weeks, was to get up a hill where the $100,000 waited. The difference in points each team had collected were converted into seconds… I was with Team NEC and watched with a quiet sense of despair as the other crews were flagged off ahead and all we could do was stand there and watch. In fact the winning team had already hammered their winch anchors into the ground and got to the top before the marshal had even began our countdown… But we were in Vladivostok, we’d made it to the end and like no other event I’d done, watched, heard of, or even imagined, just getting to the finish was the most amazing achievement!
The winning team were called Cosmos which I think is quite fitting for an event so completely out of this world!
I would like to give special thanks to Team NEC and especially Konstantin Rudenko and to Inga Prays for making everything alright in the end.
For more information please contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Robb Pritchard / Marina Gornostaeva / Tatyana Parfishinoy