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Travel to cold places in safety and comfort

The effects of the extreme cold: how to survive and how to take pictures without freezing your camera in Yakutia (Sakha Republic) the coldest place in northern hemisphere.

There are several reasons for which people may need or may wish to visit very cold places, one of the main reasons is just to learn more about how people live in very harsh environments and what really happens when the thermometer falls lot of degrees below freezing point. In this article we will check out what is the best place in the world to feel extreme cold, when to go and how to visit such place in full safety and comfort.

WHERE TO GO TO EXPERIENCE EXTREME COLD?

If you would like to travel to extreme cold, it's first necessary to find the right location in the world and the best time to go, to make sure that you will not be disappointed and to get a kind of "guarantee" that you will really experience what you are looking for. In fact, although extreme cold can be experienced also in the USA or in southern Canada, this usually happens only very randomly in winter, with the conditions usually lasting for few days, making therefore impossible to organize a trip months or even weeks in advance, to precisely meet such conditions.

The coldest place in northern hemisphere is Sakha Republic (or Yakutia) in eastern Russia, which gets temperatures lower than -40 degrees (both Centigrades and Fahrenheit, as the scales meet at such low value) routinely from early December to late February, giving a kind of guarantee that you will almost certainly experience extreme cold during the trip. Oymyakon, in north-eastern Yakutia, is known also as the Pole of Cold, because the temperature reached −71.2 °C (−96.2 °F) in 1926, which is the coldest temperature ever recorded in northern hemisphere and bested only by some other records on Antarctic plateau.

Getting to Sakha Republic is not difficult, although it can be long from outside Asia. The capital Yakutsk has direct flights onto Moscow, which are about 7-8 hours long, and onto other cities in Siberia (like Novosibirsk or Irkutsk), as well as onto Vladivostok (in this case, just 3 hours long). Anyway, arriving in Yakutsk, is only just the beginning of the adventure, because, although the city regularly experience extreme cold, you may wish to visit other places in Yakutia, like the legendary Oymyakon or Tomtor where the lowest temperatures of northern hemisphere have been recorded. Getting around in Yakutia by your own will not be safe due to the conditions of the roads (which are sometimes just tracks) and for the extreme cold, so it will be necessary to get support from a local operator.

My whole trip to Yakutia was booked through TourService Centre, a tour operator based in Yakutsk, with English speaking guides, who organizes and runs many different types of trips in Yakutia, as well as real expeditions, in any season, to this beautiful part of the world. To see what they offer and contact them, please visit http://www.yakutiatravel.com. In my opinion, it isn't a good idea to fly to Yakutsk without any subsequent travel arrangement, but I suggest to get in touch with the local tour operator and organize everything well ahead the expected date of the trip. Likewise, I don't advise to rent a car and drive by your own, because, as said, the extreme conditions and the poor state of the roads require great experience.

HOW IS THE EVERYDAY LIFE IN EXTREME COLD?

During the entire trip to Sakha Republic, I was exposed to temperatures ranging from -25°C to -54.5°C. In any case, I've never experienced winds exceeding 1 or 2 meters per seconds, especially at very minus values. The followings observations are of course based on my body and my capacity to deal with cold weather, but everybody is different, so the things may completely change from person to person. Generally, the temperatures up to -25 or -30°C was never a problem, as long as I was dressing properly. Strange things start to happen at around -40 degrees, where a kind of "threshold" seems to exists and where everything starts to get suddenly more difficult. Once landed in Yakutsk at -40°, I was wearing only one layer of wool, one sweater, wool pants, thin cap & gloves and an outside windproof jacket without fill down insulation. In the few seconds elapsed while descending the Tupolev's ladder before boarding the airport bus, I've started to feel some ice crystals forming inside my nose, having the sensation to feel them also in the throat (like when breathing dust) producing some cough as natural reaction. At the same time, I've felt ice forming on the eyelash, making actually difficult to close and open the eyes! This in just a few seconds...

Frozen face
My eyes after about two consecutive hours at -50°C.

I've then started to hear a strange noise coming from the wind jacket, like when potato chips are crushed: the wind jacket was actually frozen. Surprisingly, I didn't feel cold on my body, not before one or two minutes. At a later time during the trip, I've experienced that the body's heat is lost quite quickly at extreme low temperatures, making very difficult to build that heat again, unless entering in a warm place. For this reason, it is always very important to cover the body as required, especially if will be necessary to stay outside for a long time, far away from warm places (it is safe to go outside with lighter clothes only if you know for sure that within one or two minutes, you will stay inside a warm place again). If you go out for a walk without proper dressing and get lost in a forest, the cold will reach your bones quickly, threatening your life. Just to say an example, I was always wearing a thin glove below a much thicker one: each time that I did take a picture, I did remove the thicker glove, staying only with the thinner one (it was necessary in order to use my camera). At -52, twenty or thirty seconds was enough to loose most of the heat from my hand and, once the thicker glove was worn again, about five minutes of exercise moving the fingers were necessary to build the heat again. So, never forget this very basic and life-saving rule: in extreme cold, body's heat is lost quickly, but much longer time will be necessary to rebuild such heat.

If the extreme cold is difficult for people not used to it, for cars and other things outside, it's not easy as well. Owning a car in extreme cold where the temperature holds at -40 or -50°C for three or four consecutive months, is expensive and requires great care in maintenance. In many other cold places, like Canada or Svalbard, I've frequently seen the electric plugs in the parking, where the cars are connected during layover time, to keep the engine's oil at correct density. However, in Yakutia it wouldn't be enough: the only way to protect cars from extreme cold in Yakutia, is to recover them inside a box or in any other closed place, heated 24 hours on 24. While outside, the engine is never turned off and, in case of long layovers, one driver must remain inside and make a short trip every 10-15 minutes, to prevent mechanical parts far away from the engine, to freeze. The engine and the heat sink are covered with a blanket, to avoid heat dispersion. In case of breakdown, things become serious: to keep the car warm, it is necessary to build a tent around it and lit a fire inside (more frequently, the car is just left behind, waiting for the next spring or for a towing machine).

Truck stuck in the snow
A broken truck is left in the snow and will be repaired the next spring.

Driving on snow covered roads seemed to be safe and not too much different if compared to off-road driving or driving on unpaved / gravel roads. At this low temperature, the ice crystals are always well separated, making the snow more like sand, rather than ice. Probably some problem may be present in April, when the combined action of thawing and re-freezing, creates slippery surfaces.

To start the engines of an airplane parked outside from long time, is another problem: the engines must be covered with a blanket, then a truck must blows hot air inside for about half an hour, before the passengers can be boarded.

Starting plane's engine in cold weather
A truck is blowing hot air inside the engine of this Antonov AN-24 through a pipe.

The heating system in extreme cold, for example inside buildings, is something critical and must work without interruptions, otherwise serious problems will arise. In fact, a building may freeze completely, making difficult to re-heat it again until the next spring. The entrances have normally two or three doors, to reduce heat loss when someone enters or exists the building. The windows have normally triple glasses.

Frozen house
A completely frozen building. In this extreme condition, it will be necessary to wait the next spring before entering the home again.

Carrying the water in extreme cold is difficult as well. In the bigger towns, the water is carried inside heated and insulated pipes. The pipes cannot be placed underground because of the permafrost, thence they are left outside. In the smaller towns, no water pipes exist, but the water is obtained from blocks of ice, cut from rivers or lakes on a daily basis. Blocks of ice are assigned to families and when people need water, they just load the ice on a truck and deliver it at home. In the smaller towns, toilets are outside: it isn't terrible as it seems to use a toilet in extreme cold at -50°C, just be sure to do go there "last minute" so you will do everything quickly.

Taking drinkable water from ice
Blocks of ice cut some month before from a lake: they will ensure water supply throughout the winter.

A last tip: do not touch anything with bare hands while outside, especially metals. I had a quite painful experience touching a door's handle at -50°C without any glove...

 

HOW TO SAFELY TAKE PICTURES IN THE EXTREME COLD

To take pictures in extreme old, I've used a Panasonic DMC-FZ20, an excellent digital camera with 12x optical zoom (equivalent to 35-420mm), f2.8 throughout the entire focal length, and with optical stabilizer. This trip to Yakutia was made in 2007, now there are much modern cameras, but the concepts explained in this article may be still very useful if you need to take photos in very cold places.

Panasonic FZ-10
Panasonic DMC-FZ20

In other parts of the world, up to -15 or -20°C I didn't had any trouble taking pictures, also the battery did usually perform very well (the battery life was just slightly shorter). At these temperatures, I've always carried the camera outside, or in a small pouch outside the clothes. However, taking pictures in very cold places, it's a totally different story. First, I always carried the camera all the times below my fill-down suite The North Face Himalayan Suite, in close contact with my body. To take pictures, it was just enough to open the suite's front zip a little bit and pull the camera out. Normally, the camera was kept outside for about half a minute at -40 or -50°C (just the shortest time necessary to set the parameters when needed and take the picture), then it was stored again under the suite, with the zip well closed, for some minutes before taking pictures again. To prevent frostbite on my fingers, I was wearing a lighter glove below a much thicker one: to take a picture it was enough to remove only the outer glove and then wear it again when finished. Frankly, before leaving my home country, I was very worried about the performance of camera in extreme cold, instead, working in this way, I didn't had any single problem with my camera and everything did work perfectly well. Probably, also the quality of my fill-down suite helped a lot (see later in this page), keeping the camera warm when stored inside. Amazingly, I didn't had any problem with condensation (this typically happens when you put a cold camera in a warmer / wetter place --- below the suite in my case), except for a case that I'm about to explain. I indeed had two minor inconveniences happened only once during the trip: the first was that after about two hours outside at -52°C, using the camera as described before, the camera was finally very cold (probably I've taken too many pictures), so the LCD display started to be very slow (but the camera was still capable to get perfect pictures). At the same time, as soon as I went inside an home, a lot of fog started to build on the lens and on the camera's body; it was impossible to use the camera again before about one hour (this condensation can be very dangerous as it may create short circuits inside the camera). However, this inconvenience can be easily prevented: just put the cold camera inside tightly closed plastic bag (no air exchange) when you are still outside, then go inside normally. Wait until the camera doesn't have the same temperature of the room (it may take up to 2 hours), then open the plastic bag and extract the camera.

One of the greatest worries before leaving my country for this trip, was the shorter battery life in the cold. Instead, once on place, I've been surprised again, as I didn't have any particular problem with battery's life, neither when the LCD display started to respond slowly because of the cold camera's body. I've experienced only slightly shorter battery life after hours outside. In any case, I've always carried with me a spare lithium battery to keep warm inside an inner pocket of the suite, in addition to an homemade battery back assembled with 8 AA rechargeable batteries: this battery pack was kept permanently under the suite, with a wire going outside and entering in the camera's external power supply connector.

As this was a very particular cold weather trip, very far away from my home, as usual I've always carried two identical cameras with me . I just don't want to stop taking pictures should one camera break (I indeed don't like too much electronic consumer things because they are typically very, very unreliable). I've carried with me also lots on memory cards in small size (128 or 256 megs): I don't use bigger memory cards, because if one fails I loose less pictures. I was also carrying a portable stand-alone CD recorder (no PC required) to make backup copies of the memory cards daily.

 

HOW TO DRESS IN THE EXTREME COLD?

The most important cloth, which did let me to enjoy this trip into extreme cold in full comfort and safety, without feeling any cold, was the Himalayan Suit by The North Face.

Pole of the Cold
Me at -50°C with the Himalayan Suit by The North face, below the symbol of cold in Oymyakon.

The Himalayan Suit is a 800gr. fill goose down one piece suit especially developed for coldest conditions on the planet. Although it is a one piece only (this is a useful feature, as there is no loss of heat between the jacket and the pants), it can be dressed and removed in just seconds. The outside tissue is wind-stopper and also the zip is made with protection from wind and cold well in mind. Wearing the cap and closing every zip tightly, only the eyes, the fingers and the feet remain outside (however, I've noticed that it is more comfortable to leave the zip open on the face and wear a good balaclava below).

Using the Himalayan Suit, I didn't have any problem with the cold, even after several hours outside at -40 or -50°C. I have to say that at -20 the suit is perhaps too warm and can be used only for light hiking, but below -35°C it is just perfect and has guaranteed an excellent protection to both myself and my camera. One time, after a 1 hour hike at -52, I had to open the front zip up to the stomach, as I've started to feel too warm and slightly wet. Below the suit I was wearing only two layers of wool everywhere (but I think that just one layer may be fine as well).

For the protection of the feet, I've tried the Caribou boots made by Sorel, that should be guaranteed up to -40. This is just a joke: regardless my three pairs of thick wool socks below, after 20 minutes at -35°C I've started to feel very cold and wet feet. Once back inside, I've discovered that a lot of ice did grow inside the boots, between the leather and the thermal inner boot (just crazy for such expensive items). I've spoken about this problem to my guide in Yakutia and he purchased for me a pair of "valentine" for the equivalent cost of about Euro 10. They are about 10 millimeters thick, worn like a sock and have no sole below, however using them I had perfectly dry and warm feet, even after long hikes at -40 and -50°C. As they aren't waterproof, it is necessary to wipe the snow off with great care before entering any warm place.

To protect the hands in extreme cold, I did use a thin windproof glove below a much thicker one made of sealskin, filled with lots of sheep wool and without fingers. Wearing two layers of gloves is important, as it not only gives extra protection, but also protects the hands from frost when the thicker glove needs be removed (for example to take pictures). Also for my hands, I didn't had problems after long exposures outside. Only occasionally I had cold hands, because of too many pictures taken (in such cases I had to move the fingers repeatedly or put the hand below my armpit to re-heat the hand again). In order to prevent the thicker glove to go on the floor when you remove it for some reason, it would be a good idea to tie it to some suit's zip.

Last, I was wearing a balaclava at all times, below the Himalayan Suite's fill goose down cap. Using the balaclava, I had much less ice formations inside my nose, but having care to breath only very slowly and only by nose. Local people normally do not wear balaclava.

A final note about eyeglasses in extreme cold: for people wearing eyeglasses, do not take a trip like this without contact lenses. Wearing eyeglasses in such cold is just a nightmare, with fog and ice forming constantly on the lenses each time you breath or enter in a warmer place. I've used the contact lenses all the times outside and I didn't had any problem. I've also tried to freeze and thaw a contact lens while still inside the sealed box and I've found no damages.

 

See full travelogue about Sakha Republic with lot of photos

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