(Accompanying article here.)
There was no warning from the snow: no thump as it broke, no roaring as it gained speed, no shaking like an earthquake as it rushed toward the bottom. Maurice Kervin, 25, just noticed a huge crack had appeared beneath his snowboard and shot like a silent lighting bolt down No Name Peak in the Colorado Rockies. As he turned to look uphill, he was hit by a cascade of white that confirmed his worst fears. He was caught in an avalanche.
“A huge slab starts breaking out below me,” Kervin said. “Right at that moment it was like, we’re in it to win it now.”
It’s a story that has been all too common in the western United States this year, with more than 700 avalanches reported in Colorado in February. Many have even been captured on film, like a billowing torrent of snow that briefly buried three snowmobilers in a valley in Utah’s Uinta Mountains.
In February, 15 people died in seven days, the deadliest week for avalanches since 1910, when a 14ft wall of snow swept two stranded trains into a gorge in Washington and killed 96.
The number of fatalities has only continued to grow. Midway through the season, 33 people have been killed in avalanches, already surpassing the annual average of 26.
By tradition, Russians always bring an odd number of flowers to a living person and an even number to a grave or memorial. But every other day, 83-year-old Raisa Lappa places three roses or gladiolas by the plaque to her son Sergei in their hometown Rubtsovsk, as if he hadn’t gone down with his submarine during an ill-fated towing operation in the Arctic Ocean in 2003.
“I have episodes where I’m not normal, I go crazy, and it seems that he’s alive, so I bring an odd number,” she says. “They should raise the boat, so we mothers could put our sons’ remains in the ground, and I could maybe have a little more peace.”
After 17 years of unfulfilled promises, she may finally get her wish, though not out of any concern for the bones of Captain Sergei Lappa and six of his crew. With a draft decree published in March, President Vladimir Putin set in motion an initiative to lift two Soviet nuclear submarines and four reactor compartments from the silty bottom, reducing the amount of radioactive material in the Arctic Ocean by 90%. First on the list is Lappa’s K-159.
The message, which comes before Russia’s turn to chair the Arctic Council next year, seems to be that the country is not only the preeminent commercial and military power in the warming Arctic, but also a steward of the environment. The K-159 lies just outside of Murmansk in the Barents Sea, the richest cod fishery in the world and also an important habitat of haddock, red king crab, walruses, whales, polar bears and many other animals.
MOSCOW – The scene was pure carnage. Dozens of reindeer carcasses were sprawled on the sandy shore of the Khatanga River or floating in the current toward the Arctic Ocean, as if the animals had drowned in mid-stream. The story of what actually befell these reindeer on the Taymyr Peninsula, in Russia’s Krasnoyarsk region, however, was far more grisly.
In a video filmed by hunters in 2017 and shared on a Russian public interest YouTube channel, two men can be seen bending over the side of an aluminum boat. Soon after, a reindeer with a knobby head frantically swims away from them. Later, one of the men, smoking a cigarette, reaches into the bow and pulls out a saw—and two fuzzy brown antlers. At the time, according to Russian state media, the antlers would have been worth several hundred dollars—the better part of an average monthly wage in Taymyr.
The crowds of reindeer swimming across rivers at the few fordable crossing points during their spring migration, heads barely above water, can do little to avoid poachers ambushing them in boats. The men grab their velvet antlers—“velvet” for the thick, downy skein of blood vessels feeding the new bone as it grows—and cut them off, leaving the animals with an open wound prone to fatal infection.
“I pity the animals that suffer this torture,” says Pavel Kochkaryov, director of the Central Siberian Nature Reserve, a protected area in Krasnoyarsk, who previously worked as a game warden in Taymyr and continues to study the reindeer herd there. He compares cutting off a reindeer’s sensitive young antlers to amputating a limb. “No one knows how quickly they will die once they swim to shore,” he says.
Precisely 61 years ago, a band of skiers trekking through the Ural Mountains stashed food, extra skis, and a well-worn mandolin in a valley to pick up on the way back from their expedition. In a moment of lightheartedness, one drew up a fake newspaper with headlines about their trip: “According to the latest information, abominable snowmen live in the northern Urals.” Their excess equipment stored away, the group began moving toward the slope of Peak 1079, known among the region’s indigenous people as “Dead Mountain.” A photograph showed the lead skiers disappearing into sheets of whipping snow as the weather worsened.
Later that night, the nine experienced trekkers burst out of their tent half-dressed and fled to their deaths in a blizzard. Some of their corpses were found with broken bones; one was missing her tongue. For decades, few people beyond the group’s friends and family were aware of the event. It only became known to the wider public in 1990, when a retired official’s account ignited a curiosity that soon metastasized.
Today, the “Dyatlov Pass incident,” named after one of the students on the trek, Igor Dyatlov, has become Russia’s biggest unsolved mystery, a font of endless conspiracy theories. Aliens, government agents, “Arctic dwarves”—and yes, even abominable snowmen—have at various points been blamed for the deaths. One state-television show regularly puts self-appointed experts through a theatrical lie-detector test to check their outlandish explanations.