Untapped Frontiers

The Subarctic Urals, Putorana Plateau, and the Altay Mountains

Mar 1, 2004
Outside Magazine
Putorana Plateau

The cloud-covered horizon of Putorana Plateau    Photo: courtesy, Team Gorky

THE ANCIENT URAL MOUNTAINS barely poke their summits above the taiga, Siberia's vast conifer forest. Not so the subarctic Urals, where taiga turns to tundra and glaciers have carved towering walls on magnificent peaks. Russian cross-country skiers have explored the region for 30 years, but it's been largely missed by alpinists. Until now: At 6,214 feet, Mount Narodnaya is the region's highest mountain, but the slightly lower Sablinsky Range and nearby peaks offer mouthwatering technical routes like Mount Sablya's nearly 3,000-foot northeast wall. Most climbs involve a two-day approach from the village of Aranets through trackless taiga pocked with boot-sucking bogs; more flush travelers can fly in by helicopter and raft rivers like the Kos'yu and Manaraga back to civilization. In winter, mountaineers can ski in, but storms and sub-zero temps make this one for the experienced adventurer.
Frontier Factor: 4—Frostbite or mosquito bites? Pick your season.
Getting There—From Moscow, take a two-day train ride to the industrial city of Pechora ($34), then hydrofoil 62 miles up the Pechora River to Aranets, or charter a helicopter from Pechora to Narodnaya. Heads up, however: Throughout remote Russia, charters range from $1,000 to $3,000 an hour. Unless you're a hardened adventurer, join a group—or be prepared to carry your supplies and find a family to put you up.
Outfitters—Moscow-based Tour Centre Strannik runs a 17-day mountaineering-and-paddling trip (from $450; [email protected]).

LACED WITH 5,000-FOOT-DEEP canyons and 300-foot waterfalls, northern Siberia's Putorana Plateau is one of the least explored regions on earth: five million acres of taiga populated by brown bear, reindeer, Yenisey bighorn sheep—and one person per 13 square miles. Although indigenous settlements border the plateau, few hunters or fishermen venture into the interior, where taimen and grayling await your hook. You'll need a helicopter lift to the plateau in summer, when boggy tundra makes hiking impossible. In winter, frozen rivers allow snowmobile access—if you're ready for temps of 60 below. Your best bet: Go in the summer, with an outfitter who can fly in rafts and provisions, and descend the world-class Kureyka River.
Frontier Factor: 5—The Putorana is tough on both wallet and body. Helicopters are expensive, and you'll be hoofing it on broken scree and rafting rivers few have descended.
Getting There—Although Norilsk, the logical gateway (and home to a pollution-belching nickel plant), has been closed to foreigners for two years for "strategic" reasons, Russian operators can arrange through-permits. Fly from Moscow to Norilsk ($200; Siberia Airlines, english.s7.ru) or Krasnoyarsk ($153; Kras Air, www.krasair.ru), a secret nuclear-weapons hub in Soviet days. Most expeditions helicopter in from Igarka, on the Yenisey River.
Outfitters—Team Gorky ([email protected], www.teamgorky.ru), based in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, runs fishing and rafting trips in July and August, starting at $2,850 a person. Moscow-based Ecological Travels Centre (www.ecotravel.ru) offers ten-day fishing tours starting at $1,980. Both include helicopter transfers.

THE ALTAYS—the jagged 1,200-mile-long range that straddles Siberia, Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan—are a mecca to whitewater paddlers and New Age seekers, the latter being drawn to 15,157-foot Mount Belukha, or White Mountain, in search of the legendary kingdom of Shambala. Since Communist times, however, Altay adventurers have had their own ways of getting closer to God, climbing Belukha's sheer north face or riding a bublik—basically two giant rubber doughnuts joined by a tree limb—down killer rapids. Fortunately, our rafting-and-hiking journey, led by St. Petersburg-based Lenalp Tours, began on a gentle 12-mile stretch of the Katun River. Never mind that on day five, a misty rainstorm left us stranded on a pass with our stymied leaders: scruffy, non-English-speaking Vlad, and Anya, a university student. Or that on day eight, Anya led us down the wrong valley. The payoff for patience was waking up near Ak-Kem Lake to find Mount Belukha reflected in its waters.
Frontier Factor: 3—The established treks around Belukha are moderate. The north face, however, is Siberia's Mont Blanc.
Getting There—From Moscow, take a four-hour flight ($165; Siberia Airlines, english.s7.ru) or a 48-hour train trip ($70) to Barnaul, a lively university town. From there, it's a 13-hour drive to the trekking-and-rafting hub of Tyungur; outfitters provide minivan transportation.
Outfitters—Foreigners, mostly European, make up only a fraction of the tourists here, so few outfitters are set up to handle Westerners. One is Barnaul-based Sputnik Altai (arw.dcn-asu.ru/~sputnik), which offers eight-day horse-packing tours for $1,700, as well as trekking, rafting, and climbing tours.

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