Russian Red Tape Stops Ice Challenger Half Way

Celia Carey

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UPDATE On April 7, 2002, at 3:13 P.M., British explorers Steve Brooks and Graham Stratford triumphantly drove Snowbird 6 across the International Date Line in the frozen Bering Strait and into Russia.

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With Russian officials refusing to grant them permission to make landfall at Lavrentia in the state of Chukotka, however, the team was forced to end the planned 56-mile crossing from Wales, Alaska, half way.
Despite the setback, expedition leader Brooks was thrilled that Ice Challenger had proved the crossing was possible. “Were it not for Russian red tape, we most definitely could have completed the mission.” Brooks said. “But I didn’t fancy my team getting tossed in the gulag.”

Brooks had worked on Russian permissions for two years, spending more than $10,000 toward the goal. He had visas and letters of support from the Chukotkan governor, Roman Abramovitch, and had actually received permission to cross in 2001 but never made the attempt after Snowbird 5 floundered during sea trials.

This time around Snowbird 6 performed fantastically. But the Russians sat on the paperwork for months, leaving Brooks little choice but to hope for the best during the weather window in the Strait.

On April 5, with high pressure over Cape Prince of Wales bringing northeasterly winds that push the floes toward Russia, the team set off. When they approached the date line on April 6, Russian border guards demanded the expedition go through the official customs port of Provideniya—some 200 miles south of Lavrentia—or else they would send military helicopters after the team.

Brooks and Stratford deviated from their path around the two Diomede islands (Little Diomede is American, Big Diomede is Russian) and headed directly toward them to wait for news. They had initially avoided the Diomedes because ice floes compact around them, forming massive glacial fields. Consequently, the team stood on dangerously thin, snow-covered ice pans and used chainsaws to mow a path around the east side of Little Diomede toward the date line and Big Diomede on the north side.

Brooks’s fixer in Russia, Rupert Wilbraham, tried in vain to obtain permissions for Snowbird 6 and the team’s safety support helicopter. But it was the weekend and he couldn’t get in touch with the proper officials.

In the final moments, with no good news coming from Russia, the Ice Challenger team used a GPS to locate the date line. Safety and logistics experts Mark Callum and Harry Rouse jumped aboard the front running boards of Snowbird 6 and the foursome rolled into Russia by about 50 feet on the flat, frozen sea between the islands. Once there, all four unzipped their bright orange survival suits, and mooned the inhabitants of Big Diomede—a dozen or so Russian soldiers, perched somewhere atop the massive rock.

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