On Siberia's Ice Highway

A journey with the men who make their living on thin ice

Images and text by Amos Chapple

Produced by Wojtek Grojec


Every winter in Russia's east, rivers that vein the enormous open spaces of Siberia freeze solid. Once the cold begins to bite, life for most people in the region turns inward. But for one group of men, the frozen rivers mean truck wheels can turn and trade can flow for as long as the ice will hold. With springtime gnawing at the ice highway, RFE/RL photographer Amos Chapple joined one young truck driver on a 12-day journey to haul supplies to Russia's Arctic north.

A long, winding journey

In Russia's Sakha Republic, around five times the size of France, distances are measured in days. The trip up to Belaya Gora takes around five days if things run smoothly.

  • Ice road
  • Kolyma Highway

Meet Ruslan Dorochenkov, 28 years old and the father of two small boys. For eight years, he's been running his Kamaz truck up the frozen Indigirka River to supply the Arctic town of Belaya Gora. The money is good -- he earns around $600 per run. But every trip is "a different adventure" and, as I discovered, the dangers of Siberia's ice roads are very real.

Each trip begins here, at a workshop on the outskirts of the city of Yakutsk. Supplies are loaded onto the truck and last-minute preparations are made. The loads vary, but this time, as most, Ruslan's truck is 12 tons heavy with groceries: pasta, cooking oil, soft drinks, even a couple of kilograms of chocolate croissants.

Garik, here helping to load the truck, is leaving Yakutsk to return to his family in the north. Ruslan offered him free passage in exchange for assistance on the journey.

It's slim pickings for the workshop dogs at this time of year. Springtime means all minds are concentrated on the few days remaining until the ice roads close. Ruslan (right) is on the phone to another trucker, asking about the condition of the ice.

It's been a long day in preparation, but Ruslan finally hits the road late in the afternoon.

The road to Belaya Gora begins on the Kolyma Highway, built with slave labor during the Stalin era.

In February, a truck slid on this patch of road and plunged off the ledge at the bottom right of the picture. The truck and its doomed driver freefell 70 meters onto the ice below. This was the first of several stories that began to make me increasingly nervous about the journey ahead.

By midnight, it's time to sleep. The engine and heaters are left running through the night.

Even with the engine rumbling, nights here can freeze a drive-shaft solid. Truckers carry blowtorches to thaw vehicle parts.

Ruslan looks ahead to where the Kolyma Highway cuts east through the mountains. In clear morning light, we make good time.

Until this. Ruslan's friend Andrei was also bound for Belaya Gora but flipped his minivan around a bend. We loaded the contents of his ruined van onto Ruslan's truck, then Andrei was invited to join us. In a cab designed for two, we were now four.

At around the halfway point, our truck rolls onto the ice. For the next 730 kilometers, we will ride the frozen Indigirka River north into the Arctic.

Many stretches of the river run too swiftly for summer boats. Once frozen, the river serves as a kind of magic carpet, allowing access to areas of the Sakha Republic virtually impossible to see any other way.

In narrow gorges the ice is swept clean by funneled winds. Meters beneath the surface, tendrils of ice move in the current.

When this truck-shaped hole in the ice appeared in front of us, Ruslan braked hard, then crunched the truck into reverse, saying only, "That's fresh," before finding another route.

Ruslan shows a photo of a colleague's truck. "He was lucky. If it goes through nose-first, you're screwed."

Later in the trip, we pass a point where three trucks broke through in December. One driver died a nightmarish death beneath the ice. Ruslan tells the story:

There were three trucks in convoy, with 100-200 meters between them. At some point, the second driver lost sight of the first truck. He didn't get what was happening. When he saw the steam [from the first truck after it broke through the ice], he hit the brakes. The first truck had sunk through nine meters of water; the old man [the driver] drowned. The second driver slammed on the brakes, trying to stop, but he also fell through the ice. It's minus-45 degrees Celsius. The guy is very young, 23 years old. He has a hammer in the cabin, so he smashes the window and gets out of the water and sees the third truck coming. All wet, he walks 50 meters in minus-45 degrees, [his clothes] freezing hard as he walks, struggling to wave down the third driver. It takes the third driver some time to understand these signs. He skids and falls halfway into the water. The cabin is up, though, and the third driver jumps out. They set out on foot for Belaya Gora, which is 25 kilometers away, but luckily they were picked up by a guy on a snowmobile. The young fellow was severely frostbitten.

Soon we have our own brush with thin ice. At some points in the river, springwater emerging close to the surface can keep the ice from freezing thick, even through the coldest months of winter.

As Ruslan attempted to cross from one bank to another, we could hear the ice begin to crack. I was sitting by the passenger door, worried that if the truck toppled onto my side I would end up underwater with three people on top of me, all struggling to get out. I could see the ice was brittle, so I opened my door slightly to be ready to leap out. The truck suddenly lurched over to my side. When Ruslan accelerated, it tipped farther. I threw the door open and jumped, hoping to scrabble across the ice before the truck toppled onto me.

But the ice held. After chains were attached, Ruslan was able to scrape backward out of the rut. Twice more that day, the ice was frighteningly thin.

That night, deep in the wilderness and committed to a journey that was beginning to look like a mistake, something remarkable happened. At 3 in the morning, the sky in front of me started sparkling green. It was the aurora borealis stretching across the horizon. No one else was awake to see it.

I can't explain this with any logic, but as I watched, the sense of dread lifted off me. I felt that, whatever happened, things would be OK.

The next morning dawned blue and clear, and the road was rock-solid.

When I described the experience to Ruslan, the Russian took the "message from the universe" aspect seriously. Despite his taste for salty language and heavy music, Ruslan is deeply religious.

The isolated little Zashiversk chapel serves the truckers who roll back and forth. Ruslan visits the church on every trip he makes and says God has always helped him in difficult moments on the river.

Truckers also harbor superstitions unique to the road. It's taboo to urinate in front of the vehicle: the trucker's equivalent of killing an albatross.

Ruslan collects drinking water from a hole in the river as we near the first of our delivery destinations. The water is perfectly clear, even held to the light. Despite the pride the truckers take in the pristine landscape, most, including Ruslan, toss their trash out onto the ice.

In the towns and villages around Belaya Gora, the deliveries, and mechanical problems, begin.

Ruslan also stops to help every needy trucker we pass. The trip drags into a full week of 12-16 hour days without a shower or a change of clothes.

But finally the truck is emptied and Belaya Gora, or "White Mountain," appears on the horizon. The town relies largely on fishing to sustain its 2,000 inhabitants. From here, all that's left is to return safely to Yakutsk.

But first, a bath. Ruslan emerged feeling "like a newborn baby."

The shops of Belaya Gora are remarkably well stocked, but prices are far higher than in Russia's major cities. For 100 grams of cashew nuts, one store in the town charges $18.

With the journey now vastly behind schedule and the official road closure just days away, Ruslan moves fast on the return trip, sometimes driving through the night. The truck is empty, but a spell of mild weather means the road is fast disintegrating.

As the spring melt begins, water levels on the river start to rise. The water pushes up through the ice and creates a layer of weak ice above a "bedrock" of frozen river.

Days late and racing against the melting ice, Ruslan stops to help yet another trucker. He tows the faulty vehicle down the river and offers the driver a lift all the way back to Yakutsk.

Ruslan says truckers helping each other out on the ice is "just what you do," adding, "The culture of 'screw someone over, rip someone off' hasn't reached us here yet."

Back on the solid earth of the Kolyma Highway, the mood brightens as we turn into the spring sunlight. We've made it, and Ruslan has successfully completed another trip just days before the ice road shuts down until next season.

But, as it turns out, Ruslan hasn't quite finished with the ice road. He'll spend three days in Yakutsk, then attempt the journey one last time. "You should come along!" he tells me, "The water will be up to [our necks]!"

But Ruslan will be on his own this time. Pushing the limits on the ice highway is only for a special breed: those who have the ice road, as Ruslan puts it, "in our blood."

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