A choom is the traditional, circular reindeer-skin tent typical of
the reindeer-herding peoples of the Arctic tundra of northwest Russia.
Imagine the night-time scene over a hundred years ago, somewhere beyond
the Arctic circle and west of the Ural mountains. Exposed on the desolate
landscape stands an isolated choom, with the icy wind whistling through
the gaps in its reindeer-skin covering. Tucked in around the edge of
the covering are 12 snoring heads, and squeezed together in a tight
circle at the centre of the choom are the associated 24 feet. Well,
perhaps only 20 feet, because two of the people were children whose
feet would not have reached the centre!
This might have been a typical scene, were it not for the fact that
two of the feet belonged to a well-to-do young Englishman, Victor Morier.
So what was Mr Morier doing in a remote, Nenets choom on the exposed
tundra of Arctic Russia in the autumn of 1888?
This story is about a young man's initiative, but be warned that in
its eventual outcome the story does not have a happy ending - far from
To the Arctic Ocean
Victor Morier's journey started in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, in
July 1888. In eager anticipation he boarded the Labrador, about to set
off on a trading voyage through the Arctic Ocean. The intended destination
was Siberia and the mighty River Yenisey. It was one of a series of
extraordinary Arctic voyages undertaken by Captain Joseph Wiggins who
was determined to open up for the future a new trading route between
Britain and Siberia by way of the Arctic Ocean and the great Siberian
rivers, the Ob' and the Yenisey. Wiggins had been supported by the British
Ambassador in Russia, Sir Robert Morier, and so it came about that Sir
Robert's 21-year-old son Victor should was to share the rare experience
of a voyage to Siberia.
To reach Siberia by sea was a daunting task, and not all of Captain
Wiggins's valiant efforts succeeded. The 1888 voyage was one such failure,
and after delays and other problems the Labrador had to turn for home
at the Yugor Strait to avoid the risk of being caught in the gathering
ice as the Arctic Ocean began to freeze. The Yugor Strait is on the
far north coast of European Russia, and is one of the straits separating
the mainland from Novaya Zemlya. At this remote location was a tiny
Russian outpost known as Khabarovo, or Nikolskoe.
Bitterly disappointed that he would not see Siberia after all, young
Morier suggested that he could leave the Labrador at Khabarovo and make
the journey overland to the River Ob'.
He wouldn't be alone on this venture, because (by remarkable chance!)
two experienced Arctic travellers were on board the Labrador and they
agreed to accompany him. One of the mates was John Crowther, who had
travelled on Benjamin Leigh-Smith's exploratory expedition to Novaya
Zemlya in 1881-82, and the ship's cook happened to be a Latvian who
had been exiled in Siberia - Alexander Trontheim. On two occasions previously,
Trontheim had travelled a remote route westbound across the Urals from
the Ob' to the River Pechora.
With Trontheim as interpreter, Morier found himself on the shore at
Khabarovo negotiating with the Nenets reindeer herders to take them
on a 400-mile journey across the Urals to Obdorsk on the River Ob'.
The financial reward offered by the wealthy Englishman easily persuaded
the locals to participate, and so off they set on no fewer than 21 reindeer
sledges, escorting the Nenets' herd of 500 reindeer.
Dreary days on the tundra
As the grey, drizzly evening of 20 September 1888 drew in, preparations
were made for Morier's first night in a choom. There were 12 people
to be accommodated each night. Morier, Crowther and Trontheim were three.
The leader of the Nenets was called Ivan, who had with him his wife,
his mother, his sister Arik, his brother's wife (heavily pregnant),
his elderly one-eyed uncle Gregori, and one Michael who apparently was
not related. There were two children also.
Morier was keen to adapt to the daily routine. After the slow day's
journey herding the reindeer across the marshland and bogs of the tundra,
the time would come for the women to start the two-hour process of erecting
the choom. Every few days the men's task was to round up one of the
reindeer to be killed to provide the evening meals and breakfasts. With
virtually no wood, and everything thoroughly sodden, lighting the fire
became the most difficult and frustrating task each day. It was not
made any easier by the local men's sarcastic comments about why the
fire was necessary - because Morier and Crowther were the only two travellers
who insisted on cooking the raw reindeer meat before eating it. Later
things got wetter still, and then even those two had the simple menu
choice of either raw meat or nothing.
Morier was impressed by the three men's stamina in herding the deer
all day and then taking it in shifts to patrol the herd throughout the
night. In spite of these precautions, 10 reindeer were attacked and
eaten by wolves. Several more deer were lost by drowning as the party
tackled their first major river crossing.
Sledging became easier as the rain gave way to snow, but then trudging
in heavy snowshoes to keep rounding up the straggling reindeer became
even more exhausting. With diminishing daylight and plummeting temperatures,
Morier was becoming increasingly depressed at the slow rate of progress
(overall they were averaging about 8 miles a day).
Spirits were raised by two cheering events on 20 October. The cloud
suddenly lifted to reveal their first sight of the Ural mountains stretching
out impressively across the horizon. Then just as suddenly the cloud
closed in, and another week was to pass before they saw the mountains
again. The second event was the birth of Ivan's new nephew. Morier watched
in consternation as the newborn child was rolled naked in the snow in
some sort of initiation ritual.
After several days across the snow they reached the River Ussva and
another major river crossing. Expecting it to be frozen and easy to
cross, they were frustrated to have to hold back for three days while
the ice became sufficiently weight-bearing.
By now the novelty had definitely worn off, and Morier was finding
the journey gruelling as well as tedious. Lamenting that there were
too few candles to permit any to be used for reading, Morier endured
the long dark evenings crammed in the stuffy choom listening to accounts
of Crowther's exploits on Novaya Zemlya and of Trontheim's recollections
(told in German) of his days in exile. Perhaps Morier's mind wandered
back to the elegant young ladies of the social scene in the embassy
in St Petersburg as he stared vacantly across and concluded that Ivan's
mother had 'by far the most hideous face' he had ever seen on any human
From Europe into Asia
Debate ensued about which pass to take across the Urals, with the locals
urging a more southerly route. Morier, however, dictated that they would
take the shortest and, he hoped, the quickest route by using the steep
pass just below Pae-Jer mountain. It proved to be an arduous struggle
to coax the reindeer herd and the sledges up through the rocky pass
in the face of a biting gale. A frozen lake near the ridge might have
provided rapid sledging, but the sledges capsized at speed, sending
their contents hurtling across the ice - including the two-week-old
Much faster progress was made as the travellers came down the eastern
slopes, and at long last reached the bank of the huge River Ob'. Late
at night on 7 November Morier, Crowther and Trontheim gingerly felt
their way across the uneven ice of the 7-mile wide river to arrive,
thankfully, at the little town of Obdorsk. Several doors had to be knocked
upon before one kindly householder agreed to accommodate these mysterious
strangers who appeared from nowhere in the middle of the night.
Morier's onward journey to St Petersburg was by no means routine, involving
several hundred miles of sledging south along the Ob' and Irtysh post
roads, and then west to the railhead at Nizhny Novgorod.
What became of the places?
Morier in 1888 could not possibly have imagined the horrors to be inflicted
on that remote region in the twentieth century. By the 1940s, Stalin's
Gulag forced labour had built the town of Vorkuta together with a ring
of coal mines in the tundra exactly in the area crossed by Morier. Vorkuta
was linked by a lengthy railway line to the rest of Russia. The human
misery in constructing the railway and mines, in winter in the piercing
cold and in summer plagued by the relentless mosquitoes, is unimaginable.
Thousands died of exposure, exhaustion, starvation and disease. On his
visit to Vorkuta in 1997, the travel writer Colin Thubron was deeply
moved by the aura of despair which still pervades the area today.
Not even the tiny outpost of Khabarovo escaped the misery, as it became
the site of one of the most remote and desolate of Stalin's prison camps.
What became of the people?
Crowther continued to support Joseph Wiggins's efforts, and made his
own successful return voyage to the Yenisey in 1890. He acted as ice
master on Frederick Jackson's voyage of exploration to Franz Josef Land
Trontheim returned to the tundra five years later. In view of his experience,
he was commissioned to bring the sledge dogs for Fridtjof Nansen's famous
Arctic expedition in the Fram. In the summer of 1893, Trontheim
obtained 40 Siberian huskies in the Ob' valley and travelled with them
over Morier's route in reverse, except that this time he used the easier,
more southerly pass across the Urals which Morier had rejected. Trontheim
and 35 surviving dogs arrived at Khabarovo in readiness some three weeks
before the Fram called in.
Sadly, only four years later, Victor Morier died at the age of 25.
By this time he was in the British colonial service in Rhodesia when
he succumbed to a fever.
Perhaps Morier and Crowther were the first western Europeans to venture
across this part of the Arctic tundra. (Five years later, in 1893, Frederick
Jackson travelled from Khabarovo overland to Arkhangel'sk, but his route
kept close to the north coast. That route was also followed by Joseph
Wiggins and Hugh Leyborne-Popham in 1894 and by Popham again in 1895.
A more southerly route using the River Pechora and then east across
the Urals was followed as early as 1843 by the Finnish explorer Matthias
There was no particular outcome to this interesting little episode.
It did not prove to be landmark in exploration or the discovery of a
new route between east and west. Victor Morier's premature death ensured
that he never knew the grim reality of what the 20 century had in store
for the scene of his escapade in 1888.
© K. E. Catford 2004. Ken Catford has had long-standing interests
in industrial archaeology and historic waterways preservation. He is
a Trustee of the Boat Museum Trust at Ellesmere Port on the Mersey,
which displays the world's largest collection of historic inland waterways
craft. His interest in researching the industrial archaeology and historical
development of the Arctic derives from several visits to Arctic regions