Twelve People Asleep in a Choom!

A journey across the Arctic tundra in 1888

by Ken Catford


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




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 it.

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 being.

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 baby.

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 in 1894-97.

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 Castrén.)

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 since 1990.




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