I have to admit, I thought about backing out.
As I was wandering around aimlessly searching for my hostel in Krasnoyarsk with the wind whipping against my face, I seriously thought about backing out.
And when I lost my debit card to an ATM machine for the second time on this trip, I thought it would be the perfect excuse to cancel my planned hike in the Stolby Nature Reserve for the next day.
Never mind that it was the main (only) reason I was stopping in Krasnoyark.
And never mind that I spent the last two weeks going back and forth with Sayan Ring Travel arranging for an English-speaking guide and park ranger to lead me on a day-long hike through a forest of volcanic rock formations (better known as “stolby”).
Krasnoyarsk felt significantly colder than Irkutsk and when I checked the forecast for the following day, it looked to be frigid with temperatures not even breaking zero throughout the day.
I seriously doubted whether I could handle it.
But then I got my ATM card back from the bank, bought a new pair of gloves and some hand warmers and didn’t return to my hostel until after 7:00 p.m. – by which time it was probably too late to cancel. I mentally accepted the fact that I would freeze my butt off the next day. I even had a title planned for this blog post – something about the dumbest thing I have ever done and getting frostbitten and hypothermia.
And then I dreamt that my guide didn’t show up. And I woke up, sort of hoping that dream would be reality even as I piled on all of the warm clothing I had: tights, long johns and winter hiking pants, topped by a short sleeve technical shirt, a long sleeve technical shirt and a running fleece. Two pairs of wool socks, hiking shoes, a fleece hat and neck warmer and my new gloves completed the ensemble. I was feeling pretty good when my guide, Dasha, showed up at 9:00 a.m. – until she asked if I was wearing the warmest clothing I had. Yikes.
As Dasha’s dad drove us to the entrance to the Stolby Nature Reserve (avoiding the need for us to take a public bus and saving us about 2 kilometers of hiking), I gave myself a mental pep talk that went something like this:
I’m a Minnesotan.
I grew up in the cold and snow and wind.
I’m sure I encountered temperatures like this. Many times.
And I survived.
I can do this.
The Minnesotan in me can do this.
It was still fairly dark when we arrived and we walked mostly in silence, listening to the crunch of the snow beneath our feet. I was surprised at how many others we saw making the same walk on a Sunday in late November, sun barely starting to rise and temperatures hovering around -12F (yes, that is MINUS 12 Fahrenheit!).
It took us just over an hour to reach the park ranger’s hut – a small wooden house warmed by a wood-burning stove. The 70-year-old ranger, Vitaly, and his wife ushered us in for some tea and snacks before Vitaly broke out a bottle of cognac and poured us each a shot. I swished down one while Dasha took two and Vitaly downed three.
Yes, cognac – not vodka – is apparently the secret to staying warm in a Siberian winter.
Vitaly ignored the well-tread paths and instead led us through the woods, fresh snow sometimes up to our knees. Before reaching the first stolby, Vitaly stopped and pointed out a few other rock formations, telling stories about them in Russian, which Dasha then translated for me. He emphasized needing to use my imagination as I looked at the rocks, to create a fantasy about what I saw in them. Amusingly, as the day went on, I noticed that most of his fantasies about the rocks had to do with women’s breasts.
We spent just over two hours hiking from stolby to stolby and even climbing up on some of the rocks for sweeping views of the whole area. While I probably could have made the hike myself, especially in the summer when the paths are clear, I was glad I had Vitaly with me to push me in ways I wouldn’t have pushed myself. He also provided much needed support and boosts along the way – I don’t think I would have made it up on some of the rocks without him.
Our last “climb” was the toughest and scariest – especially for someone with a slight fear of heights. As I reached the top of the rocks, I felt colder than I had the entire day and struggled to stay standing in the blowing wind. I slowly and carefully took my camera out to take a few shots before Vitaly encouraged me to sit down so he could take a picture of me with the whole valley as the background.
Then we had to head back down, which was almost worse than going up. My feet kept slipping out from under me and at one point I pulled Vitaly down with me.
Eventually, I gave up and just slid down on my butt.
Amazingly, I really never felt cold as we were hiking. It wasn’t until Dasha and I started the 7 kilometer trek back down to the bus stop that the chill started to set it and by the time we boarded the bus I was nearly frozen. But by then it didn’t matter. I didn’t get hypothermia. Neither my fingers nor toes were frostbitten. I didn’t just survive the hike, I thrived and felt exhilarated in the icy air.
Both Dasha and Vitaly admitted to me that they thought I would back out.
I was glad I proved them wrong.