Interview with Irina Orlova: Barneo and Frans Josef Land

Explorersweb/Pythom caught up with Irina at the end of the season. She and her husband, Alexander Orlov, have been involved in the organization of Barneo since 2002. “It’s him who bears the main load,” she tells us, “but he also has many other projects, thus I help him in planning and management of the camp.”

(By Correne Coetzer) The 2016 North Pole season has closed. Although no skier has done a full route to the Pole (or reverse), the season has brought enough excitement, issues, and challenges.

Every year the Russians open Barneo Ice Camp inside the last degree of latitude to serve as a base camp for last degree skiers, marathon runners, divers, scientists, pick-up/drop-off for full route skiers, and base for military members who practice their skills in the extreme Arctic conditions.

This year, the presence of the Chechen Military, in particular, caused unforeseen problems. A Svalbard reporter “found a threat to national security” in Barneo’s conventional activities by reporting “Chechen special forces instructors landed on Svalbard.” One of Barneo’s organizers, Irina Orlova responded, “during the last 15 years we never, and I mean it, ever mislead the local authorities, and do not plan doing it in the future. […] All our activities are under close control of the Longyear airport security service. […]” On these grounds, Irina said, the Norwegian authorities made the transportation rules much more rigorous.

Explorersweb/Pythom caught up with Irina at the end of the season. She and her husband, Alexander Orlov, have been involved in the organization of Barneo since 2002. “It’s him who bears the main load,” she tells us, but he also has many other projects, thus I help him in planning and management of the camp.”

As announced on April 23, Longyearbyen, on the Svalbard archipelago, will not be used by the Russians anymore as the gateway to Barneo Ice Camp. Instead, activities are shifting to Russian territory, Franz Josef Land Archipelago.

Although a few experienced veteran explorers had done expeditions on Franz Josef Land, it is mostly unknown territory. We checked in with Irina to find out more about this destination.

Irina: “First of all, I wish to thank you for your understanding and support. It’s very kind and helpful in these circumstances, when we have been suddenly pushed to change the route. As far as you know, it’s become required to get an approval for each flight 48 hours before it, that is totally incompatible with our customers’ safety. Now we’re doing our best to develop the new route as soon as possible, dealing with many government agencies, local authorities and officials.”

“Please find below preliminary answers, which we could give right now, in the very beginning of the planning process.”

ExWeb/Pythom: Where on Franz Joseph Land will the skiers/runners/divers/scientists get the AN-74? Will you still use the AN-74, or another plane?

Irina: As a logistic company, we have to provide our customers (i.e. tour operators) with An-74, which is the only type of aircraft suitable for the ice runway.

ExWeb/Pythom: Is there a town with shops where skiers will be able to do last minute shopping? Or should they arrive with all their supplies?

Irina: Your normal route will be like this: Europe -> Moscow -> Murmansk -> FJL Alexandra Land -> Barneo. There are 49 shops in Murmansk, where the skiers could do shopping. Additionally, we’ll probably bring our own small shop with a choice of necessities to FJL Alexandra Land.

ExWeb/Pythom: I presume most countries need visas for Russia?

Irina: Yes, most countries need visas, and you will certainly get detailed how-to-do list, invitations, etc. You can also use local operators for that. You’ll get our recommendations and maybe an internet form or step-by-step guide.

ExWeb/Pythom: What is the route to get there, for example from Moscow? (For adventurers to buy flight tickets). How long with will it take from Moscow to FJL?

Irina: The route is Europe -> Moscow <-1500 km-> Murmansk <-1400 km -> FJL Alexandra Land <-1000 km-> Barneo. There are a good choice of Moscow-Murmansk flights, including non-stop (2 hrs 25 minutes) and 1-stop. We have excellent Internet services for that, so you can check all flights and choose the best conditions easily. Today’s price is about $290 both ways, Moscow-Murmansk-Moscow. Both Moscow and Murmansk (etymology: from “norman”) are big cities with rich history and lots of tourist attractions. A tour company (which we recommend or you choose yourselves) will certainly organize an excellent sightseeing, local cuisine tasting and everything. Your departure from Murmansk to Alexandra Land depends on the options you choose with your tour operator: it may vary from several hours to one day, if you prefer to spend a night in Murmansk. A flight from Murmansk to FJL may take about 3 hours.

ExWeb/Pythom: How does the distance from Svalbard to Barneo and the distance from FJL to Barneo compare?

Irina: If we suppose the Barneo coords like 89.2°N 90°E, then it’s 1290 km from Longyearbyen compared to 960 km from FJL.

Exweb/Pythom: What housing will be available on FJL?

Irina: In recent years there has been an intense infrastructure development on FJL. We were involved into land restoration, still keeping in touch with local authorities and will provide you with further details probably in August.

ExWeb/Pythom: How does the weather there compare to LYB?

Irina: Generally the weather is similar to that of Svalbard. We will try to get more exact figures later.

ExWeb/Pythom: I have another (long) question for when you have time please. In 2002 I flew from Longyearbyen to Barneo, to a “French Camp”. There was a “Russian Camp” as well, operating from Khatanga. Back then I didn’t take notice of details, but one runway was used. I presume you (Russians) built the runway, as you have the expertise. What was the agreement between the 2 different organizers? Did the French ‘hire’ the runway/helicopters? There were two MI-8 helicopter (as now also), which were shared. There were Ukrainian pilots on the AN-74 from LYB, as far as I remember. How many years did Barneo operate like that? Why did the gateway change to Longyearbyen only? Could there be a possibility that someone would come forward and share the runway with you again, operating from Svalbard? Thank you.

Irina: Fifteen years have passed since those times, and it’s quite hard to recall all details. My husband is an experienced polar navigator, a man with a prominent background in high latitudes. When we visited that Ice Camp for the first time (around 2001), he was kind of horrified by the level of safety, while I was disappointed with the level of comfort. We felt that it’s our duty to create a sure footing for that, otherwise accidents could not be avoided.

In those times, the ice runway was funded by Russian budget. All the experienced staff was Russian, while French were just riding on their coat-tails, cutting costs by low level of comfort and safety. Thus I would hardly call it a “French camp” and “2 different organizers”. To be more precise, for the next two years amateurs have given way to professionals, and intermediary agent was replaced by a real investor.

As regards Ukrainian pilots, it seems like it was the French who were working with them. We cooperated with Ukrainian team only in Antarctica, in 2005. In Arctic it was Russian An-74, and the crew was Russian citizens.

For European travelers, Longyearbyen is much more comfortable than Khatanga. But it’s possible to use Khatanga too, as well as New Siberian Islands or Wrangel Island: the only question is who has enough skills, equipment and energy to develop a new route.

Concerning our ice runway, for sure there could be a possibility that someone would use it. To do that, he must satisfy our safety & comfort requirements, prove his qualifications and conclude an agreement.

Season and Svalbard Era End:

On May 3rd, Irina wrote “Last night a Yakutia Airlines Boeing 757 has returned from Longyearbyen with the expedition equipment. So we can say that the 2016th Barneo season is over. Yet it’s not time to strike the balance: we’ll do that later, considering all those events in April, all the good and the bad. Today I just want to say: though we will not use Svalbard to develop the ice camp, we’ll always remember our long-term cooperation with the Longyearbyen air terminal management, namely with Morten Ulsnes and all the Avinor staff, the new and old crew (and especially with all-weather friend of mine Liv Birgit Haustveit). How it’s possible to forget the one-of-a-kind, warmly welcoming Mary-Ann? And we still love our Norwegian best friends Borge Ousland, Inge Solheim, Terje Aunevik, Minney Sigurðardóttir. Now it’s their turn to visit us in Russia.”

Barneo Ice Camp:

Website RGO = Russian Geographical Society

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Previous/Related on Explorersweb/

North Pole: Another plane grounded; Skiers finish treks UPDATED

No more Russian flights from Svalbard to Barneo in future

North Pole update: the Antonov flies

Barneo: False Social Media Rumors about Chechen soldiers

Editor’s note: Recommended read

The Great Polar Journey In the Footsteps of Nansen” by Borge Ousland.u2028

The book is about Borge and Thomas Ulrich’s journey from the Geographic North Pole to Franz Josef Land and beyond, following the footsteps of Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen (1895). Ousland compares the two journeys and gives a lot of information about FJL during the time they had spent crossing the archipelago. Well illustrated with photos.


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