“A feat is the order of the day…”
Mount Elbrus and Mount Everest expeditions, more than 4,000 parachute jumps, working in the Arctic and the Antarctic, equalling the Soviet test scientists’ world record: the famous high-altitude parachuting to the Lenin Peak in 2003. This person’s life is anything but monotonous. Alexey Budnitskiy is an athlete, polar explorer, and businessman. He never stays at home in Moscow, he just visits. In this interview, we will find out why he transformed his life into a long and at times extreme journey.
Alexey, when I look at you I can’t help recall a quote from an old Soviet movie: “normal heroes always take the detour”. You have received excellent financial and legal education, succeeded in large companies, and then – all of a sudden – you’ve traded your warm office for the coldest places on the planet. What made you change your life so fundamentally?
– I wouldn’t call myself a hero. My grandfathers, who had devoted their whole lives to the military were indeed heroes. Compared to what they had been through, parachuting onto an ice floe doesn’t seem like something extraordinary. It is simply a complicated and highly critical job that my colleagues and I value profoundly. Change is also normal. Life has so much interesting to offer. Too much. If you really want to do something, you need to act on it and not be afraid. I did not enter the world of sport spontaneously. I was going in for mountain climbing when I was studying and working. When I was 14 years old I started parachuting. For a very long time, I was able to combine everything I love. However, in 2006, one of my friends offered me to discover new professional horizons, and I am truly thankful for the opportunity he gave me and, of course, for his trust. It is impossible to join a polar expedition simply by pulling strings. Like all polar skydivers, I have been preparing for my expedition for a year.
Three years before becoming a polar explorer, you have gone on a highly dangerous adventure. Six test skydivers and athletes, including you, had parachuted from a plane onto one of the highest summits of the Pamirs. Your predecessors were listed in The Guinness Book of Records, and four of them died as a result of the parachuting 35 years ago. How justified was that risk?
– First and foremost, the Lenin Peak parachuting had a testing purpose. Of course, we also did it to commemorate our legendary colleagues Vladimir Mekaev, Yuri Yumatov, Valeriy Glagolev, and Vyacheslav Tomarovich, who all died in 1968. We proved that the most high-altitude parachuting in the world onto a 7,100-meter area is possible. We came back alive. The people endured, the equipment didn’t fail us. That means it wasn’t in vain. Before the jump, we had had a long and rigorous training. As you know, the air at high altitudes is thin, and there is not enough oxygen. That’s why our group had special training in the Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City. The skydivers were put into a diving chamber where hypoxia and sudden temperature changes were artificially created. In summer the temperature at the foot of the Pamirs is +40 C. On the Lenin Peak summits it’s – 40. We jumped out of the plane at 8,500 meters, and it was even colder there. That’s why we had been training so thoroughly and for so long, adapting to the challenging conditions. In the end, all six of us – Dmitriy Kiselev, Vladimir Kotov, Sergey Lalabukhov, Leonid Kazinets, Igor Tarelkin, and I – had landed safely on the summit, and descended to the base camp. It is one of the most memorable events of my life.
Each spring together with the skydiving polar group you build an airfield on drift ice of the Arctic and prepare a base for the international station Barneo. For a whole month, the station becomes a scientific, tourist, sports, and somewhat cultural center for people from various countries. What falls within your remit? Are there unsolvable problems or extreme situations?
– Unlike tourists, who fly to the very top of the globe in pursuit of thrill, fantastic camera angles, and to push themselves or their luck, we fly there to work. Any polar expedition is a thoroughly thought-through plan, a system that has been perfected over the years. In such conditions, if a person has to be heroic, it means that someone else hadn’t done their job. But I’m not talking about natural disasters. There’s no need for the extreme in the Arctic, that’s why we try to prevent any trouble beforehand. Every polar skydiver is an experienced and reliable person. They moor cargo decks, build runways on ice floes, and prepare camps for scientists and tourists in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. I am responsible for the logistics, equipment, and supplies. You have to bring all of the necessary goods, and even more, because the nearest store is 2,000 kilometers away.
You have to find the ice floe that will later become Barneo, and then you have to find a way to reach it. Naturally, a plane can’t land in a snowy desert. How do you and the cargo reach the Arctic?
– Unlike the Antarctic, the ice in the North Pole drifts constantly, which is why each time we select another platform for the camp. The skydivers fly out from Murmansk on a plane. The multi-purpose Ilyushin Il-76 carries barrels with fuel, tractors, equipment for the expedition, tents, food, and personal belongings. All this cargo is dropped onto a carefully selected ice floe with the help of special parachute systems. The people are the last to leave the plane. More than 10 years ago, when I had just started flying to the Arctic, the ice conditions there were much more favorable. Today, our tasks are more difficult. The ice had become thinner and more fragile. In such conditions, it is hard to find a suitable even surface to build the polar station. The optimal size of the ice floe is 1 km by 1,5 km so that we would be able to relocate the runway and the camp in case of a rift. That’s why specialists research thoroughly the ice floe’s qualities. For example, bright blue translucent ice is as fragile as glass. We choose matte ice that has less salt water. In 2016, the polar skydivers had to rebuild the airfield 4 times despite such thorough preparations. Collisions with the neighboring ice floes caused cracks in Barneo. However, we had been prepared for this sort of challenge, that’s why no one was injured, and the equipment was safe.
Everyone knows that it is safer to admire polar bears from afar and that a close encounter can end badly. How did you and the other expeditionists manage to stay alive when a female bear and a cub turned up several meters away from the tents?
– Despite all our important and complicated tasks, we are only guests in the Arctic, while the polar bears are its native inhabitants. It is only natural for them to protect their home and offspring from any visitors they deem unpleasant. Fortunately, the bears weren’t interested in our company. If they had smelled food, we wouldn’t have had anywhere to run. Polar bears have no fear and a lot of strength. Without any effort, the predator tears apart a metal barrel. You can imagine what it can do to a tent. The only way to scare them is to use a signal pistol. We are allowed to use weapons only as a last resort. It is a de-militarized zone. Also, we don’t want to harm the “hosts” of the Arctic.
As a member of the team, you are in charge of the outfits. Together with other experts, you participate in testing of the equipment for scientists, athletes, the army. Could you tell us, how should one dress in the Arctic? Has the polar explorers’ clothing changed significantly over the last few decades?
– The polar explorers started collaborating closely with the outdoor equipment producers in 2003. Back then we needed to equip the expedition to the Lenin Peak. By joining forces we’ve managed to create a set of multi-layer clothing. Several years later, they started to use the same system at the Pole. Before that, people used to fly to Barneo in overalls. The overalls got wet and frozen quickly and took a very long time to dry. If we go back to the Soviet expeditions to the Arctic, specifically, the first one headed by Ivan Papanin, we will find out the clothing was absolutely different back then. The polar explorers wore merino wool underwear, which deflects humidity and gives warmth. By the way, it is a prototype of the modern thermal underwear. Also, the outfits included woolen underpants, fur suede vests, and wolfskin coats. The humidity level in the Arctic is almost 100%, which is why you shouldn’t wear down or fur clothes. Synthetics are the optimal choice. The outdoor outfits were developed by the mountain climbers. Their baseline was: the clothes should be light. But the lighter they are, the colder. That’s why they chose the multi-layer system. Later, it was adopted and unified by the military. This is how the principle of 7 layers was coined. The lowest layer takes care of deflecting the humidity. The next one is thicker, it provides warmth and deflects the humidity. The next one provides warmth and shields from the wind. The next four layers shield from wind, humidity, cold, and frost. This is a classic set, and its components can be combined depending on the environmental conditions. All of the manufacturers strive to produce clothing systems. Although, those who have been specializing in jackets, have a hard time producing thermal underwear. That’s why it is hard to buy the whole 7 layer set made by a single company.
Do they produce quality outfits in Russia? How is it different from the foreign products?
– Since I am a specialist in testing polar equipment, it is far more convenient for me to work with Russian producers. If we were to compare the products of the famous US brand The North Face, and that of Moscow company BASK, we would see that the Russia-made outfits provide the same quality at a more reasonable price. Moreover, I can visit BASK headquarters to discuss and feel the new models. By the way, my first yellow down coat was made in 1996 personally by Vladimir Bogdanov, the head of BASK company. It was made for my latest at the moment expedition to Mount Elbrus. That jacket was the first one in the company’s “yellow” series of down clothing. I still keep it at home as a relic. Outdoor outfit producers constantly improve. Today, there is a range of quality synthetic insulants, including in Russia. Particularly, Wes Mir – the nonwovens fabric in Podolsk produce quality microfiber filler Shelter Loft. It is used in sports and tourist clothing. Most times, it is the one to keep the polar explorers warm at -40 C. We use holofiber to insulate tents. It is produced by Russian company Thermopol. Through long experiments, we have found the perfect material for us. Holofiber holds warmth inside and keeps the moist outside. Several years ago the skydive-explorers could’ve been woken up by rain inside of their tent caused by the condensate. Now this problem is solved. We have also started using holofiber insulated mattresses instead of paragon ones.
There are professional exhibitions of outdoor industry achievements being held each winter in Germany. In your professional opinion, how effective are events such as ISPO Munich? As you know, for three consecutive years Russian manufacturers have been participating in the exhibition under the Russian Outdoor Village brand.
– We have already talked about it being convenient for an athlete, a tourist or a pole explorer when outfit producers are available and open for conversation. Since the outdoor equipment is a product of close connection between the producer and the consumer, ISPO is the very place to establish and conduct such mutually beneficial business contacts. The fact that the Russian producer receives significant support from the government is also important. This year, ISPO impressed us with its scale by uniting booths of the Ministry of Industry and Trade of the Russian Federation and of the Russian Export Center. The Munich exhibition has a special casual comfortable atmosphere, an impressing choice of clothing, footwear, tents, backpacks, sleeping bags, and the most unthinkable gear and gadgets. You can also meet a lot of incredibly talented and even unique people there.
You have seen and tried numerous interesting things that millions of others do not dare to dream about. Does it feel like you have fulfilled your potential or is there still something missing?
– The potential is infinite. I think I felt really happy when I managed to turn my interest in sport into a profession. It brings me joy, but also money. In addition, people call it heroism. Isn’t it what happiness looks like?