© Doug Menuez
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Seventeen days at the top of the world provide a glimpse of post-Soviet Russia.
The 3,014th person to set foot on the North Pole was a photographer. The experience of standing on top of 30 feet of ice at the top of the world with several SLR camera bodies dangling around his neck was, says Doug Menuez, "profoundly moving."
It was the perspective that mattered. "You recognize on some deep level how vast the planet is and how small you are in comparison," he says. "You feel connected to nature and humbled by it at the same instant."
Some of the images Menuez snapped at the Pole reflect the spiritual transformation he felt that day -- images that show great sheets of blue ice stretching into the distance, as far as the eye can see.
Other images, however, depict a different kind of experience -- one that, looking back, sticks indelibly in Menuez's mind. In those pictures, the captain and crew of the Russian icebreaker on which Menuez had hitched a ride are seen in their underwear, diving into the frigid water cleared by the ship. "Everyone was drinking vodka, of course," he says. "They had giant speakers down on the ice blaring rock 'n' roll. They even unloaded a car and drove it in crazy circles around the Pole for hours. They wanted to drive through all the lines of longitude."
As someone once said, the real value in travel is not arriving; it's getting there that counts. For Menuez, getting to the Pole involved spending 17 screwball days at sea on the Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker Yamal in the summer of 1994. Only a few years before, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and Russia had become a land of wide-open entrepreneurial opportunity. A company had licensed the Yamal to take paying customers from a port in Murmansk, Russia, to the Pole at a cost of around $20,000 per ticket. Menuez proposed a story about the venture to Condé Nast Traveler, and the magazine sent him on his way.
With him on the ship were 67 passengers, including a number of Western scientist/lecturers, and a crew of about 130. Menuez expected an interesting trip featuring beautiful vistas and opportunities to learn about the earth's natural history. Instead, the voyage was, as he says, "a window for me to see into the Russian world at that time."
The window first opened after Menuez flew to Helsinki, Finland, where he boarded a bus "that blew down dirt roads at 80 miles an hour" to deliver him to the ship in Murmansk. The Yamal itself was comfortable, if not luxurious. Menuez learned to respect the former KGB agent who guarded the ship's nuclear power plant with a shotgun.
Soon, the Yamal's security crew took a liking to the photographer. "Once, at about three in the morning, a few of the security guys pounded on my door and dragged me to the back of the ship, where they had a cargo helicopter," Menuez says. "They had a bunch of girls from the ship's crew in there, and they were passing around a bottle of clear liquid that turned out to be de-icing fluid. That was a party." The last to drink was the pilot, who then lifted the chopper off the deck, swung it dramatically through blowing snow, and landed it directly in front of the fast-approaching icebreaker. "They were showing off to this American photographer," Menuez says.
Later, the Russians and Menuez helicoptered to the island of Novaya Zemlya, where they hunted reindeer. What followed was a surreal barbeque at an abandoned Soviet Gulag. "There were survivors of the work camp who had nowhere else to go, and they were just squatting there," says Menuez. "They were playing guitars and singing and drinking vodka with us." The reindeer was delicious -- until one of the scientists in the group told Menuez that the reindeer in the area had been feeding on grass irradiated years ago by above-ground nuclear bomb tests.
Then came the Pole itself and another mighty celebration. Menuez broke away from his traveling companions to gaze out over the world of ice. In recent years that scene has come to haunt him. "I read that in 2007 there was no ice at the Pole during the summer because of climate change," he says. "I may have witnessed something no one will ever see again." -- D.S.