The publisherâ€™s blurb would have us believe that as the author and his team of huskies plunged over a Siberian precipice â€˜into the abyss’, Benedict Allen asked himself: ‘why do explorers put themselves in such dangerous situations? And â€“ once the worst possible situation occurs â€“ how do they find the resources to survive?â€™ For his part, Allen writes that as the sledge â€˜flew through the darkness to what might be my end, I even managed a wry smile at the irony of it.â€™ I wonder. It seems rather a lot of thoughts for one plummeting man to have.
Itâ€™s a minor quibble, for this invigorating account of Allenâ€™s attempt to cross the Bering Strait over the ice, needs no sexing up. Not only does it chronicle an amazing feat of endurance but it allows a rare glimpse into Chukotka, the most north-easterly region of Russia, governed by Roman Abramovich. Indeed the oligarch and Chelsea Football Club owner emerges remarkably well – a benign, philanthropic ruler for a remote and wretched land. Allenâ€™s request to explore the region had been turned down by Abramovichâ€™s predecessor but when the young oil billionaire is elected he sees nothing sinister and waves it on. Soon after arriving, Allen becomes quite blasÃ© about the climate. A minus fifteen is a day to go out and take a stroll, while thereâ€™s an amusing description of housewives in Anadyr, the aptly sounding capital of Chukotka, doing their weekly shop in a white-out so fierce that their plastic bags are shattering. Here is a picaresque, vodka steeped world where survival is celebrated in rundown bars populated by drunk waitresses and Casio keyboard players. The only sane person seems to be Abramovich. For when Allen spots him and his entourage at a nearby restaurant table, they are not behaving like big shots, or even drinking, but talking calmly like â€˜a tight-knit bunch of postgraduate students.â€™
Allen is the editor of the Faber Book of Exploration, and for the most part, his frequent references to celebrated adventurers adds colourful perspective. But the central drama is between him and his Chuckchi dogs, smaller than the better known Eskimo breed, and possessing greater stamina. His trip depends on the ice beneath them holding firm and for that he must rely on luck and his dogsâ€™ ability to smell water. Things start badly. When he meets them at the airport he sees an unimpressive bunch of â€˜third ratersâ€™, while they appear to hold him in equally low esteem, not bothering to look at him for the first week. But over time they bond and out on the ice he discerns something close to perfection in the relationship between man and beast: â€˜The grace with which we slid in silence over the bay gave the impression that we were floating; again, there was that notion of having broken free of earthly bounds.â€™ He conveys his love for these dogs, each with their own very different characters – dependable Top Dog, sturdy Flashy White, intellectual Jeremy and fearless Mad Jack â€“ in such a way that even a cynophobe like me, comes to love them, too.
At an immediate level the mission fails â€“ they never reach America. But their survival on the ice through numerous close shaves is full of suspense, and becomes an achievement in itself. At times it is the dogsâ€™ sixth sense that saves them, at other moments Allenâ€™s resourcefulness. Often it is pure luck. None more so than when reconnoitring ahead, his map is blown away and he loses his dog team. As night falls and the temperature drops, he gets out his rations and faces up to the icy wilderness, knowing that somewhere nearby are wolves and polar bears: â€˜It is at these rare times that modern man â€“ most of us long since used to being sheltered from the elements â€“ finds himself fully participating,â€™ he writes. â€˜Ready and fearful, I was consciously practising the art of survival.â€™
The end, when he must say goodbye to these amazing creatures who have become closer to him than people, is desperately sad. One moment they are his lifeline. The next he is handing them back to their owner. And as he ruefully comments, â€˜dogs never do quite understand goodbyes.â€™
Into The Abyss: Explorers on the Edge of Survival by Benedict Allen, 274pp, Faber and Faber, Â£17.99
This piece appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 12 November 2006