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Matvey Shparo: An Experienced Explorer is Safer in the Arctic Than in a Big City

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Matvey Shparo: An Experienced Explorer is Safer in the Arctic Than in a Big City


Sergei Vinogradov

From an early age the famous explorer Matvey Shparo has followed in the steps (or more accurately, the ski trails) of his legendary father Dmitry Shparo, whose records expanded the boundaries of human ability. Matvey has completed dozens of unique arctic expeditions on skis, made it into the Guinness Book of World Records, and earned national awards. In an interview with Russkiy Mir the explorer told us that the Arctic is for him a love and a challenge.

Many encyclopedias call you a polar explorer. Is this a fair definition, considering the fact that you’ve made expeditions to other parts of the world?

I think its fair. All the same, my trips outside the polar expanses were fairly rare. I made two trips to Africa and an ascent in Asia. But climbing to the Lenin Peak, I realized that Im not a professional mountain climber. Its good when people do things professionally and properly. And in that respect Im glad that I have secured the status of a polar explorer. Yes, in a certain sense its a narrow specialization, but I absolutely agree with it.

Photos courtesy of Matvey Shparo

Is there a fundamental difference between expeditions in the Arctic or in Africa, besides the amount of clothing needed and what you bring in your backpack?

Yes, of course. In 2000 I traversed Greenland, the largest island on the planet. In 43 days we went 650 kilometers. And during this trip a certain idea came to me clearly: if there is a desert on Earth, its right there in the Arctic, not in Africa. A traditional desert still has some kind of life in it, and you meet scorpions, insects, and tumbleweeds there. But in an ice desert, theres nothing. Its absolutely lifeless. The Russian word for desert [pustynia] comes from the word “emptiness” [pustota], and so this name corresponds better to Arctic and Antarctic spaces. In these places there arent even pathogenic bacteria—everythings absolutely sterile. I havent got sick on any of my northern expeditions.

The Arctic is sterile, but terribly cold. The absence of viruses is one thing, but what about hypothermia?

The onset of hypothermia directly depends on how well and thoroughly you are dressed. If you get sick, its your own fault.

When your father, the famous explorer Dmitrii Shparo, made his world-renowned expedition to the North Pole on skis, you were four years old. Do you remember waiting for your father to return from the North Pole?

I cant remember events from so early in my childhood. But the scale of my fathers expeditions didnt lower, and several years later he made a journey on skis across the Arctic Ocean across the pole to Canadaand this was of no lower profile. I remember it well. I also remember feeling a degree of personal responsibility for being the son of such a father. People treated him like Gagarin, and I could feel that heightened attention on myself. At that time the country had certain values that were cultivated by the exceptional accomplishments of Soviet people. The country needed heroes, and heroes appeared: cosmonauts, polar explorers, hockey players, and many others. Its too bad this has largely disappeared now.

Photos courtesy of Matvey Shparo

Did your father explain why these expeditions, which took up so much strength and time, were necessary?

I never asked him about it. Why did he go on expeditions? Sure, during the campaign they would perform various experimentshow the body responds in cold conditions, what food is optimal in these conditions, and so forth. The results of these experiments were used to train cosmonauts, for example. But I dont think this was the main thing. It was because he loved (and continues to love) his country and tried, to the best of his abilities, to do something valuable for it. And he succeeded.

Tell us about your first expedition.

I remember my first journey by skis in the Arkhangelsk region. I was 14 years old then. And as we were returning after a seven-day expedition, my father told me that the complexity of this journey was no different from that of an expedition to the North Pole. These words stunned me, and Ive always remembered them, though the journey was very difficult for a 14-year-old childI even had hallucinations. In this case, the difficulty of the journey was added onto my age. Every age has its own triumphs and accomplishments. A 14-year-old adolescent who completes something ambitious for his age experiences stronger emotions than a 35-year-old man who goes out into space.

How did you learn not to whine at an adolescent age?

Physical training helped somewhat. (For example, I ran a lot.) But the moral training was more important. I never thought about how I came to be ready for serious expeditions. It came about on its own. I had an inner interest that overcame all the difficulties that came up along the way. Its one thing when someone forces you to do something and you whine, while you resist it. But its something totally different when you yourself want to go on an expedition and you have a life goal that youre moving towards. Why would you act up? Who would you complain to?

Photos courtesy of Matvey Shparo

People travel across the Far North and other extreme parts of the planet in cars or carried by dogs or deer, or they walk on foot. Whats the reason for your dedication to traveling on skis?

Its all simple. I like the North and the Arctic, theres snow there, and one usually skis across snow. Thats the whole explanation. I could have become a mountain climber but Ill admit that I never liked high tech expeditions. Ski trips dont involve all that tourist equipment, the great number of devices, and so forth. Theres just space, skis, and your determination, which will help you overcome adverse circumstances. And the most important thing during an excursion isnt even your physical condition or training, but this same determination and your strength of will.

You said that you like the Arctic. Why?

Its difficult for me to express clearly my relationship to the Arctic. I love to travel in the Arctic. Why? Ill try to explain. I grew up in the family of an exceptional individual, my father. He received awards from the hands of Brezhnev and met with the leaders of the USA, Canada, and other countries. And he accomplished a lot for his country. I was and am very proud of my fatherhe is what Im most proud of in my life. And its because of these Arctic expeditions and many other things. My father raised me very well, building the correct foundation. His willingness to make sacrifices for his country impressed me and served as an example: storms and blizzards all around, and he kept going forward to raise our flag at the summit of the planet. That is how hes always seemed to me. From a young age I wanted to do the same thing, so that my children would think the same way about me. So that my daughters would be proud of me just as Im proud of my father.

Photos courtesy of Matvey Shparo

That is, you love the Arctic for being so difficult and impassable?

Most likely, yes. But I wouldnt call the Arctic some kind of battlefield or frontline that one must cross with teeth gritted. Ive seen the Arctic in its most varied states. And fundamentally it is friendly. Ill describe the Arctic in the spring: a bright sun, a little wind, a snowdrift, an endless horizon, and ice drifts. You ski from the ridge of one ice-drift to another with the help of a compass, choosing a path between them. There it is: an Arctic expeditionsome people enjoy it, others find it boring. You walk along immersed in your own thoughts and you remain one on one with the White Silence. Youll agree that we dont have a lot of occasions in our life to escape into our thoughts, meditate, and abstract ourselves from the world. There arent noisy cars or loud voices around, and your head isnt worried about work or concerned about what to buy for dinner. You are separated from that; its just you and the Arctic. Its an extraordinary feeling.

An experienced explorer in the Artic gets a feeling of knowing and understanding it very welland it seems to understand me. It appears cold, but thanks to my experience and great knowledge, I understand how to approach it correctly, so as not to offend it. Such is our relationship.

And what about the danger?

There are dangers everywhere. You can break your leg in Moscow as well. Of course, the likelihood of an emergency is much greater on an Arctic expedition than in the city. But youre not just an ordinary person who suddenly ended up in the Arctic. Youre ready for everything and understand that you can meet a polar bear and end up in an ice-hole, or your tent could be torn up by the wind. But if youre ready and have thought it all through, the risks come to a minimum. And you feel safer than in Moscow.

Photos courtesy of Matvey Shparo

A number of large-scale government projects are now being realized to reclaim the Arctic. They have started talking about the country returning to the North. What path for developing the arctic territories seems most viable to you?

The Arctic cannot be discarded, and if thats the case, it needs to be developed. And I think everyone will agree with this. How to do this is a complicated question. Because any project there turns out to be very expensive. Its necessary to develop an infrastructure, but climactic conditions make this difficult. Im also convinced that its necessary for people to live in the Arctic in order to develop it. And its possible. I know people who live in Alaska, in northern Canada, and successfully engage in tourism, industry, mining useful minerals, and so forth.

In any event, its a very good thing that theyve now raised the issue of the Arctic. Its great that the Arctic is being cleaned of trash, and Arctic studies are being conducted. These first steps are very important. But I repeat, this is an expensive and long-term project.

For many years you have worked with children and adolescents: you go on expeditions with them, open up camps, teach them to survive in the forest, and even write motivational books. Lets take a typical contemporary adolescent as an example. He loves computers and will go work in IT, and for relaxation hell fly to Thailand. Why should he learn to make a camp fire and pitch a tent?

Right now, projects connected to children are my primary work (Matvey Shparo heads the center for extracurricular education Travel Laboratory.S. V.), and I can speak about it for a long time, because this is a very serious topic. Its possible that an adolescent will not need to know how to start a campfire or pitch a tent in his life, but it certainly wont be unnecessary if hewhile doing something interesting in the company of youths the same agelearns to make friends, communicate and work together on a team, make decisions, and be kind, independent, and responsible. Expeditions are the best way of achieving this.

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