National Geographic : 2000 Nov
THEVIEW WAS MAGNIFICENT- mile after mile of flat-topped mountains receding to the Arctic horizon-though it was difficult to appreciate if you were on your hands and knees on the side of one of those plateaus, clinging to shards of scree. Vasily Sarana, the 33-year-old chief of the Russian Geo graphic Society's Putorana expedition and a mountaineer who seemed capable of bound ing up vertical walls, was not in such an undignified position, however. Standing tall, he turned around on the vertiginous slope and scanned the horizon of his favorite corner of Russia-the Putorana Plateau, a wild, unin habited tableland the size of Nevada, cut by canyons, rivers, and waterfalls. We were 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle in early September. Snow had fallen in the night, throwing into sharp relief the striated flanks of nearby plateaus. Sarana and I were searching for Putorana snow sheep, as we had been for nearly two weeks, with no success. The sheep, Ovis nivico la borealis, are rare-estimates range from 2,500 to 6,000 in all-and among the hardiest of animals. The biggest rams weigh up to 220 pounds and have thick horns shaped like commas. Both rams and ewes are clothed in a gray-brown wool that provides extraordinary insulation on the plateaus, where winter tem peratures plunge to minus 85"F. The sheep's fondness for end-of-the-Earth locales led me to this precipitous slope, strug gling to find a way up without somersaulting 600 feet down a field of jagged basalt rocks. When Sarana and I at last reached the top of the mesa, we were confronted with a bleak winter scene-an expanse of treeless plateau whose surface was studded with snow-covered boulders. It was hard to believe that anything could inhabit this moonscape. "Winter has arrived," said Sarana, and, brac ing against the frigid wind and spitting snow, I had to agree. "The moose and wolves will live in the valley now, but the sheep will stay up here. It will be a real battle for survival." The Putorana sheep spend the winter on the pla teau tops, where high winds sweep away the snow, exposing grass and other plant food. Sarana began scouring the ground for sheep sign. He soon found what he was looking for the distinctive two-pronged tracks, the piles of Steel nerves and a stout logforge a makeshift bridgeover roaringfalls on the Yagtali River. Eons of rain and snowmelt have etched steep canyons into this roadlessplateau one of the world's largest lava fields, laid by eruptions some 250 million years ago. 4,030 ft +1,228 m SPIr .