Kissing and hugging to survive, tears, hallucinations, fearing their 4 children would be orphans, giving up, cuddling in the Arctic snow to die...then a miracle.
Natalya and Nikolay: 'We decided to make one nice final step, and leave this world together - just like we lived.' Picture: Elena Kiseleva/Yakutsk Vecherny
Natalya Protodyakonova, 45, and Nikolay Khobrov, 36, are native Siberians, members of the Yukagir ethnic community, reindeer herders who are well used to the cold, but earlier this month on the way home - a distance of some 140 km - from a shopping expedition, first they lost their convey, then their bearings, and finally their snowmobile broke down. It was minus 50C, but a biting wind chill made it feel 15C colder on the coast of the Laptev Sea in the far north of Yakutia. They called relatives several times to say they were lost, some 30km from the village of Nizhneyansk. But then their cell phone froze. This is what happened next, in Natalya's words.....
'We left Nizhneyansk on three snowmobiles. Ours was the first in line. We always kept an eye on lights behind us, until suddenly they were gone. Our snowmobile's motor cut out, and all of a sudden it was quiet, no lights and no sound of other engines.
'We checked our engine's filter, topped up the fuel, but it wouldn't restart. As we kept trying to figure out what happened, we used up all our matches. We called family in Yukagir (village) to say we had got lost.
'We asked them to send another snowmobile - to leave the village and come towards us, although better hope was that the two other drivers in our convoy would find us.
Snowmobile broke in about 30 kilometres from Nizhneyansk. Pictures: The Sbiberian Times
'It was terribly cold. If we were in the woods it would have been different and given us some protection, but there was just ice and snow all around us. We had been driving on the shore of the Laptev Sea.
'I got very cold quickly, and felt really tired. All I wanted was to lie down and sleep, but my husband wouldn't let me. He forced me to walk around the snowmobile. This is how we spend the first night. Walking, walking, walking all the time.
'When the sun rose, we called our family again to ask if anyone went to search for us. We decided to try to move towards our rescuers from the village, and started walking in the direction where, we thought, they were heading towards us.
'We did have some feelings at first. We wanted to eat, to drink. But then I got so icy cold that all my feelings switched off. I really wanted to lie down, but my husband did all he could to keep me moving. He pushed me, and forced me.
Yukagir village - home for Natalya and Nikolay and their family. Picture: The Siberian Times
'He picked up snow from the road, melted it in his mouth, and made me drink the water from his lips. I cried and he cried. But he kept pushing me.
'I followed him even though my legs and arms were numb. A thought about our children becoming orphans helped me move. After a day on the road we started hallucinating. We both saw headlights and heard sounds of an engine. We sped up towards this snowmobile, and waved hands. But it wasn't for real.
'It got darker again. We kept walking, using the last energy we had, both realising that we could not survive a second night in this cold. It was dark when we found the snow road.
'My husband recognised it and said - this is our road, to our village. We wanted to call our family to say we were on the road, but the phone froze. Next it was like we were inside a nightmare.
'We kept plodding towards somewhere. But now we did not believe that the rescuers would be there for us in time. There were no tears, no talks. We had no energy left. Finally my husband said that that was it, he couldn't go any further.
'It was only when we got to Nizhneyansk that I realised a miracle has actually happened and we both survived.' Pictures: YSIA, Gorod Prizrak
'We decided to make one nice final step, and leave this world together - just like we lived. We had a cover on us, and decided to lie on the snow close to each other, face to face, to cover ourselves - and to let ourselves fall asleep.
'We wrapped our heads and shoulders and immediately it felt so nice, so warm being close to each other. I closed my eyes and saw all our four children and even heard their voices. My husband was close to me, and I thought that the end wasn't as scary as we had both imagined. We were just falling asleep together.
'I don't know how long we had been lying down. I thought I was still asleep when I saw my brother Nikolay's face. Another hallucination? No, it was only when we got to Nizhneyansk that I realised a miracle has actually happened and we both survived.'
One of a number of rescuers who had gone in search of them, Natalya's brother, also called Nikolay, takes up the story.
'If we were in the woods it would have been different, but there was just ice and snow all around us. We had been driving on the shore of the Laptev Sea.' Pictures: The Siberian Times, Instagram
'I was fishing when I heard my sister and her husband were lost. I rushed back to the village, and listened to the rescue attempts were being made. Then I took another man with me to start our own rescue. I compared the time when they called to the distance they had to make.
'I envisaged their route and decided to leave about 90 km from our village to start searching within a radius of 5 or 10 km. This is how we found them. I saw them lying motionless by their snowmobile's tracks.
'There was no sign of them breathing. They didn't hear us calling their names. I felt at that moment as if my heart was turning into ice. We were too late. And then Nikolay moved his leg. We were so happy.
'We rushed to wake them, got them up, forced them to walk, then wrapped them into downy blankets and drove as fast as we could to Nizhneyansk.'
* We are indebted to journalist Elena Kiseleva for this remarkable story. She says that the couple are now recovering from their ordeal. 'Natalya (she doesn't have a land line in her house, so to talk to a journalist she goes to a neighbour's house) is still stressed. She can hardly speak from her cough and says her blood pressure is all over the place. Her husband Nikolay's face and hands were frostbitten. Yelena also told how Natalya's brother Nikolay is the great grandson of the native Siberian who was guide to famous Arctic explorer Eduard Gustav von Toll. She added: 'People from the village asked me to write that it would be great to bring back regular helicopters and revive local rescue squads. 'Perhaps if we have our own rescuers, the guys who were born here and who know the area, satellite phones, good equipment, then less people would be taken by our winters,' one told her.
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