The Russian bogs have a timeless quality about them, as though millions of years of evolution have completely passed them by. A cloud of mosquitoes buzzes around my head, and somewhere through the stunted trees that dot the landscape, a single bird calls out. This is nature in its most untouched state—a scene from National Geographic.
Half an hour later, though, it’s a very definitely a scene from the Ladoga Trophy. The high-pitched whine of winches, the angry roar of big engines as the Proto cars inch their way through meter-deep mud, and the voices of a dozen determined faced men shouting instructions and insults to each other in Latvian, Finnish, and Russian. It has taken me two hours to walk here and I can’t go any further. With each step, I sink to my knees, and I only have two Snickers bars left to give me the energy I need to trudge all the way back. But this is no spectacular vantage point I have come to see with all the film crew and photographers hovering around—this is just the start of the very first Proto stage, and I didn’t even make it as far as the second waypoint out of 25. But this is the soul of the Ladoga Trophy. This is what 99 percent of the competition that people don’t get to see looks like—and I have to say it is absolutely epic.
The Ladoga Trophy is a nine-day, 1,200-kilometer-long assault around Lake Ladoga, north of St Petersburg, through just about every type of terrain possible. Besides the well documented mud bogs, there are huge river crossings, car-sized rocks to crawl over, and huge slopes to winch up. More than 160 vehicles tackled the event last year, spread over nine classes from the monster-truck Protos to beat-up standard Lada Nivas. There’s everything in these forests, from the independent-suspension, portal-axled buggies to Suzukis that look like someone’s been watching too many episodes of Scrapyard Challenge. On the start line in the center of St Petersburg, one might see a 40-year-old UAZ parked next to a Hummer H2, and Proto beasts standing proud on 40-inch tires next to an immaculate and massive Toyota Tundra—all heading off together into the endless forests.
Each evening, the leader board is pinned up in camp listing the times of those who have made it through each stage of the competition, but the numbers don’t really mean anything. “Six hours 17 minutes” can’t give you any idea of what challenges had to be surmounted, nor does the ominous “0:00:00” tell what lengths a crew is going through to get their vehicle fixed, or extricated from an inaccessible bog. It’s only back in camp, to the sounds of angle grinders and hammers pounding out bent body panels, that the stories come out. Kari Sihvonen only finished building his Discovery-based Proto the night before scrutineering and so was very happy to be Third at one point—especially as he took a wrong turn through a lake and ended up stuck with the water lapping over the roof, just 2 centimeters from the snorkel. Contrast that to the rather inactive crew behind them who were trying to work out how to get their broken-engined TR2 UAZ out through five feet of bog.
The TR1 Class was the most closely fought class this year, and came down to the penultimate stage. A group of brand-new Land Rover 90s and aging 70-series Land Cruisers were all chasing an immaculately prepared Lithuanian Suzuki Jimny, which was actually fastest of all along the spectacular beach race. The Suzuki had a lead of over an hour with two days to go, but got handed a 60-minute penalty for missing a GPS waypoint by 30 meters. That left them a scant 12-minute lead, but in the very next stage, a tree ripped up through the floorpan and cut through the electrics. A hasty repair meant that they got out of the stage, but the lead and the win was lost. Driver Ben Vanagas was very philosophical about it, though: “In this event, at every moment something can go wrong. One rock, one tree, one bad river crossing, one thing breaking on the car is all it takes.”