This story was originally published in Smith Journal Volume 22.
He’s scaled Everest twice, flown a balloon around the world in 11 days, and been camel riding with Vladimir Putin. Meet Fedor Konyukhov, 21st-century Russia’s most tireless adventurer.
Fedor Konyukhov greets visitors to his Moscow workshop with a hand to the forehead—a blessing in the Russian Orthodox Church, where he serves as a priest. A rugged 65-year-old with a thick gray beard and a booming voice, he wears a sailor’s pea coat with a priest’s soft black hat, and fingers a long rosary of wooden beads as he speaks. “I’ve got a lot of sins,” he jokes.
As Russia’s most prominent adventurer, he has climbed Mount Everest twice, reached the North Pole three times (including one time alone and on skis), rowed across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and sailed solo around the world four times.
In recent years, he has also taken up ballooning, and set his latest world record: An 11-day round the-world trip taking off and landing in Western Australia in July 2016.
A framed certificate on his kitchen wall confirms his accomplishment—a hair-raising journey lasting 268 hours and 20 minutes. One that came close to disaster, but smashed the previous record by two days on its first attempt. Konyukhov was forced to wear an oxygen mask the whole time, and had to be constantly alert. “I couldn’t sleep,” he says. “If I’d fallen asleep, I’d have gone down—that was it.”
He used an ancient technique to stay awake: Holding a key that would fall and rouse him if he nodded off. “Orthodox monks in the old days used to do that when they were reading prayers so as not to fall asleep, and I copied them.”
Did it work?
“I’m alive,” he answers.
Conditions in the balloon were so austere that Konyukhov barely drank or ate and only once used the toilet—a “special bag of chemicals.”
At one point, the heating in the balloon’s cabin broke, and temperatures inside plunged to minus 40 degrees Celsius. “It was cold,” he remembers, “but I warmed myself up.” What he was most worried about was his instruments freezing. “If they had stopped working, I could have gone down. I was afraid the whole time.”
Miraculously, they didn’t, and he stayed the course.
“Now I’ve flown around our planet, and somehow l feel more at peace. If I hadn’t, I would be sitting there and thinking, ‘I never flew round the world’. That terrifies me.”
The heating wasn’t the only snag. Konyukhov encountered a storm front over the Indian Ocean and had no choice but to fly above it at a risky altitude. Konyukhov’s project manager, his son Oscar, constantly monitored the situation from the ground.
He admits he had doubts his father would make it. “When you plan such expeditions, you know there is a chance of not returning alive,” he says. “You need to go out 100 per cent prepared, understanding that’s still no guarantee. From then on, it’s God’s will.”
The balloon was speeding at 200 kilometers per hour as organizers followed it on a tracker, communicating with Konyukhov via satellite phone. “Every instruction we gave, he had to carry out wearing an oxygen mask and going outside the cabin,” Oscar recalls. “It was such a difficult situation.” Even the landing was tricky, with the huge balloon careering along the ground in strong winds.
Back on the ground, Konyukhov refuses to get philosophical about why he does what he does. He insists his adventures aren’t motivated by grandiose notions of personal growth, but rather the simple satisfaction of ticking off records. “You gain most when you set yourself a goal—any goal—and carry it out.”
And yet he says he always craved adventure. He was nine years old when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, and he quickly started dreaming of becoming a cosmonaut himself. “Now I’ve flown around our planet, and somehow l feel more at peace. If I hadn’t, I would be sitting there and thinking, ‘I never flew round the world’. That terrifies me.”
Not put off by the rigors of his last trip, Konyukhov is already deep in plans for his next. He plans to break a ballooning record by staying airborne for more than 50 hours, and another for highest altitude gained while traveling in a hot air balloon. (The current record is 21 kilometers—Konyukhov is aiming for 25.)
“Vladimir [Putin] is a romantic. He is an Orthodox Christian, and he is curious about things. I would fly round the world with him if he had time.”
The journey itself will be treacherous, but one of the biggest hurdles to success is money: So far Russian officials have voiced support for the stratospheric record, but they’re not ready to cover the full cost. “It’s a myth that it’s very easy for Fedor to find money,” Oscar says. “Everyone says ‘Yes, yes, yes’”—but they stop short of writing a cheque.
Some are more generous, though: Past sponsors include Russian banks and a luxury watch brand. Support from businesses like these makes Konyukhov’s adventuring possible, though the team is occasionally forced to reject some publicity stunts due to his status as a priest.
One person the team doesn’t have to worry about getting onside is President Vladimir Putin, who shares Konyukhov’s strongman ethos. In 2009, Putin visited Konyukhov in Mongolia for a camel expedition, and talked about joining the team on more adventures. “Vladimir Vladimirovich is a romantic,” Konyukhov says. “He is an Orthodox Christian, and he is curious about things. I would fly round the world with him if he had time.”
Oscar says they often write to Putin to get his approval for projects. This can help open doors, he adds, but they don’t ask for money.
Inside their Moscow workshop, it is so cold that everyone wears down coats. Konyukhov keeps his belongings upstairs—a jumble of sports gear, oil paintings, drawings, books on religion, and a photograph of popular singer Vladimir Vysotsky, who was idolized throughout the Soviet Union. The boat Konyukhov rowed across the Pacific stands on a glassed-in verandah.
“When people come to see Fedor, they can’t work out who he is,” Oscar says. “He’s a priest, an artist, a traveler and a writer. I think that’s his strength.”
Konyukhov entertains a neverending stream of visitors, ranging from helicopter pilots to a schoolboy who asks him to pose for a photo. His son says that it was the same when he was a child. “There would always be 100 people coming every day, all of them drinking tea, all with brilliant ideas,” he says. At first, these ideas seemed unrealistic, he said, but then he realized that “Fedor could make them reality.”
Ballooning hasn’t fully sated Konyukhov’s restlessness. He is currently interested in flying gliders with solar-powered batteries, and also plans to descend to the world’s deepest seabed in the Pacific Ocean, the Challenger Deep. “I want to cross Australia on camels,” he adds. “You have beautiful deserts there.”
In the end, the only limit to Konyukhov’s adventuring might be his age—he already receives a state pension. But for the time being he shows no desire to slow down, and says his experience is an advantage. “I am getting older and wiser,” he says. “When you’ve done 50 expeditions, people believe in you more.”
On May 9 2019, Fedor crossed the longitude of the Chilean Diego Ramirez Islands and became the first person in history to complete a solo voyage on a row boat across the Southern Ocean. Read more about the adventure on Fedor’s website.
This story was originally published in Smith Journal Volume 22
Anna Malpas is a British journalist who has worked in Moscow for news agency Agence France-Presse since 2009. She previously worked for The Moscow Times English-language daily and the Vladivostok News website.