This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Spain and was translated into English by Andreu Navarro Lopez.
A death toll of more than 50 due to the initial explosion, followed by 10 days of fire that forced the evacuation of 350,000 residents. Almost one million people – colloquially known as liquidators – have helped to minimise the consequences of the accident. Nearly half of them have died as a result, while the survivors' lives have been shortened.
When Chernobyl's nuclear accident occurred in April 1986, it was said that the zone would be uninhabitable for the next 40,000 years. Although some are still living very close, unwilling to leave their homes, staying in the surrounding area is said to be tantamount to signing one's own death warrant.
But perhaps not.
Hit the Road, a parkour collective formed by four young freerunners living in Paris, travelled last summer to the actual centre of the nuclear power plant. "We wanted to see with our own eyes how nature had colonised the urban spaces that we only knew from what we had read or seen in photos", Clément Dumais, a member of the group, told VICE Sports at a pub in Paris.
Dumais co-founded the freerunning collective in 2012 along with Nico Mathieux and Paul RBD. Two years later another freerunner, Leo Urban, joined them. With the group now complete, their number one objective was quickly decided: climbing the Eiffel Tower.
"Going to Chernobyl was totally worth it," says Leo "but we really didn't know what to expect and it left us speechless". Before steering towards the ghost town, the parkour collective visited Kiev to meet some of the traceurs – as those who practice parkour or freerunning are known – from the Ukrainian city.
During their time in the capital they searched abandoned bunkers. "That's where we found the suits and masks that we took to the prohibited zone," says Nico. He shows us one of the masks, which looks like a prop from a Hollywood movie. "They were all from the Cold War, in case there was a nuclear attack. We found them in closed boxes, totally new."
In Kiev they met with someone interested in urban exploring who had been to Chernobyl three or four times using GPS. "He knew the way and knew the police check points and, more importantly, how to avoid them," explains Paul. There are many military checkpoints around the nuclear power plant to prevent access to the prohibited zone. Those who break the law can go to prison without trial.
"We drove from Kiev to a place around 12 miles from the first checkpoint. Then we climbed through a hole in the mesh fence and started walking," says Leo. The first night they walked for 12 hours.
In the power plant, the work to isolate the perforated sarcophagus continues with high risks of radioactive exposure, hence the military patrols and the ban on civilians.
"To avoid some of the guards we had to cross through highly radioactive areas that seriously worried us," admits Clément. "Leo got a cut in his hand and when measuring the radioactivity with the Geiger counter we saw it was seriously high". Some of the vegetation they touched was 14 times more radioactive than the safe limit.
The limit of daily radioactivity is 0.30mSv. The group reached up to 5.20 mSv in the woods, but only during very brief exposures. They slept in places where radioactivity wouldn't exceed the limit, but they still had to be very careful. "We were amazed about what we were seeing and looking forward to coming back home," said Leo.
In order to arrive in Pripyat, the ghost town three miles from Chernobyl that was evacuated 36 hours after the accident, Hit the Road had to cross through rivers, woods and follow railway tracks. "We were exhausted from all the walking so we did very little parkour. We mainly explored the town and its surroundings," says Nico, looking at his trainers. "These are the same I was wearing. They are good to do parkour but not so good to walk. Not that many miles, anyway."
"The hardest part was accepting that we were completely exposed to the radiation and still carry on walking," explains Leo. The others nod. Parkour is their life: a discipline that goes far beyond inner mental and physical limits. And that is exactly what they did in one of the most radioactive zones on the planet.
Travelling from Paris to Chernobyl, they also time travelled from the 21st century to the reality of a Soviet Bloc nation during the 1980s. It is an untouched zone: everything looks like when it was left by the families that would never come back. There are communist symbols everywhere.
"We thought that after the work of the liquidators there wasn't much more left to do in Chernobyl. Nevertheless, we actually realised that without the Ukrainians studying and safeguarding the place the radioactivity would travel a lot further," said Paul.
"It feels like it was ages ago… but it has only been 30 years," says Clément before he leaves.