In 2009 I was sponsored by The North Face and Australian Geographic Outdoor on 250 km trek on the Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia. The first section of the trek crossed the central group of volcanoes around Klyuchevskaya Sopka, the highest active volcano in Eurasia. Then we moved down to the southern group around the volcanoes of Mutnovsky and Gorely.
Volcanic Venture: Exploring the volcanoes of Kamchatka
On the first of September 1983 Korean Airlines Flight 007 from New York City via Anchorage to Seoul strayed into Soviet airspace near the Kamchatka Peninsula. Soviet radar detected the intrusion and four Mig fighters were scrambled to intercept it. A few minutes later the Boeing 747 was shot out of the sky killing all 269 passengers and crew. That’s the sort of place Kamchatka used to be.
On 11 July 2009 our Siberian Airlines Boeing touched down at Petropavlov- Kamchasky airport, a former top-secret military air base. As we taxied in on the tarmac I saw squadrons of rusty Mig fighters emblazoned with the red Soviet star dying a slow death in their parking bays. Times certainly have changed.Our host, Yevgeni was there to meet us and whisked us off to our accommodation in Elizovo, a neighbouring town. The decrepit soviet architecture of Elizovo was dominated by the massive symmetry of the volcanoes of Avachinsky (2741m) and Koryaksky (2999m) which are located right on the outskirts of the town; both are active. Avachinsky last erupted in 2001.
Our accommodation kept with the theme: classic soviet-era crumbling apartment block. All the buildings looked like they had been gnawed at by concrete eating rodents. Aesthetics aside, the interiors were well cared for and I am sure the foot thick walls kept the long bone-chilling winters at bay.
We teamed up with our guide Andrey, gathered our gear and supplies and headed off into the interior on a rattled up old bus to Central Kamchatka to trek and climb among the Klyuchevskaya Group of volcanoes.
Directions are easy on Kamchatka as there is only one major road on the entire 2600 kilometre-long peninsula. The single dirt road runs 620km from the capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchasky to Klyuchi a village in the north.
Hour after hour we drove through the monotonous expanse of taiga forest consisting of dense birch. Fleeting glimpses of the odd brown bear scrambling across the road caused the only bit of much need excitement.
After spending the night at the village of Koziryevsk we clambered aboard a 4×4 Tonka truck which would take us the final 45km to the road head. One turn off the main highway onto a rutted logging track and we were immediately swallowed up by the green depths of the taiga.
The truck lurched and groaned along a rough logging track and began to gain altitude. Soon we were out of the birch and into pine forest; pine gave way to alpine scrub and low tundra grasses and moss. The severe winters in Kamchatka mean the tree line is at a mere 700 to 800 metres above sea level as opposed to 3500m in the Himalayas. At around 1000m above sea level the truck eased its way over the rim of a massive tundra covered plateau.
We were dropped off at a log hut which was used by teams of volcanologists when they were out in the field. The plateau forms the base of the massif from which most of the largest volcanoes of central Kamchatka erupt, at 4688m Klyuchevskaya Spoka is the highest volcano in the group and in all Eurasia.
Normally the view is fantastic but today the cloud ceiling was at around 1500m and there were to be no grand views for us. Only strong wind and light drizzle.
Andrey enthusiastically pointed out the bases of the major volcanoes. He was a volcano freak, once you got him on the subject that was it. He foamed at the mouth as he reeled off names, heights, dates, chemicals, gasses, eruption capacity, lava types in a pyroclastic flow that overwhelmed you.
In addition to this he had a vast library of crazy stories of expeditioning in the vast interior of Siberia, all of which had reference to temperatures below -30 degrees and wind speeds over 40 meters per second. He was your typical weather beaten mountain hardman who shunned everyday luxuries.
We were soon to discover he wasn’t exactly a gourmet chef, in fact right here I’ll list our menu for the entire three-week trek. It won’t take long: porridge for breakfast, chocolate and biscuits and chocolate for lunch and watery soup for dinner. Yup, that
We donned our waterproof gear, shouldered our packs and set out across the tundra. In Kamchatka there are no trails, there are only directions. Vast tundra plains stretched out in all directions and the volcanoes, when you can see them, are used as markers. Being a highly restricted military region it’s very difficult to find any decent maps.
Andrey pointed out our objective far on the horizon, a notch in the mountain range. It was a pass which took us two days to reach. It’s extremely difficult to judge distance when you can see for miles without any references such as trees or houses in between.
We trekked for 20 odd kilometres over the tundra and the terrain climbed gradually from 1000m to 1300m. Trekking across the grassy tundra was a bit like walking on a thick wet mattress. High winds swept the plains and we kept our jackets zipped tight.
Towards the end of the day we came over a rise; the green plains fell away beneath us and stretched off into the distance. As we descended towards a large snow drift we noticed some movement in the distance. “Bear!” Andrey shouted.
We froze in our tracks while Andrey let out a loud woop and clapped his hands. The bear reared up on it hind legs, sniffed the air, dropped back down on all fours and took off up the hill at one hell of a pace – luckily in the opposite direction.
Andrey looks back at us with a knowing grin and announces “Tonight’s campsite!”.
Kamchatka has the highest brown bear population in the world and large males can weigh up to 700kg. Fortunately their diet consists of wild salmon, marmots and berries. While bear attacks are very rare they are not unknown. The bears on the peninsula aren’t used to humans and are quite timid. They are also still hunted.
We woke early, in July there is only three hours of darkness, and all the major volcanoes were visible in the crisp morning air. We were in a large ampetheatre with all the snow clad giants around us Ushkovsky (3943m), Klyuchevskaya Sopka (4688m), Kamen (4585m), Bezymianny (2882m), Zimina (3119m), Udina (2923m) and Tolbachik (3682m). All apart from Kamen are active and the silently smoking caldera of Bezymianny was evidence of this; it last exploded in 2005.
On the next day’s march everywhere we looked there was evidence of bears: prints, droppings and huge holes in the ground where they had dug up marmot warrens. I approached every rise and boulder with renewed caution and scanned the horizon whenever I got the opportunity. Andrey marched ahead as nonchalant as ever.
Later that afternoon a short climb led us to the top of the pass and down into the next valley. We set up camp further up a hill at the base of the smoking cone of Bezymianny.
That night I sat and watched as the smoke silently curled out of the caldera in the ghostly twilight. The odd flap of the tent fabric and shrill squeak of a marmot were the only sounds that broke the silence.
We got out to an early start after the usual breakfast of porridge with raisins followed by tea. Soon we were high on the volcano and in the still morning air could see for miles and were sure of a great view of the caldera when we got to the top. Within an hour the wind changed direction and we were engulfed in a sea of white; snow and biting wind followed. When we got to the top we couldn’t see a thing. The steep rim of the caldera fell away into the infinite misty whiteness. Somewhere above us was a huge column of smoke rising up into the sky. We could smell it; a heavy smell of sulphur. We sheltered behind a large boulder and sipped hot cups of tea from a thermos while we waited for the wind to die down.
Over the next few days we made several excursions into the neighbouring valleys and up some of the volcanoes. Andrey smothered us with his usual gush of information, facts and figures. During our explorations we never saw another human footprint, path or any other evidence that anyone else had been there. Most of the visitors to Kamchatka use trucks or helicopters; trekkers are very rare.
By the end of our trip we had trekked over 250km, climbed six live volcanoes, braved camping out in bear country, sampled some of the world’s best caviar, drunk copious amounts of strong Russian vodka, made a host of new friends and gained new insight into another facet of this wonderful planet we live on.