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Fire and Ice in Kamchatka

Bordering the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ lies Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula – a territory twice the size of Great Britain yet containing a population no more than that of Cardiff.  Apart from being a vast wilderness, the region is renowned for its high volcanic activity and is what attracted Colin and myself to organise a 3-week expedition there this summer.

After a brief stopover in Moscow and a change of flights in Khabarovsk, we finally landed in Petrapavlovsk-Kamchatsky (PK) – the capital of the Kamchatka peninsula. Our luggage had already given us the slip at Frankfurt airport, so were relieved to see them turn up in the small shed attached to the terminal building. Out the front of the airport we were met by Martha, an Alaskan who had come over to live in Russia and subsequently set-up a local tourist-support enterprise. She drove us to her home in the nearby town of Yelizovo, where we would stay for our first few days in Kamchatka.


After some much needed sleep in proper beds, we spent the next few days re-synchronising our body clocks, sorting out general admin, and readying ourselves for our first objective of climbing the volcano Avachinsky. Being 2741 metres high and also fairly local, we chose it as a relatively straightforward acclimatisation for our trip. The day after we landed we wandered into PK to book our bus tickets and also have a look around. There isn’t a great deal to see in the city, but we did find the biggest Lenin statue I’ve ever seen, and also a obscurely high proportion of flower shops. It seems there’s high demand for blooms, especially when the shops often stay open past 10pm. That evening back in Yelizovo we caught our first glimpses of the volcano summits as the sun was setting, making us even more eager than before to leave civilisation behind and start climbing.


A taxi took us as far as the end of the road and from there we set off on the 10 km hike to the base camp. Navigation wasn’t much of issue – we just had to follow a dry river bed to the mountain pass. Besides, there was an obvious track that 4×4’s used to reach the tourist base. Almost immediately Colin spotted bear footprints in the dust, which put us both on high alert for the rest of the morning and praying that nothing would jump out from the bushes around. A nervous 4 hours later we were greeted at the camp by curious gophers hoping we had brought food for them. Realising we were only going to take photos of them they soon lost interest in us and disappeared down their holes. Apart from a few Russians who had driven in for the day, the place was otherwise dead. We set up our tent and got ourselves ready for an early night before our attempt on Avachinsky the next morning.


The alarm was set for 6 am and we were away by half past. Immediately on the first ridge we were getting battered by strong winds, which threatened to send us back to the tent. Luckily they died down through the morning. Higher up we started to get fantastic views of the opposite volcano Koryaksky, as well as on the other side of the pass. The walking only became particularly strenuous once we hit the summit slopes; here it was much steeper, and also the ground was unfrozen and pretty loose due to the geothermal heat below. The last section even had a rope installed for weary tourists, which I though was a bit over the top. After a 6 hour slog we had reached the crater, just in time for lunch. Having never been on a volcano before I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I wasn’t disappointed. and had an explore of the fumaroles, lava and sulphur deposits. The ground was so warm that I managed to sneak in a brief nap after lunch. It didn’t last long though as the summit became invaded by a large group of Russians, so we quickly made our escape.


The return to camp was pretty quick – much of it we could slide on the loose pumice rocks. The crampons even got a showing when we reached the snow patches on the pass. Needless to say, we slept well that night.


Our original itinerary had included a weather day, so we now had some spare time after our successful ascent the day before. Colin had spotted some ‘martian-looking’ gullies on the descent, so decided to go have a closer look. The pass was a pretty interesting place, and although it seemed almost desert-like, there was a surprising amount of life around. When Colin wasn’t surveying or taking pictures of flowers, we climbed a few crags to keep ourselves amused. Thankfully the weather was keeping consistently glorious – clear skies with 20°C + heat.


The next day we headed back to Martha’s house, who had offered us free lodging in her shed in return that we do some odd jobs round the place, one of which was to stack haylage bales into their shed…easier said than done. We didn’t stay long in Yelizovo as we had bus tickets booked to our next destination Kozyrevsk, around 200 km further north near some of the big volcanoes. Although a bus ride through Kamchatka sounds interesting, for the most part the only thing we saw for the next 8 hours were trees and more trees. Added to this the fact that the paved road ended after a few hours in, tedium soon set in. The highlight of the day however was crossing the Kamchatka River. As of yet the bridge across hadn’t been completed so the alternative was to be ferried across using a makeshift raft.

Shortly afterwards we reached Kozyrevsk – a secluded and rather laid-back village in the forest. We were warned prior to leaving that the mosquitoes here were renowned for being particularly abundant, and we weren’t let down. Foolishly we ventured down to the river to have a look around and maybe think about camping there, but quickly had to run away from the swarms of mozzies and find a shop that sold some repellent. It was an easy decision that we should find proper accommodation for the night and went in search of Marie – a contact of Martha’s she had mentioned before. Her garden was much more pleasant and the next morning we only had a handful of bites each.


To reach the Bogdanovitch Glacier that Colin planned to study we needed to get through ~20 km of bear-infested forest. Walking in was therefore not really an option, but Colin did manage to arrange some vehicular transport in the form of a massive 6×6 truck. 3 hours of awesome off-road action later and we were dropped off at Stolik, a bothy-style hut at the edge of the tree line. We now had to navigate ourselves to the glacier over what was essentially moorland covered in low cloud. After crossing a few rivers we knew we were on the right path, and by late afternoon the clouds were clearing to give us our first glimpses of the massive volcanoes ahead. That evening we set up camp next to the glacier, hoping for clearer skies in the morning.


The next morning we woke up to glorious weather with the volcanic summits all around cloud-free, including getting our first proper view of Tolbachik to the south. We still had to reach our top-camp site so started following the lateral moraine of the Bogdanovitch Glacier leading up to the mountain pass. At 2300 m we found a sheltered spot and pitched our tent with fantastic views overlooking the glacier, Klyuchevskaya and Kamen. Meltwater streams nearby meant we weren’t short for water either, even if it was a bit silty.


The primary aim of the expedition for Colin was to collect data from the ash-covered glacier for use as an analogue in his Martian-ice studies. With the weather being reasonably clear the next day we decided to head upwards onto a plateau overlooking the whole glacier so Colin would be able to do some mapping of the surface features. The weather had other plans, and for much of the afternoon we were up there clouds blocked our view of the valley below making any study futile. Fortunately there were a few clear breaks so the day wasn’t completely lost.

The bad weather however continued and that night it started raining. We had planned to make an attempt on the summit of Ushkovsky in the morning, though with it still pretty miserable at 6 am we were forced to call it off.


Fortunately the rain did stop for us and at 4 am the next morning we had a beautiful starry sky – this was our chance. We quickly had breakfast and started heading up one of the ridges leading off from our camp. An early start was essential as it meant the surface would still be frozen making it easier to climb, but also we wanted to avoid the clouds that tended to roll in over the summits in the early afternoon. Watching the sunrise behind Klyuchevskaya and Kamen was amazing, and at times the red glow around the summits made us feel like we were in Mordor looking upon Mount Doom. The rocky ridges gave way to a steep plateau ice-field, and the last 500 m or so became a simple slog battling against tired legs. At the top (3903 m) we became exposed to fierce winds, strong enough to blow us away. After a quick photo and GPS fix we had to escape back down again before we could rest. Our descent back to camp was relatively quick, though some poor navigation meant we ended up having to traverse the upper reaches of a glacier to get back. One slip and we would have slid several hundred metres to the crevasses below.


With our objectives now complete it was time to start the long journey back to civilization. We left our top-camp the same day and descended back down to the glacier terminus. Our pick-up was scheduled for a few days still so we made a leisurely return to Stolik, including visiting some basaltic canyons that we had been told about by the rescue team back in Petrapavlovsk. The river that ran through them was in flood which made for some spectacular displays of water power. Some pretty fresh bear prints we saw in a dry river bed made us keener to get to the relative safety of the bothy, but luckily the only animal that seemed interested in us, or rather our food, was a fox that found us one morning during breakfast.


At Stolik, we met quite a few people who were passing through, including tourists and local youths, but also a trio of Russian scientists from Moscow that were carrying out permafrost research in the area. They still had to collect data from south of Tolbachik, and since we had a day to kill in Kozyrevsk before we had to return to Yelizovo, we were invited along to help. The route in involved another ride in the 6×6 truck, this time 4 hours long. The landscape on this side was completely different to what we had seen before. Its last eruption was in 1975 so everywhere was covered in volcanic debris, looking very much what you would expect Mars to be like. Data collection was pretty straightforward, involving measuring the depth of frozen ground using a walking pole and tape measure. Our ‘Kamchatka experience’ became complete on the ride back to town when we saw a brown bear bouncing away from the truck and into the undergrowth. Although it looked very cute and friendly, I think if we were outside the truck it would have been a different matter…


We spent our last night in Kozyrevsk once more camped in Marie’s garden before we caught the bus back to Yelizovo the next morning, the only real highlight of which was seeing a mother bear with cub foraging at the side of the road. In over two weeks we didn’t see any bears, then suddenly three bears in two days! I’m very glad we got to see them at the end of the trip, as otherwise I don’t think I would have slept at all in the tent. After another few nights resting at Martha’s house in Yelizovo,we had to say goodbye to Kamchatka and fly back west. Three days and four flights later, including two stopovers in Khabarovsk and Moscow, and we were back in the UK completely shattered.

For helping making the expedition a huge sucess, I must of course mention a massive thank you to our sponsors – The Mount Everest Foundation and Earth and Space Foundation for funding us; also Kahtoola and DMM for crampons and ice-axes; Martha and Marie for their generous hospitality; Andre and Mike for looking after us in Khabarovsk and taking us to Tolbachik; and finally Colin for organising the expedition, putting up with me for three weeks, and speaking Russian when I didn’t have a clue what was going on. The expedition was a great success, and I feel privileged to have experienced such a beautiful part of the world that few people would otherwise visit.


Additional Information

A report compiled by Colin Souness that details the organization of the expedition, as well as results from fieldwork and accounts of the mountaineering undertaken can be downloaded here. GPS tracks showing our routes to Ushkovsky and Avachinsky can be viewed here.

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