Adventure of a lifetime in Kamchatka, RussiaBy Laverna Emes and Chris Goulet (SP member chris_goulet)
Our adventure started out with a 'bucket list' that Chris had. This was one adventure that had not been 'checked off' in 20 years. I was quite overwhelmed to realize that this would be our next expedition: mountain biking in the Kamchatka wilderness, and climbing active volcanoes for two months! Kamchatka is a peninsula on the Far East of Russia (nine time zones from Moscow), which has the highest density of active volcanoes in the world.
We did a lot of research and gear organizing, as it would be a self-guided journey. Our friends were surprised that we were planning to go in the next few months, not next year! It was a horrendous task to get our 90-day Russian visas and cost $500 each. It was a stressful, finger-crossing wait, but the visas were in our hands just in time!
On May 23, 2013 our 22-hour flight route was: Edmonton in Alberta, Canada to Calgary to Tokyo to Vladivostok, Russia then finally into the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (population: 200,000).
A young lady who is studying English met us at the airport. Natalia was quite shy as we were the first foreigners that she ever met. Our other contact person, Katerina, soon arrived. She spoke English very well. We had been chatting with her through a website called 'Couchsurfing'. It’s a great way to meet people while traveling all over the world. She called a taxi van to take our two large bike boxes and backpacks to a hotel, where we had a long sleep after the infamous jetlag. This is where we met Valery, our first non-English speaking Russian. This lively fellow had gold teeth, and we struggled speaking to each other, so I had to get our translation book. It was quite a laugh guessing his charades.
In the following few days Chris and I stayed with Katerina’s friend Galentina, who lives in a Soviet-era concrete apartment block. She speaks rough English. She doesn’t earn much money with her part-time job at a grocery store, so she offers her home to travelers, and does outdoor guiding. Galentina’s small kitchen became full to capacity with young women who had learned of our arrival, including newspaper reporters.
The only male visitor was Boris, whom we also met through Couchsurfing. He helped Chris with logistics planning. He’s a mountain guide, and also has a government job. Many young people live with their parents, as they can’t afford a place of their own. The women were eager to guide us up to lookouts on local hills, still covered in snow in late May.
Chris and I spent many hours assembling the bikes, getting supplies for the 17-day backpacking trip, and some food for the bike ride. The security man at the grocery store was suspicious of foreigners, and he kept and eye on us. I did manage to get a slight smile from him as we left. In Russian style, we waited an eternity, inching our way through line-ups at the bank to get Rubles, and at the Post Office to get our visas registered.
On May 31st, we left the city with loaded bikes. We dodged multitudes of crater-sized potholes, and weaved through insane Russian traffic and survived. Most people were indifferent, but a few ran across the street to meet us and check out our bikes.
It was a wonderful journey passing through small towns and seeing the old Soviet life, mixed with modern times like SUV vehicles and people being allowed operate their own businesses.
Our adventure takes us to Snow Valley where Chris wanted to follow a gravel road to approach Mutnovsky volcano. There was still a lot of snow up there in June, so we looked silly pushing the bikes through slush.
We realized that the biking would come to an end! We had to cache them in the woods and put on daypacks with camping gear bungeed on. This is an area where ski-dooers enjoy sightseeing around the volcanos. We started hiking to the crater, which would take a week, round trip. As we crested a hill, Chris held my hand and exclaimed, “There’s Mutnovsky!” “You mean that puff of steam waaaay out there?”
But walking was easy over firm snow on the vast, open landscape. We were a strange sight as we are not even on a snowmobile! We were approached a few times and we were asked in Russian if we were lost. They were kind and even gave us extra food.
We finally make camp close to the large open active crater. We scrambled around and over huge blocks of snow in the ravine, and came up to roaring fumaroles of sulphurous steam, boiling bubbling mud, and multi-coloured sulphur deposits. What an amazing sight! The earth below is an active place! We adventured in here all day as we soaked up the sun, sights, sounds… and smells.
Two days later we did a balancing act along one of Gorely’s crater rims, which had an azure blue lake.
It was quite the show in these craters: one had a 100m (300ft) steam vent billowing into the sky!
We came upon a very old volcanologists’ shelter. There was not much left of this metal building as the peeling roof rattled in the howling wind all night, so we didn’t get much sleep! When it rained on Chris’s bunk, we squeezed onto my narrow one.
During the long walk back to the bikes we met the jolly Kamaz truck drivers whom we had met a week ago. They were so happy to see us again and they invited us in the big truck for tea, salmon then a couple shots of vodka! We exchanged hugs and photos.
Back at Snow Valley, we retrieved our cached bikes, and rode to the lodge and were treated with warm greetings and free use of the thermal hot pool and showers! We received such hospitality because we were travelling by human power and we’re from Canada.
The newspaper reporters whom we met had given us a cell phone. They were always so happy to hear that we were safe and had good stories for the newspaper.
Back in the city of Yelizovo, we met Martha, an American women who owns a Bed and Breakfast. We asked about the permit situation to pass though a military zone to approach Klyuchevskaya volcano. She insisted that we needed it, contrary to the advice that everyone else had told us; this was distressful! I asked if I could send e-mails home, because I was very emotional being this far away, then I felt much better.
We are off again, riding in the countryside.
On June 12th, we called our friends to say “happy Russia Day” (similar to Canada Day). At our bike camps, we set up the electric bear fence around the tent. Chris tested it and ‘felt’ it had sufficient voltage to zap a bear! (‘meed-vit’ in Russian)
In the village of Pushino, a teacher gave us a tour of the school for orphan children, and served us a free meal. They all were very curious about us, and our bikes. The new pavement ended, and it would be a week of knee shaking, teeth rattling riding on the long, dusty, and rough rocky road. Some drivers were kind and slowed down; others just sped by in a cloud of dust. No wonder they carry two spare tires! Old tires are just dumped along the road. We passed countless roadside accident memorials, some of which had a steering wheel bolted to a big stone. Very few cyclists have traveled this route, but we had been inspired from a trip report by two Germans who had cycled to Tolbachik volcano in 2002.
In the city of Milkovo, the driver of a truck who had given us a ride at Snow Valley 300km (200mi) ago spotted us, and miraculously returned Chris’s mountaineering gloves that he had left in his truck! The reporters had told us that Kamchatka is the land of miracles! It would not be the last.
As we progressed North, we became plagued with mosquitoes, and we couldn’t out-pedal swarms of dizzying horseflies. This was even more agonizing when we took breaks. One day, we did not pass any village nor cross a single stream, so we didn’t have enough water for camping. Chris’s map and GPS showed the big Kamchatka River should be 3km (2mi) away on a sandy side road. But after 7km (4mi), we were in despair! A truck came along, and we struggled to explain our predicament. They told us to keep going 6km (4mi) to a “house”. It turned out to be a wonderful fisherman’s lodge! Another miracle. We were treated as special guests, and they served us salmon borsch, then vodka in Russian tradition. More shots were served because I announced that it was Chris’s birthday. We partied with the eight boisterous men, including a Koryak native, who drunkenly told me “I love you”! Then they insisted that Chris and I sleep in the big lodge, and refused any Rubles.
A few days later, we came up to a roadblock. They informed us that a 100-year flood had covered the road to Klyuchi, where we planned to start our mountaineering expedition, and it might take a week to repair the road. Once again, we cached the bikes in the forest, then hitched a ride to the tourist town of Esso, which has Evan and Koryak native culture. We snuck into a yurt in the dark, and explained the situation to the owners of the beautiful Tri-Medvedya guesthouse in the morning, where we stayed the next two nights.
To our relief, we got news that road had been repaired, so we were still on schedule.
Back on the bike saddle, we should start seeing the enormous Klyuchevskaya Sopka volcano. Chris’s dream was to climb this 4835m (15,863ft) peak, the biggest in Eastern Asia. But clouds obscured it from view for the next few days. “If it’s so big, how come I can’t see it!”
We only saw three bears on the entire trip. One crossed the road in between me and Chris, who was ahead. I yelled out, so Chris stopped and shooed the grizzly, then it ambled into the forest. Russians are generally terrified of bears, but we were more terrified of Russian drivers!
In triumph, we arrived at our destination town of Klyuchi, after 800km (500mi) of rough cycling. This was once a forbidden military base during the Cold War. It was peculiar that everything was covered in dust. There was no sign on the main street to indicate the volcanologists’ guesthouse, so chief volcanologist Yuri came to town hall to guide us there. He explained, through a family translator, that the “dust” was actually ash falling out of the sky from Shiveluch volcano, which was erupting 50km (30mi) away.
Yuri’s wife Maria was very impressed with our arrival on bicycles, then we settled in cozy actual beds. We were invited to feast at their outdoor birthday party, with fresh salmon, caviar pastries, cakes, etc…yummy!
We phoned Galentina in Petropavlovsk to have her send our massive backpacks by bus, as planned. The next day, we walked to the bus stop, and it felt like Christmas, waiting to see our packs in the luggage compartment. The driver unloaded items, and there they were! “Thank you (spa-si-ba), Galentina!”
On June 30th, we could hardly believe that we were ready to tackle the main goal of our adventure: to climb the huge and beautiful Klyuchevskaya Sopka volcano!
The volcanologist Yuri drove us to the start of our 17-day mountaineering expedition. He gestured that we would have to quickly cross the road that leads to the military air base. He wished us well and we gave him our expected return date. Chris was very nervous because we had been told conflicting information about whether we needed a permit to cross this zone, and we didn’t get one. Chris said “shhhhh!”, and I struggled to be quiet. He was elated after we stealthily crossed the military area, unnoticed.
It was a hot day to start and the mosquitoes were to be abundant!! No shorts during this trip! Hat on, face covered, and sweaty from hauling my 30kg (65lbs) backpack, while Chris carried 36kg (80lbs). What a way to start! Stopping for snacks was a chore. Eat, drink, walk in circles, repeat, to keep up a breeze, even with plenty of DEET. On day two, we reached the alpine, and could see the massive splendor of Klyuchevskaya volcano. We had started from Klyuchi, almost at sea-level.
On July 1st, we sat and sang 'Oh Canada'. It was a moment to remember how lucky we were to be here, and to appreciate our home country.
On most days the weather was great, but one afternoon the sky darkened and rain began to pelt. Thunder boomed, so we scrambled into a small ravine to be protected from lightning. Happily, it was a brief storm and sunshine reappeared!
We were only a few days away from Klyuchi and it was still in view, so this was our last chance to phone and give stories to our reporter friends in the city. Beyond cell phone service, we were on our own! (We did have a satellite beacon for emergencies only.) At only 1200m (4000ft) of elevation, we realized that there was ice under the dirt; this bumpy area was actually a glacier! We crossed a river over a snow bridge, and found a great spot for camp below a large hill for wind protection. We set up camp on a nice flat 'beach' of black ash.
The next day would be a disastrous day and the possible cancellation of the adventure! In the morning it was sunny and calm when we were all packed to go, just the tent to take down. In a FLASH, a freak gust of 80km/hr (50mi/hr) wind whipped over the hill and ripped the tent from its stakes!! From the corner of my eye, I saw it tumbling away! Chris sprinted after it, but the tent disappeared over the rocky edge of the ravine and down toward the fast-flowing river! In a panic I dashed to gather the rolling water bottles, helmets, and our food 'cache' bag that burst open, spilling all over. I picked up candy as though it was thrown from a parade! I waited anxiously for Chris to return, hopefully with the tent. He did have a bundle in his arms, but he had a sad and discouraged look. We hugged and I cried thinking that it’s over. “Is the tent destroyed?” We put it back up and surveyed the damage. Luckily the only rips were in the tent fly, but not in the tent. This was still disconcerting as we were told about the strong winds at the high pass, that can shred a tent. What do we do? Go back to Klyuchi for a new tent? Or can Chris repair it? We decided to do repairs and this delayed us a full day. We made a new camp in a MORE sheltered area. Chris spent the evening sewing the tent with fishing line over duct tape and fixed a broken pole.
We felt better, and hopeful that the tent repairs would hold. We were excited to be on our way! Black ash covered many kilometers of our route, and our boots made puffs of dust at every step. Klyuchevskaya volcano had erupted recently, in December 2012. This was a surreal mars-like landscape, with volcanoes in every direction.
Later, we gazed at amazement at ice canyons showing alternating layers of ash and ice.
We would soon arrive at the pass between Klyuchevskaya and Kamen volcanoes, where we would make high camp at 3200m (10,500ft). The sun was glaring on the snow. We stopped and filled our bottles with glacier water. I was getting exhausted, almost there! Chris said “You can rest while I look for a safe place for camp.” Chris came back and said “I found the perfect spot; we don’t even need the tent”. “What do you mean?” He takes my hand and leads me around a large pile of lava rocks. In the distance there’s a mountaineers’ hut!! No one mentioned this to us; they thought we knew! We excitedly and cautiously walked to it through water-logged snow.
The door was jammed shut with a snow drift. It was a treat to enter, but we also had to shovel out the indoor snow! The rusty old stove did not look very useful. The walls had breezy cracks and there was lots of garbage, typical. Good thing I like to clean!
We settled in during the sunny afternoon, but clouds rolled in and pelting rain began. Over the next two days, it deteriorated to sleet, howling wind, and a whiteout. Snow whipped in through the cracks. Chris had to frequently go out and clear snow away from the door, so we wouldn’t get trapped in.
On the third day, it looked promising for Chris to climb, but he retreated after a few hours. The low clouds made for a blind climb.
Chris was ready for another attempt the next day, and sunshine appeared.
I walked with him in the early morning and gave him a hug and kiss for a good climb. I amused myself for the next 14 hours by chipping out helmets frozen into the ice under the table, and did a general tidy-up. I examined all the dry food that others had left behind, and picked out some treats. Late in the afternoon, I looked out across the snowfield and to my surprise I saw a group of seven climbers arriving! I gave a big wave. They were from Moscow. I told them about Chris being due to arrive soon from his climb. They set up their tents and made supper. It was interesting to compare our routine with theirs. Chris soon arrived and I walked out to meet him. He was all smiles, so I thought he made the summit. He explained that he was smiling because he was just happy to be back alive and in one piece. He was exhausted and not ready for socializing. After his nap, all nine of us crammed into the small hut to hear Chris' report.
Chris began by telling his hair-raising experience of seeing the shadow on the snow of a baseball-size rock flying by behind him, making a bullet-like whiz. Then, he looked uphill constantly to spot incoming rock missiles and rolling cannonballs, to decide which way to dash. There’s so much rock fall because lava had flowed on top of the snow, and as it settles, hardened lava crumbles away. Approaching the crater close to 4800m (16,000ft), he gasped for oxygen, but there were noxious fumes steaming out of the ground. Then he exclaimed that his boots felt very hot. Fifteen meters (50ft) from the summit, he scouted several directions to bypass this gassy area, but it was too late. He was already getting dizzy from hydrogen sulfide, and had tingling fingers. ABORT!! Run for your life! They were terrified by his story, and nervous Russian discussions began.
In the morning only two people braved a short scout in the clouds. When they returned, they all packed up and were on their way. They had underestimated the time required for weather delays, and we chuckled that they had bad planning. It was an enlightening experience to meet a group of climbers. Chris and I also packed up and we started on a different return route because he really desired to go to Bezymianny, another active volcano. The route was arduous and challenging as we crossed a broken-up glacier. Chris fell through a crevasse to his butt and was quite shaken.
The next morning, we heard ominous rumbling from Bezymianny, and Chris was worried that it was blasting out rocks. Fog rolled in at 10AM, making the planned trek too dangerous. To Chris’s disappointment, we had to go to plan ‘B’: the circumnavigation of the slopes of Klyuchevskaya for days on end. We continued through fog thick as pea soup. The slopes are cut with multitudes of gullies and ravines. At one point, we were blocked by steep ice, which was barely distinguishable. Chris stood in dismay as no route could be found. We had just started scrambling back out of the ravine, when water-logged ash began to slide from under our feet. “Laverna, it’s gonna go, JUMP!” We watched the mud wash away from where we had stood. Once out of this predicament, we sat and waited an hour for the fog to clear, but we gave up and made camp early at the first safe place. Chris decided that for the next few days, we would have to take desperate measures to beat the fog: up at 2AM, and leave at 4AM. This worked! Before sunrise, we navigated the ice ravine without a problem, and continued skirting the slopes at 2100m (7000ft). We could see a carpet of fog far below, but after sunrise, it would creep up the volcano, reaching us by 10AM. By noon, it became impossible to see the ravines, so we would make camp and have supper. Then we went to sleep in the grey afternoon. This became our routine.
In some places, we were forced to scramble over jagged lava rock piles. One slip could lacerate skin or clothing. We came upon several old abandoned volcanologists’ stations, and it was interesting to explore the relics. We imagined the scientists measuring volcanic activity. After three foggy days, we were back down to more hospitable terrain and weather. After crossing the labyrinth of the Ehrman Glacier, we settled in a river washplain.
We enjoyed washing up, doing laundry and looking at beautiful scenery. The next morning, we found a hexagonal stone climber’s hut. Not realizing our early routine, we woke up some climbers from St. Petersburg at 7AM, but they were welcoming, and we exchanged stories.
After retrieving our food cache, we descended delightful wide-open mossy terrain, but then we ended up pushing through a short distance of the worst tangled bushes that we have ever bushwhacked, to find the trail.
July 17th was our final day of walking back. It was hot and tiring, and we were back to fighting mosquitoes in the woods! My feet were sore, and still weighted with ice climbing boots. Finally back to Klyuchi, Chris navigated streets and alleys toward the guesthouse, using GPS. I was ready to cry with exhaustion but Chris said “hold on, we're almost there!' I was SO happy to be back! We had a short sweaty hug and our hosts Maria and Yuri were glad to see us arrive. We flopped onto our beds and I let out all my exhaustion in the form of tears and flashbacks of danger and the unknown. The bonus was that we were NOT cycling back.
I announced with joy that we would get a ride in the large Kamaz truck with volcanoligists, who were going to Petropavlovsk. Chris yelled, “GET OUT!” because taking the crowded bus with our bikes would have been a nightmare.
During the twelve-hour bumpy ride, we recognized landmarks that were familiar from our cycling trip. It was a delight to see these places again. The Kamaz drove into the city and were taken as far as the Volcanological museum. We unloaded our gear and cycled with our backpacks, to the amazement of onlookers. On arriving to Galentina’s flat, it was wonderful to see our friends again. The next day we were treated to a day at the beach! The black volcanic sand is very HOT! We all managed a brave dip in the chilly ocean water. It was a busy place that many locals go to. We were also introduced to a group of delinquent youths, who were at a supervised camp and we did a 'tug of war' with them. They gathered around us, as they had never met Canadians before.
Chris wanted to see some nuclear submarines, so our friend Katya treated us to a drive to a port, but the subs had left. She bravely asked the captain of a Russian military medical ship if we could get a tour, but he declined to have foreigners on board!
The sad day came when we were ready to leave and we gave a hug to our new Kamchatkan friends, and we exchanged email addresses. It has been a great cultural experience to keep in touch with many of our Russian friends.
Our volcanologist friend Yuri reported to us in September 2013, that Klyuchevskaya had resumed major erupting, with glowing lava projectiles and ash billowing kilometers up in the sky. We realized that we were lucky to have been there in between eruptions, otherwise it would have been a different adventure!