Kamchatka, climbing Kluchevskaya Sopka and Krestovskij volcano.
In June 2005 the team of ALEXCLIMB School of mountaineering and rock-climbing, lead by Alexey Trubachev, conducted a series of ascents in Kamchatka, a remote and exotic mountainous region of Russia. This article does not claim to be scrupulously exact, it is a free-style report on this event. In the text I will try, besides describing my own impressions, to give a maximum of information, the lack of which I personally experienced while developing the route.
So, Kamchatka: What is it in reality? For most of us the name of Kamchatka is associated with something terribly far away and misty. The end of the earth, the eastern edge of Russia. We remember the map from the school geography textbook, a small peninsula on the border of a huge ocean connected with the mainland by a narrow isthmus and lavishly decorated by volcano-asterisks. The aborigines of Kamchatka - named itelmens - have a legend, in according to which Kam, the son of a mountain ridge, and his beloved Chatka, the daughter of a volcano, were separated by the evil will of their parents and plunged down from a steep mountain slope so as to remain together forever. So they remained together in the name of the largest river of the peninsula. The name of the river - Kamchatka - later gave the name to all this wonderous land.
In the middle of the 17th century, along with active advance into Siberia, gradual settling of Kamchatka started. Mostly this was in the form of isolated attempts undertaken by trade hunters. Based on the information collected piece by piece, in 1697 the cartographer Semen Remezov published the first map of Kamchatka, and in 1740 at the place of the Kamchadal settlement Aushin, where Vitus Bering's second round-the-world expedition had spent the winter, the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the modern capital of Kamchatka, was founded.
At present the population of Kamchatka amounts to no more than half a million people. What with the area of 470 thousand square kilometers, the population density does not exceed 1 person per kilometer - this is less than in Sahara desert. Kamchatka is one of the least populated areas in the world, a territory which is truly untouched and enigmatic.
2. Got an idea!
So, we decided to go to Kamchatka. This idea came spontaneously - we felt like something exotic, some new interesting mountains. Having looked through several possible options, we came to the conclusion that the farthest end of Russia - Kamchatka, with its volcanoes, the height of which is comparable with those of the Caucasus and the Alps, confirms to all our requirements. Far away, wild and practically no useful information about it.
The name - Kamchatka - rings a bell for everybody, but in actual fact it turned out that very few people possess at least some general information about this region, not to mention detailed descriptions of mountaineering routes. All we could find in the Internet was a statement that during the ascent of Kluchevskaya volcano in 2002 a Czech mountaineer died, about which different sources gave different details, and a few old tourist reports, from which it was not possible to determine at all what these people were doing and where they actually climbed. In short, we were going into total obscurity and there was no doubt that a real adventure was awaiting us!
3. The flight & first impressions
With interest I tried to discern among the passengers any people who, like us, were heading to Kamchatka with a more or less tourist intention. But, unfortunately, it was
not possible to descry any like-minded people for a simple reason: except for us, there was not a single passenger on board with a backpack! Suitcases, bags, duffels - all
you might wish for, but we were the only ones who had large well-seasoned backpacks, crammed densely with equipment. Thus the hope of getting any necessary information
regarding the route from fellow travelers died even before being born.
We departed from Moscow in the evening, but, strange as it might seem, night did not follow - the sun lowered to the horizon, lingered there for a while and began to rise
again. During the nine hours of the flight we jumped over nine time zones, - we still had early morning, and in the city which we were approaching it was already evening.
For about an hour we flew over the ocean which was mostly concealed behind clouds. Suddenly the clouds dispersed, and an utterly moon-like landscape opened below - a desert, pitted by craters, with white patches of snow. There could be no doubts - it was Kamchatka under us, the flight was coming to an end. Again water gleamed under the wing - this was already the other shore of the peninsula. Losing height rapidly, the airplane made a circle over the Avachinckaya bay, the port districts of Petropavlovsk, and started to land in Yelizovo - the largest international airport in Kamchatka.
In fact, the largest airport of Kamchatka turned out to be a god-forsaken hole. In the full meaning of this word. Several dilapidated houses behind a rusty fence. The deep, bottomless blue dome of the sky spread over a bunch of passengers who crowded in front of a locked door with the sign "Baggage handout". In half an hour, when this door opened after all, a real pandemonium started. Into the tiny room of the baggage handout room, where about 10-15 people could fit in quite snugly, most of the passengers of the Moscow flight crammed - about a hundred in all.
Pushing one's way through to the line of the conveyer belt turned out to be not easy, and keeping the gained position was possible for me only due to a certain experience and regular sports activities. Those lucky guys who managed to capture at least part of their luggage passed it to the exit over the heads of the others, pushing on them from behind, - it was not possible to get through the crowd with a bag in one's hands. Somebody's child was squeezed and was yelling heart-rendingly at the top of its voice. The air in the room ran out within a few minutes, the sweaty bodies were crowded so densely that when somebody sneezed in the back row those who stood in front fell onto the suitcases moving by.
Finally the long-awaited backpacks appeared on the belt, and at the expense of violent efforts we dragged them out through the crowd to the fresh air which made us dizzy at once. Fatigue was catching up - the body, exhausted by the wearisome flight, did not want to believe what the watch was showing - the body's biological clock was still set on Moscow time.
- How much does it cost to get to the city? - I asked a person of clearly taxi-like propensity standing by an oldish right-handed Toyota.
- And how long is the ride?
- Well, about fifteen minutes.
The attempts to bargain and to refer to Moscow priced did not lead to anything, - the trade union had clearly decided not to bring the price down. We were surprised but detemined to go after all, - there was no more energy left to go by public transportation which meant transfers.
It must be admitted that the taxi driver not only took us to the place which was agreed upon, but also helped us in the search for a place to spend the night - he drove us around several dormitories and, not being able to reach any agreement with sleepy drunk administrators, took us to the cheapest hotel in the city. Here another surprise awaited us - the cost of the cheapest room in the cheapest hotel amounted to 100$.
Why so expensive? No service, no special conveniences, simply a small room with harmonica-like radiators and a tiny, poorly-cleaned lavatory. If in the haggling with the taxi drivers one could say that even in Moscow the taxi rates were lower, in the situation with the hotel Moscow could simply take a rest. The prices were at a high European level, which did not at all correspond to the local environment.
- You see, - said the administrator, - we have few clients, it's expensive to keep a hotel, so that's why the prices are high.
The logics was iron-case, one couldn't argue with it. Developing this idea further, it remains only to raise the prices to 500 bucks, so that there would be no visitors at all. But you would get into the Guinness Book of records for sure.
Later I noticed that such an understanding of business transactions was typical for Kamchatka inhabitants in general. The reason of this phenomenon is unknown. Perhaps the specific features of the ex-Soviet politics concerning the North, with which more than one generation grew up here, or perhaps the peculiarities of the advantageous geographic position. The people are really good and kind there. Only somewhat strange.
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky has over a dozen specialized shops selling equipment for tourism, mountaineering, fishing, hunting, etc. It would seem to be convenient, one should be able to buy everything with no trouble. Not in the least!
What do you think, what would be the first thing that a tourist will go to buy after arriving at Kamchatka? I'll simplify the question. If he came to Kamchatka - not in order to visit the hang-out places of Petropavlovsk, but so as to go traveling either to the volcanoes, or to the taiga to the bears, or fishing? Naturally, first of all he will go to buy that which can not by any means be taken to the airplane - fuel in order to cook on a burner in field conditions, or, to put it simply, gas cartridges. So what?
Having visited all the open stores, including the Moscow Alpindustria, we received a standard answer everywhere: there's no gas, because it's hard to bring it here! The situation was the same as in the hotel - why create problems for oneself? Many customers means a lot of work, so it's better to sit and do nothing, selling expensive tourist equipment, which nobody would think of buying in Kamchatka! Why on earth would a tourist who flew in, for example, from Moscow, buy in Petropavlovsk a backpack for 300 dollars? As for gas, everybody searches for it and nobody finds it.
- Last year a box of gas cartridges was brought, - they told us at Alpindustria, - so they were sold out within half a day, there's no way to arrange a permanent supply with such appetites!
Fortunately, the situation turned out to be not hopeless - there're no problems which cannot be solved. It was possible to buy a gasoline primus burner and gasoline, or (as we did) to buy a Korean burner with an adapter for gas cartridges intended for household use, which are sold in household stores and cost really little.
So that is how we spent the remains of this unnaturally long day: we went around stores, solved the problem with the burner, bought the food for the route, the bus tickets to the Klyuchi village for the next morning, had supper at a very questionable place called "Caucasian cuisine" and fell asleep right after touching the pillows in the hotel that sheltered us, not cheap but quite hospitable. And behind the window, raising dust, blew an icy, un-summerlike piercing northern wind.
All the next day we shook in a densely packed PAZ bus, fed mosquitoes during brief stops and viewed through a slumber the monotonous landscape drifting by behind the window, - dense willow-bushes and stone-birch trees, coming right up to the dusty dirt road.
I woke up from being eaten mercilessly by a cloud of mosquitoes who flew into the bus through the open door. The bus stood at the end of a short line for a ferry crossing. It was the seventh hour on the road - according to the timetable, soon we were supposed to arrive. Scratching myself, I climbed out of the stuffy bus and went off to break a branch for myself, so as to scare off the bloodthirsty parasites. However, as I looked around, for a while I forgot about my intention. An unbelievable panorama opened from the bank of the river: the glassy water reflected two fantastic pinkish-white domes, which with equal contrast stood out against the background of the pale blue sky and the bright greenery of the riverside undergrowth. The first impression of meeting with the volcanoes was strange. Despite their cyclopic size, the snow giants did not resemble mountains at all. The description 'beautiful' did not suit this striking picture either. Of course, the volcanoes were immensely beautiful in their own sense, but there was so much undisguised menace in this beauty, so much alienation, that one wanted to turn away and not look.
- All this can blow the hell up at any moment, - my neighbour in the bus told me, having correctly perceived my mood. And I fully agreed with him.
However the bus had already clambered onto the ferry, - we followed it, waving our hands and branches in unison: the blood-suckers were attacking us savagely from all sides, and the tube with the repellent had been unknowingly left in the backpack that was covered by a heap of other people's luggage.
- You will be surprised, - they told us in the morning at the hotel, - how much the climate in Klyuchi differs from that in Petropavlovsk: it is warmer there by about 15 degrees! That was hard to believe - after all, Klyuchi are to the North of Petropavlovsk by about 400 kilometers. Nevertheless, this paradox of climate was true - tumbling out of the bus at the central square of Klyuchi village, in spite of our dazed condition, we felt like in Sochi (the southern seaside resort of European part of Russia, on the Black sea) - the temperature was close to 30C, it was noticeably hot and stuffy.
Next, in accordance with our plan of action, we should determine our accommodation for the night and our further route to follow tomorrow, to the foot of Klyuchevskaya volcano which towered above the village and gave an unnatural, Japanese-like tint to the typically Russian landscape. We expected to find something like an UAZ (popular russian 4x4 car ) or a jeep immediately upon arrival, to arrange the drop-off onto the route and to commission the driver to find a place for us to spend the night. However the search did not take long: while we were settling back into our own selves, sitting on our backpacks in the shade of the bus station, a middle-aged man came up to us and offered his services to find a vehicle and lodging. Our new acquaintance's name was Gennady, he turned out to be a local entrepreneur who for many years already had been unsuccessfully trying to organize tourist business at Klyuchi village.
The question regarding accommodation was solved on the spot - we were invited to stay at a private hotel, as for the UAZ, upon mentioning it we heard laughter.
- Even an Ural truck can barely pass there, not to mention an UAZ! - chuckled Gennady and promised to find something suitable.
The private hotel turned out to be a large unfinished wooden house with two rooms on the second floor, quite suitable to sleep in. The price named by the owner - 150 roubles - was quite suitable for us and, having tossed our stuff down, we set off to survey the village in the hope of finding something suitable for supper.
The Klyuchi village is spread out on the wide bank of the Kamchatka river. Standard, darkened by humidity two-storey wooden huts and several unfinished panel five-storey 'Northern-type' houses. A central street, overgrown by dusty grass and pitted by potholes, where several tiny stores are located. An atmosphere of desolation, typical for out-of-the-way places in Russia.
Several kids romping on a rusty hull of an ancient truck followed us with wonder-struck glances. The adults, on the contrary, were busy with tasting self-made alcohol and pointedly ignored the presence of strangers. Nevertheless, the atmosphere was calm, entirely peaceful, without a trace of concealed aggression which, unfortunately, to a certain extent is typical for the Russian mentality. And above all this in the sky stretches the huge, smoking dome of the Klyuchevskaya volcano - the Russian Fujiyama. A strange combination.
An hour later, having examined all the local places of interest, or rather having made sure of their total absence, we were back to the 'hotel', where we concocted something that vaguely resembled a home-made supper: beginning tomorrow, a meager diet of canned and dried foods and awaited us.
Soon the owner came around to say that tomorrow morning a KAMAZ truck would come to pick us up, lamented some more over his hard life and took off, having promised to call tomorrow morning - to collect the keys and the money.
5. KAMAZ, the volcanologists' hut
Not having been woken up by anybody, we slept until 10 am, ate breakfast placidly and went outside, already with some uneasiness, to wait for the promised truck. Not even a quarter of an hour had passed when we felt a slight trembling of the earth, then the roar of an engine, and soon a huge military six-wheeler KAMAZ truck emerged from a dust cloud, the driver of which invited us to load out stuff with a gesture without stopping the engine. Gennady never showed up, and it became clear that he had again had a stroke of poor luck in business. Having agreed with the KAMAZ driver that the cost per one trip would be 2500 roubles, he announced to us the price of 3000, which in another form would have been fair - the man spent his time and efforts for us, this definitely should be paid for. But as he did not come in the morning and did not get his money from us, the unlucky businessman not only lost his commission but also fell out with the KAMAZ driver, who decided that he was nearly swindled: We felt sorry for the person who had really helped us.
Upon leaving the village our KAMAZ cheerfully dived into the river named Sukhaya ('dry'), Despite its name, water in it was running waist-deep - nearly up the KAMAZ's wheel, and the current was so strong that once we felt the back of the truck simply being carried away. But the driver had been on this route already, and, swearing loudly, he stepped on the gas - the truck strained all its six wheels and drove out of the riverbed to a more shallow part. Thus, within several seconds, all the illusions that we could have made it in an UAZ jeep were dispelled, - it would have simply drowned at once.
Having managed to get out from the deep riverbed to the shoal, Sergey (that was the driver's name) carefully drove along a shallow tributary of the river in the direction of the huge white cones, so enormous that assessing the distance to them was impossible even approximately. On the way he amused us by stories about how automobiles on this route drowned in scours, turned upside down and sank into the black quicksand, and their passengers were eaten alive by mosquitoes. The mosquitoes indeed became more and more numerous and impudent as we headed away from the village, - like dive-bombers, they tried to fly through the glass of the cab at full speed, leaving blots on it - a brief memory of their feat in the name of hunger.
Slowly the huge wheels turned, the engine roared heart-rendingly, working in low gear, muddy water was babbling under the hood. The nimble current created the impression of speed, but it was enough to look at the shore and the illusion disappeared.
After the river we drove for quite a long time along a vast dead field which was strewn with black ashes - the former overflow of the river, then again crossed the rapid torrent, and soon an old degraded rut appeared under the wheels, the road went up steeply. The rut was last year's - here and there fallen trees were lying across the road, so we had to stop and work with the saw.
As we stopped by the first obstruction, I understood why the local inhabitants use the expression 'the mosquitoes peck'. The little vampires actually did not bite, nor sting, they in fact pecked, driving their little javelins into the skin at full speed right to the eyes. They even managed to bite through thick polartec jackets. All our anti-mosquito remedies worked only for a brief time - it was enough to start sweating a bit while working with the axe, and there it went: Even now, remembering the details of the way, I start scratching instinctively :)
In some places the rut became deep even for the KAMAZ - in spring, when the snow was melting, the streams running down made it several times deeper. On steep sections it became harder and harder for the truck to drive onto the knolls - the damp soil spread around the wheels without creating sufficient bearing. At one place after several unsuccessful attempts to drive along the edge of the rut we got stuck after all - the rut collapsed and the truck lay down with its side onto the clay bank at the edge of the road. That already meant trouble.
In order to return the KAMAZ into a stable position it took quite a lot of work with the spade, raking the soil under the wheels that were hanging in the air: We took turns working - one would dig and the other one would keep the swarms of mosquitoes off the digger and himself. When we decided to take a break and have a smoke, I went further along the road and ran into a fresh bear track. The clear paw imprints on the soft clay were the size of a medium-sized frying pan and ended with claws the size of a finger: It was quite possible that the bear was scared off by the roar of truck's engine.
Half a hour later we managed to put the KAMAZ back on all its six wheels after all and to get out of the messed-up clay trap.
Apart from the old rut, overgrown with grass, nothing else in the surrounding landscape indicated the presence of humans there any more. The road meandered and slowly flowed under the frayed hood of the KAMAZ.
The forest became more and more sparse, then ended completely, giving way to the sumptuous alpine multicolored growths. Nothing else concealed from the eyes the goal of our trip - the colossal cone of the highest active volcano in Eurasia - Klyuchevskaya. We could admire in full view the whole panorama of this gigantic 'tailpipe': the mountain was resting upon a lush green basis, covered by snow on the top and dirty-brown in the middle part, where there was no grass any more and no snow yet. I had some hesitations about using the word 'mountain' here. After all, the impressions here are not similar to those in the mountains.
Usually the mountains, even from afar, give a feeling of freedom, of opening space. But here, before the face of the volcano, the feelings were nearly opposite. The dominating feeling was that of an oppressive discomfort, of threat. Perhaps it was due to an extremely unusual landscape, but maybe not: Who knows what the reason for such impressions may be.
It is interesting that while looking at Klyuchevskaya from below, from the village, one assesses the steepness of its slopes, and only when going up one understands how deceptive such assessment are. From below it seemed that the green slopes above the visible border of the forest become quite steep, and when the alpine meadows end - the dark rocks of the middle part of the cone rise like a wall. However, the closer we approached to the mountain, the more obvious the delusion - the part that from below seemed to be nearly a wall, in reality turned out to be a barely inclined plane.
We were slowly approaching the lower part of the ghastly brown desert. The rut dodged among the green hillocks, slowly but surely getting higher and higher up. And behind our backs equally slowly, opening more and more new glassy waters, the Kamchatka river overflow valley was falling back - a huge territory, overgrown with forests and covered by water, where man has not yet become an absolute master.
With an effort the KAMAZ surmounted yet another slope, and suddenly we found ourselves by a modest log-house, darkened with time and moisture, which looked entirely out of place here, among the desolate green hills: The road, at least its part which was passable by transportation, ended here, at the height of 900 metres above sea level and the village of Klyuchi, which was only several metres above that level.
That was it, we had arrived. Sergei stopped the engine, and the silence, filled with a slight mosquito ringing, caved in upon us from above. We tossed the backpacks out of the truck and looked around.
- So are you really going to go there? - asked Sergei, nodding towards the white summit and glancing at us expressively.
- Yeah, seems like there's not reason to change our plans as yet:
- Well, I wonder what on earth for do you need it:, already without the inquiring intonation, reproachfully.
I said nothing, having long ago comprehended all the uselessness of trying to answer such remarks.
The mountain was already here, right in front of us. All the way to its summit was fully visible, starting from right in front of us. It was a challenge, and we accepted it.
We smoked in silence, wished each other good luck and said good-bye. Soon the roar of the engine died off beneath us, and we remained all alone.
A superficial inspection of the house revealed a certain state of neglect, but nevertheless it was quite appropriate to be used for lodging. The permanent owner had not been here for a very long time, but the inside of the hut kept the traces of many visitors. The heavy door was heavily upholstered with felt which covered all the cracks, in some windows the glasses remained intact, but most of them were covered with polyethylene or taped over with adhesive tape. There could be no doubts about the reasons for such diligent sealing - crowds of hungry mosquitoes were buzzing and swarming outside.
The inside part of the house, despite its outer plainness, turned out to be quite cozy. Several sleeping-benches knocked together from boards, a table, darkened with time, with autographs of former guests carved out on it. The walls had once been covered with paper, but now were abundantly decorated with various inscriptions and pictures which more or less reflected the absence of culture among their authors. In the middle of the house there was a smoked brick stove plastered with clay.
The mosquitoes managed to find some gaps anyway and infiltrated inside, but these were no longer the swarms but especially cunning individuals, which after the contacts with the whole population outside could be simply ignored.
6. Ascent of the Podkova (Horseshoe) crater
First of all, having settled into the house, we set off to search for water. The logical conclusions that once there is a house, there should be some water, turned out to be erroneous. The stocky wooden framework, situated in about 100 metres from the house, which I at first took to be a well, turned out to be a rotted shed of a cellar which had caved in. The stream which was murmuring in the nearby ravine turned out to be a flow of dirt. What a piece of bad luck. This is where the problem which we faced all throughout our stay on the volcano lay in wait for us - the absence of clear water. After a long search we managed to find nearby a puddle with some settled water which could be called conditionally pure, though sand of volcano origin crunched on our teeth anyway when we drank it.
Having thus solved this household issue, we decided to go for a walk - the more that the object for a walk was right on hand: not far from the house towered a rather high red scoria hill. Judging by the map which hung over the table in the house, this was the 'Horseshoe' crater which rose 400 metres above the house marked on the map as 'Volcanologists' lodge'. There was no other kind of entertainment to be expected for that day, so we set off.
After crossing the dirt stream in a narrow place we forced our way through thick bushes consisting of dwarf birches and rhododendrons and began to slowly climb the reddish volcanic scoria which slid under our feet. The climb turned out to be somewhat longer than it seemed from below, but nevertheless half an hour later we were already standing on the edge of quite a large crater with a small lake on the bottom. The water at the bottom not only did not look drinkable but did not evoke any desire even to approach closer to it.
On the slopes of the crater, both inside and outside, like flotsam left after a shipwreck, the remains of some wooden structure, totally unidentifiable, were scattered.
Also some maimed rusty appliance turned up underfoot - a mute witness of the fight between man and the fire elements of the earth.
A captivating panorama opened from the top of the crater: right beneath our feet the bright greenery of the hills was cut through here and there with black tentacles of hardened lava flows, a dozen or so small craters were showing their apertures against a background of the foggy plain, glittering with a numerous amount of big and small lakes. Far away, at the border of visibility, the Shiveluch volcano was ejecting puffs of dense smoke: A wild beauty, independent and scornful of man, because it is stronger than him.
7. The second house, ascent to base camp
The night in the house went by quite comfortably, not counting the fact that we woke up swollen from the bites of the 'few' flying rascals which managed to penetrate into our abode after all. Having had a quick breakfast and packed our backpacks, we set off, hoping on this day to ascend far above the level of grass and to leave below all these small but terribly annoying flying abominable creatures.
The vegetation became more and more scanty, the grass gave way to lichens which were also snuggling closer and closer to the ground, hiding in the cracks of stones. Soon the eye stopped discerning traces of any life on the smooth desert-like surface covered with regelated stones.
The green colour disappeared from the colour palette of the landscape surrounding us, having yielded to black, red and white. The most interesting thing was that, despite a total absence of vegetation, the mosquitoes continued harassing us. And these were not individual kamikazes who had flown after us from below! At each step new and new kamikadze-teams flew out from the scoria crunching under our feet and rushed to the attack. Who can explain to me: where from can there be mosquitoes in the middle of a dead stony desert, at snow level, at the height of 2000 metres?!
We passed a small icefall and went on to a glacier, densely strewn with black ashes. Suddenly to the left along our way we saw something, the shape accuracy of which stood out against the background of the dismal monotony of the wild landscape. Having tossed down our backpacks, we set off to study this object which turned out to be the second volcanologists' lodge, a curious structure but doubtful from the point of view of practical use.
The tiny house standing on the edge of the crater was made from whole concrete. The narrow embrasure of the window was covered with polyethylene, a warped rusty pipe stuck out from the roof. Perhaps in case of need it could be possible to spend the night here, but I would still prefer the tent.
This house was marked on the map, a dotted line even marked a road, the remains of which it could be possible to descry on the slope with some effort. It looked highly doubtful that any means of transportation had been up there during the last several years.
On that day we climbed to the level of 2200 metres, where we found a smooth area and a relatively clean stream. There we made camp.
The whole next day was spent in a monotonous jumping over 'blackies' - pointed mounds which were formed as a result of the melting of the snow covered with a thick layer of freshly fallen black ashes. One could either walk around these mounds, raising one's feet high up, or hop over their tops. The possibility of choice gave some variety to the tiresomely steady process of walking. The landscape became more and more gloomy, all the colours had disappeared from it, only the black and white spectrum remained. We began to feel the height, it became noticeably harder to walk. The only joy was that that the mosquitoes, though not having disappeared completely (!), were no longer such vehement kamikazes as before. Where did only their energy go - listlessly waggling their wings, they sat down to have a rest on the backpacks, then flew up again and lazily attempted to perform their evil deed, but retribution caught up with them sooner. I began to feel better from seeing how bad things were for these scoundrels.
At the height of 3100 m we decided to make camp. For a long time we dug out and smoothed the ground for our tent. From here next night we shall start the climb to the
8. The climb
The alarm-clock, this butcher of dreams, fulfilled the order, accurate within the second, and arranged an early reveille for us right in the middle of the night, at 2:00 am. Having subdued a strong desire to set it for an hour later, I accomplished the first feat for this day which had not yet started and tumbled out of the warm down nest into the cold and harsh reality. Armed with a flashlight, I crawled out of the tent in order to examine the conditions. Slack gusts of wind were shaking the tent, the starry horizon was clear, somewhat lighter to the north-west, where the sun had set and where it was supposed to rise in several hours.
The backpacks for the ascent were ready, we had packed them last night, - making a light breakfast and other sleepy puttering about took not more than 20 minutes. And there we were, already standing under the clear dome of the starry sky at the beginning of the last rise to the summit which seemed so near from below.
That is a deceptive impression. The climb from the camp to the summit is about two kilometers high - very few mountaineering routes presuppose such an intensive height gain during the ascent.
We start walking over the thin crust of icy snow, hard as asphalt. Rhythmical crunching of the snow under the teeth of the crampons, the dancing patch of light from the head lamps: A desire to close our eyes. Drowsiness begins to get at us - this is a result of lack of oxygen and incomplete acclimatization. But we should not lose vigilance. The seeming tranquility of the false dawn conceals a deadly danger, one needs to be extremely attentive.
A barely audible rustling some distance away, then a dull stroke and a splash of sparks. This is a warning from the mountain. Do not get distracted. As the sun rises, the rockfalls become more and more numerous. The safest protection is watching the slope attentively, listening. The trajectory of the flying stone can be tracked by the sound, then one can hide or step aside in time. The dusk just before dawn is the most dangerous time: the stones already begin to fall, ybut the snow still retains its nighttime solidity and does not hinder their fall. In a few hours the slope will come alive, it will start moving in small slides, but there will be no more individual flying stones - the limp snow will not give them an opportunity to gain speed. However it will not permit one to run away in case of need either.
Day breaks. The summit, the distance to which it is impossible to estimate by eye, gets a crimson hue. The mountain greets the sun with a rumble of rockfalls. Suddenly the blaze on the horizon shoots out several bright rays. The sun as if jumps from out of the horizon, after some hesitation unsticks from it and, already slower, starts its daily way across the sky. It is hard to find an attribute for such a sight. On the one hand, seems like nothing special, just a sunrise, but: Neither 'beautiful' nor 'amazing', nor 'splendid' are suitable. Neither of these words reflect the essence of the phenomenon at all. The moment of sunrise hypnotizes, captivates with its force.
Astounded, we stand for several minutes, facing the Sun. Then the magic passes. Somewhat dumbfounded, we exchange impressions about the event which we have seen. It is difficult to talk about complex imp der to be here at this moment.
The metres of altitude give in harder and harder, more and more often we have to sit down and restore our breathing, not taking our eyes off the summit. Judging by the altimeter, there are 500 metres left: 400: 300. Already the black brow-shaped edge of the crater, free from snow, can be well seen, it seems to be within a stone's throw.
But the force of gravity is felt more and more: The slope becomes less steep and more stony. The black stripe is closer and closer, it seems you need just to reach out with your hand and there it is: But it took no less than an hour till we could reach its lower border. Here an unpleasant surprise awaited us: from below it seemed that the black strip by the edge of the crater is a solid cap of hardened lava. In fact it turned out to be volcanic ashes, loose as sand. It is no more than 100 metres of climb till its visible border, we wanted so much to believe that this was the top. So near and yet so far: The sand was so loose that the feet sink down into it up to the knee and higher, it was worse walking than in deep snow.
No more strength left, I count every step that brought me closer to the edge. Another hour passed, and we are still floundering in this black bog.
But at last there are really just a few metres left to the ridge. I brace up and invest my last strength into a spurt. A step:resting on my arms, I pull out my foot from the unstable mass, another step: On all fours I slowly crawl out to the long-awaited edge:, and nearly weep from the view that opens before my eyes. This is not the top, just a ridge on the slope, followed by another at least hundred metres of black bog, exhaling thin jets of smoke. What a bummer. No strength left even to curse properly.
Having rested for about twenty minutes and comprehended that the amount of our strength will not increase anyway, we left the backpacks and crampons, useless on the crumbly scoria, and continued to climb without the slightest desire to do so.
I cannot say that I felt any pleasure when we went out to the summit after all. In fact, it was hard to call the narrow border of ashes on the edge of an unrealistically huge pit, emanating a poisonous-looking yellowish-green smoke, a summit. The inside of the crater could be seen in the gaps between wisps of smoke and looked quite unpleasant. A fuming sheer wall, covered with motley sulphur spots, stretched down from right under our feet.
In the very middle of the main crater, ejecting puffs of dense yellowish smoke, rose another, inner crater, the height of which exceeded the external one on which we were standing by approximately 150-200 metres. Judging by the GPS, the height was 4810 metres. Trusting my subjective assessment of the height of the edge of the inner crater, it is quite possible that the Klyuchevskaya volcano is five thousand metres high. Theoretically, I believe, the height of an active volcano can easily vary within certain limits.
So, as I had already mentioned, I did not experience any especially positive emotions about the fact that we did, after all, get to the summit. My partner was behind me by several minutes, and when he did come up after all, he took in at a glance the panorama of the crater, turned around and went back, saying briefly over his shoulder.
- Let's get out of here, it's a bad place.
We did not take our pictures on the top. I took a dozen of snapshots with the camera in all directions and hurried to join my comrade who was moving in wide sliding strides towards the stuff we left before the last climb.
Altogether the climb took 8 hours, during two of which we were descending through the limp wet snow, periodically breaking in down to the waist. We searched for our tent using the GPS, because around midday dense clouds rose from below and all the visible guiding points disappeared from sight.
9. Climbing Krestovsky volcano, Ehrmann's glacier
Next day after ascending Klyuchevskaya volcano we rested until midday, then unhurriedly packed camp and moved on to the beginning of the next stage of our program: climbing Krestovsky volcano.
We planned to perform this climb from the upper plateau of Ehrmann's glacier which was in about 15 km from our camp. The weather was favourable, the visibility good, the sun was shining brightly, the walking was easy and pleasant. Black snowfields covered with ashes, divided by narrow streams of lava, hardened in intricate forms. Several hours of monotonous traversing. We go, trying not do lose height, as the final point of our destination is only 200 metres below our previous campsite. One after another we cross several mighty lava rivers, and, lo and behold - before us opens the panorama of Ehrmann's glacier, separated from us by a deep mudflow slit. The sight is rather specific. A huge flat glacier several kilometers wide descends in a multi-kilometer tongue to the north-west from the crosspiece between Klyuchevskaya and Krestovsky volcano. A typical glacier covered by ashes, and inside it is made from black ice. In short, quite a somber view.
So, having crossed the mudflow sewerage, we wandered for a while in a small icefall at the entrance to the glacier and walked on to the upper part of the plateau, which seemed to be not far away, but the GPS confidently showed 5 km and, to all appearances, was not mistaken. As we were walking around Klyuchevskaya volcano counterclockwise, we began to see its younger brother - the Kamen' (Stone) volcano, a mountain which is technically more complicated and possibly the next stage of our climbing programme.
It took us quite a while to find a place for a tent. The choices were not very diverse - either to dig out a flat area on the conical top of an ash-heap, or setting up the tent in a low place, on wet snow. We chose the first option and scattered around the light friable scoria with our avalanche spade for a long time.
In the meantime the weather was definitely getting worse. By the evening the top of Klyuchevskaya volcano was hidden by clouds, the pressure had dropped, from below, from the south-east, a cloud sneaked up. However, despite all the signs, the weather early next morning did not prevent us from starting on our way.
Slowly, carefully watching the slope and choosing the snowfields which were most remote from accumulations of stones, so as not to get under a stone-fall, we go up. The climb is extremely monotonous, we walk in crampons, unhurriedly gain a kilometer and, having outflanked several ice crevasses on the crest of the glacier, we go onto the summit plateau. The weather below us in the meantime is getting worse. Clouds have pulled around, the whole glacier is covered. We decide to rest for a while, have a smoke and think about what to do further.
But while we were fooling around on the summit, taking pictures and drinking tea, the weather got quite rotten, clouds swooped down, then wet snow started sprinkling in charges. Only one option of continuing the route remained: down. And the sooner the better. With muffled rumbling a storm front was advancing from the direction of the Tolbachiks - we did not have the slightest desire to happen to be on the summit during a thunderstorm. However the half-hour break had made the task of descending significantly more difficult. The visibility had totally disappeared, the footprints left by us during climbing on the dense black surface were covered with fresh white snow.
Peering into the snowy haze, I make several steps in the direction of the crest of the slope and all of a sudden feel an emptiness under the right foot. I immediately transfer my weight to the left foot, fall through to the knee and automatically roll forward. Then I carefully crawl back to the hole into which nearly fell and look down.
Yeah, that was a piece of luck. Down there, widening like a bell, goes an ice crevasse at least 20 metres deep. Falling into there would have definitely been malapropos, especially taking into account the fact that the rope was only in my backpack. I carefully crawl backwards and warn my partner about the danger. In a hour, drenched to the skin, we walk out to the tent with the help of the navigator.
With a silly smile my comrade pulls out of his backpack a shapeless grey lump and begins to squeeze the water out of it. I understand with horror that this incomprehensible wet mass is all of our supply of toilet paper!
- Why on earth did you bring all of it up with you?
- I thought we might need it:
- So now we do! How can we dry it now?! This is a disaster.
The situation seems to be funny at first sight. Seemingly a trifle, it should be possible to contrive something. But the truth is that, in fact, there are not so many options! One of the options could be to take to the Moslem habits for while, but the water is cold and contains ashes. It is also possible to use snow, but its texture resembles more that of ice, and also with a fair-sized mixture of dirt. Nor is it possible to find any suitable stones, all of them are sharp like hedgehogs, and the nearest burdock leaves are within minimum a day's journey. The smartest ones immediately filched the whole supply of bandages from the first-aid kit, and those who were too late solved this problem in accordance with their individual IQ levels.
And the troughs of the sky opened wide. The rain lasted till evening, lashed at the tent all night and showed no signs of fatigue in the morning. On this rainy morning we began the great tournament of 'fool' (card game), and by the evening we had fulfilled the yearly norm for the number of games played. The rain continued to torment our light shelter and began to make its way inside in some places. Down below, peals of thunder could be heard - the thunderstorm was passing along the bottom of the valley.
A muffled hollow wailing sounded from the depths of the glacier, lasted for a while, growing stronger, rolled under our tent and died away in the direction opposite to that where it arose. We exchanged glances perplexedly.
- What's that?
- Apparently the glacier is bursting.
- Strange phenomenon. Why can't it lie quietly?
- The important thing is that an abyss does not open under our tent!
As if in reply to these words, right under the tent sounded a deafening wailing moan, so loud that we were bounced on our pads. We exchanged glances in fear, neither of us had ever experienced anything like that before. Apparently, because of the thunderstorm some changes and movements occurred in the depths of the glacier, the result of which were theses sounds. For us this most probably did not present any danger, but at first it felt extremely unpleasant. Then we got used to the feeling.
Days two and three were spent in the tent, the situation with the rain did not change. It was time to decide upon something, as our limited rations were already coming to an end. We postponed the main decision till the next morning. Two options were considered: if the weather suddenly improves - to make a quick attempt at climbing Kamen'. If not - to descend, also as fast as possible.
10. The return to the volcanologists' lodge
Waking up tomorrow morning, we did not hear the noise of the rain. The drooping pitches of the tent, battered by the wind, were sagging inside heavily. Carefully, so as not to pour into the tent the water which had accumulated on the outer tent, I opened the entrance and thrust my nose outside. The rain has truly stopped, but going upwards is impossible anyway: in 100 metres above the glacier hangs a dense shroud of clouds which hides from view the surrounding summits. The way down was open, but in order to go up we would have to wait.
Once again we performed an audit of our food stores: counted all the few remaining cookies, dried fruit and candies, then divided them for the number of remaining days.
The results of the calculations spoke for themselves, - if we stay for another day, we will not have enough food for the way out. Already we had less than enough. And what if that cross-country vehicle does not come to pick us up? We did not even want to think about that:
In short, there was nothing we could do but stuff our wet belongings into the wet backpacks and slowly set off on our way back.
Step after step the upper plateau of Ehrmann's glacier, flat as a frying-pan, which had welcomed us so unhospitably, remains behind us. The surrounding landscapes, having lost the brightness of the sun illumination, become unpleasantly mentally oppressive. Black snow under our feet, black volcano slopes, low clouds which seemingly are just about to squeeze us with their gray belly. Makes one remember the wonderful fairy-tale written by J.R.R.Tolkien: Quite a Mordor, with only the orcs lacking.
For over a week since we had left the volcanologists' lodge we have not seen any signs of human presence: neither tracks, nor litter, nothing: Only the ghastly black slopes and the loose scoria, crunching under our feet. So much for a popular tourist region.
Again it started raining, the visibility deteriorated. In the icefall at the descent from the glacier we got lost and for a long time looked for a way through the huge crevasses. In the end we finally went down, nearly got drowned in the dirt bog, got wet through and on top of everything turned out to be much lower than the place where we went up.
The only thing that remained for us to do was to cross the mudflow channel which had formed as a result of the melting and narrowing of the glacier, and then to go out onto the endless lava fields of the northern slopes of Klyuchevskaya volcano. However those 200 metres of altitude which we had lost while searching for the way through the icefall made the task much tougher. While above the 'mudflow sewerage' which I had already mentioned was simply a wide stream of semi-liquid dirt with a shallow channel, across which we jumped easily, down here the situation was radically different.
We stood mutely before the magnificent spectacle of a huge canyon about 60 metres deep with vertical walls made from black ice on one side and from conglomerate on the other: As far as we could see, there were no chances to cross this ditch below us. So there was nothing we could do but, lamenting the ill luck, get under our heavy backpacks and begin going up along the edge of the canyon, in the hope of finding a place to cross.
After a while such a chance presented itself: the canyon became narrower, deep ice crevasses broke its edges. Along one of such crevasses we descended to the bottom, and after going up for a hundred metres along the dry bed of hardened dirt we found an opportunity to go up the other side of the gorge. That was it. The way further on, even though not seen, should most probably not present any technical difficulties: a long monotonous traverse of the snowfields and hardened lava rivers, 15 km long with an altitude loss of one kilometer. In theory it looked quite easy: a long gentle slope. We could say with relative certitude that by the evening of the next day we, somehow or other, would be sure to reach the volcanologists' base.
Suddenly a strange sound attracted our attention. The feeling came first in the legs, as if a heavy freight train was approaching us by unseen rails. Then the trembling of the earth was joined by a hollow low-pitched rumble. And in a few seconds a torrent of wet dirt and stones burst into the gorge, a wave several metres high swept along its bed, exactly over the place where we had passed 15 minutes ago. Stones weighing no less than a centner (100 kg) were rolling about in the dense torrent and knocking against each other with a muffled clatter, as if an ancient monster was grinding its teeth in a violent rage.
Apparently somewhere above us a mudflow dam had burst. After the first wave the torrent of dirt became much weaker, then it made another effort, letting a smaller wave pass, and soon turned into a small harmless stream which, in its turn, also soon died away among the stones. It became quiet again.
Keeping to the direction indicated by the GPS arrow, we moved through a dense fog which had sneaked up on us soon after we had broken camp and moved further, after spending the night on a small flat area by a merrily murmuring stream. Periodically from out of the fog drifted now intricate lava sculptures, stretching their black fingers towards the sky, now glades or whole fields of 'blackies'. No guiding lines except for the small electroic device fixed to the backpack strap. According to its display, the distance towards the house was slowly decreasing, but from the surrounding fantastic landscape it was totally impossible to say whether we were moving, and if at all, then in what direction. Slowly, very slowly, not more than a hundred metres per kilometer, we lose height - our only trump card in this strange game with the Mountain.
Crossing a wide tongue of hardened lava with protruding needles, we descend into a small hollow with a stream, overgrown with grass clumps.
How little, after all, does a person need for happiness. The view of green grass, covered with pearly dew, after the ten days spent in the realm of ashes, evokes a surge of wild joy. These delicate green lines seem so native, there is so much strength and valour in their struggle for existence on the border with death: The idyll did not last long. First one flying blood-sucker started singing above the ears his ringing song, then another. And already a whole chorus was happily humming around us, celebrating our safe return.
From the viscous mass of fog, sticking to the ground, slowly emerge the faint contours of the surrounding landscape. No visible guiding lines, only the fog and high alpine grasses, bending down under the weight of large drops, which like a crystal mirror reflect a mysterious world.
It seemed that water was simply hanging in the air. Drops of moisture settled in grey streaks on the unshaved faces, on the clothes, on the backpacks, making them wet through no worse than a downpour: By passing a hand on the tops of the grass one could collect a handful of dazzlingly clear water, but we did not want to drink. What we really wanted was to reach the house concealed from us by the fog as soon a possible, to kindle the stove, to dry our clothes that were wet through.
We could not see anything beyond for or five metres, and when we accidentally walked away from each other, we had to shout 'hey', like in a forest, so as to find each other in the fog. If it were not for the GPS, we would have had to spend the night in the middle of nowhere, in a wet tent, warding off the hordes of mosquitoes. However the device confidently showed the direction, and soon the familiar shape of the hut appeared from the fog. And an hour later we were already drinking tea in a hotly heated house, drying our clothes over the stove and unhurriedly (as we felt all of a sudden quite worn out once we got warm) shared our impressions about this strange ascent, which was so strikingly different from any other routes.
Calling up the village by satellite phone, we arranged for a truck to come and pick us up the next morning and, having done away with all the remaining food in celebration, lay down to sleep on the wooden benches - so smooth and comfortable after ten days of sleeping on stones.
11. The return
All the remaining part of our voyage can be defined by one word - 'returning'. The route has been passed, the main purpose achieved; the piggy-bank of our life's experience has been enriched by an exclusively bright and valuable coin - a successful climb to the marvelous summit of a volcano which is alive - Klyuchevskaya.
Afterwards there were many interesting activities: fishing for salmon in the Kamchatka river, tours of museums in Petropavlovsk, scuba diving in Avachinckaya bay, bathing in hot springs: But this is already quite another matter - the story of returning to usual life, far from snow-white summits and beaming skies, from the difficulties of the trip and the joy of victory. I would not say that these experiences are alien to regular city life, not at all. But the whole point is that these two worlds are so far from each other and practically do not overlap. And the only link that unites them is the person who will be brave and curious enough to look beyond the levels of commonness, to step over the wall which he had built himself in order to protect his own notions of reality, and, so it happened, got caught in the trap built by himself:
P. S. :Yelizovo, dozens of airplanes every day, thousands of passengers: Joyous, we rushed into the airport, passed the security check, went through the X-ray..., then received our luggage back and went on to check it in: What is the point of checking whether I have any forbidden items in my carry-on, if after that I get all my luggage back?! Crazy. Anybody can take an axe from the backpack, put it into a cosmetic bag and hijack an airplane to America, the more that the flight is not all that long. Having checked our luggage in, we felt somewhat hungry and went to look where we could have a snack.
- A wasted effort, - said the sleepy lady at the cafeteria, - everything has already been eaten by the passengers of the previous flight, as for these sandwiches, I would advise you against eating them, they are just lying here for the sake of appearance, they really turned bad already three days ago.
Of course, for the sake of our own safety, nobody allowed us to leave the airport and go to the nearest food store.
And back in Domodedovo airport, while waiting for our luggage, we stood for a long time by the conveyor belt along which frozen salmon was moving in an unceasing flow - huge bars, wrapped into newspapers, about 15-20 kilograms each. Lively customs officials deftly 'fished them out' from the belt, loaded them onto carts and quickly pushed them away into the 'Employees only' section - somebody's small business was definitely flourishing.