Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia

By Amar Dev Singh 4 August 2016
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Climbing volcanoes can present many challenges, especially if they’re located in a remote wilderness… and they’re active.

IT WAS ONLY day two of the expedition and the rigours of the trip were already beginning to tell; carrying our 30kg packs, containing all our gear and supplies for the trek over the rough trackless volcanic terrain, was pushing our bodies to the limit, and three team members were limping from badly strained knees.

The team medic was attending to the walking-wounded and the mountain hut in which we had sheltered looked and smelt like a makeshift clinic. The camphoric smell of muscle-relaxant cream hung heavily in the air as people popped painkillers and massaged their aching limbs.

Trekking in Kamchatka isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination and we had picked a route that covered some of the hardest but most spectacular terrain on the peninsula. We would circumnavigate the massive volcanoes of central Kamchatka around the awe inspiring black pyramid of Klyuchevskaya Sopka (4750m), the highest active volcano in Eurasia. The aim of the trip was to trek over 150km around these volcanoes and climb as many as possible. The trek was going to be completely self-supported and we would be out in the wilderness for 16 days.

Mist abounds on the harsh treck through the Kamchatka Peninsula. (Photo credit: Amar Dev Singh)

The peninsula consists massive swathes of unpopulated wilderness, dozens of active volcanoes, remote and wild shores. Most of the peninsula’s population, 330,000 people, live in the administrative centre at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, leaving the rest of the 4.7 million square kilometres with less than one person per square kilometre. But what the region does not lack are brown bears; they thrive here and Kamchatka has the highest bear density in the world.

After months of preparation I was glad the expedition was finally underway. Two days prior we had been dropped-off by a 6WD truck at the edge of the taiga (dense birch forest) where the tree line ends and the tundra begins. We shouldered our monstrous packs and started trekking across the undulating green tundra towards the high volcanoes. We had encountered a number of bears en route and gave the animals a wide berth; thankfully they took little notice of us.

It’s somewhat interesting encountering a 600kg carnivore on it’s own turf when all you have to protect yourself is harsh language and a couple of bear flares. That said, there has never actually been a nasty bear encounter in this region. The number one predator in is much more fearsome, and much, much smaller: the mosquito.

There are clouds of billions of mosquitoes in the tundra at this time of the year and we were attacked relentlessly. Clouds of these miniature vampires descended on us and bit every bit of exposed skin. But luckily we had come prepared with head nets, clothing impregnated with repellents, gloves and toxic lotions.

No tracks here, just make your own way across the amazing landscape. (Photo credit: Amar Dev Singh)

We made an early start on day three, leaving all but essential gear at the camp, and headed up the slopes to the foot of the Bezymianny volcano, which was showing increasing signs of activity with a huge column of smoke rose from the crater. I had earlier read the warnings issued by the Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, and we made a last minute call via satphone to the experts at the research centre in the capital Petropavlovsk, who informed us that the activity level was downgraded and we were given the green light to make the ascent.

We climbed the lower grassy slopes with relative ease, moving quickly, scrambling over large blocks and boulders, finally reaching the base of the main slopes of the volcanic cone. We rested here in the cold morning air and took in the stunning scenery. The snowy cones of Zimina, Udina and Tolbachik volcanoes loomed out of the scattered clouds. The air was hazy with volcanic smoke and a faint smell of sulphur hung in the air. After getting our breath back we donned our helmets and started the steep climb up the loose and treacherous terrain.

The loose volcanic debris, which forms the cone, sits on a slope at an angle of about 40 degrees, and the raison d’être of every single rock here is to get to the bottom of the volcano, any which way. And they don’t need much encouragement; the slightest excuse provided by wind, rain, snow melt or a careless climber sends a cascade of rocks down the slope.

Luckily our ascent went without incident. We climbed in a tight formation to ensure that none of the rocks dislodged by our team took any of us out. We got to the crater edge at 2600m and had a fantastic view into the caldera. After spending time taking in the view, we reformed into a tight group and began a careful descent.

Lunch below the elegant north west ridge of Kamen (4579m). (Photo credit: Amar Dev Singh)

The next day, after stashing extra food and gear at the hut, we headed towards Klyuchevskaya. We were aiming to climb this volcano after acclimatising on its lower neighbours. Our trek led us across trackless tundra covered in a riot of wild flowers. Marmots squeaked their alarm calls at the sight of us, and golden eagles soared on the thermals.

We camped at the volcanoes’ base at an altitude of around 1100m and now faced a daunting ascent to Volcanologists’ Pass at 3300m. Our aim was to climb the 2000
vertical metres in a single push; the steep terrain offered few suitable campsites and running water was hard to find. We started up the easier angled lower slopes early in the morning and were thankful that heavy fog reduced visibility to a few metres, hiding the volcano. Seeing our destination over two vertical-kilometers above our heads would have been demoralising. As the hours wore on, we were bathed in sweat and the straps of our packs dug into our shoulders. As the ground began to steepen, we were slowed to a crawl by loose rock and scree.

The lake in a crater of Gorley volcano. (Photo credit: Amar Dev Singh)

Approaching an altitude of 3000m, the terrain steepened still further, but as we made our way up the steep ridge we could see our destination in the distance. The team was now quite spread out. We were all tired and climbing at our own pace. All conversation had ceased as we concentrated on breathing and stepping.

At around 3100m we had conquered most of the climb, but now had to traverse across a number of wide gullies towards the pass. It was here that Klyuchevskaya had arranged a special welcome for us; barrages of rock fall thundered down the gullies, while fridge-sized boulders cartwheeled wildly through the air, smashing their way down the slope.
The long summer days of the northern latitudes allowed us to travel well into the night and it was nearly 9pm by the time we found a suitable campsite at around 3200m, just a couple of kilometers short of the pass. We had been on the go for 11 hours.

As we were setting up camp we noticed some figures way off in the distance under the fearsome north face of Kamen. They were the first people we had seen in more than a week and it was strange that they were out so late in such a remote location. They were laden with equipment and had a couple of large bags with them. We figured they would be camped at the pass and we would look them up in the morning.

Dew from a cold night clings to a cluster of spider webs. (Photo credit: Amar Dev Singh)

We woke to a glorious mountain day, the mist had cleared and we could finally take in the amazing scenery. We were camped at the edge of the Shmita Glacier just short of the top of Volcanologists Pass. The pass lies between two massive volcanoes: the black pyramid of the awe inspiring Klyuchevskaya (4750m) and the elegant spire of the extinct Kamen (4579m) volcano. We donned our crampons and trudged up the final couple of kilometers along the glacier to the tiny hut perched on the crest of the snowy Volcanologists Pass at 3300m.

As we neared the hut we were greeted by the group we had seen the previous evening. They were a search and rescue team tasked with the grim job of retrieving the bodies of two fallen climbers who had started up the alluring northwest ridge of Kamen. Somewhere, high on the route, the climbers had taken a fall and tumbled nearly 1000m down to the bottom of the face.

We camped on the west side of the pass below the southern slopes of Klyuchevskaya. We wanted to acclimatise properly and make an assessment of conditions before making an ascent of this notoriously active volcano. I already had my doubts if this could be achieved, as Kamchatka was experiencing an unusually warm summer and the normally snowy slopes of Klyuchevskaya were black, with hardly any snow cover. As a result, the danger posed from rock fall was extremely high.

My suspicions were confirmed as the day warmed up and we saw massive boulders thunder down the slopes. Clouds of dust rose as they triggered huge rockslides that echoed off the walls of the mountains. I knew right away that there was no way we could safely attempt an ascent, and the presence of two dead bodies lying on the ice not far from camp did nothing to inspire my enthusiasm. The team decided that it would be best to change our objective to the lower but safer Tolbachik volcano.

The next day we retraced our steps down the knee-jarring 2000m descent to the valley floor. Over the next four days we trekked across the tundra and climbed over three mountain passes as we made our way between the volcanoes. Our packs became becoming considerably lighter as we consumed supplies. We sighted bears regularly and the mosquitoes remained relentless. On the fourth day we climbed up to 2200m and set up camp on the black ash moonscape at the foot of Tolbachik volcano.

The cinder cones from the 1974 eruption of Tolbachik. (Photo credit: Amar Dev Singh)

On the fifth day we began our ascent of Tolbachik. This volcanic massif consists two stratovolcanoes: Plosky (flat) Tolbachik at 3085m, with a massive stadium-sized crater; and Ostery (sharp) Tolbachik at 3600m, with the classic profile of a well shaped snowy mountain. We planned to climb to the crater rim of Plosky Tolbachik and set up camp, then proceed to traverse along the rim to gain the snowy southeast ridge and climb to the summit of Ostery Tolbachik.

The route up Plosky Tolbachik is a steep but straightforward climb that is tackled regularly by fit tourists, and it presented no challenge now that we were well and truly acclimatised and used to the area’s steep terrain. We made the ascent in just a few hours and were presented with a massive crater that’s an awe-inspiring sight. As we took the last few steps up to the rim the slope fell away hundreds of metres into the vertiginous hole in the earth.

We trekked along the snowy rim to find a suitable spot to set up camp. We found a site with water, but there was no shelter to be had on the exposed rim. We pitched our tents and guyed them down with large rocks. This was one of the most dramatic campsites I have ever spent a night at; the crater fell away steeply to the west and we had a sweeping 280-degree view over the vast green expanse of the birch covered lowlands, punctuated by volcanoes around us; we counted a total of 12 volcanoes in the distance.

Although bitterly cold, we stayed up late and enjoyed an amazing sunset over the volcanoes. At 3am the next day, five of our team made a very early start up the icy southeast ridge of Ostery Tolbachik. They climbed the volcano in near-perfect conditions making a fitting culmination to a very successful expedition.

As we broke camp and headed back down the volcano, we discussed what we were going to eat and drink when we got back to civilisation.

The essentials

Getting there: Aeroflot and S7 airlines have regular flights to Yelizovo airport in Kamchatka from Moscow, Khabarovsk, Vladivostok and Yakutsk. Between July and August there are flights from Anchorage, Tokyo and Osaka.

There are no roads connecting Kamchatka with the outside world and the capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsk, is the second-largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road.

Getting around: Local bus services operate between the capital and the regional towns. Private transport involving a combination of 4WDs, 6WD trucks, helicopters, dog sleds and skidoos can be hired to transport visitors to more remote corners of the peninsula.

The Adventure: The author led this pioneering expedition for Secret Compass, a company dedicated to operating expeditions to some of the most remote regions on Earth. For more information on future expeditions to remote destinations such as Burma, Kamchatka, Mongolia, Chad, Afghanistan and Iraq visit secretcompass.com.