Kamchatka- Skiing Under the Radar
The Russian man had my friend Allen in a headlock. We were in the back of a bus, driving north on a dirt road through Kamchatka. The man was a military guy, and he was hammered on vodka. I didn’t know whether to tackle him off, or try and take some photos. I did neither, reasoning that the best way to alleviate the situation was to pretend that a headlock was no big deal. Was this guy simply a friendly, drunken Russian, expressing some masculine camaraderie? Or was this something about to escalate into a serious rumble?
Allen Steckmest and I were traveling from Petropavlovsk to Klyuchi, on an all day bus ride. The road begins as rough pavement before transitioning to potholes and dirt. It’s more or less the only north-south highway in that region of Russia, a peninsula about 2/3 the size of California. Located up in the north Pacific, Kamchatka sits between Alaska and Japan, and is renown for its epic fly-fishing, abundant brown bears, and a wild, volcanic landscape. We were there to explore the skiing potential.
Bright and early to the bus station. With exceptionally kind assistance from a local, we purchased tickets, found the right bus, and climbed aboard. There were only two spots available. The open seats were in the back row, next to the guys smiling and holding a big bag of beers. It was 7am, but darned if those Russians didn’t just find a couple of drinking buddies in Allen and I. Nyet spassaba (no thanks) wouldn’t cut it. They were insistent that we drink with them. We were on an all day bus trip, and going to toast beers repeatedly, until it was all gone. Pass the liter of high-octane piva (beer) around, smile, look your comrades in the eye, and down the hatch. We were drunk within an hour. Periodically I’d sneak wide-eyed exchanges with Allen, tying to gauge his thoughts about what was transpiring. Keep your wits about you. Embrace the situation I figured. Don’t get robbed or into too much trouble, but come with a couple of good stories.
Those who speak of Kamchatka, might do so a low voice. There aren’t too many places on Earth that are as geographically interesting and ecologically wild. “Like going back in time, like seeing Alaska 200 years ago”, was how the cult fly-fishing video Eastern Rises put it. But the skiing, well that was sort of a mystery going in, and exactly what we wanted to figure out. How accessible would the mountains be? Bushwhacking to the Nth degree? Impenetrable wetlands? Mosquitoes beyond belief? Herds of hungry Kamchatkan brown bears? 10,000 vertical foot, powdery ski descents, followed by idyllic hot spring soaks? Only one way to find out.
I landed in Yelizovo two weeks before my ski partner Allen was due to arrive, in order to get the lay of the land. At the time, traveling from Montana, it was best to fly through Europe and Moscow, which was a long route to say the least. On a previous flight with Aeroflot airlines, I’d observed my ski bag being taxied between aircraft on the Moscow terminal, with my skis half way out and dragging on the tarmac! I ended up being bag-less in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for 4 days (though my skis somehow survived). I hoped the Aeroflot flight to Kamchatka would go a bit more smoothly. Fortunately it did. I hear there are now more frequent, direct flights from Alaska however. Direct flights from North America would greatly facilitate future ski trips for those of us coming from the States. But the prior access/ transportation hurdles, still worth it in my opinion.
Landing in Yelizovo, Martha Madsen is undoubtedly the go-to for all logistics and support in Kamchatka. She’s an expatriot who lives there, speaks fluent Russian, and runs a bed and breakfast/ tourism business called Explore Kamchatka. It wasn’t long before Allen and I came to refer to her as Mother Martha, for her priceless hospitality and kindness. Any future adventurers going to the Russian Far East would do themselves a great service in contacting and hiring Martha to help facilitate visas, permits and logistics over there. At one point in our trip, and undoubtedly a highlight, Martha invited us to attend a rendezvous of indigenous people. It was a gathering of remote villagers, organized in part to document their ancient and nearly lost languages. Many of the people were shaman (spiritual leaders and healers) and they gathered, sang and danced in what was an unforgettable experience. It was a very unique and special honor to observe such a gathering, and Martha was the one that made it happen for Allen and I. Though we were primarily in Kamchatka to explore and ski giant, exotic volcanoes, it was Martha that facilitated our experiences to a much deeper level, as I am sure she has done with many other travelers in Kamchatka, and for that we are very thankful.
So, how wild is Kamchatka really? Well, it’s wild! But it’s not necessarily a romantic kind of wild everywhere. Being in Petropavlovsk in May could be compared to Anchorage or something. It’s fairly urban, but surrounded by lots of wild bush. The snow has mostly melted out around town, the vegetation has yet to green up, and there’s trash along the streets and in the bushes. Obviously Russians tend to have a slightly different land ethic than Alaskans, but you can sense that same sort of vibe in the rural areas, in the smoldering backyard trash fire for instance. People in Kamchatka struck me as independent and self-sufficient. Good traits when you live in a remote, frontier style landscape and sub-arctic climate. Interestingly, modern day Kamchatka was only opened to foreigners as recently as 1990. Though in recent years it sounds like Kamchatka has become increasingly more of a tourist destination for ethnic Russians coming down from the larger cities like Moscow. These Russians appear to embrace it, appreciate it, and get amongst it, but generally in a different style than what Allen and I were up to. On one particular ski mission into the Sredinny (Central) Range, we had the bus driver drop us off on the side of the highway. From there we bushwhacked in sneakers along a vague often-disappearing trail. We forded a couple of knee-deep steams, followed by some swamps, and basically spent the good majority of a day getting into the backcountry and up to snow line. Funny part was, the next day a couple of high clearance 4×4’s roll up! (Via a different approach route) They are partying hard, and guess what? They are camping right next to us too! We were a bit bummed but took it in good humor. Returning to camp from a ski tour the next day, we heard a commotion in the woods and soon found that one of their 4×4 rigs had been buried up to its axles in major mud bog, with the driver pinning the gas in a futile, drunken, and frustrated effort. We stopped to size up the situation and lend a hand/ push. Long story short, we befriend these folks, they get their vehicle unstuck, and later back at camp, they invite us over for some fish soup. They turned out to be as nice as can be. We had a fun evening together, cracking jokes, and laughing up a storm, even though neither of us knew each other’s native language. Before departing they give us all these leftover fresh vegetables and home brew. From my experience, Kamchatkan folks are very kind people in aggregate, but tend to be rough around the edges at first meeting/ interaction. I’ve had at least 3 or 4 similar experiences, of people that look and seem very gruff and unfriendly, but if you crack their shell, they’ll soon insist on sharing copious amounts of local hospitality and friendship. Hitchhiking out from the epic volcano Viliuchinsky; “sure you can catch a ride in my company Unimog” (via sign language/ tone of voice), but afterward you must come over to my apartment for tea and snacks as well. Out would come their finest foods and beverages, even though these people could be considered on the brink of poverty by many western standards. Allen and I were often skeptical at first of trusting these people. But in our experience, 99% of Kamchatka locals aren’t looking to take advantage of a couple of vulnerable, wealthy, American skiers. They are simply and genuinely kind people. Something to do with a recent history of communism? Perhaps, but I’d say it runs quite a bit deeper than a blanket socio-political generalization.
We arrived in Klyuchi drunk but unscathed. The next day our local innkeeper and liaison Anatoli insisted on giving us a ride to the trailhead. It would be our biggest mini expedition of the trip. We were casting off into the Klyuchevskaya group, the highest volcanoes in the Kamchatka. The tallest one in particular, had the potential for a 12,000 vertical foot ski descent! And its neighbor Kamen: steep, giant, glaciated and gnarly, was definitely looking for a couple sets of ski tracks if you were to ask Allen and I. Anatoli didn’t speak much English, but he did manage to convey the presence of a military/ air force base that we would need to skirt on the approach, in order to precede toward said group of volcanoes. No big deal we thought. So all together, we set off bushwacking through the deciduous forest on the outskirts of Klyuchi. Anatoli lead the way, having transitioned from the attire of a Russian businessman, to that of a camo-clad woodsman.
There were high hopes for the Klyuchevskaya group, but for one important thing: the extremely active volcano Shiveluch, about 75 kilometers to the north. It had been showering a steady stream of volcanic ash our way, all throughout the preceding winter. The snow conditions we encountered at the start of that trip could safely be called the nastiest conditions either of us had ever attempted to ski; a mixture of breakable crust, ash penitentes and windblown corn with hidden crevasses amongst the dry moraine. One crevasse even came close to eating Allen! We still gave the region a solid go though. We climbed high on Kamen (sacrificing a camera to the volcano gods), yet found atrocious ski conditions. More icy ash, than what could be called snow. And Klyuchevskaya itself, basically appeared to be all ash and volcanic dirt! Hard to believe a 4750m peak, at 56 degrees north latitude, in May, wouldn’t have any snow on it! (On the skiable surface that is) Fortunately we salvaged that mission with an epic descent of Ushkovsky, a 3943 meter neighboring monster, following a 6” overnight snowfall. Ushkovsky was just far enough out of the jet steam to be missed by the Shiveluch volcanic ash fallout. Then we skied and bushwacked right back to town, near sea level. With bear tracks everywhere, incredibly thick vegetation, and challenging route finding, it made for a legitimate adventure route. Particularly when the exit involved getting around/ through the military base. “ I’m almost positive we came this way”, Allen exclaimed. I disagreed but went along with his conviction and memory for a bit. Not long after we realized where we were: in sight of the airstrip, and some MIG fighter jets! Play it cool you think, we’re obviously just a couple of ski mountaineers returning from the volcanoes. But no, the Russian’s likely wouldn’t have seen things quite that nonchalantly. Soon we found ourselves diving into the bushes as a military jeep drove by! We narrowly avoided guarded checkpoints. Eventually we ended up making it back to Klyuchi no worse for wear, but it’s crazy to think that a minute different on our exit timing, and we could easily have been seen, and subsequently interrogated and arrested for walking around/ through this military compound. We may have been put into the hands of the FSB (successor to the KGB), and who knows how that series of events may have unfolded.
At one point we observed what appeared to a couple of mountain goats. Allen and I were ski traversing an expansive stretch of volcanic, sub-arctic tundra. As we got closer however, we realized they weren’t goats, but a couple of giant hares! Mountain hares to be exact, and large as dogs. Huge brown bear tracks crisscrossed the landscape, and we even cut some fresh lynx tracks at one point as well. But the strangest wildlife encounter was a pack of wild dogs, way out in no mans land. They approached us at first light, through a fog. Mixed breeds, these dogs appeared to be a cross between hyenas and huskies… Yes, Kamchatka definitely has abundant wildlife. No doubt it adds to the experience. From wolves and reindeer, to one of the world’s richest and most diverse salmon fisheries, anyone interested in biology and ecology would probably find the place fascinating.
My first introduction to the idea of Kamchatka was as a young child, while playing the board game RISK. It’s basically a game of military strategy, where regions of the world have particular importance. I think there are some obvious parallels from the game to real life, aside from the obvious military aspects, and beyond the epic volcano skiing. Why, because Kamchatka is a wonder of the world, plain and simple. Yes, it has the Earth’s second largest geyser basin, and the volcanoes are as legitimate as they come (recognized as UNESCO, United Nations World Heritage Sites.) So I believe Kamchatka is important from that standpoint, whether you go there or not. Sometimes it’s simply enough to know that places like that are out there. Kamchatka fosters curiosity. It leaves you with that sense of wonder at our planet’s majesty. It’s serves as a distilled example to the significance of wilderness. And of course it’s a great place to go exploratory skiing.