Backpacker Diaries: How to survive and get the most out of a trip to Kamchatka

Ivan Dementievsky
Among all the wealth and diversity of Russia’s landscapes, the distant and uniquely harsh Kamchatka particularly stands out. It is the land of fire-breathing volcanoes.

We flew here to shoot a film about survival in Kamchatka. Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky greeted us with rain. The time difference with Moscow is eight hours so we had to power through the jetlag to reach the mountains. "The main thing is to survive until the evening and force you to sleep at night - our guide advised us - a couple of days and you’ll get adjusted. The main thing - bring along hand flares, in case you will meet a bear. And in any case, do not run from them, it will not be helpful!"

By the evening, the rain had stopped and a light breeze started to blow, dispersing the fog a little and the sunset illuninated the outlines of the volcanoes. Only then did we realized that we were in a very real reserve of volcanoes on the very edge of the earth - the dream of of a lifetime had come true!

Volcanoes Mutnovsky (Cloudy) and Gorelyi (Burnt)

Before we had a chance to visit the volcanoes, we had to drive a few hours on a bumpy gravel road. First, the road wound its way along the river, and within two hours the journey diverted to an off road pass. From the top of the pass in the clear weather, a magnificent view of the Vilyuchinskaya hill appeared. Then the road quickly descends down into the valley, and there the Mutnovskii and Gorelyi are already within reach.

Mutnovskiy is perhaps known for having the most powerful fumarole fields in the world. It is an unforgettable sight worth seeing for yourself. Even when the sky is covered by dense clouds, threatening a heavy downpour, it is worth throwing on a water-resistant raincoat and braving the mud and snow, which here is common in some areas all year round.

After trudging up a barely noticeable trail along the slopes and a short gentle climb up to the canyon, we were greeted by a peculiar smell, very similar to rotten eggs. Wind brings along harmful residues of sulfur dioxide, which escapes from the deep interior. The last 50 meters of the climb were steep, but then we realized we had made it to the first fumarole area. In my honest opinion, the place was a living hell!

Underfoot were small bubbling geysers scattered around randomly, making whistling sounds and spewing out hot steam. Fickle winds periodically pulled a dense cloud of toxic fumes in our direction. Breathing in such a cloud of gas is near impossible unless through some kind of rag. We used our hats for this purpose as we did not bring normal respirators. If you get into a big toxic cloud from which it takes a long time to get out, there is a danger of suffocation. Therefore, it would be wise to carefully observe the wind around the fumes. In general, to go to the fumarole sites, is to say the least, dangerous and extreme caution should be exercised. There is also a real danger of falling into hell, that is, sorry, underground. This is not an uncommon occurrence. After each winter the fumarole fields on Mutnovsky volcano greatly transform. A year later, I did not recognize those places. It even seemed like there was not as much gas escaping from the ground, but now there were big bubbling lakes in which full of boiling liquid manure. It turns out that in the places where last year it was still safe to walk, the next year it could be deadly. After visiting Mutnovskii volcano the climb to the volcano Gorelyi first appeared to be a quiet carefree walk with excellent visibility, fresh air, and sunshine. When we reached the edge of the crater, at the bottom of the lake we saw floating chunks of ice. This freshwater lake is adjacent to its brother, an acid lake, separated from it by a small wall.

For the sake of photographic experimentation, we went up in the evening, hoping to get a shot of the volcano at sunset. But when the cold mist began to fall into a fiery hole and creating a huge amount of toxic fumes, we quickly had to withdraw.

Klyuchevskaya hill and the area of the volcano Tolbachik

In the late 60's Russia developed a space theme, and one of the important issues was mastering the Moon. Not only the landings were planned, but also the research - a moonwalker was needed. After much calculation, scientists and testers came to the conclusion that the properties of the lunar surface to a greater extent are similar to Kamchatka. Under extreme tight security, in 1969 and 1970, in the area of the volcano Tolbachic various tests were conducted to develop technology that would work on the moon.

But in 1975 the Tolbachinsk erupted. For more than a year it was a real hell here. Imagine this: a scattering of sizzling hot bombs reached up to 2 kilometers, and the velocity of the gases at times exceed the speed of sound! A column of gases and ashes reached a height of 5-6 km, and the plume of ashes stretched for a distance of 1 000 km. Over an area greater than 400 square kilometers all vegetation was totally destroyed, and only now in some areas the first undergrowth has begun to appear.

When our jeep reached a clearing in the woods, just before dawn, against the black sky a blazing cone was seen. One thing became clear: all that time that had at this location would be spent at the foot of the hill Klyuchevskaya. No one cared about the fact that it meant our route had changed significantly. This silent fire-breathing mountain draw all the attention to itself, and we only had one thought - to get closer.

In the morning, scouting the road, we found out that, a few kilometers away, much closer to the volcanoes, there is a place for tents and even a small lake. In order to reach the site we had to go on foot.

That day, when we set our camp sometime in the afternoon, Klyuchevskaya was rumbling, at times so often that it seemed like somewhere close military exercises were being conducted. Shortly after, our tents, bowls, mugs and forks began to develop a thin coating of ashes. These ashes penetrated everywhere; it was in the eyes, gritted on our teeth and mixed into our food. Suddenly a huge white column appeared and we thought that it was the start of a new phase of the eruption. A little later, it became clear that this lava flow reached the glacier.

The Dead Wood

Just on the other side Tolbachik, not that far from where we camped, is the Dead Wood - remnants of the forest that was lost during the big Tolbachik eruption.

A unique and very creepy place, especially if you happen to get there in cloudy or foggy weather. Somewhere along the way are parts of the caudal section of a helicopter, which crashed here. They say that in these places the layer of the ashes reaches up to 7 meters and it might take a very long time until vegetation reaches the surface. Dead Wood - is formed from the tops of the trees, half of which are under a layer of ash.

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