On any expedition, it’s probably a good idea to have your interpreter arrive in the first wave of team members. That would make tasks such as navigating the bus system, asking locals about grizzly bear dangers and buying bulk food items at the open air market slightly more efficient and less like a game of charades. But why would we want that? In true team fashion, we had Andrey, a fluent Russian speaker and critical member of the expedition show up last on April 14, just twelve hours before heading into our first zone.
After my plane landed in Kamchatka 5 days prior, I rode a shuttle towards a long, Soviet-era looking black metal barrier lined with razor wire which separates the singular baggage carousel from the parking lot. When two 130-liter duffels and an oversized ski bag came out, I made my way through the crowd. Since I arrived days before I could enter the Airbnb we had booked for the team, I needed to make it to the room I reserved in a nearby town. With only the address to help me get there, I began walking down the line of what I assumed were taxi cabs. “Yelizovo? Yelizovo?” Time and again I was rejected, all due to the same response. “Nieght. Petropavlovsk.” I knew that was the place I ultimately needed to be for the organization of our expedition, and it was now clear that I had booked my hotel in the wrong city.
Two days later I gathered team members Layman and Herder at the airport. I rented a van the day before so I was able to get there myself. (Unfortunately this was one of the only times the van was useful, as it was confiscated from me the following day in the middle of rush hour traffic in downtown Petropavlovsk.) Later that night we met with the Kamchatka Freeride Community, a budding heli-ski and catamaran-access ski touring operation that serves clients from all over Europe and Russia. Their Bay View House was hidden in the snow-covered back alleys of Petropavlovsk, with members inside ready to show us a wealth of local knowledge and advice surrounding our intentions for the expedition. They were set to bring us into our first zone by snowmobile in a few days’ time.
By the 14th, the full team of seven was present and our trips to the market yielded plentiful. We gathered 40 liters of 92 octane gasoline and twenty-seven empty 1.5-liter plastic bottles from a roadside beer store to make the fuel easier to transport. We usually like to use cleaner-burning white gas in our stoves, but white gas was unheard of on the peninsula so we resorted to using unleaded gasoline. Equipped for the next month with 15 kilograms of pasta, 35 cans of tuna, 10 cans of chicken liver, 3 bags of potatoes, 8 bags of gretchi, 10 kilograms of cheese, 21 servings of ramen, 10 kilograms of cured sausage, 8 kilograms of bacon and many packages of bread and snacks to power us on long days of skiing and walking, we were ready to head into the hills.
Ganaley River Basin April 15-April 27
On the morning of April 15 we loaded up a passenger van and drove 200km northward on the only road that runs north-south on the Peninsula. We were dropped off to Alexe and Kyril from the Freeride Community who had spent the morning scouting a route to our basecamp location, and allegedly hacked out a bridge about 5 miles upvalley that crossed a rushing river. We were curious as to what this meant exactly, but were grateful all the same.
When we got to the bridge we saw that it was just two freshly cut birch trees perhaps six inches in diameter, cross braced with 6 or 7 branches and lashed together with p-cord. The language barrier here was a bit confusing, but it was clear they were going to drive the hundreds of pounds of metal and gear across this project and over the rushing waters below. We held our breath as they crawled onto the bridge, birch limbs bowing to nearly 25 degrees before surely climbing onto the other side of the banks. This was our first introduction to “Russian-Style”.
After staking down our tents near a meltwater creek, our eyes drifted to tempting lines which became established over time with names like, “The Vertebrae”, “High Castle”, “Patagonia Chutes”, “Little Alaska”, “The Funnel”, “3 Little Pigs”, and others. We were surrounded by many options: North facing alpine lines threatened by huge cornices, chutes flowing through old volcanic spires, a powder hound’s paradise of well-spaced birch trees if more snow were to come, and a mini-golf ridgeline right next to camp. All the while, 2200m Gora Bakening’s presence just east of these free-ski zones was undeniable, it’s ascent routes beckoning.
We found a mixed bag of ski conditions. Temperature swings, random bouts of high wind, threatening cloud layers that would never sock in completely and wind-transported snow that loaded particular terrain features were the standard. Localized patterns became harder to predict as certain peaks and saddles would command their own wind cycles. One day a line would look great to ski, the next it appeared to be covered in ice while spindrifts and blowing snow made it difficult to determine what really lay beneath the surface. But once the sky went blue, long hours of sunlight and well-structured powder allowed us to get after it on high north-facing slopes.
After 10 days our time in Gora Bakening was coming to a close. Quickly shrinking food stocks required strict rationing as we enjoyed our nightly meal of pasta, gretchi, oats, or some combination of the three. Layman handed out millimeters of cheese by dividing the final block of cheddar with a snow-crystal measuring tool. I later won an argument to convince the premature enjoyment of the last spoonfuls of nutella. The remaining three days provided phenomenal skiing.
On the morning of April 27 under falling snow, we started moving back towards the road. The trek out seemed much longer this time and made me realize how remote we had been for the past two weeks. When we finally reached the highway, gear was organized in a ditch while snowmobiles were loaded onto their trailer. This was the last we would require of the folks from the Bay View House, as stage two of our expedition would be in the hands of a man named Ivan.
“So, Ivan is friends with the reindeer hunters?” I asked.
“No, I think Ivan himself is a reindeer hunter.” Layman explained.
Andrey asked Kyril if he had any idea when Ivan would arrive. Kyril shrugged his shoulders, wished us luck, and drove off.
Volcanologist Hut #3, 2600m May 1-May 4
Klyuchevskaya Sopka, Southwest Face
We rolled into the outskirts of Klyuchi with Ivan 3 days later, an eerily quiet town cornered by magnificent lone mountains. Shiveluch, a giant mass of multiple highpoints glaciated with ice and prone to frequent lava flows sits to the northeast. Sleeping Beauty lies just north, it’s two ancient calderas making up the ridgeline’s famed contours. Klyuchevskaya’s enormous conical shape dominates the landscape to the south, it’s top billowing constantly with a whitish-grey and yellow smoke that wraps into the sky undammed. A reindeer hunter whom Ivan enlisted for the next snowmobile segment, later known to us as “The Chief”, visited us that evening. With his expertise of the area, a plan was solidified to venture in 12km and reach the third hut at 2600m approaching the Southwest Face of 4750m Klyuchevskaya.
Waking up inside the hut on the morning of May 2, we fired up the stoves that were still functioning. Most were barely breathing due to congestion from running so much unleaded fuel. After the usual oats, this time with recently acquired triple-berry jam, we headed off in two groups to recon the sporadic sections of deep blue and ash layered ice falls that populate the lower slopes of Klyuchevskaya. We discovered that these sections were more glaciated than anticipated; objective crevasse hazard was minimal, though existent. Uncomfortable without our ropes and harnesses we left at the hut, we retreated with the information needed and planned to quickly pass over the section the next day.
May 3 announced calm and we quickly started getting ready. It was hard to stand motionless in the gentle but very cold air. Low winds and good visibility allowed us to swiftly cross the glaciated sections to gain the main slopes, which towered above another 5,000 feet to the summit caldera. Super firm styrofoam snow and hollow neve made up the next five hours of advance. At times, our plunging steps echoed in the snowpack with sounds we had never heard before, like hands slapping an empty metal barrel or some sort of mountainous whale. The bootpack felt quite enormous as we fought gravity to move higher. Around 1:30pm we neared the highest pitches of the ascent, our crampons screeching against more sections of ice and rock rather than snow. The volcano’s plume of smoke had gone out of sight after the remaining steeps leveled off ahead.
At 15,000ft we ran into a crux: a 100-150m stretch of glare ice that covered the face above on which we were already exposed. We were greeted there by screaming winds and extreme cold, somewhere around -8F before windchill. The bottom of the lenticular cloud enveloping the summit was just ahead, it’s winds clearly smashing the summit with gale force. More and more volcanic rocks were kicking onto us from above, as we turned to take note of a low level cloud bank creeping in below. The elements had become intense enough that we were forced to make the decision that every mountaineer loves to hate. It was time to bail.
After downclimbing a few sections of rock to reach the mostly continuous snow veins that lead to the central open pitches, we transitioned onto our skis and boards and started making turns down the frozen surfaces that were at times bulletproof and at times over the boot powder. Linking turns that high on such a prominent mountain was surreal as we looked down 10,000 feet to the valley below. Thousands of feet of thigh burning turns later, we rejoiced with the rest of the team that took a slightly different route by first wrapping around to the northern side, and then ascending.
Eventually making it to the road around 5pm the next day, we hoisted the gear sled back on the roof of Ivan’s jeep, lashed down our skis, put the rest of the bags in a helper van, gathered military-grade diesel from a local man’s garage and got back on the lonely highway, in the other direction for the first time in a while. We arrived back in Petropavlovsk around 3:30am, the city feeling quite large this time.
Return to Petropavlovsk May 5-May 8
We woke on the morning of the 7th with three of us ready to depart for the airport and the remaining four had time to relax. We ran more errands that day like finding a post office to mail postcards back to the states, visiting a local artist, and returning to Vicky’s coffee shop. Ivan arrived at 10am on May 8th to take the last four team members to their flights. The strangest baggage fiasco ensued, which included Layman and I spending far too long in the cargo bay of the Petropavlovsk airport with five bag technicians as they had us repackage our luggage over and over. I pleaded by saying, “Nieght bulshei,” a crude translation for, “No more.” Once on board the plane, I only hoped that my bags were underneath my feet.
A certain type of space is created in our minds by returning to unrestrained and wild places. Space for creativity, spontaneity, confidence, satisfaction and dreams. The physicality of completing objectives in the elements is meditative. For hours on end, we put one foot in front of the other while wind howls down to the bottom of our eardrums, snot drips from flaring nostrils, our breath rarely audible though operating at max capacity.
What we were worried about in the urban world is held in abeyance when we flow through the hills. Sometimes it’s the satisfaction that feels best when it’s all over and we come back a better version of ourselves. We have chosen to face unknown dangers in a quest to widen the horizons of our own world; our memories of the most humbling moments are the tokens we carry upon return.
April 10-14: Team arrives in Kamchatka//Expedition is Prepared.
April 15-27: Gora Bakening area Explored//Primary peak summited by Luke Worley and Andrey Shprengle.
April 27-April 30: Detour to Esso/Klyuchevskaya weather patience//Jake Fojtik goes nuts and straightlines a bunch of really sketchy chutes.
May 1-May 4: Klyuchevskaya Sopka
May 5- May 6: Party in Petropavlovsk//Avachinsky summited by Ivan Lipatov, Elliot Levey, Drew Layman, Drew Herder, and Andrey Shprengle.
May 7-8: Flights depart to America