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Skiing On The Highest Active Volcano In Eurasia

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Adventure travel can bring unexpected troubles, but the high points make it worthwhile. In Outside’s film, Kamchatsky Chronicles, seven skiing friends experience extreme highs and lows on their journey.

When you go adventure-traveling far off the beaten path, there are going to be some crazy surprises and unforeseen troubles. When you know going in that there will be occasional bad problems, there should also better be some pretty amazing high points to make the adventure worthwhile. In Outside’s film, Kamchatsky Chronicles, a group of seven skiing friends have an amazing adventure with plenty of extreme highs and lows.

An early morning view of the a volcano that rises above the city of Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East.

In the early planning stages, their vague goal for the trip was to go international, somewhere pretty remote and obscure, with good odds of delivering some true adventures. Siberia turned out to be a natural magnet for the guys. Third world? Check! Totally remote and isolated? Check! Completely off-grid? Check! Incredible world-class skiing? Double-check! When they heard that the region had received the best snow in decades, they were a definite go.

The chosen locale was the frigid Kamchatka Peninsula, just south of Siberia. On the peninsula, they had two specific goals: first, to ski the Ganaly Range, and then move on to tackle the big one – Klyuchevskaya Sopka, the tallest active volcano in Eurasia. After all, nothing says big adventure more than skiing the highest mountain in Siberia, especially when it happens to also be an active volcano!

Panoramic view of the City of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and volcanoes: Koryaksky Volcano, Avacha Volcano, Kozelsky Volcano in the Kamchatka Peninsula, Russian Far East.

The seven travelers meet up in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Russia, Petropavlovsk translates to “City of Peter and Paul,” which is the local capital – fully half the population of the entire peninsula lives there. Petropavlovsk turns out to be a dreary Soviet Bloc town, complete with old ornamental military tanks posing as rusting statues and empty bombed-out concrete husks of derelict buildings, with everything under at least two feet of snow. The guys feel like they have somehow stepped back in time to the 1960s, the height of the Cold War era. The group spends their first night in a cramped Airbnb in town, along with all their gear and a month’s worth of provisions, primarily pasta, tuna, sausages, and the endless high-calorie snacks typical of a long ski trip.

First destination: Ganaly! The ski group will have two sets of guides – fixers, they call them, people needed to fix whatever problems come up – one for each segment of the trip. First thing in the morning, they load everything on snowmobiles and the trailer and drive out of town. The 1,250-kilometer-long Kamchatka Peninsula only has one highway, so easily getting to where you want to go is out of the question. They take the charitably described “highway” as close as they can get, and then just head out over the snow. When a narrow stream blocks their way, the fixers find several small saplings and branches, lash them all together with rope, and make a disposable bridge strong enough for the snowmobiles to ride across.

The Ganaly Range is ridiculously scenic, partly due to the complete absence of anything other than rugged snowy peaks. There are no buildings, no development of any kind, and of course, no roads – just endless windswept mountains stretching as far as the eye can see. The guys set up their low base camp and are finally ready to begin their first ski adventure of the trip. The snowpack is perfect, and the sun is shining. In fact, everything is perfect, except perhaps for the continuous strong wind, so the guys make full use of the day. The Roam video beautifully captures what looks like an amazing time as the skiers enjoy gorgeous run after run down the mountainsides. We see them above from airborne drones, we watch them from below on the slopes, and of course, the GoPros come out so that we get a real sense of what it is like to be right there.

Orca whales amidst the volcanoes of the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, a majestic sight on the Pacific Ocean.

Lower down, below the tree line, it is more of a snowboard area, and the guys let loose with their stunts, flips, jumps, and even some mid-air somersaulting. As one of the group describes it, “It was this perfect marriage of Alaskan alpine peaks, and then lower down, we have these birch trees that reminded everybody of Japan.” A few of them were very strongly reminded of remote stretches of Alaska, with the deserted rugged peaks seeming to stretch out forever.

But the guys finally had their fill of Ganaly, and after a few days, the guides/fixers lead them out and back to “civilization,” which is to say, the single unpaved highway cutting through the empty snowy wilderness. Here the guides dump off all the belongings on the side of the road, jump into their own truck, wave a cheery “Goodbye!” and simply leave them there, alone and with no way to communicate with anyone. Everyone seems a little confused by this abrupt departure and is now quite anxious and uncertain. What does one do, stranded in the middle of nowhere, with dusk approaching and the already low temperatures beginning to drop even further?

The original plan was that the next guide/fixer, Ivan, was supposed to have been there waiting to take them on the second leg of the journey. The only problem was, Ivan didn’t show up. This was the first major setback, a really low point in the trip, waiting for hours with not a single car to be seen on the barren, frozen road. But eventually, Ivan’s girlfriend shows up in her car to deliver the news that he’d “been delayed.” An hour after that, another vehicle arrives to explain that Ivan’s trailer lost a wheel 50 kilometers back down the highway, and they should all go and try to find it! They finally located an abandoned tire on the side of the road, and they drove it back to where Ivan was waiting at a construction site. It turns out it wasn’t even Ivan’s tire, but no matter – they found a guy to weld it back onto the axle anyway and hoped for the best.

Excitement returns to the group because they are at least on the move again, and everyone is looking forward to the second part of the trip: the giant volcano! But the first stop is overnight in the small town of Klyuchi, which turns out to be a little awkward. The town is grim and unwelcoming, “Real far eastern Russia, this is as real as it gets.” Klyuchi happens to be quite close to a large military base, and they actively discourage foreigners from visiting. Luckily, Ivan, the fixer, managed to find a hotel that would allow them to stay, so long as they left no record of ever having been there and paid up front, entirely in cash. One of the group remarks that he can’t decide, “What’s scariest: avalanches, being in a Russian prison, volcanoes blowing up?” Ominously, the volcano Klyuchevskaya Sopka began smoking and spewing light ash on the first day of their arrival.

Photo by Jake Fojtik.

But they were lucky, and a good weather window opened up, so Ivan loaded up his snow sled, and they began. Only three passengers could fit on the sled, so the other four simply put on their skis and hung on behind with ropes. The volcano is quite a sight – desolate, completely deserted, rising steeply out of an immense flat of frozen lava flows. And, it is absolutely enormous, a frigid version of Mount Doom from The Lord of the Rings.

There is a bit of shelter, however, a tiny concrete and wooden shack that Ivan knew about somehow. By now, after hours of helping Ivan push through the deep snow, everyone is pretty tired. The small building is fairly open to the elements, and when they open the door, it is to discover that the hut is completely filled – absolutely packed! – with snow and ice. Now, they have an additional unexpected chore to do, which is to one way or another empty out their only shelter. This moment was possibly the lowest point of the trip, even worse than waiting for hours in the cold next to the deserted highway. One of the guys begins to review in his mind his entire life’s course, lamenting how somehow all his life choices had led him step by step to this painful moment. After a ton of work, they eventually cleared everything out, but the hut was so small that they had to sleep staggered head to toe just so that they could all fit. And at -20°C, it was too cold to cook outside.

The weather had taken a sudden turn for the worse, so the delay left them huddled inside the shack waiting. Through breaks in the snowfall, they can see Klyuchevskaya Sopka, all 4,500 meters of it, still smoking continuously at the top. They sit, they wait, and they go through all their snacks. There is absolutely nothing to do. “We’re just cold and bored,” one mutters, which pretty much sums it up.

Eventually, they get their next weather break and head up toward the volcano. The first obstacle is an enormous glacier, and they make their way around it, only to be faced with the strong howling winds once again. Next is a slow slog up 1,500 vertical meters of snow-covered ice “in brutal wind and brutal cold.” They rose to within about 400 meters of the summit, and then finally, it was time for some fun – literally the skiing opportunity of a lifetime. And ski they do! The video footage is totally energizing, with a feeling of victory after finally making it to this point. An amazing time was had by all on the steep slopes of the giant volcano – how many opportunities does anyone have to do something so incredible and unique?

Eruption of Klyuchevskaya Sopka. At 15,748 feet (4800 meters) in elevation, Klyuchevskaya Sopka is the highest active volcano of Eurasia.

But it was not to last. Poor weather quickly moved back in, and when their old, abused stove finally gave out, everyone decided the moment had come for them to turn back for home. It was almost with a feeling of relief that they pack everything up and turn their backs to the tiny frozen shack, now completely empty once again.

Russia being Russia, getting out was never going to be straightforward. Back at the unpaved highway, Ivan’s trailer needed a tire change first thing. Then they rode for what seemed like five seconds before another tire went. Miraculously a random van pulled up and gave them a spare tire to use. Soon would come “tire change number four?!?!?,” and spirits are once again low. They finally made it back to Petropavlovsk at 3:08 am, and it was time to say goodbye to Ivan, which of course can only be done with many vodka shots all around. They enjoyed a full day of warmth and rest, and somehow discovered an Irish Pub, which looked like an 80s-style discotheque inside and was absolutely stuffed with locals who had all turned up to take a look at the crazy Americans. The guys were not allowed to pay for anything, while round after round of drinks were pressed onto them by the friendly partying Russians.

At this point of the video, one realizes how much, how VERY much, these guys are into skiing because, no matter how hungover, they still had one day left, and they were not going to waste it. And so, it was back onto the snowmobile to visit some new backcountry for a final full day of skiing. After all, the entire point of this trip was to ski absolutely as much as humanly possible, and that is just what they did.

Overall, they managed to ski in four different zones of Kamchatka, and despite all the trials and suffering and mishaps, everyone agreed, “We got pretty lucky!!” They skied their final day until dusk, before heading back through the frozen Russian wilderness once again.

In the end, it turns out that they were even luckier than they realized – two weeks later, the top of the mountain exploded in a massive eruption, which was reported in the news all over the world!

View the ROAM Media film, Kamchatsky Chronicles, here:

Powder turns and epic lines in remote parts of Kamchatka. Farther away than any of us had been from home. 30 days of epic skiing; waiting on the side of the only road in Northern Kamchatka in sub-zero temps, strict rationing of bacon and cheese as supplies ran low, Russian military, erupting volcanoes and being benighted in the Russian wilderness after a wild night at the Irish Pub. Our goal, attempt to climb and ski the highest active volcano in Eurasia: Kluchevskaya Spoka. How far will the Burger Boyz go to get cultured?

Team: Drew Layman, Jake Fojtik, Andrey Shprengel, Tom Kvilhaug, Luke Worley, Elliot Levey, Drew Herder. Produced by Drew Herder //

PopTop Productions Photos: Jake Fojtik

Support from Kamchatka Tours, Kamchatka Cinema, and Kamchatka Freeride Community.