In April 2002, NOLS instructors Melis Coady, Aubrey Knapp, Molly Loomis, and Keri Meagher traveled to Kamchatka, Russia for a 20-day ski-mountaineering expedition. This was the first all-women’s expedition to the area, which has seen little traffic from foreigners, due to strict security policies instated by the Soviet government, lifted only relatively recently. Melis and Molly were recipients of AAC Mountain Fellowship Fund Grants, which partially supported this extraordinary trip.
An unexplored land of conical volcanoes, moderate slope angles, solid snow pack, and bubbling hot springs.
It seemed appropriate that our journey to such a paradise, Kamchatka, Russia, would not be an easy process. Four weeks till take off and Magadan Airlines still didn’t know the flight schedule. We would have to wait another week to buy tickets. Two weeks and counting, when we received the topographical map, scale 1:500,000 and known to be graphically inaccurate and altered for security reasons. One week to go, a large earthquake struck Kamchatka and our fourth travel visa had still not arrived. The day before departure, a cyclone hit Kamchatka, paralyzing our destination city, Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky. Magadan Airlines, after numerous phone calls and visits to their ticket counter, finally contacted us only that day regarding baggage limitations. They would allow 2 35-pound bags per passenger. Each additional 35-pounds would cost $135. We calculated that the extra weight of our skis, equipment, and food would cost an added $540. Nail biting conversations with Magadan ensued, ranging from threatening to begging. We wondered if this trip was actually going to happen.
4 o’clock the afternoon of March 29th, we boarded the plane; all passports and visas received, last minute packages from sponsors tucked beneath us in the baggage hold, and feeling grateful to Natalia, the ticket agent who waived the baggage charges. The plane took off and we all released deep sighs of relief.
It was perfectly blue that night. We soared high over the Alaska Range, past the Kitchatka spires, and skirted northward along the coast until clouds hid the sea from view. Just three hours later, Kamchatka appeared on the horizon. It looked similar to the familiar Alaskan landscape- immense valleys, broad sweeping ridges and mountains, expansive drainages, few indicators of human presence, all wrapped in a heavy blanket of snow. Then the volcanoes we’d heard so much about came into view. This was what we had come such a long way for- skiing the moderate slopes of these beautiful volcanoes, and remote hot springs hidden amongst their snowy flanks.
The volcanoes were textbook, like a child’s drawing; perfectly triangular mountains, covered in snow, with plumes of smoke occasionally spilling into the sky. The landscape seemed ancient. It was like passing through a time warp, traveling back to an age when the Earth was younger and the continental plates were ornery and moving.
4 hours later and 21 time zones away we arrived in Petropavlosk and stood waiting nervously to pass through customs. We did our best to look unassuming and responsible, worried they might find problems with our avalanche beacons, emergency drug supply, or numerous pounds of unidentifiable white powders: powdered milk, flour, potato pearls, etc. But we sailed through and met Martha, our expedition liaison required by the Russian government, in the bustling reception room.
The town was still in disarray from the cyclone. Driving through the streets of Petropavlosk toward Martha’s bed and breakfast in Yelzova, piles of cemented snow 10 feet high lined the streets. Telephone lines still hung low, waiting to be repaired. Our departure into the mountains, a trailhead 45 minutes outside of Yelzova would be delayed another day.
On April 1st, we bid good-bye to Martha who during our short stay opened her heart and home to us. She shared stories of Soviet culture, life as an expatriate living in rural Russia, and introduced us to the warm, caring, and generous manner of Kamchatkans.
The 45- minute drive delivered us to the trailhead. With sleds strapped around our waists and packs on our backs, we headed up a faint trail and into a slow methodical rhythm, appropriate for the long slog up Pinechevo Valley.
Travel was tedious. The snow was thick and wet. A dense layer of fog greatly reduced the visibility, hiding what hung above us; the map was not a reliable indicator. We made our way up valley, four days winding through gray-yellow forests of tangled Stone Birch, Alder, and Aspen, toward Pinechevo Pass, which would drop us into Nalycheva Valley, the Shangri-La awaiting on the other side.
April 5th- A sundog haloed the sun all day and lenticular clouds had been growing larger up above. The barometer dropped steadily. It was late in the afternoon and instead of making a long push towards and over the pass, obscured by dense clouds, we decided to dig in. A fierce storm moved in that night and lasted for the next several days. High winds howled and snow blew sideways. Two cyclones hit us in succession.
April 9th As soon as the wind subsided we headed out with daypacks up the long incline towards Pinechevo Pass. The snow was rock hard and our skis flexed and bent over the large waves of stastrugi that rose in frozen undulations everywhere. From the pass we continued upwards along a ridgeline running down from a larger peak, a sub summit of the volcano Aag. We dropped our skis at the top of a possible descent and continued on, ice axes in hand, towards the summit. The clouds were beginning to clear and by the time we reached the top the sky was perfect and blue. We were quiet, amazed by what lay before us. It was beautiful. To the North, South, East and West- mountain ranges stacked up against one an other as far as we could see. Each one with its own personality- craggy and jagged, immense and sloping, striped with couloirs, pure white, long wandering ridgelines some broad, others knife-like. Three volcanoes reigned over the land and towered high above everything else. Nowhere could we see evidence of civilization imposing; there were no roads far off in the distance, smoke signals spewing from refineries, campsites or climber trails. We agreed that few summits upon which any of us had stood provided the same sense of isolation. It was a windless, cloudless, perfect day.
By the time we returned to our skis the snow had softened. We dug pits, ran snow stability tests, and headed down. One by one we skied the 35 degree slope pausing every so often to regroup, whoop, holler, and relish in the overflow of excitement and happiness spilling forth. 2,700 feet, and countless turns later, we landed in Pinechevo Valley and pulled climbing skins back out of our jackets for the return tour. We couldn’t stop smiling.
We skied as much as possible the remaining week and a half. When the weather was good we headed out on long tours, explored the infinite possibilities of the surrounding valleys, and skied down whatever looked appealing. When the stormy weather returned, as it did periodically, we stayed closer to base camp, skiing laps on more protected ridgelines and peaks. The snow quality varied but good stability dominated the snow pack. There were no dramatic peak names to dream about while tent bound; this was a land of the unknown. Our fun lay in heading in any direction and getting our breath stolen away by the amazing terrain hidden by whatever ridge or peak dominated the foreground. Chutes, bowls, steeps, and long meandering joy rides- something was behind each bend.
Not only was the terrain beautiful and amazing, but the abundance of wildlife was spectacular as well. Prints of snowshoe hares, fox, ptarmigan were left everywhere. One morning we followed a set of grizzly tracks heading right up the pass. We saw a pair of stellar sea eagles playing in flight and a prowling wolverine. We even heard a wolf howling one night. Our visitor status in this wild place was repeatedly called to our attention by constant evidence left behind by the animals that prowled the valley.
One day we ventured over the pass determined to reach the hot springs. Ten, eleven miles pushing through the wet, sloppy snow. We began to fear the pilgrimage was to end with an anti-climatic, cold bivy in the snow. Maybe it was too good to be true. But ten-minutes before our turn-around time, rising to the top of a small knoll we spotted steam billowing up on the snowy line of horizon.
The first pool, built up with river stones, was too cold. Half a mile from the river we found the second pool, a cauldron of iridescent green-blue-orange water, bubbling up right out of the Earth. Too hot. Finally, following the steamy stream back towards the river, we found the third pool. We quickly undressed in the cold night air, and sank in. This one was just right. We’d found the missing piece to our Shangri-La.
A custom exists among adventurers in Russia. The word for it is (sidyet na dorogv). It means, “to sit for the road”. Prior to departing for a journey, a circle is made and a moment of silence is observed. The silence serves as a moment to reflect upon what could have possibly been left behind- a reflection, which gives one the opportunity to travel onward into the journey free of worry and fully present. Before leaving Martha’s to begin our expedition we stood in a circle: Martha, her husband Yuri, and the four of us, to observe that moment of quiet.
On the evening of April 17th we left our camp up high in the basin. We were reluctant to return but had we stayed any longer the melt-out, just beginning down valley would have made travel very difficult. Magadan flies once a week, just Fridays. Work obligations awaited us.
At the end of our final run that afternoon, we stopped and repeated the custom of silence we had begun the expedition with; but this time to think about not just what we’d left behind, but also what we had found.
“ Let children walk with nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communion of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is sting less indeed, and as beautiful as life.” John Muir.
In celebration of the lost lives we honored in Kamchatka.