The climb up Avachinskaya Volcano (2741 m.a.s.l.) on Wednesday 18th July 2012 has to be one of the toughest walks I’ve ever done!
I got to base camp on Tuesday afternoon (with some great help from Martha at the Yelisovo B&B) and as I grabbed my greatly reduced backpack with pure essentials for my 24-hour time in this land of volcanic giants (volcanoes Koryakskaya (3456m) and Avachinskaya loomed above me), Vladimir, who’d driven me in his 4WD the 35 km up the dusty track that follows the rough pyroclastic-filled washout (from snow melt) to base camp, turned to me from inside the car and handed me a cardboard cannister. I looked at the faded text in Russian on it’s surface. It had pictures of Siberian tigers on it, but I assumed it was a bear flare. He quickly instructed me on its use, showing me with mimed actions, which amounted to “pull here and point at bear there”. This is favoured Russian self-defense device. Given it had come from his glove box and was so worn from rolling around in there for so long I doubted it’s field worthiness. But I took it with gratitude and grimaced couragously as Vladimir sped off in a plume of dust. He’d be back at 18:00 hours tomorrow to pick me up.
I explored this amazing location, made friends with the Kamchatka marmots, dreamed when the cold mist came through and bound me tight as I sat on the lime-lichen encrusted rocks and the alpine herbfields over light volvanic tuff, and marvelled at the spine-tingling views when it lifted as calmily as it came.
I stayed in a little hut in my sleeping bag. Starting the next morning at 05:15 local time from base camp at an altitude of 900 metres I set off alone across the various ravines, rock hopping and snow-pack crunching at times. The wierd fields of ant-hill-like soil structures (conical in shape and of varying sizes) atop the snow-packs had me wondering how they ever formed.
Many guided and private groups were to be trailing me up the mountain by the time I summited alone after seven long hours of solid pyroclastic scree-sliding-backwards-steps to the sulfurous and lava-field-plugged cone. The last hour was interminable. I was seriously fatugued. I even felt a slight vertigo, which is rare for me. And I thought to myself why go on. Why? But I did. And I’m glad. But I can tell you that as I approached the slope change where the grey-black pyroclasts turn to oxidised red and the angle of repose on the cone changes from around 33 degrees to at least 40 degrees (that’s bloody steep, considering that when one stands on a 45 degree slope it appears almost vertical to the climber on the slope’s face), I nearly considered packing it all in. I must be outta shape!
I spent almost two hours up there. And was soon joined by Russian, Germans, Japanese (among them some +75 year old Japanese women – Respect, Respect I say!). The Russian’s who sat with me (I had plonked myself out of the fiercely chilly wind behind a chunk of lava at the point where the rope is anchored – the last 100 m of the sliding pyroclast ascent track is aided with a big hand-over-hand style rope lying on the ground) were soon offering me their food. After I had plyed them with shots of vodka from the little hip-flasked sized bottle I’d bought and carried up for the occasion and zakuski of gerkin cucumber (I think they were a little taken aback that an Australian was offering them vodka at a place like this). Probably not advisable to drink alcohol when I was feeling a little dehydrated. But it was just a celebratory toke. I like the ritual of it. And after all I was in bloody Kamchatka. The one litre of water that I took wasn’t enough. I had thought we’d pass more snow pack melts but as it was the ascent track only passed one. But gladly my Russian summit friends were happy to share theirs, as well as their chocolate and salami and soaked almonds and prunes….
The views were so awesome. It’s hard to describe. The views to other Kamchatka volcanoes were incredible. Koryakskaya especially loomed right before me across the yawning gap. Snow packs still unmelted mid-summer fluted the volcanoes’ gorging ravines and accentuated the valleys and gravel-lined water courses below me. At one point on descent, taking a marvellous rest on a promontory of a rock on the gravity-defying slope I suddently saw Rauschak Test diagrams, the snow packs dendritic outlines forming wierd patterns before me.
A seemingly wafer thin line of cloud mist hung at 2000m (according to my watch’s altimeter, which proved accurate to within 55m) and when I passed throught that it was noticeable, like I was now able to see my correspodning height on all the other volcanoes that had this thin mist band drawn across them.
The descent took just under four hours, as I mastered the pyroclastic slope surfing technique that someone had tipped me off about. You simply charge down the slope in leaps and bounds and the loose volanic stones mechanically breaks your steps impact. With straight legs on impact it’s a soft landing and the pyroclasts crunch and grid your boots to a momentary standstill before you launch kamikaze-like down the slope again. It’s far easier than the alternative: a slow thigh-burning(and in my case, knee jarring) descent step by step. When the deepness of the loose pilled volcanic scree is insufficient to do the leaps-and-bounds technique then you do the fast shuffle and surf slowly down.
My Scarpas have never seen such abrasive action. And the dust! When I arrived back at base camp I had a visible layer of volcanic dust all over me. Serously thick.
Coming down I’d taken time to drink from the pristine snow pack melts. And in my water bottle I captured some of the black volcanic grit as well.
My rapid trip to Kamchatka was worth it just to be in this precious landscape. I felt blessed. And as I feel the stiffness and soreness especially in my thighs, I’m happy to have the reminder.
Vladimir was there to pick me up as I arrived back after 12 hours of exertion. And as the dust-coloured sweat streaked my forehead and neck, he shook my hand and laughed. Not for him I think he said, as I, unfathomably exhausted, slumped into the seat beside him. And as I handed him back the bear flare unused, I simply said “Thank you Vladimir, thank you!” He knew my gratitude was for much more than just the old flare.