Cold meets heat. Skiing with volcanic eruptions as a backdrop.

Cold meets heat. Skiing with volcanic eruptions as a backdrop.

Kamchatka — The Peninsula of Fire and Ice

Photographer Frederik Schenholm and skier Oscar Hübinette traveled to Kamchatka with the goal of taking a ski trip with volcanic eruptions as a backdrop. It became an adventure that offered lava, cyclones, and a rescue mission.

Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky largely consists of worn-out concrete buildings, but nevertheless, it has a cool charm.

Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky largely consists of worn-out concrete buildings, but nevertheless, it has a cool charm.

We are sitting in a large orange-blue Russian transport helicopter of the type MI8. At the horizon lies the active volcano Tolbachik with its white steam plume rising straight up into the sky. Below us, an alpine volcanic landscape spreads out with white snow, black ash and red-glowing flows of lava that curl down one of the twenty-nine active volcanoes. Enthrallingly beautiful and dangerous.

We fly east and feel the cold wind and hear the rotor blades ear-deafening roar through the open windows in the helicopter. After a week off off-piste skiing and easier summit trips around the ski resort Moroznaya, local king crab and vodka dinners, as well as hanging in depressing concrete cities like Yelizovo and Petropavlovs, the adventure of real volcano skiing we have come here to experience finally seems to start.  

We land at the foot of Tolbachik, which rises 3,682 meters above sea level, and unpack all the equipment where we intend to make our base camp. The tent camp consists of us two Swedish skiers, who are here on our own, and the Russian guide Alexander “Sasha” Bichenko, responsible for the Tolbachik park, with his three clients.

“Sasha walks towards the lava flow, a couple of hundred meters from the helicopter landing site”

Red-orange flowing lava in a river of molten stone. The air trembles with the heat, our faces burn; we smell sulfur and a bit of fart. Sasha has brought an iron skewer and sticks it down into the red flow and fishes up a lump of lava, as if it was a dollop of honey. With the skewer at shoulder height and the lava in front of him, he moves towards a regular solid stone and smears the lava on it. He pushes down a coin. Waits a few minutes. The lava rock solidifies in the Russian winter cold. Left is a stone with a coin in the middle. He smiles at us.

During the time that Sasha has worked on his coin cast, his boots have begun to melt from the heat, as has his clients’. Sasha turns to us and smiles even more - an infectiously childish smile. It's hard to understand that this fifty-year-old man climbed Mount Everest.

A more nearby mountain that he has climbed is 4,750 meters high Kljutyevskaya Sopka - the highest of Kamchatka's 160 volcanoes. When he was at the top, the volcano got a minor eruption. Sasha was hit by the stone rain which knocked out a few teeth. When he tells us the story, he just laughs.

When the evening falls over the volcano landscape we go up to Tolbachik's active crater. With the darkness, the colors of the ongoing eruption have emerged - red, orange and various shades in between. We stand silent in the Russian night as the magma pushing up through the crater inside the mountain with a growl. 

When the molten stone splashes out of the crater, it geologically speaking becomes lava and it is finding its way down the mountain rock like red blood vessels. It is an experience of nature at its most raw. A creative process. Melted stone. Heat. Hell. Earth's bowels. We are not looking through a TV screen. We are in Kamchatka in the corner of northeast Asia far from home.

There is a story of explorers on the Kamchatka Peninsula well before our journey. Vladimir Vasilyevich Atlasov was a poor farmer's son from western Russia, who, along with his Siberian Cossacks, fought and explored the peninsula in the late 17th century. For his conquest of Kamchatka, Atlasov was appointed governor of the peninsula in 1707. 

In 1740, the Danish explorer Vitus Bering went to the peninsula on behalf of the Russian fleet and founded the city of Petropavlovsk. After World War II, Kamchatka became a closed military zone. When the Berlin Wall and then the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s, Kamchatka was opened for domestic tourists, and since the early 1990s foreigners with valid visas are also welcome. There are almost twenty thousand tourists every year, basically always through a local tourist office.

Our own journey is of a different kind. We didn’t have a budget that suited organized heli-skiing, we didn’t want to fish any of Kamchatka's innumerable species of salmon or meet brown bears. After seeing the Kamchatka section in the nature series “The Wild Russia” which showed snow-covered volcanoes and magically beautiful surroundings, we decided – we were going there! Stay in tents and make ski trips near the volcanoes. The trip would be in the Do-It-Yourself spirit. 

This meant that our journey started with a lot of preparations. The research was difficult - it ended with us translating Russian tourist sites using Google Translate. Applying for a visa on our own to Kamchatka is a whole other story in itself.

We wake up in our tents and all the hard work with preparations for our journey into Kamchatka's wintery volcanic landscape is as if gone with the wind. This Russian March night has been cold down to minus thirty degrees Celsius. But sleeping was no problem. Double sleeping bags, full body underwear and cap solved that challenge.

We start by fixing breakfast and realize that we have a couple of problems - the hard outer shell of the ski boot is frozen and rock hard, and our drinking water bottles are ice-filled. We grab the ski boots and the Nalgene bottles and place them near the lava river. The ski boots are warmed up and are soon warm enough to easily let the feet slip in and the contents of the bottles are made up of lava-melted water.

“The volcano is constantly huffing and puffing behind us”

Then we do exactly what we came to do - go skiing. We set course for Tolbachik's regal peak. The snow’s colors change from white to black. The newly formed ash creates marvelous patterns. We go easy on the skis so that we do not wear out our skins unnecessarily. Ashes are like fine-grained crushed glass and can wear our equipment out quickly. Unfortunately, low clouds drape over the volcano and we don’t get very high up. We retreat and return when darkness approaches. There will be evening skiing with a colorful volcano eruption as a backdrop instead. Our search for Kamchatka's combination of wild nature, snow and fire-breathing mountains seem to have paid off. We go to bed in our tents and it is the beginning of hell in Kamchatka.

During the night, a heavy wind comes in. Early in the morning, a cyclone strikes. The tent pins are broken and our igloo-shaped protection is no longer as igloo-shaped. We try to save what is left but give up and squeeze into each of the remaining two tents. Now we sleep closely with Sasha and his three clients and hear the wild Kamchatka wind roaring outside and like a machine gun pepper the tent cloth with volcanic gravel and sand.

When we wake up the next day, the wind has settled. Tonight we’re supposed to be picked up by the helicopter. Via satellite phone we find out that a new storm is coming in during the next night. The helicopter that is supposed to pick us up cannot lift. How do we handle another cyclone night in thirty degrees below zero? We decide to break up base camp and retreat to the Tolud cottage, which is located just over a mile further down the mountain. The cottage is used by Russian geologists who study the volcanoes nearby.

When we come down to the Tolud cottage, we are grateful that we did not get lost in the icy wind that increased more and more. In the darkness of the cottage, four Russian geologists sit around a worn wooden table and welcome us.

- Vodka?, one of them asks.

It warms us up nicely after the storm. But has a bitter aftertaste. It will be the start of a ten-day isolation in the cottage, sleeping on hard and cold wooden floors, dwindling food stores, card playing, despair and basic lessons in Russian. We can basically not leave the cottage to make any ski trips at all - the helicopter can come any day, and if we are not there then it leaves without us.

The three nights planned will be fourteen at Tolbachik. At lunch on the last day of March 2013, a helicopter rotor is heard far away. Auditory hallucinations? But then it comes. Lands. We rush there and throw in all the stuff, the rotor is on. We sit in a large Russian transport helicopter of the type MI8 and behind us lay the volcano Tolbachik with its white steam plume. Under us, the alpine volcano landscape spreads out - enthrallingly beautiful and dangerous.



Volcanoes: 160, of which 29 are active.

Surface: 270,000 square kilometers and about the size of the US state of Colorado. If Kamchatka had been his own country, the peninsula would be 75th largest in the world for size, closely followed by New Zealand.

Get there: International flight to Moscow Airport Sheremetyevo and then domestic flights for nine hours with Aeroflot, Siberia (S7) or Transaero Airlines to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky Airport (PKC) located at the city of Yelizovo.

Visa: Applying for via in Russia is a little tricky. You must have this: passport in original, make a visa application through the consulate of the Russian Foreign Ministry (, get the right tourist documents (travel voucher and tourist confirmation) issued by an authorized Russian travel agency or invitation from a Russian business or organization, and a confirmation from your insurance company that you are insured in Russia. The certificate must state that you are insured in Russia, it is not enough to say “the whole world”.” Contact Alexander Pavlov ([email protected]), owner of a local travel agency at Kamchatka, to get the tourist documentation. Alexander speaks English and knows Kamchatka.

Accommodation: Hotels are expensive and unnecessary. Rent your own apartment. Contact English-speaking Yelene at Kamchatka Visitor Center ( Yelena can also help with visa issues.

Gas: Shopping Center Chamsa. Take bus 104 from either Petropavlovsk or Yelizovo, tell the driver that you want to get off at Chamsa and he will tell you when you arrive. The drivers are incredibly helpful.

Ski resort: Moroznaya near the city of Yelizovo and the airport has five hundred altitude meters and four lifts. Good skiing with nice tours in the local area. Take the taxi there, costs around 250 rubles (about SEK 50) from Yelizovo.

Heli-ski: To really get the most out of skiing on Kamchatka you need a helicopter. Check out more information.

Prices: Kamchatka’s McDonalds is Makkam Fast Food. A menu costs 180 rubles, barely 40 SEK. Local bus costs around 20-40 rubles depending on the distance (20 rubles under 10km).

Tolbachik: Our journey into Tolbachik was special-special. The price started at 20,000 rubles to stop at nearly double - 38,000 rubles. From Yelisovo we went nine hours by mini-bus to Esso from where we flew 45 minutes with helicopter into Tolbachik. Eat At “Coffee Time” at the bus station in Yelizovo. Great food for cheap money.

Rescue helicopter.

Rescue helicopter.

Oscar Hübinette and the mountains near Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.

Oscar Hübinette and the mountains near Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.

The tent is placed at a safe distance from the eruption from Tolbachik.

The tent is placed at a safe distance from the eruption from Tolbachik.

Oscar Hübinette enjoying some evening skiing with the red volcano plume of Tolbachik on the horizon.

Oscar Hübinette enjoying some evening skiing with the red volcano plume of Tolbachik on the horizon.

Watch out so you don’t get falling lava stones on your head. Oscar Hübinette has dared coming close to Tolbachik’s eruption crater.

Watch out so you don’t get falling lava stones on your head. Oscar Hübinette has dared coming close to Tolbachik’s eruption crater.

Adventure & Expeditions, Skiing
Fredrik Schenholm is an award winning adventure photographer and an educated geologist. He does commercial and editorial work as well as teaching photography.
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Frilansskribenten Anders Wingqvist skriver artiklar om sitt brinnande intresse alpin skidåkning. Wingsqvist arbetar oftast med resereportage från skidorter eller fina bergsmiljöer och även med personporträtt, nyheter och krönikor.
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