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Now That’s a Ski lift (Live Magazine)
The bright orange helicopter clattered off into the distance after depositing us on the summit of an un-named Kamchatkan peak, and as the blizzard of powder snow blasted skywards by its huge rotors abated I took in the view beneath.
The steaming crater of 2332-metre Mutnovski Volcano gradually took shape -
Mutnovski, which last erupted in 2001 and which, along with seven other skiers, I was about to ski into. Well, to its very edge, at least.
To reach the crater we ski down steep, wide-open slopes of windblown powder before skidding to a halt beneath the lip of this void in the Earth’s surface. The stench of sulphur and hydrogen sulphide fills the air, and Marco, our French mountain guide, shouts “Do not spend too much time close to ze crater, ze atmosphere ees poisonous!”. All the same it’s impossible to resist the opportunity to unclip from my skis, scrabble sixty feet up the rubble and ash of the crater’s side and gaze down into what are quite literally the bowels of the Earth.
The scalding-hot steam rising from the depths has stained the inner walls toxic shades of sulphur yellow, chromium green and metallic red, and the volcano hisses like a gigantic chemical plant. It’s an unforgettable sight and not the kind of spectacle you normally encounter on a ski holiday.
But this is no average package deal. I’m one of a handful of skiers on the first ski trip to Kamchatka organised by British heliski specialists Elemental Adventure. I’d been tempted here by the snowbound primeval landscapes of the most active volcanic region on earth, and the opportunity to ski thousand of feet at a time down the flanks of active volcanoes all the way to the black sand shores of the Pacific Ocean.
James Morland, director of Elemental Adventure was accompanying us on the trip and told me that the company is meeting a demand from more adventurous skiers wanting to explore “One of the wildest and most remote heliskiing destinations in the world. The scenery is like nothing on earth and at times it’s so dramatic that it’s almost impossible to take it all in. It’s tough skiing, and we make no attempt to hide that from potential clients, but it’s also the most unique heliski experience available”.
Situated at the same latitude as Alaska, Kamchatka has vast winter snowfalls and a wealth of wildlife, particularly grizzly bears. Indeed, it’s home to the planet’s highest concentration of grizzlies, which despite being a protected species are still the prey of hunters (two such specimens from the USA, all baseball caps and Zapata moustaches, were staying in our hotel and a quick conversation with them confirmed that the bears are undoubtedly more intelligent than their persecutors). You may see grizzlies if you’re skiing
late in the winter – after one descent through bear territory Marco laconically remarked: “I skied past a mother and cubs here last season. Very quickly.”
We didn’t see bears unfortunately, but we did see Stellar’s sea eagles soaring overhead as we skied, since half of the world’s population live in Kamchatka, whilst plumes of volcanic smoke dotted the horizon from the region’s many volcanoes, which have been erupting for the last 10,000 years – the last eruption was five years ago and one eruption in the 19th century deposited ash on London.
The region’s heavy snowfalls allow skiing to take place well into May and an average day of skiing here would see us descend more ‘vertical’ than Everest over our accumulated eight to ten daily runs, ending in style with us wallowing in natural hot springs whilst sipping a glass of Russian champagne.
Skiing this kind of terrain requires you to be comfortable on steep, unpredictable off-piste terrain and have an appetite for adventure. Conditions vary from perfect shin-deep powder to wind blown crud and heavy wet ‘spring’ snow, and the untracked slopes can be as steep as the most vertiginous black runs in the Alps.
It also requires a thick wallet since helicopter travel doesn’t come cheap. Clients tend to be successful business people and entrepreneurs from Europe and Russia – our group consisted of three affable Anglo-Dutch bankers and a group of 30-something Muscovite ‘businessmen’ who appeared to have money to throw around.
Normally rich Russians would get their annual ski fix by visiting one of the country’s more accessible but pretty basic ski resorts in the Caucasus region, but these don’t provide the elemental nature of skiing that
Even so, the Kamchatkan climate is so wild that James warned me to expect only “around four days skiing in your ten-day visit since helicopter pilots don’t appreciate flying in blizzards”. So we were thrilled to wake up on our first morning to clear blue skies, a pattern that, unusually, continued for the following four days.
Days began with a clunky coach journey along potholed roads from our hotel in the former military city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (or ‘PK’). The city was settled by explorer Vitus Bering in 1740 and until the end of the Cold War was a remote and distant hidey-hole for Russian military forces.
At the helicopter base we clamber out of the coach and into a very utilitarian Mi-8 helicopter and judder up into the sky to scud above low, birch-covered hills before eventually climbing up into the mountains. Mi-8s
are not for timid flyers – they rattle; they smell; the hard bench seats have no seat belts; and there’s no safety drill. But I did appreciate the port hole-style windows that allow you to stick your head out for better
views and great photos.
As the chopper comes in to land at the drop off point just beneath the steaming summit of 2751-metre Avachinsky Volcano (last eruption 1991) excitement mounts. Eyes dart from left to right, gloves and goggles are given last second adjustments, then the metal beast touches down and guides Marco and Vitaly shout “Go! Go!”, slapping us on the back as we leap clumsily out in our ski boots to land softly in the virgin
powder of Kamchatka’s high mountains over 3000 metres above the nearby Pacific shores.
The helicopter rises again in a swirl of snow and swoops down into a distant valley 1,500-metres below to rendezvous with us later in the day – and silence returns to the mountains. But not for long. Gasps and exclamations rise in the icy air as we survey the remote, wild landscape that surrounds us – endless ranks of mountains in all directions except in the east, where, far below, the cobalt blue Pacific marches south from the Arctic Ocean.
And the skiing is just as awesome as the views. Marco leads with a strict command to “Follow my tracks unless I say otherwise” (there are crevasses, avalanche slopes and cliffs to be wary of and he knows where they are). Dropping off the top of a windy volcanic ridge into pristine powder, huge snowfields open up under our skis; long, steep chutes beckon; and we swoop through shin-deep powder beside glaciers glinting ice blue in the sunlight. No ski resort on earth can match this.
Rarely is a run in Kamchatka less than 1,000-metres from top to bottom and some are over 2,000-metres in length. Rest stops are unavoidable but provide a chance to take in the literally breathtaking scenery and exclaim loudly “Best run of my life!” – strangely enough almost every run seems to attain this accolade.
After one particularly fine descent down 3456-metre Koryaksky Volcano (last eruption 1957 – it’s obviously having a nap…) I ask our Russian guide Vitali what the run is called. He shrugs. “It doesn’t have a name – give it one if you like”.
Of course, nowhere is perfect, and at the end of a hard day’s skiing you need to refuel, fast. But dinner at our hotel, despite being the best in town, is invariably a test of patience. The wrong meal inevitably arrives
at the wrong table, and at least half hour after placing the order. That said, the local fish isn’t half bad – and there’s enough of it, since Kamchatka has one of the largest wild salmon runs in the world.
After dinner the Dutch contingent coax us along to the surprisingly cosmopolitan “Cosmic Nightclub” next door to our hotel. “Coom on boys, you know you’ll love it!” and in a way they’re right, tired as we are. We down rum and coke rather than the fearsome local vodka, served by a cocktail waiter who insists on spinning every glass in the air – whilst full – before handing it over. And being foreign we attracted keen interest from the locals – tourists are not a common sight in Kamchatka. When the attention came from
attractive local girls it was quite welcome, but when a burly Russian fisherman attached himself to my fellow Englishman Rob, almost literally, it was time to scurry through the snowdrifts and back to the hotel.
Surprisingly, even after a heavy night at the Cosmic everyone is up and raring to go the next day – but then who wouldn’t be after a helicopter flight into some of the world’s most beautiful mountains and the chance to skim down spectacular volcanic slopes through untracked powder, where only a handful of skiers have ever been before?
I’d go back tomorrow if I had the chance – it’s even worth enduring the twelve-hour flight with Aeroflot, and I doubt you can say that about many things in life.
Amongst the basics you’ll need to ski Kamchatka, the following are vital:
Powder skis – wide powder skis are required. A good option is the K2 Apache Chief (L350), which copes admirably with any conditions. www.k2skis.com
Ski helmet – if you whack your bonce out here you’re a long, long way from a hospital. The Giro Nine.9 (L89) is lightweight (380g), has twelve vents, removable earpieces, is very comfy and it looks cool too.www.giro.com
Ski jacket – a good – and appropriately named – option is Haglof’s Heli jacket (L245), with a wide range of features and great looks, and it weighs only 710g. www.haglofs.se
Daypack – you’ll need to carry spare clothing, camera etc. throughout the day. The Gregory Ecco daypack (L130) is a well made and comfortable pack that can be used year-round. www.gregorypacks.com
Camera – a compact digital camera is light to carry and easy to use and most good models now have 8 meg resolution or more. Check out the Nikon Coolpix
P3 (L229.99). www.jessops.co.uk
You need to be comfortable skiing mixed snow conditions and steep off-piste terrain with an incline of up to 35 degrees, although many runs are considerably less steep. It pays to get fit before you go – on some days we did over 11,500-metres of ‘vertical’, which takes it out of you.
Elemental Adventure (www.eaheliskiing.com; 0870 738 7838; firstname.lastname@example.org) offer ten day packages from €3950 per person. This includes visas, accommodation, ten hours heli time (averaging 35,000 vertical metres), internationally certified guides and all safety equipment. Extra heli time is charged at €150/person/hour. The heli is normally shared by 12 skiers who split into two groups with two guides each.
Aeroflot flights from London – Moscow – Petropavlosk cost from L525 return and take around twelve inexorable hours – customer care is not a major consideration for their spectacularly unpleasant employees.
The season runs from March to mid-May – book early to ensure a place.
Accommodation is in the three-star Hotel Petropavlosk – it’s a far cry from your average Alpine chalet but friendly and fun. Down days are spent exploring Petropavlosk, dog sledding or skiing on the two small and very basic local ski hills.