The Living Giants of Kamchatka

Publication Year: 1989.

The Living Giants of Kamchatka

Josef Dobkin, Wilderness Club, Novosibirsk, Siberia, USSR

FOR AN HOUR AND A HALF I was unable to keep my eyes away from the window of the airplane. I was gazing at the majesty of the white pyramids of the Kamchatka volcanoes, which floated in the sky. The plane landed at Klyuchi village and a panorama of sublimity and severe beauty opened before us. Particular charm was lent by the conical shape of Klyuchevskaya with its eternally smoking summit.

The Klyuchevskaya group is volcanically the most active section of the Kurile-Kamchatka chain. There are four active volcanoes, a third of the volcanic activity being concentrated there. This region is also noted for the variety of types of eruptions. Aside from Klyuchevskaya (4750 meters, 15,584 feet), the group contains eleven other volcanoes: Krestovski (4030 meters, 13,222 feet), Ushkovski (3930 meters, 12,894 feet), Kamen (3460 meters, 11,352 feet), Besymyanni (3085 meters, 10,121 feet), Bolshaya Simina (3081 meters, 10,108 feet), Malaya Simina (2284 meters, 7494 feet,), Bolshaya Udina (2933 meters, 9623 feet), Malaya Udina (1974 meters, 6477 feet), Sredni (3020 meters, 9908 feet), Ploski Tolbachik (3085 meters, 10,121 feet) and Ostri Tolbachik (3682 meters, 12,080 feet).

All these volcanoes with their lava fields cover 8500 square kilometers. The entire lava field approximates a circle with a 100-kilometer diameter. Geologically a short time ago, the sea was where the volcanic chain now stands. When the peninsula rose, the sea retreated. Deep slits and breaks cut the earth’s surface from which basaltic magma poured. And the volcanoes were built.

The summit of Klyuchevskaya was first visited in 1788 by Daniel Gauss and two others of the Billings expedition. “With every step, we had to reckon on finding our graves,” wrote Gauss. “Deep in my soul, I entrusted myself to the Allmighty. My curiosity enticed me upwards and to the summit. I wanted to look into the crater with my own eyes and leave an interesting bit of evidence for my followers.” From 1788 to 1931 no further ascents were recorded.

And now, just 200 years later, an expedition of volcanists and mountain climbers had been organized. The ascent of this volcano was not a picnic. Very few ascents of Klyuchevskaya had been made because on the 1931 descent climbers had been killed by flying stones ejected from the crater. Volcanology is one of the few spheres of human activity in which are closely combined science, sport and aesthetics. The volcanists turned to climbers for good reason. The ascent of Klyuchevskaya calls for mountaineering skills and good preparation. The lower slopes are covered with ice and snow. Closer to the craters, precipitous lava trails create obstacles that only an experienced climber can overcome.

In Klyuchi, our baggage was quickly transferred to a helicopter and in twenty minutes we were at 2700 meters on a huge glacial plateau between Klyuchevskaya, Ushkovski, Krestovski and Sredni. Our home for the next two weeks was to be on the snow.

The first night at the foot of the volcanoes was an ordeal. Cyclonic winds, not unusual in the region, were accompanied by -30° C temperatures. The morning’s activities began with restoring order in camp. We had to repitch tents that had blown down and build snow walls for wind protection.

Only then could we begin our first reconnaissance. We climbed onto the slopes of Klyuchevskaya and saw a marvelous panorama. To our right rose huge, white Ploski (“The Flat One”), which has the shape of an upside-down saucer. Directly in front of us was the gigantic bizarre tooth, Kamen (“Rock”). A glacial tongue, soiled with volcanic debris, snaked down from the col between Kamen and Klyuchevskaya. Beyond we could see a lower smoking horseshoe, Besymyannaya. Further left was the snow-white summit of Ostri Tolbachik and next to it, head-shaped Simnyaya and the perfect pyramid of Kronotskaya. To the far left stretched the gray Kumroch Range. We should have been able to see the sea beyond, but clouds covered it.

The calendar told us that it was the beginning of spring, but here reigned a white stillness. Below our feet was only ice and snow. But we need not have wondered, for the Klyuchevskaya group is the center of the glaciation in Kamchatka. The glaciers cover some 300 square kilometers.

The first reconnaissance showed us that the ascent of Klyuchevskaya was problematic. The volcano had been very active in the past two weeks. Continual gas explosions created bombing attacks. Strong winds eroded lava, which fell. From time to time, parts of the crater rim crashed down. That made approaching the crater particularly dangerous.

During the previous three months, a mighty subsidiary crater had formed on the volcano at 4100 meters and after a few failures to get to the main crater, we made that our chief objective. The subsidiary crater was a smaller edition of the main one. It measured some 25 to 30 meters across. Molten lava flowed over its rim and volcanic bombs were hurled out by gas explosions. We could see the seething lava through clouds of gas. Here and there red sparks and fire surged, probably glowing lava dust or volcanic ash. As it hit the cooler air, it turned into black smoke. In the deep crater, it gurgled and roared like a huge caldron. Noxious fumes irritated eyes, nose and lungs.

We were entranced by the fantastic sight. The bowels of the earth boiled up from the bottomless shaft. It took some time before I could photograph. The volcanists didn’t seem to be as caught up in it as we climbers were. This was routine work for them. They obtained gas and lava samples and took pictures. Naturally, there were many problems: for instance, where and how to take samples.

Being a volcanist is not without risk. Investigating fumeroles, fire-spitting craters and flowing lava may be bread and butter for them, but this profession is as dangerous as that of a miner. For many, the joy of pitting one’s self against nature is very attractive. That brings the volcanist and the climber close together. I watched them going quietly about their tasks, looking for a better photographic spot, when they were suddenly enveloped in a cloud of poisonous gas. At such a time, burning tears would flow from my eyes. I could get no air to breathe. I would stagger. Finally they had finished their tasks for the day and we could descend. And that was a dangerous but daily business, too, to descend the lava trails and cinders and then the glacier to Base Camp.

At night, the volcanoes were like fairy tales. The black sky was pierced by red explosions and the unseen dark slopes were crisscrossed with glowing lava trails. And the whole thundered continuously.

We made other interesting ascents in the range. The days flew by. When we were about to depart, I realized that I could never explain to my friends down below my impressions and emotions in the land of active volcanoes. No photo could record the majesty of the gorgeous fire-spitting mountains. No painter could capture the wind, the boiling and seething of the lava, the clatter of rocks hurled onto the mountain slopes. No one can describe all-powerful nature. To appreciate the grandeur and beauty of these mountains you have to stand for a few hours on the rim of a Kamchatka volcano. I have climbed in many lands, but I must say: the Klyuchevskaya volcanoes are some of the most sublime peaks anywhere in the world.