The Kuril Islands are a remote volcanic chain of islands stretching south west from the tip of Kamchatka all the way to Japan. A more distant, end of the earth type place would be hard to imagine and for the past four years I had dreamed of skiing these gigantic volcanoes that rise so abruptly from the mythical sounding, Sea of Okhotsk.
Due to its strategic importance as a Soviet submarine base it wasn’t until the late 90’s that even normal Russian citizens were permitted to visit Kamchatka. Now, it’s relatively straightforward but if you want to venture to the Kuril Islands there is an extra layer of bureaucracy involved - just in case you happen to be Japanese invaders disguised as skiers.
I first came to Kamchatka in 2005 and several trips later, I am still having a hard time computing the extent of this vast living, breathing landscape. It just doesn’t fit into our brains’ preconceived concepts of what the world should look like.
At more than double the combined size of Austria and Switzerland, Kamchatka is big and during the course of our trip we skied and flew an astonishing 3,000 km - in only five days. To put that in perspective, it's the equivalent of taking off in London and skiing the entire way through France and Spain, across the Mediterranean and down to Mali in west Africa. Or, for our Canadian friends (who aren't short of space), it would be like starting your week of heliskiing in Revelstoke and ending it five days later...in Mexico!
22 April, 2016 - Arrival in Kamchatka
A little subdued from the previous evening’s entertainment in Moscow our team of friends from Holland and Megeve touched down in Petropavlovsk. For most this was their second pilgrimage to Kamchatka and there was much kissing of the ground and slightly slurred cries of, 'I'm home.'
Having just had a week of perfect sunshine the forecast for the coming days was ominous but with the next ten to play with we could absorb a bit of bad weather and spirits were high.
The bad weather duly showed up and kept us grounded for the first couple of days but we made the best of it by racing snowmobiles around - and crashing them, drinking vodka, shooting guns and mesmerising the local female population with our moves on the dancefloors of Petropavlovsk.
In between extracurricular activities time was spent looking at weather forecasts and willing them to be kind. We made plans, we changed plans, made some more and changed them again. Do we go north to potentially better snow and weather or do we head south to the Kuril Islands where the weather window looks less promising but where we might be able to complete our rather ambitious objective of skiing the island of Onekotan? Decisions decisions.
In Kamchatka more than anywhere plans are there to be changed but day three dawned with a tinge of optimism in the air. We waited for an update from the pilots and not long after we had a plan. We were going to make a beeline for the Kuril Islands in order to take advantage of a weather window – one we hoped would last a couple of days.
Overnight gear, two days’ food, picnic tables, spare skis and snowboards were all piled into the back of the ultra-powerful MI8 MTV helicopter and before we knew it we were heading directly for Ozernovskiy some 200km away on the south west coast of the peninsula. Here - or so the plan went - we would take on fuel and make the jump over to the islands. Excitement levels were tangible as two days of waiting and waiting some more were finally transformed into action.
Fourteen faces were glued to the windows as we flew under a deep blue sky over mountains freshly covered in snow. The image didn’t last long. Within half an hour we went from sunshine and blue skies to flying over a thick uninterrupted layer of cloud. Moments later we were sandwiched between two layers of cloud and not long after that we were hurtling along at 230 km/hour through a complete disorientating white out.
Feelings of apprehension were soon relieved as we were expertly navigated down through the clouds to a lake from where we flew Vietnam style along a river all the way to Ozernovskiy. On the way I spotted four enormous brown bears startled by the helicopter and charging through the snow.
Hello Ozernovskiy - Goodbye Ozernovskiy
We landed in Ozernovskiy under a blanket of cloud and an icy, wet wind howling in across the ocean. As soon as the five enormous blades ground to a halt the steps went down and fourteen brightly coloured skiers and snowboarders spilled into the greyness unzipping their flies as they went.
In Search of Islands
Ozernovskiy is not a place that is conducive to hanging around at the best of times so with a full tank of fuel and a leap of faith our MI8 powered effortlessly through the clouds and out across the open ocean in search of some islands that we couldn't even see. In fact, all we could see was the odd glimpse through the clouds of the angry white-capped ocean below.
Having spent weeks studying maps and photos I knew that somewhere ahead lay the volcanic island of Alaid – one of the most dramatic of the Kuril Islands and one that I had dreamed of skiing. No sooner had I thought it, than it appeared out of the cloud and my expectation of skiing this giant 2,400 metre volcano started to fade with every passing metre. The image of a pristine white island that we were going to ski from summit to beach quickly morphed into the reality of an icy, wind- scoured, black beast belching ash and smoke. It was totally un-skiable. Time for another plan.
The thing about trips like this is that never know quite what you are going to find. We had just flown 400 km out into the unknown on a single bit of information – that the skies were clear to the south of Severo-Kurilsk. I could feel that I was not the only one to be disappointed at the realization that we would not be skiing Alaid any time soon. In fact, looking out the window conditions looked pretty grim in general. It was very windy, the snow was thin, black with volcanic ash and harder than concrete. But on we went and as we progressed the sun came to greet us. Perhaps some of the more sheltered west-facing slopes would have softer, whiter snow.
Looking ahead through the cockpit with Marco we could see the mythical Island of Onekotan that we so hoped to ski. It was still some 80-100km away and there was a lot of cloud hanging around it. But a little closer and to the west we could see a small white Island bathed in sunshine. We had no idea what it was called but it looked like a good option for a first run.
Having left base nearly four hours ago we had finally identified a spot to land for our first run and moments later we piled out of the helicopter onto a small, snow covered island – one that had never been skied before. With celebratory yeehahs and arms cheering in the air our helicopter lifted off and we were alone on a remote uninhabited island in the Sea of Okhotsk.
It was very windy and the snow was rock hard but as we descended onto the sheltered sun-kissed slopes the snow softened and we made effortless turns all the way down to a beautiful protected beach. Reunited with our only connection to the outside world we soaked up the sun’s rays, exchanged high fives and gazed out across the sea. It felt good - better than some of the most epic powder runs of my life.
Before long it was back aboard the mother-ship and we were in the air heading for the mythical island of Onekotan and what appeared to be improving weather.
Onekotan is an oblong shaped island with two distinct volcanoes – the southernmost a mysterious volcano within a caldera. There were a few clouds lingering at lower elevations but the summit was clear so we scoped out the line and moments later landed in a broad saddle just below the summit.
Far below the helicopter looked like a spec of dust on the frozen crater lake that surrounded the summit peak for 360 degrees. We felt like specs of dust, miles from anywhere surrounded by open desolate ocean, skiing on an island within an island. It would have been nice to hang around and soak up the surreal scene but with biting cold and a wind strong enough to pick up your ski and send it flying through the air to the lake below, we took what photos we could and made for shelter.
An hour after landing at the top we were all down on the frozen snow covered ice with a sense of satisfied disbelief in the air. We were only three days into a ten day trip and on our second run we had knocked off our main objective….
We made a couple more runs on Onekotan – the last of which was an awesome long descent right to a west facing beach where we celebrated with several bottles of Russian champagne.
Civilisation - Kind of
We touched down in Severo-Kurilsk in rapidly fading light and were met by a random fleet of very Russian vehicles and three stern looking officials in uniform. Perhaps this is where Canadian immigration officials come for ‘how to welcome visitors to your country training.'
Passports were checked and names ticked off various bits of paper. I was swiftly reprimanded for filming the process but with Peter’s TomTom Bandit in stealth mode and pointed straight at them, we had it covered.
With the formalities done we piled into the backs of various vehicles and headed to our hotel – a crumbling, beaten up old building that didn’t look like it had seen any guests for several years.
That night dinner was laid on for us at a local restaurant - or it may in fact have been a container that had fallen off a passing ship in rough seas. Either way, there were lots of balloons to celebrate our arrival and we dined like kings on scallops and halibut.
Back at 'The Four Seasons Sevro' the early hours were seen in drinking vodka and re-living the day's adventures but before we knew it the sun was up, the skies were blue and we were off on the next part of our adventure.
Several days later we were to find ourselves some 700 km further north on the Kamchatka peninsula, in the interior ranges, skiing powder and eating reindeer. In between, we had flown hundreds of miles up the dramatic east coast of Kamchatka skiing run after run - none of which had ever seen a ski track before. We hovered over humpback whales one minute and gigantic bears the next, past smoking volcanoes, geysers and bubbling mud.
There can be few places on earth capable of exciting the senses quite like Kamchatka. I cannot even imagine one if I try. In the words of Rob Pen who wrote a piece for the FT How to Spend it magazine shortly after our first trip to Kamchatka: "It is a view that will change the way I think about wilderness forever"
This is dedicated to Ralf Tenbrink - veteran Kamchatka guide and friend - who sadly lost his life in a climbing accident in Chamonix last week. You will be missed by many.