Amongst the volcanoes of the Kamchatka peninsula

This time, I’m leaving for an area where there isn’t much forest left, even though there used to be some in the past. However, the Big Bang and an avalanche of volcanic dust and lava have all but erased the forest from the surface of the Earth. In certain places, though, this was only a short-term occurrence. Life is slowly seeping back to the seemingly “empty” volcanic landscape.

 

For me, travelling there was like a voyage in a world of its own, so very different from the green Dinaric forests that I’ve been trekking extensively every summer. In many parts, there are no trees to speak of here: the only thing that remains is grey, coagulated basalt lava with numerous interesting forms that captivate the eye.

 

One big backpack at the back and another one at the front. Together, they weighed around 30 kg and held everything I could possibly need to survive in the wilderness of Kamchatka for 40 days. Some warm and impermeable clothes made of wool, a sleeping bag and, above all, several kilograms of heavy photographic equipment, including a tripod. The flight from Moscow to the capital of Kamchatka, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, took us another eight and a half hours. Even though the main objective of my expedition into the Russian wilderness were bears, I’ll save them for some other time; today, I’ll tell you about volcanoes.

 

Kamchatka is still the same place that even the Russians are dreaming about: isolated, wild, and relatively scarcely populated. The eyes of numerous people still light up at the thought of having the possibility to see, at least once, this extraordinary wilderness with its bears and volcanoes. It is a truly fascinating sight: not only for the Russians but also for other visitors, whose numbers are growing exponentially year after year. Numerous are those who are trying to find a balance between the conservation of the natural environment and the exploitation of natural resources. 

 

UNESCO also recognised the extreme value of this area:  due to their striking beauty and diversity, the volcanoes of Kamchatka are also a part of the UNESCO World Heritage List. There are over 300 volcanoes on Kamchatka, of which 30 are active. According to volcanologists, between four and seven of them erupt every year. Most often, the erupting volcanoes are located in distant, secluded areas that can only be reached by a helicopter or after a long ride through stones and debris using special SUVs that could almost be classified as pickup trucks. Often, special permission is also needed to access these areas.

 

In order to reach the starting point for the ascent to the volcano of Plosky Tolbachik, we spent the entire day (over 10 hours) driving in a big-tyre SUV. The voyage was far from pleasant: my entire body ached from bending my knees and sitting on the back seat of the SUV; we were being bounced around like beach balls; the road was muddy, full of holes and often took us across rivers; but as we arrived at our destination in the evening, we were left completely speechless. At least I was. I quickly pitched my tent before it got dark, anchored it in the sand as well as I could, and ran off to catch the last remaining light of the day. Even though the camp was filled with nearly 20 guests (2 from Russia, 1 from Germany, 15 from Greece and me), 3 guides and a chef, I felt as if I’d landed on Mars as I left the campsite for an evening photo session. The view completely captivated me, especially as I was looking towards some of the exposed volcano cones of the Kluchevskaya group that the Ostry (3682 m) and Plosky Tolbachik (3085 m) belong to.  The latter was the one we planned to ascend the next day.

 

Night fell quickly and was extremely dark, since the black sand offered no reflection whatsoever. I was eagerly awaiting morning: I couldn’t wait to start walking.  We were to climb the 3085-metre stratovolcano of Plosky Tolbachik. Although not particularly steep, the path is extremely long. It led us through fields of coagulated lava and volcanic sand towards the summit. We started walking slowly, but our guides quickly realised that it would be impossible for all of us to reach the summit with such a tempo. The first selection was made after less than an hour of walking. Whoever wished to do so could stay there, while others continued at a slightly quicker pace. Three hours of walking later, we had to decide again who would be going back to the base camp and who would be continuing towards the summit. Three of us remained: the German Andrey, the Greek Constantine and me. As our guide was dictating the tempo, my mind was going completely crazy with all the beauty. Well, we all felt the same. But since we were following a well-worn path and were physically fit, there were no issues. The higher we went, the more often the black volcanic landscape was strewn with patches of snow. At times, it felt like walking on a black chocolate cake covered in white meringue.

 

One of the most important eruptions of the Tolbachik took place in 1975 and 1976; it lasted from July 1975 to December 1976. Smoke was rising to a height of 1.5 kilometres, while rocks were flying to a distance of 11 km.  Before the eruption of 1975, the western part of the summit displayed an active crater with a diameter of 350 m and a depth ranging from 150 to 180 m. During the eruption, the volcano collapsed, which led to the creation of a new crater with a diameter ranging from 1700 to 1800 m and a depth of between 450 and 500 m. After the eruption, a blue crater lake with numerous fumaroles was also created. The eruption of Tolbachik was quite different from all other eruptions of the active Kamchatka volcanoes; it closely resembled basalt lava outbursts one can witness in Hawaii. Due to the extremely explosive nature of such outbursts, large amounts of pyroclastic material are created. The same happened in November 2012 when the volcano erupted again. During that eruption, the volcano ejected 1200 tonnes of lava per second.

 

The consequences of both volcanic eruptions can still be observed today. Another interesting area is the one called “dead wood”, which figuratively stands for “dead forest”.  There, dry trees stand witness to the previously displayed volcanic activity. However, this area is slowly being covered by pioneer vegetation, with colourful rosebay willowherb adding violet hues to the entire landscape. Life is slowly coming back. We admired the “dead wood” area a day later; here, at the edge of the caldera just under the summit, we couldn't see anything due to the fog and snow. We could only imagine the beautiful views opening in front of our eyes.

 

As the weather cleared up in the afternoon, the visibility improved as we were descending. Since the way down was significantly quicker, we even had some energy eft at the end of the day to ascend two colourful cones in the vicinity. The red and black lunar landscape took our breath away again. Individual parts of the surface were even smouldering, while the colours created another story of their own.  After coming back to the campsite that evening, we couldn't wait for dinner. The 30 kilometres we’d walked during the day obviously remained written in my heart, but I also managed to capture them in photographs. These landscapes will definitely not leave you untouched, and you’ll want to experience them again.

 

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Petra Draškovič Pelc
Petra Draškovič Pelc

Born in the Slovene Štajerska, she chose to live in Kočevje and the mere thought of adventures in the wild nature of Alaska gets her heart racing like a wild animal. She enjoys silence, peace and the beauty of the light-flooded wilds of all the untouched corners of the world, as well as the beauty of her local Kočevje-area and Slovenia. She is an enthusiastic traveler, a curious admirer of nature, a tourist guide, author of countless articles in Slovenia as well as abroad and a doctor in biomedical science, who found her calling in (natural scientific) photography. Throughout her work with ARS NATURAE she tries to express love towards nature and its preservation.

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