Avacha, The Friendly Volcano

Remember this photo?
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A few friends and I hiked to the top of that volcano – the Avacha Volcano. 

We wanted to do the more bad-ass one to the left, but we would have needed to overnight on the mountain because the hike takes over a day. So we didn’t hike it because 1) I had to leave the next day, 2) we didn’t have tents, and 3) oh yeah, it’s for hot-shot alpinists who actually know what they’re doing. 

We assembled a hodgepodge team of Skilled Mountaineers: my friend Viktor, who is extremely fit and specializes in running fast up steep things, a punk-y, sporty, all-around cool chick who strolls up cliff sides as if she were just too good for gravity, two lassies whose cozy winter pastimes feature climbing up mountains and snowboarding down them, and three Average Joes. I should expand on that: two Average Kamchatka Ivans and one American Average Joe (me), who, it could be said, may have had one too many pelmenys(meat dumplings) and whose body was beginning to take on the shape of one. And so it began.

We rented a marshrutka (mini van) with driver for the day for a fare that was way more fair than I had anticipated. The ride was hilariously rough. The journey, which took about 2 hours, was more comparable to a boat on choppy waters than a van on a road. We lurched left and right, banged our heads against the frosty windows, and intrusively bounced into each others’ personal spaces. It was a great ice-breaking activity; I highly recommend it for corporate events.

We landed and changed for the hike. There were a variety of outfits, ranging from bikini and surf shorts to winter jacket and hat. Throughout the hike, I was in awe of the number of sporty costume changes, and also of how much they all fit into their backpacks. The weather was gorgeous and the volcano steaming and gurgling like a happy baby.

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There were so many beautiful, delicate mountain flowers. Mountain flowers are really special – they seem tiny, frail, and subdued, but when you realize they are constantly exposed to cold, sharp wind, grow on rocks with little fertile soil, and still manage to be brightly-colored and beautiful, you can’t help but admire them.  

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An hour into the hike and I was feeling great. We were hustling up that mountain! We inadvertently split up into groups, and I was with the two snowboarders. They were awesome- risk-takers, thrill-seekers, adventure girls. One was from St. Petersburg and had moved out to Kamchatka to do more outdoorsy things. I don’t remember what the other girl’s story was, but it was something along those lines. It was really refreshing to talk to them, because it’s easy to see many beautiful Russian women that are preoccupied with fashion, makeup, and appearance and think that’s what they’re all like. These girls were a fantastic reminder that in every country, every type of person exists. It’s all too easy to generalize based on a small group of people – those who you see most often – and believe that’s how it is for everyone everywhere in Russia. I really enjoyed talking to these girls.

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The closer we got, the more the mountain looked like a volcano. It was really smoking!

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We had been hiking steadily for about 2 hours and decided to take a well deserved water/rest break. There were a few too many clouds on the nearby volcano (the one we didn’t hike), so I needed to blow them away.Image

As the volcano started getting steeper, the hike became more breathtaking. We had to stop and take pictures, but also to take our breath back. 

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But then, suddenly and bizarrely, the weather changed dramatically. It was as if we crossed over into another biome – the mountain was completely covered in snow, the sky was gray, and to call it foggy would have been like calling borshch a pink-ish colored soup. 

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After we traversed the arctic biome, we entered into an entirely different planet!! You can see the line where the soil turns from a rocky, gravely mix into powdery, burnt red Mars dirt. Image

Also, did you see those dark little figures in the fog? Yup, those are people.

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I was endlessly fascinated with the new Mars biome. I half expected gravity to get all wonky here on up, but alas, it didn’t. It was steep, and I have to admit it – quite challenging. At that point, it was very cold, furiously windy, and hyper-steep. We were already a bit worn from our great speed earlier, and the hike went from challenging but fun to uhhh… kinda sucky, hah. It felt endless – we could see the summit, but it didn’t feel like we were getting any closer. There was no longer any clear trail, either – just mounds of red dirt and red rubble and the occasional patch of snow, as if to remind you this actually wasn’t Mars. One benefit of the hyper-steep mountain was that you didn’t have to bend down to collect Mars rock samples – the mountain was angled such that just by sticking out your hands you could grab fistfulls of evidence of space travel. 

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The last haul was so steep you needed a rope. I grabbed onto the rope, which was frozen from the moisture from the fog plus the cold mountain wind. At that moment, I really wished I had taken gloves. Or had IronMan hands. Either/or. 

After a grueling while of pulling myself up what had to have been an 89 degree angle slope via an ice rope, I made it to the top! Hurray!

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A victorious pose behind glamor-shot-style thick fog. 

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Up top was crazy. It was almost always covered so thickly in fog I didn’t know what was out there! I really didn’t know if there was a giant volcano pit with all kinds of crazy lava 3 feet in front of me or not, so I didn’t veer off by myself!Image

Following closely behind my friends that had hiked Avacha before, we did a bit of exploring. Soooo… here I am touching some old and hardened lava….(!!!!!!!!!!!!GAAHHH!!!!!!!!!)Image

Here I am clutching part of my sandwich and rushing to take a picture because this is a rare instance where the fog has cleared up. The rope on the left is the frozen monstrosity we used to heave ourselves up the 89.9999999 degree slope. Please notice, ladies and gentlemen, that this photo is taken above cloud level.Image

Ahahahahaha, so little do I know that to my left is a photoshoot of epic proportions! Remember those costume changes I was telling you about?? This one was most impressive. Even included are pineapples. I guess she was going for the classic “Little House on the Prairie on a Volcano In the Russian Far East Plus Pineapples” look. Image

Here’s some dried up sulfer residue. 
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Then we decided to walk around the rim of the volcano to get closer to get to where all the gasses come out. I knew on one side of me is a very steep mountain edge, but because of the fog, I have no idea what was on the other side. 

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The landscape became progressively more alien when on the ground appeared patches of chartreuse and mini gas-vents. 

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Then my friend Viktor decided to do a few merry mountain-goat-like hops to celebrate how cool everything was. I had to close my eyes I was so scared he was going to fall off the face of the earth. Image

And then… the fog passed by for a moment and we saw it. 

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Smoking like an underage dragon in a high school bathroom, and stinking of an underage dragon that just smoked a ton and then tried to bathe himself in rotten eggs to cover the stench, was the volcanic pit. It was loud and hot and wet and stinky and THRILLING. Here’s a video. 

After a while, after lunch, after thorough exploration, and after my backpack was heavy with Mars rocks and chartreuse sulfur rocks and dried lava chunks, we eventually made our way back down. It was almost a completely different mountain yet again! The way down the steepest parts was, for me, was just as difficult because I was afraid of slipping and losing control completely. But after that bit, it was pure FUN. 

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We experimented with a number of different options, but in the end, the quickest way down the snowy parts was foot skiing. Plant your feet deep into the snow, throw caution into the wind, and ski off!

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Admittedly, foot skiing became a lot of butt skiing :)Image

The start of the sunset was so brilliant. The landscape was so smooth- light was just dripped onto the canvas like a pristinely surreal CGI landscape. Image

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After completing the trip and feeling like a complete and maximum boss, I learned some stunning things:

1. Average-Joe Kamchatka-ites climb this volcano every year. Grandmas included. Children included. (!!!!!!!) 
2. My very svelte runner friend, the one guy in the pictures, ran up the mountain. 

I’d like to note that these additions do not take away from our bad-ass-ness. It does, however, add to the endless extreme factor of Kamchatka and its residents.  Suburban towns I’ve lived in had Charter Days with fried dough and maybe some pony rides. Kamchatka residents have climb-the-volcano day. No comparison.

Next day, early in the morning, I got on a plane and left Russia. As I looked out the window and saw the volcano we had been at the top of maybe 15 hours before, I just had this dizzying recap of 10 months in Siberia – the stark beauty of winter at its purest, the loving souls who showed me things I hadn’t even thought to ask about, the uncomfortable instability of a fresh city that doesn’t yet know where it’s going but drives ahead anyway. It was a year of enormous ups and downs, but it ended with a 2,741 meter “up” that ensured and proved that the trip had been a year of brilliant discoveries. 

3 thoughts on “Avacha, The Friendly Volcano

  1. Thank you so much for posting this! The photos are stunning, and the descriptions are great too. I almost feel like I went there too. :-)

  2. Katherine says:

    Wow, that was EIPC!!!! I really enjoyed the read!

  3. Ole Andreas says:

    Those were some truly incredible pictures! What an amazing trip. One of the photos looks like you’ve taken it gliding through the clouds (it’s majestic!), and yeah, that red-rocked picture of Mars made me laugh untill I realised it was from your hike. What better way to end a stay than to climb a volcano?

    You’ve got some interesting perspectives and reflections going on in this fine blog of yours, Kirsti! And your obvious love for words made it even more fascinating! :)

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