Klyuchevskoy and Tolbachik – The northern Volcano Giants

Where lunar landers get tested

It was hot and rain was rarely seen in June and July, also the visibility wasn’t best as almost everywhere it was pretty hazy reports granny Galina, a geophysicist who fell in love with Far East Russian Kamchatka peninsula more than 40 years ago. On the first day of my travel I had absolutely no clue how important weather will become during my trip. Being thirsty for light, hungry for proper visibility and clinging to the last glimmer of hope we joined the group of Denis Budkov, a Kamchatka-based photographer who’s running an annual photo tour. From Kozyrevsk our Kamaz, a Russian all-terrain truck, takes us straight to the northern side of Tolbachik, an impressive mountain consisting of actually two volcanoes, the flat Plosky Tolbachik, a shield volcano and the steep Ostry Tolbachik, a strato volcano. And if Kliuchevskoi’s reminds of a Russian poet and thinker then Tolbachik is the guy with coarse-pored skin selling booze in the kiosk next door.

Man as well as tent, thermal underwear and down-filled sleeping got faced with a wintery stress test; even the strings of our modern wigwams were coated with a thick layer of ice.

Right after having touched down at the north side of Tolbachik volcano the old game starts again, clouds appear, the mountains disappears step-by-step but fully and remains mostly invisible for the next days. To boot the weather god sends us some sub-zero temperatures, snow, even hail and tent- plus mind-blowing wind forces. Fortunately we have our Russian photographer fellows who respond the situation with warm borscht soup, bowls full of fresh Salmon caviar as well as endless refills in terms of Vodka.

Someone calls “Medvedev!” and suddenly there’s quite some racket interrupting our vegetating. Well, that wasn’t a profession of sympathy for the former Russian president but the sighting of a bear couple destroying a lower campsite on their hunt for food. It’s really stupid to leave the camp behind with no (well equipped!) guard watching everything when leaving for a day trip. From our “journalist hill” name little rock overhang we’re allowed to watch the bears closely. (here’s a video taken by Marc Szeglat)

Visiting the toilet under such conditions, with dropped pants, potential bear contact and strong icy wind, is pretty weird. At a foggy visibility of only about 50 meters then the one hand is permanently holding the pepper spray while the other is doing, erm, something else. And that is only the male perspective of such-like things… Brave traveller girls!

The group itself was a multi-coloured potpourri of photo enthusiasts who in the first instance had no clue how important volcanic activity is for us three Germans, that volcanic activity is the reason why we are here, but from a human point of view quickly we talked the same language and laughed away the bad weather for example when trying to translate German jokes into Russian. Doing that we watched the valley where sunbeams were dancing with the clouds. Simply beautiful!

Like observation slits all clouds – piling up and clinging to the mountains – are permitting only tiny portioned views to the vicinity surrounding us.

And then Tolbachik hit us like a Russian nuke… On the last day sky tears open and all clouds move away. Finally there is some light! Finally there is visibility! Finally no structureless cloud mishmash and observation slit like photography anymore! Tolbachik as well as the valley and the fire mountains of the Kliuchevskoi-Bezymianny volcano cluster are visible for kilometres. Fresh, cold, clear air streams in our lungs as we are gazing at the mountain scenery and their impressive shadow displayed in the atmosphere.

The whole scenery is a delectable photographic indulgence. In particular the combination of a mirror, a small ice-free mountain lake, plus freshly fallen snow and a light mood out of this world starts an excess of changing perspectives and focal lengths; sometimes I even used a neutral density filter, what I am doing very rarely.

Back in the camp – our cook Ludmila prepares fresh Oladyi and meat filled Bliny – another “Medvedev!” call cuts through ours voracious silence. With lightning speed the tele lens is mounted on the camera as now the bears are coming to our campsite. Not down in the forest but here at an altitude of ~1.800 meters we bump into Master Bruin, even into two of them. Crazy…! Of course the animals smell our breakfast and we’re standing right between them. Courageously we repulse them by yelling, stone throws and magnesia flares.

The warming sun chases even the last frost away and made the day becoming a really nice winter day. The visibility range is fabulous and the air is wonderfully clean. In front of our eyes Kamchatka presents the whole Kliuchevskoi-Bezymianny volcano cluster and of course the reddish-bluish cloud of ash and gas hovering above Bezymianny had not escaped our notice. However, despite having an active lava dome Bezymianny didn’t erupt considerably, it even didn’t eject a puff of ash. The ground squirrel living at the bottom of these fire mountains doesn’t really care about volcanic activity that much we do. After five days of shite weather its hunger must have been tremendous as it is literally springing at berries and fresh grass while not taking notice how close I was.

We change our place and move the campsite from northern to southern Tolbachik, a place being so rough and pathless that Soviet Union once tested its lunar lander over there. While crossing a small creek at the bottom of southern Tolbachik sun shines on us but the mountain is yet already shrouding itself in clouds again. Of course we make a stop in Kozyrevsk, this time not at Nikolai Nikolaevich, whose actual name is Valudya, but at the local magasin to refresh groceries. In there only one serves, THE ma’am whose set in stone face is a master in pronoucing “Nyet!” (Russian for no). You’re even not allowed to open the freezer yourself as you become instantly flailed with the verbal bludgeon. Russia at its best :-)

More From This Category