Ice Caves and Fumaroles – South Kamchatka’s volcanic Soul

Mutnovsky – Sulphur, Fire and Ice

Having returned from the northern volcanoes we make a stop in Malki. First and foremost the village is known for its thermal springs and all the locals beleaguer it every weekend anew to have a barbecue. Bathing in geothermal water is a quite relaxing and a deliverance after having spent two weeks in the wilderness and dirt. From Malki we drive through Yelizovo and Paratunka to the south, where easily accessible volcanoes Mutnovsky and Gorely were already waiting for us.

We take up position at the Mutnovsky (Мутновская сопка), but unfortunately only at about 600 metres in altitude and pretty much far from the summit scratching the clouds with its height of 2322 metres. That means we have to cover a distance of at least 7 kilometres and 1500 metres in altitude. How wonderful…! The mix of sunlight, clouds and steel blue sky gets more and more amazing, in particular in the evening. The craters of both volcanoes, Mutnovsky and 8km linear distanced Gorely, now surely have perfect light conditions. However, they are too far away to take advantage of the moment. What a pity. There’s another photo opportunity though as there’s a little water fall near the camp that appears very dreamy in the light of the setting sun.

Entirely motivated and full of beans we wake up very early in the morning, prepare our equipment for the volcano and embark on a walk taking us 7 kilometres far and 1500m high. That early the small runnels up there are still covered by a thin ice layer, hence they are not soiled yet by sediment and it is delectation to drink from it. It is unbelievable how wonderful H2O can taste.

It smells wonderful while we are walking through the mountain tundra at the bottom of Mutnovsky volcano as there are thousands of cranberries, all of them covered with dew drops. Then the scenery changes rapidly. Step by step things get steeper and to boot the volcano’s slippery clay-like slopes are spangled with razor-sharp rocks. My companion Martin Rietze is a phenomenon. Only a couple of minutes ago he was next to me saying he’ll have a look around and now I see him, his small body shape walking on the very rim of the crater some 300 metres above us. It is quite a piece of labour for Marc and me to get through the gorge being the gate to Mutnovsky’s central crater, that is actually the fourth crater being formed. Step by step the equipment gets heavier and heavier. Swearing like a trooper, grumbling like a real Berliner and sliding down every step anew I somehow make it through the slippery gorge and reach solid ground again.

While walking through the gorge it is elementally gurgling and rumbling underneath us. Every hundred meters anew one feels inspired for yet another visit to the toilet. Despite its remarkable post-volcanic activity, the inner of the Mutnovsky crater is covered by a huge glacier and its melt waters runs off subterraneously to some extent. Evil-smelling fumaroles are snarling in our faces. At its outlet you can see crystalline sulphur sparkling in the daylight. The early sun gives a warm and intensive light and makes Mutnovsky’s colourful layers of rock become a real eye catcher.

With a diameter of about 2 kilometres and about 400 meter high walls the crater looks very impressive. Step-by-step the rising sun melts the glacial ice hidden in the soil underneath me. Without proper hiking boots everyone would be hamstrung up here and there’s even the danger to slip off entirely and fall into the glacial run off, something that surely wouldn’t be all too healthy. A more or less active volcano having a huge compact glacier in its crater is surely unique worldwide and to boot the glacier even forms a picturesque lake at the rear part of the central crater.

Our companion Alyona virtually dances over the slippery mud. That is hardly surprising since she’s petite and light like a feather while our footsteps literally get hammered into the volcanic ooze due to the weight of the photo equipment. Will the gluey crust consisting of rocky sludge ever fall off my boots again…? Looks like I’ll need a hammer and chisel. The ground isn’t all too stable hence one should not get too close to the fumaroles. One the one hand because of their exhalations (you never know what comes out of the ground and its concentration) but also due to the fragile soil surrounding those stink holes.

Slowly we move downhill again towards the base camp and through the very same gorge that we had to pass on the way into the crater. Suddenly a large vertical whitish plume appears at the horizon and within the blink of an eye it is clear that it is not a usual cloud as it consists of vapour and gas. Gorely (Горелый) volcano seems to have quite some unrest. Our steps get faster and faster as we’re hoping to reach the end of the sight narrowing gorge to see the spectacle with our own eyes. Unfortunately the eruption was short, intense and already finished before we left the Mutnovsky crater. Bother! One of Gorely’s craters has an old vent emitting very hot gas. Its glow is capable enough to illuminate the crater walls at night and from our base camp we take Gorely under photographic fire to try catching the very same glow. No chance! There’s no slightest red visible. Our motivation lacks a lot, not to mention temper. We assume that Gorely’s magma level sunk significantly causing a massive degassing (the plume we saw) and now the glow is too weak to paint the nightly crater red.

But let’s get back to Mutnovsky where we leave its classic climb-down route to explore the western flank of the volcano and where all the small runnels merge to become and fall into an impressive 80 meters deep gorge. Now, in the early afternoon, the sun is strong and all patches of glacial ice are melting, making the runnels we drank from in the morning being brown, sediment-stained and undrinkable. From the hill located on the waterfall’s outskirts you get a stunning wide angle perspective of the entire wide volcano. That optical pleasure gets suddenly interrupt by something dragging on my pants. Where the hell is the lice-ridden dog coming from? It appeared out of the blue and no Russian swearword in the world helps to get rid of it. That only got changed by couple of sausages when being back at the base camp.

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