Kamchatka's elemental landscape provides some of the wildest and most inspiring skiing on earth
The vast Kamchatkan peninsula in Russia’s far northeast corner is so remote that many of its mountains are yet to be officially named. Those that are have generally acquired a moniker because they’re big, high and volcanic - in fact one of the peaks, Mutnovski, last erupted only seven years ago. And if you go helikiing here, chances are you’ll ski down its flanks.
Kamchatka is one of the most active volcanic regions on Earth, an integral link in the infamous Pacific Ring of Fire. It’s also home to the world’s highest concentration of grizzly bears (which you may just spot whilst skiing since the season here runs into May, when the bears are awaking from hibernation), and it has without doubt some of the most awe inspiring landscapes on the planet in which to ski.
Just getting to the start of your first ski run is an unforgettable adventure. The coach journey to the heliport takes you from the grim, ash-grey streets of the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, a throwback to Cold War days when the majority of inhabitants were military personnel, and beneath the smoking summit of 2751-metre Avachinsky Volcano. Don’t worry if you fail to get a good view - you’ll be skiing down it later.
At the heliport the smell of aviation fuel and the thump of the massive rotor blades of the distinctly utilitarian Mi-8 helicopters in which you’ll be flying create an immediate frisson of excitement. Clamber into the back with twelve fellow riders and your guides, then settle back for the shuddering thirty minute flight into the heart of a World Heritage site that Unesco describes with studied understatement as being of ‘exceptional natural beauty and diversity’.
It’s impossible not to notice the distinctly minimalist interior of the craft. One of the helicopters we used was literally held together in places by string – very strong Russian string I’m sure, but string nevertheless. There are no seat belts to the hard bench seats, and the fuselage is big enough that you can get up and wander around during the flight and even open the porthole-like windows to stick your head out for a better view (try pulling a trick like that on a North American heliski operation…).
And the views through those portholes are literally awe inspiring - to the east the cobalt blue waters of the Pacific lap against a snowbound shoreline, whilst in every other direction range upon range of snow shrouded mountains lay in a powder blue haze beneath clear sunny skies, banners of smoke and steam rising here and there where cracks in their flanks extend all the way down to the Earth’s core.
Each run will start with skiers and boarders tumbling out of the chopper and cowering close to the ground in a blizzard of rotor-whipped snow until the machine has clattered away to meet the group later in a valley some 2,000-metres below. Once the snow has settled and silence returned to the mountains it would be quite easy to stand and stare all day at the awesome panoramas on view, were it not for the magnificent sight directly below - an untracked powder field the size and length of which no ski resort in the world can match.
Marco Gaiani, our Chamonix-based UIAGM mountain guide has us wait whilst he leads the way. Having skied with guides before I’m used to seeing them skid to a halt a few hundred metres downslope to hail the rest of the group to follow, but the terrain here is so vast that by the time Marco stops he’s but a tiny speck in the distance and has to call his partner Andrey by radio to tell us to set off (Andrey will be bringing up the rear – this is not the place for anyone to get lost).
There then follow two minutes of floating through shin deep powder, soft, light and deep and quite clearly the very elixir of life – how else to explain the wide grins and whoops of joy from every skier and boarder in the group? But it’s not just the snow that brings this feeling of utter exhilaration – it’s also the vastness of the landscape, the absolute wilderness in which we’re immersed and knowing that there isn’t another skier for several thousand miles in any direction.
We pull up beside Marco, and I ask him what this run is called. “It doesn’t have a name – none of them do. You name it if you wish”. I decline the offer – it’s not as if I discovered the run or made the first descent – and take the chance to fill my lungs with pristine mountain air before we set off downhill again. Eventually, almost 2,000 metres below our start point, the group glides to a halt in dribs and drabs beside the helicopter, having just completed what is without doubt the most exciting, exhilarating and extraordinary ski run any of us have ever experienced.
The bright orange Mi-8 may be waiting silently for us in a valley where a small stream meanders aimlessly across a wide snowy flood plain and the solitude and silence are palpable; it could be tucked beside steaming hot springs where we can slide into the water and ease tired muscles; or, my particular favourite, it’ll be waiting on a pebbly beach which gives us the unique opportunity to ski to the sea and go skinny dipping (very briefly) in 4ºC water.
On our first day in Kamchatka we enjoyed a massive 11,570-metres of downhill on the flanks of the dormant 2,175-metre Viluchinski Volcano, and with the weather holding clear and sunny for the following four days we never did less than 8-9,000 metres of ‘vert’ each day. On one of those days we even skied into the crater of Mutnovski Volcano and beside hissing vents and bubbling thermal pools.
It’s demanding stuff since conditions on the slopes can vary considerably due to Kamchatka’s maritime location, but the guides are adept at finding the best snow, from smooth and creamy ‘spring snow’ on sun-warmed afternoon slopes to unforgettable evening runs on north facing pitches where the powder is still soft and deep and the ‘rooster tails’ we kick up in hard turns glitter in the sun’s golden glow.
This is an image that remains seared into my memory banks, but then so does so much of the Kamchatkan ski experience, which truly is like nothing else on earth.
For more info on heliskiing in Kamchatka go to www.eaheliskiing.com