Words: Sami Tuoriniemi and Danny Burrows.
Published in Onboard Magazine Issue #117, November ’10
Kamchatka hangs from Russia’s east facing head into the Pacific like a great elephant’s trunk, its hide puckered by living volcanoes. Our outpost of snow valley, comprising five newly built wooden lodges, is two hours by truck from the nearest conurbation and 20-minutes fly time to the lines of the peninsula’s suppurating cones. Beyond the camp an expanse of snow and skeletal trees, black and bare, drapes down from the shrouded heights like bridal trails. as Sani put it, it’s the end of the world.
We are a big group by snowboard standards, with three still photographers, me, Adam Moran and Russian snapper Andrew Piromov; Brusti is here to film for Absinthe’s new movie NowHere and Burton filmer, Tim Manning, is also onboard. Maxim, a local of these parts and founder of the Kamchatka Snowboard Association, is our main fixer and guide.
Our murder of rippers reads like the guest list of a snowboard blockbuster: Terje Håkonsen, Sani Alibabic, Peetu Piiroinen, Fredi Kalbermatten, Stephan Maurer and JP Solberg. And last but not least there’s Svein, Terje’s friend and physio. This would be his sixth time on a board and he had been quite literally dropped in at the deep end; however you wouldn’t have known it. He was throwing down McTwists off a corner we built near the lodge and doing backflips off the big kicker in the backcountry, none of which he landed but the idea and guts to try were there – with a little time he would stick them. According to Terje, whatever sport he tries is mastered.
Our trip was the culmination of two years of brain storming between Terje and his friend Maxim and once rolling the rest of us jumped the cart to help pay the $5000 daily levy on the helis, and I guess for a bit of company on the hill. The vertical here, according to Sani, is like that of Japan with heaps of potential for getting your shred on and as well as lines there’s also spaced tree runs to cut.
With strong winds, though, the snow on the mountains was proper blown and it felt sketchy with no pits being dug, but our guides according to Maxim were the best in Russia.
On the second drop of the first day, on what was a mellow line by Sani’s standards, he asked the guide if it might slide. The answer was a little ambiguous: “Maybe, but not likely.” Sani’s line was safe but when Maurer dropped next, hitting a lip, there was that unmistakable deep ‘whoomp’ as an avalanche triggered.
“I remember looking down seeing this big spider web appearing in front of me. My first thought was “what the fuck is this?” ‘cause it took me a second to realise what was going on ‘cause I really didn’t think that something could slide there and then that was followed by “oh fuck, an avalanche, that’s what it is! Get the fuck out of here!”
He kept his speed and momentum and cut left and out in time to watch the face slab and funnel into a narrow gully. For Sani it was the sketchiest part of the trip.
We had flown eight hours from Moscow to Petropavlovsk, the Kamchatkan capital, leaving behind a city shattered by two explosions on the rush hour subway. Suicide bombers from the troubled provinces of the Caucasus had brought war to the city, killing 37 and wounding dozens more; another sad note in the diaries of a country with more scars than a failed bare-knuckle fighter and for us not the most reassuring introduction to Russia.
What makes riding here unique is that we were riding volcanoes, cutting lines between vents, ceracs and fissures that have cooked through to cauldrons of yellow-stained rock and patches of hot, black lava. In the crater of Mutnovkiy sulphur spewed in rolling cotton blooms from these openings and burned the lungs as we hiked back to the heli. There’s even a valley at the base of the Kikhpinych volcano called the Valley of Death where on still days gases hang thick enough to kill and cat-like the valleys river regularly deposits its victims downstream. Thankfully, it wasn’t on the itinerary.
The helis here, all MI8s, are like flying school buses. We sit 14 to a chopper facing each other on canvas seats, with our gear stacked at our feet. There are no seatbelts and the pilots seem intent on trying to scare the living shit out of us, setting the craft into steep dives that leave us weightless. We hang on the assurances of Maxim that our pilot, Dimitry Zaderey, is the best in Kamchatka; he’s been flying heli trips here for over 10 years but still amazes Maxim with his control of his bird. The funny thing is that with the high winds that we’ve had any other crafts would be grounded – not ours.
Great piloting and guiding aside there is nothing stronger than nature and on our last day in the country, while we were out sledding and hitting kickers, one of these helis with a full payload of riders was taken out by an avalanche 2.5 meters deep and 400 meters wide. The exact details of the crash were murky but according to Maxim it was just one of those freak accidents. He went to see the wreckage after and said that the remains of the heli resembled waste paper. 10 people died in the accident.
Of the ten days that I’ve been in Kamchatka we’ve ridden nine: three drop days from the MI8s, six on sleds and one day at the beach where we braved the Pacific to surf. Where the snow had been assimilated into the sea, black sand contrasted the whites of winter. The water was dark and cold and the waves a glassy 2- to 3-feet, but as Terje put it, “any drive to get surf is always worth it.” Out there, somewhere, subs from Russia’s main base in Petropavlovsk sleuth the depths, their periscopes trained on the shores of America where Sarah Palin, eyes bulging on the stalks of her binoculars, brushes up on world politics.
In Kamchatkan mythology the volcanoes are inhabited by huge flying ogres. At dusk they lumber up on the thermals, swirling masses of black soot, and glide out to sea to skewer whales on their harpoon-like fingers. They return in the night to grill their prize in molten lava, lighting the sky with flickers of fire. These beasts may not be real but what they represent – the power of nature – is the lasting image that will stay with us all of this wild outpost of Russia. We drew lines down volcanoes that overnight are whipped clean; swam in a pool heated by thermic energy from the earth, which at any moment might burst through winters veneer and roast us all.
Russia exists in its own sphere of reality, brutal and yet beautiful. Here none of us are bigger than nature.