I was soon out ski touring in my favourite spot near the city, every time I seem to have the forest to myself, and when it's cold enough the snow is often fantastic. The old trees on the hill are especially beautiful to pass between. One day I was out by myself when I met a guy named Artiom, who I had previously seen and briefly talked with in the resort having noticed his touring gear. He was out touring by himself before work as an engineer at the local coal power station at the bottom of the valley. We quickly joined forces and skied a new line (for us at least) on the Northen side, I'm still finding cool places within that small zone!
A few days later I joined Artiom and his co-worker for a ski-tour at Nachiki. We made one run from the summit down the couloir into the half pipe creek, followed by several short and sweet forest runs.
I met Alisa and Slava for the first time on Sveta's birthday celebration ski tour. Anya had worked for them a previous summer season in their glamping buisiness Glampstory. Kamchatka locals, they had returned from a year living in Canada. I very much enjoyed their friendship, and we had some great discussions.
Slava invited me on a trip north of Ganaly with Evgeniy (who is also a keen climber developing new routes in Kamchatka) and Anna. This was a place that I would love to return to on a multi-day trip, the terrain is fantastic and perfect for a 1-2 night camping trip. It felt great to be making new friends and spending time exploring new places.
Meanwhile Anya had started working again for Kamchatka Freeride Community, it was very busy for her, and she often spent time away living at their base in Paratunka. We found ourselves often visiting Kish Mish, a restaurant with Armenian/Georgian quisine, perhaps our subconscious was already missing Georgia.
Life in Kamchatka appears to be on the up, new parks have been built, and the paved highway is being extended further North, and some ugly soviet buildings getting a nice makeover and beautiful street art. Despite the world COVID situation and the lack of foreigners, tourism in Kamchatka bas been thriving, with Russians arriving in droves from Moscow (unable to holiday in Europe), and quite a few from London. There are rumours of a new world class ski resort being planned to be built near Viluchinsky.
On the 26th of March Anya decided to give me a very generous early birthday gift, a day of heliskiing with her company. We managed to pick what probably turned out to be the best day of the season, with stable snow conditions, perfect weather and a little bit of fresh snow still remaining especially on the Northern aspects. I deposited my backpack and picked up one of their avalanche airback backpacks and joined the group of tourists with Anya in the bus to the helicopter base. Anya informed me that she needed to obtain special permission for foreigners going heliskiing, and she had called the police representative who turned out to be the same man who had met me on the aircraft, he remembered us! It's one thing to watch an Mi-17 helicopter from the ground, but once you step inside you realise how large it is! The view is not good because everyone faces inwards while seated and the windows are small, I had no idea which direction we were flying. We jumped out of the helicopter very quickly and I was totally disoriented. It was the third day for this group, and they were all in a rhythm, starting to make their way down the mountain, meanwhile my touring ski poles had decided to freeze and I was unable to extend them, looking like a total fool pulling them open with my feet!
The lead guide skied very quickly out onto the bumpy slope and managed to trip up on some rough snow, this certainly took off the pressure to perform. After a couple of runs I began to realise where we were, Vachkhazhets! A place we had previously been hiking in during the Summer.
We worked our way up to the bigger terrain, eventually with a couple of runs from near the summit with perfect snow on 45 degree slopes. My legs were absolutely pumped after 8 runs, having had no chance to train in a resort for the entire season in Georgia, and took a few stacks near the end. In Kamchatka style, the bottom of the final run was greeted with a table of red caviar and champaigne.
On the flight back, the pilot decided to pull a cheeky zero G manuever, which was kept as a surprise. Skis and bodies flying everywhere, I was clinging to the bottom of my seat to stay in place!
It was cool to finally see what heli-skiing was all about and observe the guides who appeared to be operating very efficiently. I had a lot of fun, and am super thankful to my wonderful wife for the amazing gift! It was also very fast paced and a little overwhelming, perhaps I could grow accostomed to this, but I think that I still personally prefer having more time to enjoy the scenery, and saving the use of aircraft as an aid for a multi-day ski tour or expedition, such as a bump up the Fox or Tasman Glaciers in New Zealand or a flight to a remote area, where the cost (both in dollars and environmentally) is slightly more justified. All that being said, it was an amazing day, and I would have difficulty saying that a visitor to Kamchatka should altogether avoid heli-skiing there.
At the Pub
One evening I joined Anya and a group of her tourists at the pub, here I met Matthias, a friendly German fellow who was staying in Kamchatka, travelling in Eastern Russia, after having finished his teaching job, and having his visa prolonged due to COVID by decree of Mr Putin. We were both assailed by a rather drunk woman, who subsequently stole the tourist group's jagermeister bottle and was dragged out by security, hanging onto the door with her fingernails! We kept in touch with Matthias and went to visit him at the apartment where he was staying soon afterwards.
Our friend Alexei Belousov had been busy working as a heli-ski guide for Snow Valley, and I had been thoroughly looking forward to going on another trip with him after our fantastic adventure on Kozelsky together the previous season. I was very excited when he invited Anya and I to join him on a trip to Ganaly. This was a place that I had been longing to visit since the day I had first researched skiing in Kamchatka, for reasons that will be clearly evident in the photographs, the terrain is spectacular, especially "The Finger" feature, a spire of rock which sticks out at an unnatural angle.
Alexei picked me up from our apartment in his car, with him was Misha, and Misha's dog. On the road we met with Dima and Yevgeny, they had a snow mobile in tow. Parked on the side of the road. Dima and I were towed behind the snow mobile for the first 5 or so kilometers for flat, we then began touring while the snow mobile returned to pick up Alexei and the rest of the luggage.
While we were touring we got a message on the radio that misadventure had befallen the other party, the snow was now too soft and Alexei's ski had snapped during a trailer roll-over. It was at about this point that Dima and Misha's dogs began fighting, with blood pouring out on the snow, this trip was not off to a good start! Dima who was to be making a video about the trip documented every second of drama on his gopro, much to my amusement. We dropped our packs and returned to meet the others. Alexei was in good spirits despite the loss of a ski. Yevgeny had decided to return to the city with his snow mobile due to the snow conditions, however Alexei was able to take his skis and boots, the boots did not fit very well but he managed to put them on, and we were able to continue the trip. Everyone had brought extra stuff due to the reliance on the snow mobile, requiring a repack!
As we neared the corner of the valley with the turn to Ganaly we observed bear footprints, the first time I had seen them in the snow. We were making slow progress, it was clear that the boots did not fit Alexei very well, but he was bravely soldiering on. Sunset came and we found a campsite not far from the beautiful ridgeline. It was immediately obvious which line I wanted to ski, to the right of the finger is a stunning couloir that snakes its way down right from the top, consistently steep, with a great looking saddle with a view to the other side at the top.
The next morning Misha, Alexei and I decided that we would climb the aforementioned couloir, Dima would stand and take photos/video from afar with a long lens. We weren't in a big hurry because the snow surface was frozen solid, and it would be some time before the couloir would melt out. Soon we were in crampon territory, the steepest (about 50 degrees) most technical part of the constriction was uneven and very icy as we passed it, this made me a bit nervous about the descent.
Misha and I created a nice sheletered lunch spot on the saddle while we waited in the sun for Alexei to punch on up. We munched on cheese and Salo, while the snow slowly melted. I contemplated the descent, I was expecting the most difficult section to remain in the shade, the high consequences of the terrain was giving me second thoughts. I was the first to start on skis, something just wasn't feeling right and after tentatively descending about 20m I decided to switch over to crampons. I was feeling a little bummed about not skiing, but a few seconds later I watched Misha's snowboard slip out from under him and he performed a quick self arrest. Obviously the snow at this extreme slope angle was just on the edge of being safe, and I didn't feel so bad about my decision to downclimb the top section.
After down-climbing a fair distance past the crux, Alexei passed me on skis, ice axe in hand, something I would consider trying next time I was in the same situation. So far I've kind of taken the philosophy that if I don't feel comfortable skiing something without an ice axe in hand, then I shouldn't be skiing it. I've been under the assumption that skiing with an ice axe would also potentially hamper my skiing, and that a whippet might not be that useful for a self arrest compared to an ice axe that I already usually carry for such trips compared to the extra weight. Alexai wasn't really using his ski pole for turns, seemed to be making it work just fine with the legs. It was interesting to watch Joe Collinson's descent of the Caroline Face of Aoraki where he held an ice axe with a ski pole in both hands, and I've also wondered how that combo might go if the axe was strapped to the ski pole with some ski straps, Whippet style.
Back at camp we were elated, and the next morning we set off up a neighboring slope with about 10cm of fresh snow, with plenty of wind transport. Down low in the vally most of the snow had been stripped, but as we climbed the depth increased, and after a snow pit several hundred meters above the valley we decided to turn around due to an obvious wind slab/storm slab avalanche danger. I was even a little concerned about our current position, and was very glad that it was not difficult to convince the others to join me on the early descent, but not before waiting for Hippie the dog to return to us after he had disappeared into the clouds exploring the slopes above us.
That afternoon on the 8th of May, Misha headed back solo with his dog, and a couple of hours later, Anya, Sveta and Anya joined us at camp, after a mammoth effort on their part ski touring all the way from the road. We had been watching them approach from several kilometers in the distance and were trying to guess who was arriving on the basis of their clothes. The weather was pretty bad on the 9th and we stayed in camp, as clouds shrouded the mysterious range above us. The next morning the sun began to peep, and we received some glorious views while packing up camp, and heading on down the valley all together back to the cars. Anya pointed out some wild onion (Cherimsha) beginning to emerge in patches between the snow, which we snacked on during the walk.
This trip to Ganaly was everything I had been hoping for when I imagined adventuring in Kamchatka, and a big thanks to Alexei for organising, it is now among my best memories!
The Summer was approaching fast, and the snow had all but melted in the city. We joined an orienteering competition held on the grounds of the cross-country skiing/Biathlon traiing centre. Before the competition began we had a group exercise workout with all the participants, with an instructor dancing on stage with a microphone! It was great fun to run through the forest at break-neck speed, dodging piles of mud on the road, and it reminded me of Rogaining in Australia.
As a research trip for their tourism business Glampstory, Anya and I accompanied Slava and Alisa on a road trip up North to Milkovo. It was interesting seeing the road works progressing, it seems like soon the sealed road to Milkovo will be complete. We spent a night in a camp built by an indigenous Koryak man and another night in a fishing lodge close to the Kamchatka River after a fair amount of muddy track driving. We finished the trip with a stop at Nachiki hot springs outdoor pool.
During the Winter at a public speaking event organised by Alisa and Slava, we had the pleasure of meeting Alexey Matveyev and his partner Rita. Rita had been promoting a Kamchatka recycling project she was working on. They both had been working for Snow Valley, a major Kamchatka tourism company based not far from Viluchinsky. During the closing weeks we got to meet up with Alexey for tea and chat all things Kamchatka, about the trip to Ganaly (which he had also done), and I look forward very much to meeting them again when we return.
Slava and I headed out to Viluchinsky area together for my final ski trip for the season. I had been hoping to summit Viluchinsky this time in Kamchatka but the timing didn't work out, and instead we aimed for a nearby impressive waterfall on the flanks of the mountain. We saw a number of classic Kamchatka monster truck style jacked up cars heading out over the snow on trips towards Ganaly and Mutnovsky. Beautiful scenery, good company and relaxing Summer weather, it was the perfect way to complete the season!