Kamchatka…Exploring the Tolbachik Volcano Region

Prayer flags flying in front of Ostry Tolbachik

Prayer flags flying in front of Ostry Tolbachik

Our first morning at Tolbachik base camp started off with heavy fog and stiff winds. Our plan for today was to leave the camp to start the climb of Plosky (flat-topped) Tobalchik at 10:00 am. The fog started lifting, but the guide decided not to do the mountain today as heavy lenticular clouds over Ostry (sharp-topped) Tolbachik indicated very heavy winds on the summit of both peaks. We changed the plans to visit the Alarid and Claw Craters instead.

Walking rim of first crater with second crater in background

Walking rim of first crater with second crater in background

Starting a fire over an open gas vent on crater

Starting a fire over an open gas vent on crater

The climb up the craters was steep but short.  As we neared the top, the ground beneath our feet grew warm from the volcanic activity below.  In some places there was a faint smell of sulphur and smoke emerging from vents in the ground. On the summit of the first crater, our guide, Ruslon, placed some paper in front of the opening of a gas vent.  In no time, the paper burst into flame from the heated gases below. The view from the summit was amazing; we looked down on a huge lava flow from the crater to the plains below. The rock on the summit was a very vivid red color from the elements in the rock.

View from the top of the crater to lava flow below

View from the top of the crater to lava flow below

We climbed the second vent with winds gusting to 50-60 mph that made it difficult to walk. We could see a huge, nasty lenticular cloud hanging over Tolbachik, confirming that the decision not to climb the mountain today was a very good call by our guide.

Heavy winds made for some tough going

Heavy winds made for some tough going

At the top, everyone was enamoured by a tiny mouse that had made its home beneath a rock. He probably enjoyed the volcanic warmth emanating from beneath the crater.

Tiny mouse at home on the crater summit

Tiny mouse at home on the crater summit

We made our way down the crater in the wind and returned to our starting place for lunch.  After lunch we had a leisurely, and pleasantly not-too windy, walk several miles through the stark, “dead” forest landscape surrounding the vents to some lava tubes. The landscape was eery but beautiful with chartreuse-colored moss growing on the volcanic sand. We donned head lamps and explored the tubes before we hopped into the bus and headed back to the base camp, returning in a rain storm.

Forest decimated by 1975 eruption of Tolbackik

Forest decimated by 1975 eruption of Tolbackik

The next morning we once again considered an attempt to climb Plosky Tolbachik. The weather was windy and foggy as usual but the barometer was going up, indicating good weather ahead. After breakfast, we drove to the trailhead at 1,700 meters. The first couple of hours of the hike were spent in the heavy fog with brief views of Ostry Tolbachik appearing through the clouds. The fog was so dense that we couldn’t see members of our group who were just a few meters ahead or behind us so the guide insisted that we stay close together.

Foggy start to the Plosky Tolbachik climb

Foggy start to the Plosky Tolbachik climb

At about 2,000 meters, the fog finally burned off and we could see our entire route up the Plosky.

Hiking up Plosky Tolbachik in clear weather

Hiking up Plosky Tolbachik in clear weather

After lunch in a sheltered crater just below the summit, our friend the wind came back with a vengeance, making the final ascent up the side of the crater rim challenging. Some fresh snow from the day before made the climb slippery in places but we were all eager to see the view from the rim. We rounded the top of the rim at 3:30 pm to behold a spectacular view of the volcanic caldera, a massive crater 1,000 feet deep with hanging glaciers ringing the top of the crater. Some of us pushed on in an attempt to the high point of the rim at 3,085 meters, however, at a cliff just below the summit, the guide turned us around because the conditions of snow, ice, and loose rock made it too dangerous.

Mike and Valerie on Plosky Tolbachik crater rim

Mike and Valerie on Plosky Tolbachik crater rim

We headed back down the mountain at 4:00 pm. The clouds over Ostry Tolbachik lifted to reveal the entire mountain for the first time all day. In the distance, two other spectacular volcanoes came into view, one with a volcanic plume indicating a possible eruption in the near future (maybe!). We quickly descended and reached the car at 7:00 pm. It had been a long day, but it was well worth the effort.

Two other volcanoes in view in the distance

Two other volcanoes in view in the distance

Our last full day at the Tolbachik base camp was greeted with the usual fog and wind and now we had a steady rain added to the mix. This was to be our alternative day to climb Tolbachick if the weather was bad. Since we got up the volcano yesterday, our plan today was to visit some springs in the area where there would be some interesting rock formations; a late start and easy day was planned.  But, the weather had turned so bad overnight with steady rain and wind that the day’s excursion was eventually abandoned. We spent the day napping, reading, and discussing politics or whatever subject came to mind while staying warm by the stove in the cook’s cabin. Even though we didn’t get much accomplished on this stormy day, it was nice to have some down time for the first time since arriving in Kamchatka and it was fun just hanging out and relaxing.

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About Mike

I have a passion for adventure travel that began in 1989 with my first overseas trip: climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Having never been to a foreign country, Africa felt like being on another planet; I knew then and there I was hooked on travel. Since that time, I have visited all seven continents and dozens of countries. I’m using the experience I’ve gained in planning my own trips to help my clients plan their own adventures through my adventure travel company (http://www.offtrailtravel.com). After working as a firefighter for the US Forest Service in California and Wyoming for three years, I moved to Durango, Colorado where I graduated from Fort Lewis College with a degree in accounting. After graduation I moved to the Denver area where I worked in a Big Eight accounting firm to obtain my CPA license; soon afterward I began a career as an auditor with the Colorado Department of Education. My background in accounting helped me develop detailed-oriented skills that have been extremely useful in researching and planning my own travel over the years. I think this provides a unique asset to my clients in putting together their adventure travel plans. I currently live in Golden, Colorado with my wife Valerie, who shares my love of adventure travel. I’m an active member of the Colorado Mountain Club where I lead trips for club members and have taught ski lessons in their Telemark Ski School. I enjoy skiing, mountain hiking, trail running, photography, and astronomy. I take any opportunity I can get to explore new places, whether it’s on the other side of the world or just down the road.
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