At the upper end of a valley that begins on the shores of the North Pacific, a cluster of huts lay submerged in the moon-cast shadow of the volcano Vilyuchik. A guitar that hadn’t known a tune in years thrummed; a baritone voice abandoned the charade of matching its key; hands pounded down on a long communal table; crab legs cracked open; glasses emptied, glasses filled. “I told you,” a voice insisted from within the din, “when you go skiing in Kamchatka, the skiing is only 20 percent.”
Six days earlier, I woke up in the fog of a different night’s hangover. I grasped for my contacts on the nightstand and, vaguely recalling the effort that had been required to mount my twin bed as it spun around the room just hours before, I put my feet on steady ground. I pulled on wool baselayers, a fleece, ski pants, and a down jacket. When I ambled over to the door and opened it, the air, the snow, and the light collaborated to revive all of my senses at once. It was blowing hard, but I could see it: the camp, the valley, the volcano; Kamchatka.
Nothing about the trip had yet been certain at this early stage. It wasn’t certain that our plane tickets to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky were actually waiting for us at an Aeroflot customer service desk in Moscow. It wasn’t certain that the baggage carousel, housed in a structure that called to mind an Arctic bunker, would produce the bags containing our ski gear. And with an incoming storm system, it wasn’t certain that we’d be able to reach our home for the week, a camp called Rodnikova that was established by a former military geologist and is inaccessible during the winter except by helicopter or snowmobile. (One of these journeys takes 20 minutes, the other three to six hours, conditions depending.)
I quickly learned that I could be sure of one matter though—I would not go hungry. We did make it to Rodnikova, the weather following closely behind. It blew snow not in one direction but all of them at once, obscuring the narrow path that I followed from my shipping container cabin to our communal space. Once there, warmth. And a table full of food—there was porridge, sausages, cheeses, bread, sliced trout, two types of smoked salmon, roe, caviar, and coffee (for some, there was also vodka).
Each day in Rodnikova began and ended around this table. Here, our assorted group of Austrians, Swiss, Swedes, Americans, and Russians took in sustenance supplied by our matron, a kindly Russian woman named Llena, and ski news, provided by our pilots over the radio system. On this day the news was poor—we were grounded.
Yearning for elevation, we occupied ourselves by touring up the small hill behind camp and descending through the gnarled trees scattered haphazardly over its surface. By afternoon the weather let up enough for five of us to target the volcano Vilyuchik. As we neared its peak after hours of climbing, the wind returned and beat us back to the valley. Sometimes Russia really feels like Russia.
The following day I woke in another champagne-, beer-, Aperol-, vodka-induced fog, but the skies were clear, and that mattered more. An air of expectancy pervaded the table during breakfast—more porridge, fish, caviar—until the clatter of rotating helicopter blades swept it away. We put down the rest of our meal, dashed to our cabins to retrieve skis and made for the landing zone.
For all its apparent luxuries (like fresh seafood at breakfast and seemingly endless champagne at night), Kamchatka preserves a rugged balance with solutions that are overtly practical (like liters of beer packaged in clear, unbranded bottles). The Mi-8 helicopter is like that too—ours was a military machine from the Soviet days, but a fresh coat of orange paint and a giant Fischer logo made it well-suited to carrying skiers to the tops of volcanoes. We packed in, all 17 or so of us, and aimed for the close horizon.
"It was disorienting, almost vertigo-inducing, and with nothing in front of me by which to gauge my speed. So I skied fast."
The Russian Mi-8 does not land on top of a mountain; it plants one or two of its wheels into the snow and hovers. We exited fast like troops, jumping six feet out the door into the arms of our companions. The skis were thrown into a heap. We ducked together in a pile, the engine began to scream, and the hulking machine deserted us in a whirlwind of snow.
Kamchatka’s tallest volcano is over 15,000 feet, but many of the rest are shorter by nearly half. Their bases root close to sea level though, which makes for ski runs that descend uninterrupted for thousands of feet. They aren’t steep, but neither are they mellow. We approached them without order but one at a time.
When my turn came to ski I began to do so tentatively; looking downhill, there were no trees, rocks, or signs or people—just white. It was disorienting, almost vertigo-inducing, and with nothing in front of me for what seemed to be a mile I had nothing by which to gauge my speed. So I skied fast.
That first run would’ve made the journey worth it alone, but over the next three days, we skied more dreamy lines than I could hope for in a decade of winters. We skied through volcanic moraines, past thermal vents, off the edge of an active crater, into an active crater, and twice we clicked into our skis at a summit and didn’t remove them until we reached the ocean.
The best of them came at the end of our first day flying. On the way back to camp, the pilots dropped us at the top of a nearby ridge for a final run. When we returned to the Mi-8 to retrieve our things, they motioned for us to get in, there was daylight enough for another. They ferried us to the other side of Vilyuchik, buried the front wheel into the mountainside, and we got out.
It was seven or eight by then. The angle of the sun to the earth turned the snow a shimmering gold and purple. The wind died, and the sound from the retreating helicopter seemed sucked into nothing. I hung back from the rest of the group so that the mountain was mine only, if just for a moment. As I pointed my skis downward and careened between tendrils of volcanic rubble, the only other presence was the wind I made as I cut through the still air. I was alone, but this loneliness was a good one, and I’ve never felt it on a mountain before or since.
When I rejoined the group at the helicopter, I recognized from the creases at the corners of their eyes and the smiles on their faces that they too had known the feeling.
On our final night at Rodnikova, we reveled. We toasted the week; the getting snowed in, the incomparable skiing, the volcanos Vilyuchik and Koryaksky, our cook and her food, each other. In the thick of the merriment, two of our host's friends and their small dog showed up on snowmobiles they had driven over the mountain pass in the dark. One of them played guitar and bellowed a song. At some unknowable point a request was made through garbled translation: before we leave tomorrow, take us fishing!
"I found myself on skis again, grasping a rope tied to the back of a snowmobile driven by a man with whom I shared no common language."
The next morning, I found myself on skis again, grasping a rope tied to the back of a snowmobile driven by a man with whom I shared no common language.
As we rounded the valley’s elbow, a new view of the same volcano that we had skied down three nights earlier came into view. It looked massive, formidable, and somehow unfamiliar. Had I dreamt up the experiences of the previous week? Had any of these strange and remarkable moments actually occurred? Was I here at all?
Then the snowmobile lurched forward, yanking my shoulders and attention in that very same direction, back into reality. And then I saw it—the ocean, as blue and expansive as ever. In that moment, I knew it had all been real. And I was just damn lucky.