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Mutnovsky Volcano on Kamchatka

How I climbed into the crater of an active volcano

I sat in the front seat of the SUV, threw my backpack under my legs, and turned to Dima - a professional race car driver and also a guide and organiser of jeep tours. He slyly looked at me and nodded at the handle on the front panel: "This handle is called 'Oh, my Gosh', if something happens it will help."



I laughed out loud. I guessed that it was going to be a great adventure, but the fact that the driver had a great sense of humour made the day even more special. Looking ahead, I have to say that a trip to the south of the Kamchatka Peninsula and to the foot of the Mutnovsky volcano was my best adventure. Thanks, of course, to the professionalism of two friends: Dmitry Ukharsky and his colleague Alexey Shiyan, whose team followed us on the route

The guys upgraded their own off-road vehicles for extreme trips, during the off-season they work in their own car repair shop, drive off-road for fun, climb volcanoes at any time of the year, even  in winter for the sake of snowboarding, and in the summer they arrange unforgettable trips for tourists. 



In early August, snow still lies on the road to Mutnovsky Volcano. High tunnels of snow, through which cars made their way just a couple of weeks ago, are already melted. A terrible mixture of volcanic mud and snow gurgles under the wheels, which guarantees an adventurous trip.



However, it is a couple of hours to the snowy plateau, Konovalov Pass, where almost all cars from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky get stuck. Although the distance from the city is only 80 km, the road does not allow you to drive fast.



I am constantly laughing, the guys are talking on handheld transceivers, making very funny jokes. There is also a couple from Germany in the car, I try to translate all the jokes for them, but in fact they are not that funny. The Germans do not understand why a jeep got stuck in the deep snow with its bonnet “full of mushrooms." Well, to explain the meaning of a joke is a difficult task, I tried… The guests are smiling and still do not understand. And it makes the situation even more fun. 



“Panda, panda, over. Let's stop at the Vilyuchinsky pass. Out” Alexei suggests through the walkie-talkie in his car. I turn to Dmitry, a good-natured guy with a red beard, and ask why his call-sign is “Panda”? “Maybe because I'm sweet?” Dima answers.  And I laugh again, the German tourists smile again, and we stop for a coffee break.



I once visited the observation deck near Vilyuchinsky Volcano when I went to the Small Valley of Geysers, but this time there was no coffee truck. In good weather, you can finally see the seven volcanoes from here: Vilyuchinsky, Koryaksky, Avachinsky, Kozelsky, Mutnovsky, Gorely, Opala; and remember which of them is where.



After strolling through a flower field, taking another hundred pictures of Vilyuchinsky volcano (well, it didn't hurt me), we again take our cars and drive to Mutnovsky. As soon as we drive higher, there is a lot of snow around and the end of the road. We are driving at a low speed - at any moment a snow layer may settle under the wheels. As we crossing the first creak with meltwater, I cling to the famous handle on the front panel of the car. A little later, I will cling to it more and more often when we race onto a steep mountain, slip on ice and rush along this impassable road for fun. I also catch myself thinking that as a driver with 20 years of experience I can’t get rid of the habit to hit the brakes. Dima noticed that and said that he has thought about installing a fake pedal there.



As soon as we drove the first hundred meters, I understood how professional Dmitry and Alexey are… I am already dreaming of taking extreme driving courses, someday, maybe later. I understand that I would get stuck there at the first ford, however, like many other cars.



We stopped and Dmitry and Alexey, like Chip and Dale, rushed to the aid of a colleague who was bogged down in a snow trap. The huge wheels of the stuck car were only melting the snow. We (tourists) observed the rescue operation, as the guys pulled out the cable and the “mushroom picker”. We will help others many times on this day, and we’ll get bogged down ourselves once.



Looking at the next SUV, whose driver naively thinks that he will slip past another snow trap, Dima mutters: “It’s going good, right to the center of the earth.” The car gets stuck, and Dima again pulls out the cable.

 

Everything that happens seems to have been created by some competent game-designer… In addition, a dense fog is falling on the volcanic "road", or better a "hell's fog".



Through the grey clouds we rush to Opasny (Dangerous) Canyon. The cracked brown earth together with the waterfall (also named Dangrerous) looks epic. It is as if someone has eaten a piece of earthly flesh and it is bleeding with a waterfall. It’s scary to stand at the edge of the abyss - the mud can crawl under your feet, and you can fall to the bottom of the canyon in a second.



After the last dozens meters, we got the target. In the fog and snow it was not clear where we even were. The wind was blowing hydrogen sulphide vapours; there was a crater somewhere nearby; fragments of the volcano - four fused cones of stratovolcanoes; a fumarole field with a size of 440m x100 m; but absolutely nothing was visible. Volcano Mutnovsky is actually ugly, it is not shaped like a pyramid. It collapsed during past eruptions, its craters repeatedly collapsed and still continue to do so. 



Armed with sticks, we begin the ascent. It is about forty minutes to the first crater. The height of the volcano is 2323 meters, and we go a little lower. Between the sheer rocks, right along the wall of the volcano. It seems that the fog is thickening even more, but for the first time I am not upset because of the weather. I would include travelling to the crater, even in such weather, in my personal top-10 trips. This is absolutely true escapism.

 

In the first crater, I seem to get into a lesson in practical chemistry. Mutnovsky is an active volcano. And very lively, the last time it erupted was in 2000, and in all of history it has done it at least 16 times! Everywhere you look: fumaroles are puffing, thermal springs are boiling, and mud volcanoes are seething. On a windless day, gas emissions can reach several hundred meters. The fumarole field of the Mutnovsky volcano is considered one of the largest in the world. But in bad weather the scale of it is difficult to assess. In a foggy thick mixture, the sulphuric yellow fumes look especially impressive, it seems that they smoked throughout the whole district. 



On the way to the second crater we go down to the acidic river Vulkannaya. This is considered a complete alternative to the 'jelly river with gingerbread banks'. A large amount of minerals, acids and arsenic are dissolved in it. To fall into such a river means to disappear without a trace, even my camera and all evidence of my stay in Mutnovsky Crater would dissolve.



It is this river, rushing along the lava channel and breaking down as a waterfall into the Dangerous Canyon, which I saw earlier. It’s possible to have a decent scalding just by looking the fumarole “in the eye”, the temperature of the erupting volcanic gases recorded by scientists was 540 ° C, and just touching something can cause a burn. In general, there is one rule while being in the Mutnovsky crater  - do not touch anything at all. And wear thick-soled boots.

The second crater, the southwestern one, is loved by instagrammers: by August, a blue lake forms at the bottom of caldera, and stunning views of the snowfield open up. In good weather. But not today, of course. “Around this point, a gorgeous panorama of the crater opens up,” Dima assures me, pointing with his hand somewhere into the fog. Suddenly, a gust of wind blows dark clouds and the crater appears in all its glory, just appears right in front of me. I take a few shots and everything again immediately clouds up with a grey viscous fog. “Awesome!” I think to myself. And I understood that the volcano and I liked each other.

 

The lake in this Mutnovsky crater appeared recently. Volcanologists immediately drew attention to it. The appearance of the reservoir indicates a decrease in the activity of Mutnovsky. However, maybe this happened due to the fact that its neighbour, Gorely Volcano, had its own lake evaporate, because his "brother" was very active.

 

The way back is also fun - all the same stories with broken wheels, stuck cars. After pulling out the next jeep, Dima asks the driver, jokingly, how to get to the city. The guy explains for a very long time, and "Panda" listens with a serious look.

Having finally got out onto the road near Thermal village, it turned out that this was not the end. Dmitry and Alexey decided to show us the semi-wild sources in Karymshino. We turn off onto some secret road, drive through green thickets, over huge puddles that flood the windshield, until we stop on the riverbank.



"Uh, are you serious?” Understanding Dima’s intentions, I again tightly squeeze the handle 'Oh My Gosh'. Dima shrugs playfully and we literally swim into the river. To my surprise, I understand that the engine is working as it should, even though the hood had flooded with water. 

Having reached the opposite shore, I get out of the car to take pictures of  Alexey’s 'swim'. “That's why we love to come here so much,” says Dima, "There is almost no one here."



Having bathed in the source, we return to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. I warmly say goodbye to the guys and very much regret that I met them only at the end of my trip. But I promised myself that if I return to Kamchatka, I will call them first.

The Four Seasons of Russia project is supported by the Russian geographical society www.rgo.ru
Travel to Kamchatka is recommended by the Russian geographical society.

  

 

Also read about Kamchatka:
Kamchatka: Life-hacks and tips
Kuril Lake: something about the life of bears and humans
The Valley of Geysers
Avacha Bay
Volcanoes of Kamchatka
Climbing Mount Camel
The Small Valley of Geysers
Trekking to Vachkazhets Mountain range


Translation: Irina Romanova, Instagram: @astrabella1

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