Climbing Kamchatka's Volcanoes
"No-hooo way.. I'm not going up there."
Standing a few kilometers below a heaving Tolbachik Volcano, my fear alarm went off. In this moment, I was talking myself out of ascending the final leg of the massive beast as it spit chunks of molten rock into the air. A tantruming child throwing dirt in protest.
"Weeeelll," started our guide, Victor, with his blond wispy bun and detached gaze, more closely resembled my friends from Venice Beach than a native Kamchatkan. "We're going, but when I say 'Run!' you have to get across the ridge as fast as you can. You only have a couple of seconds. You don't want to be under those lava rocks when they come down."
He pointed to the morbid firework show going on up above us just as another series of black magma careened into the sky, followed by thunderous gurgle from the crater inside. Sacrificial virgin to the Siberian gods? Heeeeck no.
"That looks insane. Isn't there at least a rope or something?"
The three German friends I was traveling with, Victor and my husband all looked at me. "Well, Sam.. it could be deadly with those flying chunks, especially if a big one lands on your head. But it's up to you," said Michael. My husband, with all his German pragmatism, always had a way of saying it as it was. Danke Schön.
In the days before Tolbachik, we'd forged our way across the peninsula by Kamaz military transport, had unexpected visits in the night by Siberian bears looking for a snack, and scaled the lava fields exploring the unadultered landscape.
Kamchatka, roughly above Japan and not far from Alaska, is called 'The Land of Fire and Ice' for it's southernmost expanse of Arctic tundra along with 160 volcanoes.. 30 or so active. It is one the world's last pristine wildernesses and some of the most inhospitable terrain in the Russian Empire. A military post during the Cold War, it was off-limits to outsiders until recently.
The volcano surged another time overhead. We had heard that a nearby one had increased activity at it's crater earlier that day, meaning that this one was surlier than usual, too.
"Was willst du?" I asked my friend Katharina, who was also not keen on taking a cinder to the skull. What do you want to do?
"Da wird doch der Hund in der Pfanne verrückt," she replied, her crystal blue eyes looking at me with the flash of humor that had brought us so close together on this trip. Being the only females on the trip, we'd grown extremely tight over the course of the past few weeks, and she'd taught me this Bavarian saying, something about a crazy dog in a pan, on the first day. Basically, she was going.
That is the amazing thing about traveling. We would be forever bound by this experience, something that no language barrier could intercept, or faded by any lapse of time. Our shared sense of vulnerability, and humor, were imprinted into the side of this rock like fossils of the human experience.
I adjusted my backpack and swiped my hair out of my face, looking up once more to the toiling plumes of smoke and sulphur. I guess I was doing the sacrificial virgin thing after all. I started up the side of the great cone, following the group towards my destiny.