A stone’s throw from Alaska, on a remote spit of land at the edge of the former Soviet Union, lies a lesser-known heli paradise. British freeride guide Neil McNab introduces the unique landscape of Kamchatka, while photographer Daniel Tengs takes us through his own recent visit with the Pirates crew.
So where do you want to go?
I scour the map. Endless mountains stretch out in three directions; the fourth is the sea. The roar of the turbines is increasing steadily, the blades above thrashing the otherwise still air into a frenzy. Finally, with a shake of immense power, the huge Russian Mi8 Helicopter frees itself from the snow in which it seemed stuck, lifts rapidly upwards – rotating at the same time – and we are away.
We fly North, choosing peaks, drop zones and pick-up spots. Immense descents lie in wait, and we’re learning to recognise the conditions as we go, finding altitudes and aspects that are working and scoring amazing line after amazing line… This no-rules snowboarding Kamchatka style – the wild frontier of the heli-drop world and home to some of the greatest freeriding terrain on the planet.
Kamchatka is about as far from the UK as you can get whilst staying in the Northern Hemisphere. You probably know it best as a key strategic point in the ‘world domination’ board game Risk. And indeed, during the Cold War years this isolated peninsular – located just a short hop across the Bering Strait from Alaska – was completely closed off to outsiders and stacked with enough missiles to see off the rest of the world many times over.
Today – post Soviet Union – a rotten, leaking nuclear submarine base, some dilapidated fighter jets hidden away in the woods and a few war museums are all that is left of the immense military power that was once stationed here.
It is only within the past two decades that Kamchatka opened its doors to Russian visitors, and more recent still that it has become a popular destination for those seeking the thrills of heli-boarding amongst the province’s wild and unspoilt mountains. Add this to the cost effectiveness of sharing a huge ex-military chopper (capable of carrying groups of 12) and a lack of rules about where you can go or can't go, and the attractiveness of the whole package puts it right up there amongst the best adventure destinations anywhere.
I first heli-guided in Kamchatka about 10 years ago, when very little had changed since its fall from grace as a super sized launch pad for armageddon. Back then, devoid of tourism, the accommodation was somewhat prison-like and in a massive state of decay. Off-the-hill activities, meanwhile, were limited to getting thrashed with a branch in a 100 degree sauna or the safer option of a game of cards. With little industry (the fishing rights for the waters beyond the main port of Petropavlovsk had long since been sold to the Japanese) the locals scratched out a living selling farmed caviar and smoked salmon to the handful of visitors that, sick of playing cards, passed through when the weather was too bad to fly.
“During the Cold War years this isolated peninsular was closed off to outsiders and stacked with enough missiles to see off the rest of the world many times over"
Fast forward to today and a flash four-wheel-drive Jeep, rather than an old battered Lada, is more than likely to be your ride into town – where fast food and good coffee awaits. The rawness and decay is still very much there, but an influx of money from out of town is evident everywhere as gaudy modern-day Russia floods in at the pace of two direct flights per week from Moscow.
The Kamchatka peninsula is the most volcanic region on our planet, with some 160 volcanoes – 29 of which are currently active. In a highly questionable location for a major town, Petropavlovsk sits beneath the towering cone of one of these – the active Koryaksky volcano – where its residents benefit from abundant free hot water and underfloor heating. The spit of land is some 1250km long in total, with mountains spread throughout. In terms of terrain it has it all: alpine steeps in the interior; open powder slopes that meet the sea in the southern fjords; great tree runs in the lower valleys; and immense lava flow channels that can run from 3000+m right to the beach.
The wilderness is immense here and you can feel the mighty power of the planet right beneath your feet. Such is the strangeness of the landscape that the Soviet space programme tested its ‘moonwalker’ vehicles here back in the day. Fields of hardened lava give way to high peaks and glaciers. Add hissing, spitting volcanoes to the mix and you’re at the next level. Ride powder couloirs on the north faces, or enjoy spring corn snow to the south – where open lava chutes, curling windlips and trees await. Ride until your legs can take no more, eat some freshly smoked salmon on the beach and then head back up for an afternoon session, before relaxing in a naturally heated pool with a fresh one in your hand. Just make sure you avoid being eaten by bears as you hike back to the heli and get ready to do it all over again the next day… and the next…
Yeah, there's good reason that I finish my season in Kamchatka. Is it wrong that I’m already looking forward to spring when the whole season lies before me?
We flew in over Petropavlovsk, and it almost felt like the pilot was doing a victory lap. The mountains were just beautiful, with insane lines as far as the eye could see.
Taxiing towards the so-called ‘terminal’, I could see old fighter planes and bombers stashed away beneath the trees.
“Just make sure you avoid being eaten by bears as you hike back to the heli"
It seems there are still some hang-ups from the time when this place was a secret military base. As I walked from the plane to the Auschwitz-style exit gate some army types came up to me and told me to put the camera away. “Picture NO-NO!"
The ‘Kamchatka Statue’ features the local symbol: two bears. There are bears all over Russia, of course, but this remote peninsula is home to a unique sub-species known as the Kamchatka (or Far Eastern) brown bear.
After an epic Russian breakfast (porridge, pancakes, eggs, honey, sausage, cheese, and caviar) we got the sleds going. The weather was perfect – bluebird and no wind – and after about an hour we spotted something crazy in the distance. Smoke was coming out of the mountain! We kept stopping every few hundred metres to take more pictures, until it became apparent that we were actually going to go inside the crater and see the volcano close up.
Towards the end of the day the weather began to close in and the guide was getting stressed. He grabbed his backpack and suggested we get the fuck off this volcano. So we did, but the mist was so thick that Heiko (the filmer) and I lost the other guys. With the constant noise from the mountain it was hard to hear where the others were yelling from, and the smoke form the crater was heavy to breathe.
We were starting to freak out. Thankfully we got out of there eventually, and on the way back to our lodge the weather cleared up. There was a dark cloud surrounding the volcano, though, and we were glad to be off it.
On our first trip back to town we ate a huge pizza each. I was so happy to eat something normal – even if I did find myself peeling slices of cucumber off the ham. Russians! All filled up, we took a look around. There was a big statue of Stalin, a cold war tank, and some awesome views over the city with the stunning Koryaksky volcano in the background.
“This is no-rules snowboarding Kamchatka style – the wild frontier of the heli-drop world and home to some of the greatest freeriding terrain on the planet"
The next day we jumped back on the sleds to explore a new zone. On our way, beside a village, we came across what appear to be a snowed-in helicopter. It turned out one of the locals – an old guy called Vasilich – had turned it into a crib you could rent out.
The cockpit was now a reading room enjoying panoramic views of the valley, while inside the fuselage he’d fitted two beds.
The snow has proved to be way better over 800m, so we have agreed that tomorrow we will fly. After dinner we looked at some maps and talked to the pilot.
He says he will bring up a small version of the Mi8, the Mi2. Really excited!
We could hear the heli before we could see it. As a distant roar filled the valley, the adrenaline levels were rising. The first glimpse we got was of a white thing with lots of black smoke trailing behind. “Great, it’s already burning," said Freddy. We were all a bit nervous about jumping in this old Russian machine, but after a minute or so in the air we all felt pretty comfortable. There were no seats, so we all sat on the floor, and no headsets to talk to the pilot. Instead we were issued with yellow ear protectors.
“’Don’t lean too much on the door," said the pilot, ‘The lock is not too good.’"
Heiko wanted to film out of the heli, so he asked if we could open the door. But the pilot said he had a better plan. He took out a screwdriver and a few seconds later he had detached the window. “Don’t lean too much on the door," he said, “The lock is not too good." Thanks pilot.
We flew a total of three hours and found plenty of lines. The terrain is insane and largely undiscovered. The snow was a little bit baked, but we got some good pockets of dry pow in the shadowy north-facing runs. We don’t know for sure, but Freddy might even have scored a first decent on one line.
After shooting a cool jump through the trees, Freddy and I jumped on a sled to scope out some more kicker spots. 25 minutes from base, during a steep climb, we hit a bump. The sled went right when we needed to go left. I jumped off while Freddy gave it full throttle but he clipped a small tree and had to bail out himself. The sled went on to hit another big tree at high speed, then sped off down the hill, over a flat area, and into the river. I could hear Freddy calling out in pain. Luckily we’d brought a radio and called back to base. Our guide Alexander answered and sent out a rescue team. Freddy seemed to have escaped any fractures but was still in agony. We left the sled in the river as it was getting dark. When we got back, Alex just said: "Tomorrow fix sled. I have solution."
It was four meters down to the creek bed but, true to their word, the Russians got the sled tipped back upright and it started on the second try. They gave it full throttle and drove it out of the water. We towed it back and assessed the damage. The ski was twisted really badly, the steering was also bent, and the front bumper was pushed all the way in, but it was a lot better than we feared. The repairs were still pricey, 1500 euros with no insurance option – it is Russia after all.
“Freddy got so mad he chucked his board away – except this time, it landed in the bottom of a 400 degree active volcano"
We went out with a group of rich Russian bankers who offered to pay for the heli if we brought Marco and our camera gear. The Mi8 is like a massive bus with rotor blades – 18 people this thing can carry! The sun had been out for almost two weeks now, with no fresh snowfall, but there were still some fun pockets of pow to be found and it was beautiful to fly around this incredible coastline.
The last day. It is 06.50 when we wake up and grab some breakfast while the sleds are warming up. Our guide is a few minutes late, as most Russians are, but we set off pretty much on schedule. The anticipation is already there, and the pressure is on to get some bangers. Freddy got straight to work with some beautiful powder turns on the slopes of our ‘home’ volcano.
We kept exploring further into the crater, where we saw a good handplant spot. It took an hour to get it working. Freddy kept trying but his ribs were still hurting badly and he was getting frustrated. In fact he got so mad, he did what all snowboarders do: he chucked his board away – except this time, it landed in the bottom of a 400 degree active volcano. We figured that was a fitting end to the trip!
Kamchatka is a unique landscape inhabited by some colourful people. When the snow conditions are right, it really is an amazing place.
Kamchatka – Comin' At Ya?
If you're a snowboarder and heading to Kamchatka for some heli time you'll enjoy it a lot more if you can fit in with a group of like-minded snowboarders – and more still if you can get a snowboarding guide who can spot lines that are rider friendly and challenging. There's so much terrain available, but as a snowboarder you'll be looking to play with it a lot differently than the typical skier groups that head there.
Considering it’s half way around the world, getting to Kamchatka is surprisingly easy. There are two flights a week from Moscow to Petropavolosk (the main town in Kam). One is mid week and the other is on a Saturday. It’s a 9-hour flight (give or take) and a 12-hour time difference, so you'll lose half a day in time travel. Expect to pay around £500 from London.
It used to be a pain in the arse travelling through Moscow as you needed to change airports, but they re-built the Sheremetyevo airport for the Olympics and all flights are from there, so everything is a lot simpler now. You need to fly into Moscow a day early though to be sure you'll get the connecting flight with all your luggage. You can find hotels surrounding the airport such as the Novotel which is right outside the terminal building, a short walk away.
Heli-boarding in Kamchatka is more economical because with the MI8 you share the costs with 11 other people. These helis are massive, powerful machines that can lift tanks, so with 12 of you in there plus two or three guides and three crew it still flies as if empty! And for such a big beast, it’s amazing where they can drop you off. Expect a day’s heli to cost you around £400-500 – still pricey, but for this you'll get some serious vertical miles under your board.
Most people book a package with accommodation, transport and heli time included. At McNab Snowboarding we base ourselves in a spa centre with a naturally heated pool – the heli comes and picks us up in the morning at the hotel. In the old days we used to drive to the heli port and wait to be assigned a heli, but with more and more groups every year this can be a bit of a pain. The new deal is great: breakfast, grab your kit and out the door to the heli.
As tourism starts to get a grip, there are more and more things to do on non-flying days, including a very basic ski area in Petro, but you should still take entertainment in case a storm sets in. The best season is from early April through to mid May. Early on you're probably going to get colder snow but short days and harsher weather; later you'll get warmer, longer days and spring snow – but there’s still powder to be found on the north faces. It can snow right through until late May so there's no real rule about when is the best period.
As with all outdoor sports the conditions play a big part in what happens, and with heli trips the weather sets the rules so be prepared for things to get shut down. There's nothing you can do about it and it normally means it’s dumping out in the mountains, so you’ll just have to wait it out and hope you get the goods once it clears. That said, the climate in Kamchatka is generally pretty stable – I've only ever been shut down once, which meant I only got two days of riding in the week… but in those two days we hit 30,000 vertical meters of descent and didn't cross another track! In my experience, even though it’s so far away, it has always been worth the wait!
McNab Snowboarding are running two snowboard-specific heli trips to Kamchatka this coming season, priced £5695 including food, transfers, three guides, safety gear and 8 hours heli time (enough for several days). For more info check out mcnabsnowboarding.com