Kamchatka – The Land of Fire and Ice | Mountain Sledder
Cody McNolty | On 20, Jul 2018
With a large military presence at the small airport, it felt like a scene from a Cold War movie when I touched down in Kamchatka. The people seemed kind but shy, and as I stood in the cold at the outdoor baggage claim I was alone, and not totally sure what to do.
Featured image by Simon Selberg
Just then an SUV, jacked-up on huge mud tires, pulled up. Out popped a young man and woman. They were my contacts here, and they greeted me kindly in sparse English. Immediately we set off into the town of Kamchatka to pickup supplies, food and some craft beer for my stay on the peninsula.
Once stocked up, we travelled for hours out of town on skinny, paved roads. We were headed towards our remote destination, where we would be filming a segment for a new sledding film. Along the way, my hosts and I talked, shared words from each other’s language and became friends. The last hour of driving was along a side road that had never been plowed; the snow had been packed down just enough by 4×4 commercial vehicles travelling over it to make it passable. After some temporary stucks and a few stops to drop off supplies at homes along the way, we finally arrived at the illustrious Snow Valley Lodge, deep in Kamchatka.
I had never heard of Snow Valley Lodge before. But I know now that for decades it has hosted Olympic athletes, professional skiers and snowboarders like Travis Rice, and many famous actors from Europe. It was there that I met up with the rest of the international crew of producers, filmers and riders. We made fast plans to start riding and filming the next morning.
Kamchatka – The Land of Fire and Ice
I honestly can’t tell you why, but ever since I was a child I have dreamed of travelling to Russia in the winter.
Back in the spring of 2016, my phone rang with a strange country code and a number I didn’t recognize. That was not terribly surprising, considering that I am lucky to have friends and family all over the world. But when I answered, an unforgettable voice with a Swedish accent replied, “Hey buddy!” It was my friend Simon Selberg, calling from his home in Stockholm.
I had only ever met Simon in person once—in Revelstoke back in Winter 2015—when we had doubled on a ratty old Polaris over open-water (in street shoes no less) to access a hot spring. He was calling to ask if I wanted to be part of a film project called Fresh Set of Tracks. It would consist of three snowmobile athletes travelling to three countries over the course of multiple seasons. Fresh Set of Tracks would be the very first international backcountry sledding documentary. I replied immediately: “I’m in!”
That spring, the production team was assembled. The filming would be undertaken by Simon and his colleague Rickard Lövgren. Secondary camera work would be provided by Joachim Hygglo. These three would also be responsible for the effort required to raise endorsement and sponsorship for this bold and expensive project. Next, three international snowmobile athletes were selected: Simon would represent Sweden; Duncan Lee, the United States; and me, Canada. Finally, the first location of the Fresh Set of Tracks project was announced.
And that’s how it came to be that in February 2017, I embarked on a 55-hour commute from Vancouver to the southeast region of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.
New Zones Under Bluebird Skies
At 6am the next morning, I don’t think I had ever been so excited. I felt like a puppy, bouncing and shaking and tripping over my own feet. We went into the lodge and sat down to a homemade breakfast with fresh fruit, Russian-style pancakes, oatmeal (I think?) and scrambled eggs. We took our packed lunches and thermoses and headed out to our sleds, where we met our guides, Volva and Jussi.
The snow was warm the first couple days of riding, with conditions similar to what’s regularly found in the Coast Range back home in BC. We found epic trees and valleys to ride. Those initial days were spent filming tree lines and descent lines while we battled foggy conditions. Riding Ski-Doo Summits clutched for sea-level elevation was an element of riding new to me! The response and upshifting of the secondary made the 800cc sleds feel like completely different machines!
Land of Fire and Ice
Every mountain snowmobiler knows that feeling you get the first time you see a new zone under bluebird skies. Now imagine that experience, but in a foreign land, on a peninsula that is actively volcanic and covered by several meters of snow. Imagine waking up and knowing that you are going to cover over 100km on a snowmobile that day. You’re going to ride to then hike into an active volcano. For the riders and crew of Fresh Set of Tracks, this imagination was our reality.
Temperatures reaching nearly -30°C that morning made for bitter conditions to cover the big, open mountain terrain we would need to traverse to make our destination. The vast landscape we crossed made my local zones back home in Whistler and Pemberton seem tiny by comparison.
In Kamchatka, the mountainous backcountry isn’t used only by adventurous snowmobilers, skiers and snowboarders like it is back home. There is an entire industrial zone out there! Large bulldozers build snow roads, while tracked-vehicles transport workers into power plants that use the heat from the volcanic earth to create electric power. Seeing such industry as we passed through on our sleds was truly remarkable.
Exploring Active Volcanos
By early afternoon we arrived at an active volcano. We set out to climb up, over and inside. The path up the volcano looked sketchy though. As we walked up, I turned to my Russian guide and asked, “Is this really the best way in?” He looked at me as if I had asked a stupid question. In his Russian accent he replied, “Of course!” So we continued our climb. Once up and over, we were warm enough to sit on bare earth and strip down to our t-shirts to have lunch. Words cannot describe the feeling of sitting there while active, heated sulphuric pressures were released out of the volcano, reaching all the way to the sky.
By the time we made it back to Snow Valley Lodge that evening we were cold, tired and hungry. Yet we were left feeling more satisfied than any other day on the mountains before.
Over the next few days, the weather provided us with more bluebird skies. And we had the opportunity to discover how far these vast mountain ranges spread. Simon and Rickard were able to capture some truly breathtaking footage, and the snow happened to be pretty freaking amazing too!
New Friends and Life-Changing Experiences
As the trip wound down at the end, I parted ways with the crew. Filming the first continent of this project had been a huge success. It proved that a group of passionate snowmobilers are capable of doing anything that is created within the realm of their synergy. And most importantly, I learned that when you’re in Russia, “Vodka is ultimate Russian translator.”
I headed for home with some life-changing experiences packed with me. The staff of Snow Valley Lodge and our guides had become more than friends; they had become family. Their kindness and genuine character will stay with me forever. Kamchatka had lived up to its reputation as the land of “fire and ice”, and I was mesmerized by it.
To the kind, generous, passionate and wonderful people of Kamchatka, thank you dearly for letting us capture your beauty as part one of Fresh Set Of Tracks. I will be back! Until then, “doh svee dah nee yah” (good-bye)!