Earlier attempts to visit Mutnovsky volcano had failed because of adverse weather conditions. Even while Petropavlovsk had bright skies, there were too strong winds on the volcano, and it had been snowing so much that vehicles had to come back without reaching the volcano. One guide told me that the season was over: it would be possible to go there in a couple of months, using snow mobiles. So I am happy to hear that a trip is planned; I even postpone my departure from Kamchatka for it. I am picked up when it is still dark, and the driver enthusiastically talks about volcanoes. It soon becomes clear he does not only know a lot, but he also loves his volcanoes and is eager to share his love with us. Too bad I only understand some of the words he says; the Russian tourists coming along at times give me a short recap of what the guide has said. Another vehicle joins us at a small stream where we taste the delicious cold mountain water while the drivers deflate the tires. It is obvious that it is not going to be a clear day when the darkness of the night lifts as we drive through Vilyuchinsky valley. There is less snow than when I passed through here a week before on my way to the Lesser Valley of Geysers, on the flanks of Mutnovsky Volcano. We now take a turn from the main dirt road to the right, and soon drive through desolate landscape of black rocks, sand, mountain flanks largely hidden in clouds on our left. The driver is now enjoying the challenging terrain, and where our vehicle had looked ready to tackle any terrain, it is really put to the test. There are steep, snowy sections, leading straight into rocky riverbeds with patches of deep snow.
The clouds thin out when we get a little higher: when we drive up a snow-covered ledge, sunlight is making the white contrast sharply against the dark grey clouds behind it. We stop, and it turns out we are on the edge of a deep canyon. Below us, we see a stream of water hurling itself into the abyss below: the Opasnyy (danger) waterfall. Icicles hang on the sides of the canyon. We cautiously walk the slippery and steep slopes covered in snow and ice, to see more of the canyon. On the other side of it, the white flanks of an enormous mountain rise up into the clouds: Mutnovsky Volcano. We have arrived. Almost. After a snack and some welcome warm tea, we continue for a few more minutes, get our warm cloths out, and head out for the final stretch to the crater of the volcano. Again, it is amazing how a relatively little altitude gain can make the snow so much deeper. We briefly stop at a wooden cross, erected for a researcher who unfortunately fell to his death in one of the fumaroles in the crater a couple of years before. While we stand here to take in the views, the clouds lift, and slowly but surely, snow-covered mountains are appearing through banks of fog. Towards the west, we now see the enormous Gorely volcano appear, a big plume of smoke coming out of its crater. A majestic sight. What follows is a steep slope with icy snow, which we have to traverse. I make sure to kick my shoes into the snow here - crampons would have been useful. We have arrived at the valley that leads straight into the crater now. The mountain stream coming down here ends up as the Oposnyy waterfall we have seen before. The guides are now excitedly pointing at fresh bear footprints in the snow, and follow them down the valley for a little while. Unfortunately, we do not see a sign of the furry animals, so we continue on our way up. Across the valley, we see huge icicles and icefalls coming down from the rocky cliffs. But the most spectacular part is still to come.
At one point, one of the guides gets a mid-size rock, and hurls it into an opening on the side of the valley, under a thick layer of snow. We can hear it falling for several seconds, and can only guess the depth of the valley below us. It basically means we are walking on a thick crust of snow and ice which, deep below, has open spaces through which the river runs. A little higher up, we get a better picture of this when we see the mountain stream come out of a tunnel of ice and snow. We resume climbing, over slippery slopes, and in the back of my mind, I am already dreading the descent on our way back. Then, we reach a higher level inside the crater, offering us views of snowy slopes below, with columns of steam rising from the flanks. It turns out the crater of Mutnovsky volcano is full of geothermal activity: hissing hot air coming out of openings in the earth, stained yellow by the sulphur. We see pools where mud is boiling violently, and thread carefully on the stained ground. As one of the guides points out, this is an ever-changing landscape: pools will disappear, while others will open up. We make our way down to the river that runs through the crater, on its long way through the valley and down the waterfall to join the Mutnaya river and feed the Pacific. The stream is clear and cold, until a spot where milk-coloured hot spring mixed with the mountain stream and continues as a steaming river through the otherworldly landscape. A geyser a little further downstream adds more hot water to the mix. When we walk back through the steamy area, I cover my mouth with a hand to avoid inhaling the gases coming from the fumaroles. As expected, going down the steep slope turns into a slippery affair. Back at the car, we drive down the slopes, arrive at a wooden shack where we have lunch. It is getting late, and I suppose we will now drive back to the city, but instead, we go for a walk on the glacier in the valley below. Then, to my surprise, we see an opening in the glacier, and step inside, under the dripping ice. A long tunnel appears, carved out over many years by nature. We walk through it, until we reach the end. At some thinner parts, the ceiling is blue-white. I was already very satisfied by our exploration of Mutnovsky volcano, but this just makes the day perfect.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Mutnovsky volcano (Russia). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Mutnovsky volcano. Read more about this site.