Powder Keg


Things are getting a bit tense aboard the aging Aeroflot MI-8 helicopter crammed with 23 Russians, their skis, 650 gallons of fuel and a case of vodka. Vilyuchensky, one of Kamchatka's hundred-plus volcanoes, mushrooms beneath the starboard side, and suddenly the MI-8 careens sideways toward the crater. I'm struggling to keep my balance on the red hydraulic fluid that smears the deck when one of the Russians gives me a thumbs-up. I pray he's the mechanic.

Running alongside Russia's Pacific Coast, the 750-mile-long Kamchatka Peninsula is part of the Ring of Fire, a chain of volcanoes that encircles the Pacific Basin. Nearly every kind of volcanic activity is observable here, from fissure eruptions that spew searing lava to the geysers that spout off across the landscape. Rising to an elevation of 15,000 feet, glacier-ringed cones hem a wild mix of birch forests and snow-coated plains between the Bering Sea and Sea of Okhostsk. Once a Soviet military outpost, Kamchatka has opened to ski tourism with a season that runs from December to June. Most of Kamchatka's volcanoes have long been dormant. Twenty-eight, however, shiver with life. We're going to ski two of them.

Among the eager Alney Ski Club members crowding the bird are housewives, accountants, students and engineers—none of whom appear worried about the lack of visibility above the 7,136-foot volcano's sheer eastern face. I'm within seconds of a nervous breakdown when Vladimir Shetsov, club president, yanks open the port hatch and starts pitching skis into the acrid volcanic fog. Ten feet or a hundred, there's no telling how high we are when lawyer Valery Saratsev hucks himself into the whiteout. I'm hustled forward and have no choice but to windmill into the void.

I fall six feet from the MI-8 into fresh powder, and the club quickly splits into groups. Mine follows a spine that runs between two bowls, spitting us down a chute cradled by two towering, red-lava walls. The lines from the summit—25- to 40-degree pitches—are mantled with powder. With 5,249 feet of vertical, a hundred turns make no dent in this huge cone. We ski until the sun cooks the snow to corn.

Breathless and exhausted, I stop to rest in view of a neighboring volcano, 7,621-foot Mutnovsky. A plume of sulfurous steam wafts from its crater. My guide, Sergey, stops beside me. "Tomorrow we fly to this volcano and ski into crater," he shouts, adding, rather unnecessarily, "You will see, it will be great adventure!"

Air access to Kamchatka's capital of Petropavlovsk is from either Moscow or Anchorage. Tour operator Lost World Tours offers trips from $4,500 per person. Contact 011-7-4152-498-328; travelkamchatka.com