A travel report by team rider Tobias Woggon and photographer Philip Ruopp.
Tobias Woggon - Tour du Nord
There was no question in my mind: I wanted to travel to Kamchatka. More specifically: I wanted to travel to the Klyuchevskaya Sopka plateau. I wanted to see the sun rise from behind the Tolbachik volcano and I wanted to bike down the mountain against this breathtaking backdrop. This was my dream and I was going to make it a reality no matter how complicated it would be to get there. And complicated was an understatement, as Philip and I soon realized when we set about planning the journey. First of all, we needed a Russian visa. Foreigners cannot simply enter the country on a whim – we needed an official invitation from a local. For lack of a better option, we transferred money to a Russian travel agency which claimed to organize these invitations. We were sceptical at first, but we did indeed end up receiving an invitation and our visa application was successful. Now there was nothing standing in the way of our trip. We finally began our journey east at the end of August. We first flew from Stuttgart to Moscow, where we wanted to spend a few days exploring the city before flying further east. As far east as we could. This meant embarking on the longest domestic flight in the world – from Moscow to Petropavlovsk.
After eight hours in the air – most of which I spent asleep due to the soporific effects of the grizzled Russian dialogue in the in-flight films – the plane reached its destination. Even from the plane, it was clear that this was a whole new world entirely. After spending almost two weeks in Kamchatka visiting nearby volcanoes and sailing around the Bering Sea in a catamaran, we set off from Petropavlovsk in a Kamaz, a gigantic Russian off-road truck with a passenger cabin, and headed north. The most important item on our agenda was the trip to Tolbachik, a picturesque yet imposing 3,682metre high volcano in the north of the country which was to be the crowning glory of our trip. I simply had to see the sun rise from behind this mountain! This was the dream that had taken root within me while researching the journey.
However, during the last days of the trip, the weather on the plateau was so bad that it would have been pointless to make the long trek just to stand at the foot of Tolbachik, not see anything and probably be snowed in for good measure. Even without taking weather concerns into consideration, the trek was never going to be a walk in the park. By this time, it was mid-September and the weather was getting tangibly colder and more unpredictable. We got incredibly lucky when a spell of good weather was predicted for the next few days. Deciding to make the most of the opportunity, we set off for Tolbachik. We would have to spend over one week in the area around the volcano – hours away from the next supermarket and even further away from the nearest hotel. This was an undertaking which required a lot of planning. Only some of our guides had been this far up in the mountains before, so they were almost as excited as we were. Before setting off, Alex, our head guide, was certain that we would need eight hours to get to the first campsite. However, we had learned how to interpret his statements based on previous trips, and knew that we should add at least one third to his estimations. And that’s on a good day.
Several hours later, the forest began to thin out and we were able to catch our first glimpses of the lava fields through the trees. These were remnants of one of the volcano’s last big eruptions in 1976, where lava had carved a path deep into the forests below. Another hour later, we found ourselves standing in the middle of one of these lava fields, surrounded by dead, gnarled trees. These had simply been desiccated in the hot wind that blew down into the valley during an eruption, and now served as attachments to which we fixed our tents. We camped there for three days, with the weather refusing to cooperate. Either it poured with rain or it was so foggy that we couldn’t see the volcanoes around us. Alex used his satellite phone to call Petropavlovsk every evening to check the latest weather forecast. Finally we received some good news: the forecast for the following day looked promising. The aim was to climb a volcano near our camp, where we hoped to have a good view of Tolbachik. Although carrying the bike would make hiking the trail difficult, it wouldn’t be impossible. Filled with hope, we went to bed early so as to be able to be on our way well before sunrise the following day. The sky was still filled with stars as we packed our things together and set off in the direction of the volcano.
The ascent was hard work with the bike on my back and the path led us over rough terrain, illuminated only by the light of our headlamps. At some point, we were able to make out the snowcovered outline of Tolbachik in the dawn. White and majestic, the conical volcano towered over the black landscape of hardened lava. Seeing it, we knew why we had made the long journey to the east of Russia. We reached the vantage point on the summit of our volcano just before sunrise and could already tell where the sun would rise from behind Tolbachik. It was unbelievable – exactly the moment I had been dreaming of. The moment I had been telling Philip about the whole time and which I had used to lure him here had come. Months of preparation, bureaucracy, setbacks and, of course, the strains of travel, the cold nights in a tent and the long days in the spartan Kamaz: we had endured it all and now we were finally here, standing on the edge of the vast lava desert with a view of Tolbachik on one side and a view of the far-off Pacific Ocean on the other, with nothing but countless kilometres of wilderness between them. There were only a few more minutes to wait until we experienced the majestic sunrise and I would have the pleasure of biking against this incredible backdrop. Until that morning, it wasn’t even clear if we would ever manage to see the mountain at sunrise. And suddenly, after almost four weeks of travelling, we stood there in the knowledge that we had reached our goal. We paused for a brief moment to take it all in. Then, the first rays of sunlight peeked over the horizon and it was time for me to get on my bike.
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