Russia's Frozen Inferno
By Jeremy Schmidt
Perched on a tee of shaded ice, a boulder temporarily rests on Mutnovsky volcano's melting, debris-encrusted glacier. Explorer Franck Tessier scaled the red rock for a better view of one of the mountain's craters as it steamed toxic fumes into the sky (background). With author Jeremy Schmidt and photographer Carsten Peter, Tessier spent a month probing both the fire and ice of Russia's geothermal hot spot, Kamchatka Peninsula.

When the German naturalist Georg Steller came to Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula in 1740, he got a crash course in geology from the native Itelmen people. Having lived for untold generations in this land of smoke and ferment, the Itelmen knew exactly how volcanoes work.

Eruptions were caused by gomuls, they told Steller—ghosts of the Earth who lurked in volcanoes' cavernous craters. When hungry, they would leave their volcano and hunt the ocean for whales, grasping them with enormous, spear-shaped fingers and hauling them home to eat. Over huge bonfires the gomuls roasted mountains of whale flesh, sending clouds of smoke and vapor billowing up to the heavens. Rivers of boiling whale fat streamed down the slopes. The Earth shook, and whale bones flew through the air. Only when the gomuls were satisfied did the volcano fall back into steamy silence.

Steller, who later left Kamchatka to join Vitus Bering's second expedition to the North Pacific, asked how the Itelmen knew all this. They had found whale bones on the mountain slopes, they said. A few brave souls had even stolen to the rim of the crater, peered in, and seen the monsters' lair.

Pristine surface of Karymsky Lake masks a violent past: A 1996 underwater eruption spewed an ash column nearly five miles (8 kilometers) high and forged a small inner crater (foreground). Ash choked the air. Wildlife perished when muddy waves plastered the shoreline and acid poisoned the water. As the lake's acidity dilutes, plants and animals gradually return—surviving the violent moods of this turbulent land.

More than 260 years later the Kamchatka Peninsula is still a hot and shaky place, a 750-mile-long (1,200-kilometer-long) scimitar of land frequently jolted by eruptions—big, explosive eruptions—in a string of volcanoes that is one of the most volatile on Earth. Of Kamchatka's hundred-plus volcanoes, 29 are active. The largest, Klyuchevskoy, pours out an average of 60 million tons (54 metric tons) of basalt a year.

Late last summer I spent a month in Kamchatka stalking volcanic eruptions with a team that included French explorers Franck Tessier and Irène Margaritis, German photographer Carsten Peter, and a Russian guide named Feodor Farberov. Carsten—41, blond, and buzzing with energy—has spent his life documenting volcanoes with a camera. The closer he gets, the better he likes it.

Not so Feodor, a stolid, muscular, bearded mountaineer of 39. The son of two volcanologists, he was born in a village at the foot of Klyuchevskoy and grew up with the dangers and discomforts of volcano research. In the field "volcanic ash covered everything," he recalled. "Our water, our air, even our food tasted and smelled of sulfur." Having seen "enough eruptions for a lifetime," Feodor likes his mountains cold, quiet, and covered with snow for skiing.

Bezymianny, one of the dozen volcanoes that make up the peninsula's Klyuchevskoy group, was thought to be dormant until 1955, when it suddenly began to shake and swell and spew. On March 30, 1956, it exploded, enveloping the vicinity in a shroud of ash. Within two days the ash cloud reached Alaska, and two days later it was detected over the British Isles. The explosion flattened trees 15 miles (24 kilometers) away. Like Mount St. Helens, it started with a giant avalanche, then blew out sideways, leaving a yawning horseshoe-shaped crater.

Since 1956 Bezymianny has continued to erupt periodically, and when we started out to explore its blast zone, I found myself leaning toward Carsten's view of things. Echoing in my ears was the dinner toast we'd heard in the home of a Kamchatka scientist: "Please God, send to us the dreadful eruptions!"

To photograph Tessier in one of Mutnovsky's steaming craters, Peter grappled not only with stinging eyes and his own cumbersome gas mask but also with his gear. Sulfuric gases quickly corrode a camera's inner workings; changing film required both a protected place and a deft hand. Winds cleared the steam for just milliseconds, allowing Peter only an instant to capture the crater wall's brilliant sulfur deposits: "I was improvising all the time because the conditions were so difficult."

We hiked through soft ash, sinking knee-deep at times, climbed heaps of shattered rock, and scrambled in and out of ragged gorges. Through wind and whipping clouds we climbed to the crater's broken rim and looked over. The inner cliffs dropped hundreds of feet (a hundred meters or so) to a circular channel ringing a new mountain rising from the ruins of the old—a huge dome of smoking rock, its summit towering above us.

On the floor of the channel sprawled a field of ice and snow blackened by cinders and split by crevasses that gaped white in the enveloping mists. As we clung to the sharp edge, the dome hurled showers of rock from its steep sides. When large boulders hit the ice below, they left white wounds in the dark surface.

One of Kamchatka's full-time volcanologists is Eugene Vakin. Much of his work has been on Mutnovsky, a complex structure with multiple active craters on a single massif. In March 2000, steam blasts rocked one of the craters while within it a glacier began to collapse. A large section of the glacier vanished, and a green acidic lake, 650 feet (200 meters) in diameter, appeared amid the broken ice. This kind of activity, Vakin told us, indicates that Mutnovsky is heating up and signals the possibility of even bigger eruptions.

We set out just after dawn to follow a turbid river up into that crater. Our path led across slopes of wet, slippery ash, past fumaroles belching steam. Scrambling across the glacier, its surface a mass of dirty ice and cinders, we skirted the lake and climbed to a narrow divide. Standing on ice, we felt the hot breath of fumaroles; around us rose the steep crater walls lined with red and yellow deposits of crystalline sulfur. Slabs of glacier peeled off and crashed into the sour pea green water.

Recurrent blasts sometimes tear the lid off Avachinsky (foreground), distinguishing it from the quieter Koryaksky. Both watch over the peninsula's largest city, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, a fishing center whose 200,000 residents live in buildings made of a concrete rich in volcanic cinders. With some of the world's most powerful and frequent eruptions scarring this 750-mile-long (1,200-kilometer-long) swath each year, Kamchatka's 29 active volcanoes perform the greatest show on the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Carsten was ecstatic. When he and Franck decided to crawl under the glacier into a dark ice cave carved by a river of warm, acid water, I followed. Feodor just shook his head.

We crab-walked under huge blocks of ice that had fallen around the entrance, then waded through shallow water to the edge of darkness. Pale light shafted down from crevasses in the roof, barely illuminating a world of gray: gray shadows, gray ice, gray volcanic ash, gray river. The inner walls, scalloped by steam and flowing water, were hung with icicles.

The ice groaned above and around us—the internal workings of the glacier as it melted and moved. The hairs on my neck rose, and with them dreadful imaginings. Not only could the tunnel implode at any moment but also the lake, held back by only a wall of ice, could drain in a flash. It looked as if part of the cave had collapsed a few weeks earlier—what if another eruption, or even a slight earthquake, occurred while we were down there? As Carsten cheerfully put it, "The lake is above you, of course. You should feel as in a mousetrap."

As Carsten and Franck's flashlights winked out of sight ahead, I did what any prudent mouse would do. I made my way back to open ground and sat with Feodor on a dusty block of ice. Roiling sulfurous vapor filtered the sun with the hint of violence, a reminder that this peaceful afternoon was just a brief respite from the ongoing storm of rocks and fire. Feodor and I chatted about our lives and our families as the sun sank toward the crater rim. I was content just to be there, sitting on the sidelines as the gomuls did their work.