Touching down in the very Soviet airport of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky after a 24 hour journey, we’re met by our hosts and told the weather is good for flying and we’ll waste no time. Our kit is loaded onto a rugged all-terrain truck and we’re heading to the heliport to board an Mi-8 military helicopter the size of a bus. Huge blue barrels of fuel are loaded along with us and I’m straddling a thousand litres of the stuff as we take off for the 20 minute flight to our lodge in the middle of the Kamchatka wilderness. I’ve been awake for a day and a half already and the lunacy of the situation just passes me by.
It’s a rapid turnaround at the lodge and we’re soon airborne again, aiming for the many peaks around the Mutnovsky volcano. It’s 15:30 when we take off, which is when most people would think about finishing skiing for the day, but the weather here is volatile and if there’s a window to fly you take it.
As we approach our drop zone the big side door is opened and one of the three crew members takes up position to spot the landing, while our lead guide is checking out lines. The pilot plants one wheel on the mountainside and hovers the metallic behemoth as we jump from the door into what we hope is soft snow. You always stay close to the heli in case he needs to take off suddenly. You’re safe from the blades that way but it’s unnerving to see the flying fortress swing towards you as the pilot tries to hold position.
The downwash is ferocious as the engine throttles up and the blades lift 11,000kg into the air. To save fuel when descending, heli pilots will point the nose down and almost fall out of the sky. It’s a hell of a thing to watch up close as the bird disappears beneath us, out of sight.
And now it’s silent except for the oohs and ahs of our group. The sun is low and we’re up above the clouds looking at the most incredible landscape. Somebody has clearly attacked this view with some heavy-handed Photoshop because these colours are too intense to be real. This is golden hour dialled up to 11. The exposed summit is peppered with beautiful wind-swept sastrugi. I’m so tired this could easily be a dream.
It’s time to pick my jaw off the ground and strap in for the descent. We take huge swooping lines down a wide open powder field. Our playground is enormous. In the distance we spot the heli, now looking very tiny in the valley floor. Skidding to a halt alongside it I look around and the entire group are wide-eyed and wearing the kind of grins usually seen on lottery winners.
Kamchatka is a geographical wonder. The peninsula in Far Eastern Russia is attached to the mainland though only accessible by sea or by air. Cold air flows from Siberia, picking up moisture as it crosses the Sea Of Ohkotsk and then dumping it as snow when it hits the peaks of Kamchatka. The perfect setup for endless cold smoke powder.
That does mean the peninsula ‘gets a lot of weather’ and you expect a lot of down days. We messed about with snowmobiles, skied a little behind the lodge, played a lot of cards and ate a lot of very tasty Russian food. My wife Olga grew up behind the iron curtain in Soviet-era Uzbekistan, so she was loving the culinary nostalgia trip.
Conditions looked good for the big ticket day midweek: skiing an active volcano and riding right to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. The water would be below freezing but the brave could swap snowboards for surfboards and ride two different types of water in one session.
Our first drop was a precarious one, with the heli hovering to drop us near the crater of the Mutnovsky volcano. Clouds of white steam billowed up from this burbling active volcano. We grabbed some photos and then did a quick warm up run down to the waiting heli for the next drop.
Inside an Mi-8 heli you sit sideways, facing inwards. Skis are piled up near the door, inside, and snowboarders keep hold of their boards. From my spot on the right, at the front, I faced the big door on the left side. We have a pro camera crew shooting the trip and we’re flying with the door open for them to get footage. Outside the light contrasts so strongly with the dim interior that all I can see is white.
Suddenly the heli lurches violently. It feels like we’re swinging sideways, like a pendulum. We roll left and then over-correct and swing back in the opposite direction. All I can see out of the windows and the door is white and I have no idea how high above the ground we are. I drop my board, grabbing onto a metal pocket with my right hand and Olga with my left hand. As the heli rolls back I watch as the cameraman is thrown out of the open door. The guide is mostly outside the helicopter, fighting against the G-force to cling on to the door frame and avoid following him out.
As well as swinging from side to side I can tell we’re also ‘bouncing’ vertically as the pilot struggles to rescue things. We hit the ground and must have lost the tail because we’re now rotating as we bounce back into the sky. The forces are too fierce and the spotter and guide are next to be thrown from the heli. All this time I’m sat directly opposite the door, clinging on with all my strength, wondering if I’m next.
There’s panic and screaming but I’m silent and eerily rational. I have been in a couple of sketchy moments before and know that this is normal, especially when there is somebody else I feel responsible for. I knew there was no chance the pilot was saving this one and calmly reasoned that the odds of us surviving this were slim, but I also knew there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. It was a very odd feeling.
We lurched sideways at enough of an angle for the rotors to hit the ground, pulling the whole heli over and throwing everything inside to the back. I tried in vain to hold onto Olga and the metal pocket but I lost both. We came to rest upside down and flung into a tight pile-up at the back of the cargo area. A dozen pairs of skis flew threw the cabin with us, like swords from a kung fu movie.
One of the group is instantly up and leaping for the doorway, now above us. Olga is screaming – quite understandably – and I bring my face to hers, telling her we’re OK but we need to go; I can smell fuel. I know things rarely explode like they do in the movies but we’ve been lucky enough to survive a crash and I don’t want to push that luck by hanging around. One of the pilots is now above the doorway and helps me to lift Olga out. I follow and drop the three or four metres to the snow beneath.
I send Olga away to a safe distance and help others climb down from the stricken heli. With the initial panic over the tone becomes measured and efficient. The three guides take charge and work to get everybody out. At first it seems we’ve escaped any major injuries and I start wondering if we’ll get another heli to continue with what he had planned that day. It sounds absurd now but that was my thought process at the time.
We had crashed on our landing approach and were ‘lucky’ to have had this happen on a wide flattish LZ rather than one of the more typical precipitous ledges we’d been using. If we’d have crashed during any of those drops I doubt anybody would’ve survived the trip to the valley floor.
One of our group, Mike, had clambered out of the heli with some help but was clutching his neck and looked to be in a lot of pain. He was wrapped in a foil blanket and immobilised on a stretcher. Frenchman Alex looked similarly afflicted.
Another heli was operating nearby and after dropping its party on a nearby peak it landed just above us. We carefully loaded Mike and Alex and then all boarded, leaving our kit behind. The flight would probably have been terrifying but once again I had somebody else to focus on. Mike was on the floor right next to me, in extreme pain and facing the ceiling. I talked him through everything that was happening, hoping the distraction might help.
We landed in a car park on the edge of Petropavlovsk and loaded our wounded into waiting ambulances. Most of the guests then flew on to the lodge but Olga and I stayed with Mike and Alex as she was the only person fluent in English and Russian. The ambulance ride was something from a black comedy: screaming over bumpy pot-holed roads and jerkily pushing through traffic to the hospital.
The guys were wheeled into the emergency room and the real terror began. Nobody spoke any English so Olga began translating. The pair were moved around between multiple departments and each new team would mistake one for the other. Doctors were keen to throw everything at them, however unnecessary and we had to be quite forceful to stop the excesses. Waiting rooms felt like I’d dropped into a zombie movie, full of what seemed like inebriated blokes with head injuries and impressively bloody traumas.
It eventually became clear that both guys had suffered broken necks. I can’t think how terrifying it must be to be immobilised, staring at the ceiling, surrounded by incompetence and helpless, with nobody able to communicate with you. Clearly Olga and I would not leave until a translator was arranged, despite the protestations of our hosts. It was late in the day before that happened and we began the three hour journey back to base, with the last 90 minutes off road.
The group was gathered together the next morning to talk about where to go from here. We were only half way through the trip and most were keen to continue. In the end the weather closed and there were no more opportunities to fly anyway. Instead we spent time at the lodge, visited a traditional ethnic village and skied a few skidoo-assisted laps of the local molehill. It was hard to enjoy anything knowing our friends were going through such an ordeal in the hospital and, in a spectacularly selfish lack of perspective, I was also in a sulk at losing out on what we’d travelled all this way for and angry at the weak response of our French tour operator.
Some Russian officials arrived a couple of days after the crash to interview us. I’d picked up stress fractures in a straight line across both legs – presumably where my snowboard had struck me – but the officials refused to allow me to add them to my statement unless I visited the hospital. I had zero appetite for that so they were left off. My statement was given verbally and written in Russian by one of the officers for me to sign. My Russian language skills extend only as far as a few curse words so I would only sign it once Olga had a chance to review it. It was a sketchy translation of my statement but they insisted this was the process that had to be followed and I couldn’t submit one in English. Reluctantly, I signed it. Olga knows the realities of bureaucracy and officialdom in Russia and I wanted no part of it.
Mike’s insurance wasn’t adequate for the situation in which he’d found himself. Fortunately he’s an amazing guy and much-loved in his community. His family were rapidly able to crowd-source the $150k needed for a medevac flight back to Utah but it was almost two weeks before he left Kamchatka. The crew needed time to get Russian visas from Washington; fly to Alaksa to refuel; pick Mike up in Kamchatka and then fly to Utah.
Almost two years since the crash I’m happy to say that Mike and Alex are both in good health having largely recovered. The cameraman who was ejected first had a compressed spine. The guide flew back with us as far as Moscow and had knee surgery there. Everybody involved is back on skis. Olga suffered no injuries and, aside from whiplash and those stress fractures, I escaped largely unhurt.
Olga and I haven’t been in a heli since the crash. We were both initially quite calm about the idea but watching the helicopter crash scene from Mission Impossible: Fallout brought things back a little too vividly for her. I can confirm it’s scarily accurate, at least until the action gets a bit too Hollywood. We aren’t ruling out more heli-assisted adventures but would stick to regions where standards are more robust and medical facilities less terrifying. We’ll remember Kamchatka as one of our best adventures but not always for the right reasons.