For the Love of Mountains: From Shasta to Avachinsky

For eight weeks each summer, an unlikely flight operates weekly.

It leaves from Anchorage, Alaska and touches down in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky airport on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. Though it’s only a four-hour flight, you cross the international date line and find yourself twenty-one hours in the future, in a place that feels like you’ve journeyed into the past. For our most recent gear-testing mission with Columbia Sportswear, I found myself on this flight headed to a place I would never have imagined visiting.

We touched down in P-K and stumble out of our plane on a clear morning, drowsy from the time change. The sun is bright, which is surprising because, from what we’ve heard, the weather here is usually moodier. Volcanoes jaggedly interrupt the horizon in every direction, some snowcapped, others gravelly and grey. Everything about the town seems to me a strange contradiction. The landscape is beautiful, big sky, wide rivers and imposing volcanoes, some that have steam still escaping from their crater summits. The buildings are intentionally industrial, sheet metal and concrete, a typical post-Soviet look.

Though it’s only a four-hour flight, you cross the international date line and find yourself twenty-one hours in the future.

As we drive to the center of town, I see every kind of person. Older gentlemen dressed in full camo suits, younger guys with fresh haircuts in athletic track suits, women waiting for the bus in brightly colored dresses, sharply contrasting the grey concrete and metal buildings. While many appear to be in disrepair, new structures are under construction on every corner. We head downtown and pile out near a large statue of Lenin, the communist revolutionary. Nearby Russian flags wave in a stone courtyard that connects to a seaside boardwalk. Children ride bicycles and play with toy trucks, while a man in elbow and knee pads rollerblades through the nearby parking lot, narrowly missing a group of skateboarders.

Amid all of this, our guide Viktor appears, immediately sticking out as someone who would fit right in on Mississippi Ave. in Portland. He wears outdoor clothing, a full beard, a Prana cap and greets us with a bright smile. After he explains some of the Russian language plaques we’ve been staring at blankly and laughs away our questions about a “downtown strip,” apparently, we are standing in it, it’s time to meet our driver and head out to the volcanoes we’ll be visiting.

A few hours later we’re piled into a vehicle that I can barely describe. It’s a truck, a box, as big as a house, a monster with countless wheels and the company logo looks to have been adapted from a children’s drawing. Our vehicle fits the mash-up of new and old that I’ve seen since leaving the plane. I quickly forget how strange the truck is because our “road” is actually a riverbed and I’m fighting my stomach which has decided to give up the ghost. Bumpy is an understatement, nauseating does not quite capture the moment. After two hours of this, the truck stops and I have never been so happy to get hiking, especially in a cold drizzle. We trek up to our hut for the night, exciting for me as I’ve heard about “hut trips” and it’s my first time sleeping in a mountain hut. We make a fire, eat dinner and discuss tomorrow’s plans.

The next morning is surprisingly not raining. What a gift! After a quick breakfast, I am in good spirits as we head up into the clouds, the summit not yet visible. For the first couple of hours I hike along peppering Viktor with questions about his life in Kamchatka. He is a heli-ski guide in the winters and a mountain guide in the summers. He talks about the outdoor scene in Kamchatka, the rise of fly-fishing and his growing interest in the surf scene. We move from densely packed gravel, to sand, across snowfields and finally in the afternoon the terrain switches to something I have only heard of and now despise, scree. I am immediately miserable. The clouds are wet. The wind is pushing me off the path, I can barely make out where snow stops and cloud begins and I feel my lips chapping and my face drying out. On top of that, each step forward comes with a half step back. The bad weather that preceded our Kamchatka arrival washed away the “trail,” Viktor explains as he expresses his surprise at the snow and picks out a new path.

Each step forward comes with a half step back.

I’m having Shasta flashbacks, our toughest trip yet for me as I am not a fan of heights, don’t do great with altitude, and prefer hot to cold a hundred times over. I decide to start blasting some tunes and try to move in step with the music. It helps, but I’m moving slowly, falling quite a bit behind and having to talk myself through the bad mood descending on me thicker than the surrounding clouds.

Slowly however, the clouds start to clear, the wind dies down and we’re only 600 more meters of vertical gain from the top. I’m still moving slowly and, honestly, it’s not until I reach the summit that I start smiling again. It’s a beautiful scene. We are above the clouds and steam rises from small openings in a ground yellow with sulfur and white with ash. Steaming black rocks fill the crater that was once a mountain top and I can see for miles, a view that follows rivers back towards P-K and the coast.  At the summit, I hide behind some rocks and lay on the warm ground while Mark runs off into the steaming ridges. It’s moments like this that I love, when I get to laugh at myself for how quickly my moods swing halfway up a mountain, the thought “this is my sad place” had occurred to me about halfway up. But looking down from the summit I can’t wipe the smile off my face. I look around at the crew, snapping photos of each other, Mark and I, and the vista. We’ve been to so many places together and I’m learning so much about myself through traveling with them.

The outdoors is for everyone.

When it’s time for the descent, we all go our own pace and pick our own trails down the wet rocks, I fall four or five times before I decide it’s time to send it. I pack up my trekking pole (only one is left after an earlier miscalculation where Viktor literally saved my life as I went flying from snow to scree and wound up with a broken pole). I tighten my pack and start running, getting used to the steep downhill, the realization that I can’t stop until the path smooths out. This is my happy pace. I fly around switchbacks and grin stupidly as I reach flat portions of the path.

The outdoors is for everyone. And everyone can enjoy it differently. The jury is still out for me and mountains, but after part one of our gear testing mission in Kamchatka, I’ve confirmed that it’s an incredible place.

Faith BriggsFaith Briggs is an avid runner and documentary film maker from Brooklyn, New York. She’s passionate about sharing contemporary stories from diverse communities and can always be found with her camera, whether in the photographer’s pit during New York’s fashion week or in the cloud forests in Honduras. She lives by the motto #goodvibesonly and loves to show that women and girls, quite literally, run the world. You can follow Faith’s journey as Director of Toughness here and social channels including: Twitter | Instagram