To the west of the north Pacific, on the belt of fire, the Kuril Islands (Shakalines) snake between the extreme north of Japan and the Kamchatka peninsula. On board an 11.5m sailboat "Dumbo" we traveled more than 1500 km between Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and Petropavlosk to explore the area and ski some volcanoes. Storms, isolation, extreme conditions is our daily menu in the heart of this wild and almost unexplored nature.
Arrived in Moscow, the hub of all internal flights, we take off April 27 to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the city at the far east of the country where we will embark on the boat. It takes 8h30 flight to cross this huge territory. The time difference on arrival will be 9am. Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is a medium-sized town whose streets are drawn with a straight line and intersect at right angles. No real city center and no entertainment. The shops are hard to find and are often located in the basement. After long walks in these unsightly arteries, we find what we are looking for: flares, bombs against bears and waders fishing to dock on the islands.
It is at the Mega palace Hotel that we meet the rest of the team: 3 Russian – Denis, Valeriy and Ksenia the only woman on the trip - and Leonardo the Argentinian. All are passionate about skiing and traveling.We go for a dinner together and take this opportunity to eat Kamchatka crab. Those giants can reach 2m wingspan and the flesh is delicious. We'll finish the night in a nightclub to come back only around 6am and sleep the rest of the day. Jet lag effect!
The "Dumbo", our sailing boat will arrive late to the fishing port of Korsakov (about one hour drive from hotel). Boat is assigned one more day for causes of repair of the electrical system. It is better to wait one day as the weather is not favorable to go to sea.
After a last walk in the small port city to buy food and drink, we depart on April 30 for two days of navigation to the first of the islands. The 11.5m sailboat is waiting for us, almost tiny next to big trawlers. Boarding is not easy. We are seven and the crew is made up of three russians, which makes ten people in a boat optimized for eight... It is already well loaded and we will have to find space to pack our ski and travel gear. The skis will remain strapped at the back of the boat at the contact of wind and spray during the whole travel. The covers, crampons, ice axes, shoes will end up under the beds and in all available nooks. Thibaud, Nicolas and myself occupy the back room. We will have to sleep all of us on a two people bed size and the rest of the space will be used to stack the bags. Little room, difficult to maneuver and almost impossible to hold shoulder to shoulder in this bed. In the end, I will install an inflatable mattress to sleep in the corridor.
We are leaving the port at nightfall. The sea is calm and the wind is weak. The navigation is done with the help of the engine between 6 and 8 knots of speed. It is quite cold, the water is about 2 degrees. In case of a fall the survival time is 5 min. We do not see a lifeline so we do ask the captain why. He does not answer soemthing we were expeting: "With the water at this temperature, you have five minutes of survival time. With the lifeline, 12 minutes... Time to turn around and pick you up and it will already be too late! " This tarverse is unhindered and we cross many whales and orcas. A stowaway, a young exhausted peregrine falcon comes to rest on our mast to enjoy a few hours of rest.
May 2nd: We see the first snow-capped mountains. We dock at the port of Kurilsk. We will have to stay there for 3 days because of a big storm is on the way. The winds are 50 knots (90 km / h) and the boat is moored against a concrete wall sheltered from the wind. The waves are sometimes more than 2m high in the harbor! The village is 2km away from the port. We go there to do a Banya, Russian tarditional sauna, which is a fairly hot and slightly humid Sauna. The most traditional ones are heated with a wooden stove. A pool of cold water serves as a refreshment and a massage is lavished by flogging with leafy twigs. The followingday we do visit a hot spring. The thermal water loaded with many minerals comes out very hot and it is triangular basins arranged in circles that collects and are filled regularly. After this pleasant moment, we will taste the local Borsch, a red beet soup with cream and we savor local red caviar and halibut, a very common fish here.
On the morning of May 3rd, the wind is still blowing. It blew up all night long without stopping. The boat, though sheltered by the concrete dock and well moored, is shaken by waves and bursts. The engine runs continuously to bring electrical energy. The damp cold the noise and the incessant jolts cause a discontinuous sleep.
The wind finally calms down! This storm was violent and we are very happy not to have had to face it in the sea! After refueling, it's time to go. Direction north! We have to go around the island and sail to north along the coast for 2 days.
We do approach the island of Brouton, where a waterfall falls before our eyes and a multiple of birds squeak and fly in all directions. It is at the beginning of the next morning with a calm sea and misty atmosphere that “Dumbo” enters delicately in the pass of the island of Shimushir. A mirror effect reflects the peaks covered by morning frost. A disused pontoon allows us to dock in the old base and military town of Craterniy. A real ghost town where everything has remained as it has been since it was abandoned more than 30 years ago. This place was used as a military submarine base during Cold War. It is a dive into the era of the great Soviet empire where the effigies of Lenin and propaganda images still adorn the walls. We go for a day visit in this “museeum” and step back 30 years in the past! Amazing feeling “to be part” of this history Monday, May 7, after a day of tumultuous navigation by strong swell, we wet the ink in the morning towards the island of Yankicha in Kraternya bay. It is a volcanic crater whose peaks exceed 400m. The first meeting is a red fox, not shy and master of the place. The fumaroles and a hot spring show that we are well on the belt of fire. The island is beautiful, a corolla of submerged peaks surround a central peak. Further offshore, a volcanic extrusion stands like a monolith. A multitude of birds use them as nesting boxes. We are hiking on the top of the island before to take a bath in the very hot bat we did dig. Water goes out bouiling and our bath is 100meters further. Getting inside make ourselve as red as a lobster.
On the 9th we continue sailing further north. A strong storm arrives from the south we are 24 hours ahead of it. A strong wind begins to blow and the sea becomes stronger. The boat is shaken in all directions and we come to shelter from the volcano and the island Onekotan. We decide to leave but after 1 hour of navigation we are forced to turn around to get back to the shelter. After many unsucsessful tries, the wind finally drops slightly 4 hours later and we resume the course. The following night is terrible. Nicolas has to put his harness to be strapped in the bed, the shaking is huge and it is impossible to stand up. I think were at the limit of what the Dumbo can face, despite its "unsinkability".
We do arrive in the morning to the island of Paramushir. The weather is nice, the volcano is all white and we decide to go skiing. Everyone is preparing his equipment. The most difficult is to find it because everything has been dispatched everywhere in the boat. Contrary to our habits, the docking is different. The captain of the boat is normally wearing a suit and pulls the zodiac on the beach for the landing, but our russian captain stays on board and we do have to jump into the water with waders ... Beach is made of big pebbles. The waves are strong, Nicolas and Leonardo are the first deposited but unfortunately this technique does not work and they end up in the water. Slava (boat captain) comes back with the zodiac to pick up another group. We put the waders and Ksenia and myself embark into the zodiac. Arrived to the edge about 300m from the place where the first ones were deposited, the engine stops and will not leave again. We are approaching the beach and a wave returns the Zodiac. Everyone falls into the water. We arrive on the beach totally wet. The water is icy. Fortunately the sun shines a bit and it is rather mild. Nevertheless, everything is wet. Ski boots, clothing, camera...
Nicolas and Leonardo join us a few minutes later. We are the 4 on the beach. Thibaud remained on the boat observing the operation with the binoculars. At the sight of the disaster, he decides to cancel any new dropp off. The priority is now to come back to recover, unfortunately the captain has no recovery point! We find ourselves without any anti-bear bomb, without any walki,-talkie, without emergency equipment, without food, everything being on the boat in the big bag that was supposed to be delivered by captain. The waves force and we see big and frech tracks of bears around us. The captain decides to look for a docking point. The Dumbo goes to the right and we lose sight of it. He comes back after half an hour and beckons us to follow him. I do personnaly think it's a bad decision as where we are standing seems much more secure. There is a small accalmi all 4 big waves and boarding, even rowing, seems possible. As it is impossible to communicate with the boat, we follow the orders from far hoping we do understand well. We do keep ski boots on and our equipment in the pebbles for more than 2 hours of walking to arrive in a steep cliff area. We are waiting when suddenly a big block comes off and runs down a snowy corridor. The rock does pass a few meters from me and my head beofre to end in the water. Uch! Half speed, we return to a more favorable and less exposed area. The captain definitely does not control the situation. Thibaud told him in advance that his plan would not work, but he said that he is the one who gives order and that his solution is the right one. Tension is getting high! Unfortunately the area where he wanted to recover us is behind a cliff bar and we could never climb without suitable equipment. They manage to deposit Kolia, captain assistant, on the rock before to realize that we will never reach him. We will learn later that during this approach the Dumbo keel struck a rock!
Finally, after all this time lost, they listen to Thibaud's plan, which is the same as ours and the most obvious, come and get us on the beach in a zodiac by rowing... Nobody of the boat crew seems to want to get wet and finally it's Thibaud who put the suit and come to the oar. It was time, as just above us appears a big bear! He first observes us and begins to descend towards us. The waves make boarding difficult. I go first into the zodiac and a huge wave turn the zodiac upsidedown and I fold on the beach. We must empty the zodiac. We wait
a little, the waves go by series. Quickly I jump in and row to get out of the rollers. I am totally soaked but safe. Thibaud returns to the shore for the others, Ksenia is rescued in turn. The bear is always descending. He gains in insurance because the group decreases. Bear reaches the beach just when Nicolas and Leonardo go up in the zodiac. Thibaud is swimming to push the zodiac away... and they finally all come back safe on board. We do later hear by Kolia that he saw a shark fins in the area,... this probably explains why no one of the crew wanted to come to pick up us!
We need a night of navigation to arrive to the only small city of of Paramoushir, last islands of the Kuriles before Kamchatka. Place is named Severo-Kurilsk. A city of 2500 inhabitants We are waiting here for the passage of a new storm and the place is located at the bottom of a volcano, new opportunity to ski. But we do first take a shower, dry the business and get a good healthy meal in the only cottage in the city. Only one restaurant bar exists here, with not more than 5 lines on the menu. Soups and meats accompanied by potatoes. We take the opportunity to look for crab dbut its difficult to find some because the limit of legality. After some investigation, we find some pieces, huge pieces, and we buy some (2 kilos) at the ridiculous price of 1500 rubbles which is 20 €.
We do hear later than the volcano here spits ashes that darken the whole city. So NO ski... A pity. All that remains is not to arrive to Kamchatka. We are ready to leave the Dumbo to go by ferry and win a few days of sailing unfortunately the next one is in 1 month! It is therefore with regret that we return on the sailboat to finish this trip, hoping despite all to ski a little.
May 28th: we are finally rewarded! Although it is a white day and the snow is heavy, we can finally put the skis on for a long day. We do skitour for 3 hours... Snow is slushy but it worth it! We are skiing at the end of the world!
Difficult to tame easily The Kuril Islands and their reputation is not usurped. In winter, it takes a perfect logistics and heavy equipment that is much better suited to face the storms than to flee them. It is then possible to wait for the favorable conditions to dock the islands to ski.