Ski or snowboard down to the crater of an active volcano, swim in turquoise icy water and take a walk across black volcanic sand. It's as if extreme sports were specially created for Kamchatka with its under-developed mountain infrastructure and winter that lasts for nine months. Kamchatka has the perfect conditions for freeriding, which was born in the mountains, not in sophisticated trails and parks.
Alexander Moroz is a Russian two-time snowboarding champion (freeriding and freestyle), Master of Sports, alumnus of the Russian School of Tour Guides, chairman of the regional division of the Snowboarding Federation of Russia in Kamchatka Territory, and Director General of Snezhnaya Dolina LLC. Kamchatka's snowboarding scene started over 20 years ago with him and a group of enthusiasts. Thanks to them, the first tourist base was opened, which is now visited by legendary winter sportsmen including Travis Rice and JP Solberg, etc. In 2007, Moroz retired from sports and has been snowboarding for his own pleasure and teaches others since then. He knows firsthand how the recreation business is run in a land with geothermal water and snow piles three metres tall.
First time on virgin snow
"It happened to me in 1996. My business partner Maksim Balakhovsky did it a bit earlier. Our team was formed through our common passion for snowboarding, we were all around 17 years old, some slightly older. We wanted to develop ourselves in this sport. It was an amazing, unique hobby but not yet considered a sport. We were just snowboarding and enjoying ourselves. Once, we jumped from a helicopter: we started going up to the volcanoes and riding down. We chipped in together and just did it for ourselves. 3 years passed in that way and we first earned a little money in 1999 when Russia was just rising from its knees. We were blessed by good fortune. At that time snowboarding was an unusual activity in Russia. In the big cities there were some like-minded people who had heard about Kamchatka but didn't know that the area was suitable for snowboarding. People kept coming and telling others... We gathered a group, earned a small tip and realised that we could make a business out of this! Nobody knew what could be done and how we should go about it. At that time there were no business models, training sessions, or coaches like we have now. Offering a heliskiing service was an obvious start for us because that's what we were good at.
In 1999, I made my first sport contract with an equipment manufacturer and started participating in competitions all around the world. We visited almost all the heliskiing spots: Iceland, Alaska, Canada, and Chile. We saw how it worked and in 2001 we decided to follow the global business standard and build our own base with chalets in the mountains. In the midst of pristine nature and in close proximity to riding areas in order to simplify the logistics. We managed to attract an investor from Moscow, but back then we were driven by sheer enthusiasm, we didn't know how business should be conducted, didn't think about calculations and arrangements, so the project was destined for failure. As a result, the investor told us that he wasn't going to partner with us. We realised that we'd made a mistake. That was 2004. We gained our first experience and realised how to proceed. We built our first house in the Verkhne-Paratunskaya Valley and the Columbus heliskiing club. It is still open but we have no ties with that base any longer. You always suffer, and finances are not even the worst aspect: you can earn money, but you can't return wasted time.
"We didn't give up, we decided to start a new project. We spent three years exploring the Verkhne-Paratunskaya Valley, looking at all the local places to understand the patterns of snow cover formation and wind, etc. Finally, we chose the perfect place! In 2006, we found a partner, prepared the design and estimate documentation, and developed engineering solutions for the water supply, wastewater disposal and basic infrastructure. The name was obvious because the Verkhne-Paratunskaya Valley and the southern region of the Mutnovsky volcano are the snowiest in Kamchatka.
Take a look at the snow map: the highest rates on the peninsula are recorded here. We get up to 3.5 metres of stable snow cover. That's the read amount of snow we get at the end of February / beginning of March — and it's fantastic! The base is situated near the Mutnovsky volcano, close to hot thermal springs and just 60 km away from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.
There is snow cover on the volcano until mid-April. That's why skiing and snowboard freestyle teams hold their summer training camps here. In 2007, when we launched the project, we set out to work with the concept of year-round operation. It might not be a genius decision but it is at least an obvious and correct one. 97% of companies at the time were working on a seasonal basis, only in the summer, and in the winter the region practically died out. Of course, we occasionally saw ice fishermen and some casual skiing tourists. But at that time nobody thought of working right through without seasonal breaks. We managed to minimise the off-season period — the worst problem for all local companies — to 1.5–2 months per year. The period from late October to early December in Kamchatka is the most unproductive time for all kinds of tourism: the Indian summer has ended, it is constantly raining, it is muddy, and there is no snow yet.
Apart from our company, Vertikalny Mir was already open in Kamchatka; they were some of the first people in Russia to offer heliskiing. At the time, it was a major tourist company while we were just starting out. But we didn't follow in their footsteps and didn't know them very well at that time. Nowadays there are three major heliskiing tour operators in Kamchatka: Vertikalny Mir (Vertical World), Zateryanny Mir (Lost World) and us.
We currently have 25 permanent employees at our mountain sports base. I don't support the concept of temporary or seasonal workers in tourism, despite the fact that the majority of companies work that way. There is nothing wrong with it but if you want high professionalism and excellent service, it is better to employ highly motivated permanent staff instead of seasonal workers. They work in a company for 2 months and have no worries about the future. The very next day, they might switch to another company and will just rotate jobs that way".
It is wild here!
In Russia there are no places for skiing and snowboarding which can be compared to Kamchatka. There are places for heliskiing: for example, the Caucasus Mountains. But heliskiing in Krasnaya Polyana is restricted because it is a Special Protected Natural Area which shares borders with the Olympic grounds. That's why people gather in groups and go to Abkhazia. Here in Kamchatka you can have an action-packed day: visit the crater of an active volcano, walk along the sea, bathe in hot springs, etc. Kamchatka has a wealth of interesting natural sights within a small territory. You won't find it anywhere else except here. Yes, we are unique, but this unique character, as a competitive advantage, is only temporary. If we, as a whole tourist sector of the peninsula, don't leapfrog ahead to develop infrastructure, its shabbiness will turn into a negative image. At some point, that image will become popular enough that people will begin to think of Kamchatka as a cool place but without any service. I'm not talking about Russians. Our population is 157 m people with only 30% of the population being fit to work. Among them, only 15% are economically active and generate gross product. And only 5% of the population have their own opinion. Now you do the maths. I'm focussing on the whole world, not only Russia. If we don't create an appropriate level of service, Kamchatka will remain at the level of India or Thailand before they developed their tourism industries. People used to say: yes, it is a nice wild place, but there is nothing there. As the saying goes, if you want wilderness, go to Kamchatka; if you want service, go to Canada or Alaska.
Each year we get 450 tourists on package tours. Other guests are sent by tour agencies we partner with, or we get backpackers. In peak season our tourist base with 74 rooms has an occupancy rate of
90–100%. We are not a hotel. Next year there will be a new classification for recreation camps, health camps and preventative clinics, and we aim to earn that classification. The final stage is camping sites, etc. Our tourist base's concept is more than just accommodation and board. We are not interested in that. We sell a complex tourist service that involves various activities. In the Snowy Valley, we offer: heliskiing/heliboarding, backcountry skiing with snowmobiles to take you to the top, ski tours, snowmobile tours, fishing, rafting, trekking, volcano ascents, etc. We have our own vehicle park. That's why I put package tourists into a separate group. The others fill rooms, use our services and rent vehicles. Half of our customers are foreigners. Sometimes we get groups made up entirely of foreigners, sometimes it's 50/50. Mainly from Europe because they have easier access. To a lesser extent from America because of the difficult logistics. Nowadays we are starting to host people from Asia: China, the Republic of Korea, Japan.
Rockfaces topped with powdery snow
Kamchatka tourism is a promising niche which has not yet been fully exploited. When compared to the aforementioned Krasnaya Polyana, investors in Kamchatka are put off by the absence of initial infrastructure. In the initial stage, you have to invest a lot of money and have patience before your investments have any effect. Until the situation changes, we won't have any large-scale investment and development projects. It is easier to build a hotel, let's say, near Sochi than in Kamchatka. Because the flight from Moscow to Sochi takes two hours, an economy class ticket costs RUB 3,500, so most people from Moscow or St. Petersburg can afford a weekend away. Add to that the clear-cut season, logistics, cheap construction materials — the list goes on. Any investor, following the rectangle pattern, will start to study the pros and cons. The expenses normally reach a critical point where the decision is taken not to invest in Kamchatka — it's too expensive, too long-term, too confusing.
However, everything with evolutionary prospects eventually develops. The fishing industry has prospects and it is developing. The metal mining industry has prospects and it is developing. The manufacturing and textile industries have no prospects so they are absent in Kamchatka. The USSR is long gone. There are no projects on the same scale as the Baikal-Amur Mainline or Baikonur. Nobody diverts rivers. Everybody makes economically feasible decisions. Or they follow their passion. Leading them to Kamchatka, for example. Different people come here: wealthy people, middle class, those who have saved up for several months or even years for a trip (Editor's note: for example, a week's tour with daily transfer to six volcanoes by helicopter costs 347,000 rubles per person). But they have something in common: as soon as they start speeding down the slope, the outside world with all its concerns and politics instantly disappears. They only want to know where they are riding today and tomorrow and what kind of snow there is.