The Same as Walking on the Moon
Having chanced upon some photos of an oddly-shaped Kuril island, two German sportsmen have decided to explore the Russian Far East first-hand.
Having chanced upon some photos of an oddly-shaped Kuril island, two German sportsmen have decided to explore the Russian Far East first-hand. The travelers not only made an extreme ascent in the Kurils and, first ever, skied downhill from Pobeda Mountain, but shot a movie about their expeditions as well – now we can see Onekotan Island and the Republic of Yakutia through the eyes of foreigners. The extreme downhill skier Matthias Haunholde told EastRussia about conquering the Far-East peaks.
courtesy of Matthias Haunholde
Matthias Haunholde (38) has managed to ski everywhere. New Zealand, Alaska, Chile, Alps, Caucasus – the Austrian downhill skier in love with mountain peaks has made it to all of these places. Now, the time came to discover the Russian Far East – Haunholde and his partner Matthias Meyer first headed for the Kuril island Onekotan, then for Yakutia. The friends made eye-catching movies about both trips, named the Abandoned Island and the White Maze. The movies narrate both of the thrilling adventures and menacing challenges they encountered. "Such trips are quite a test," said Haunholde in an interview to EastRussia. "Not only is it hard to find a man 'onshore' who will help arrange and see to everything, but, if anything crops up, you have only yourself to rely on: isolated locations like the volcano on Onekotan or Pobeda Mountain in Yakutia are inaccessible even to rescue parties."
Nonetheless, as Haunholde said, both trips were a success and left a bunch of impressions. Picturesque, mesmerizing, miraculous – these were the words that the athlete kept repeating during the interview, each time at his most sincerest. "For an ordinary man, it's the same as walking on the Moon," said Haunholde.
Haunholde and Meyer have always been attracted by far-off, mysterious places where nobody has ever alpine-skied before them. "We had been looking for a place, a landscape that would enthrall us. And one fine day we came across some satellite images of the Kuril island Onekotan on Google Earth," relates Haunholde. "We took to its shape and decided at once to go there. The island drew us, in no small way because we could find precious few pictures of it. This only added to our desire to see it in person."
Accompanied by two camera men and a photographer, the downhill skiers set out for Onekotan in April 2014. They were lucky, said the travelers: they knew a man who arranged heliskiing in Kamchatka; he put the sportsmen in touch with people who could arrange a trip to the island. "We wouldn't have pulled it off without them," recalls Haunholde. "They found us a boat in advance, helped us out with all the documents and permits required to visit the Kurils."
Sailing for the island in a boat became the toughest feat of the expedition. Not only did the boat rental set the team back some 30 thousand euro, they had to sail for about 30 hours one way in not so still waters to top it all off. "We are mountain folk, so for us it was some test," chuckles Haunholde. "We had tried to hit the shore for ages and at one point came within an inch of crashing. The first thought that popped into our heads once we had landed on a deserted, superbly picturesque island was 'Oh, on firm ground at long last'."
It took some time to relish the glories of Onekotan, with its looming volcano in the middle surrounded by the lake from which Haunholde and Meyer were planning to descend. It took a long while to pitch camp, and to prepare the equipment for filming on the following day. At night, the tent with the sleeping sportsmen was blown away due to high wind, so the camp had to be re-pitched in pitch black darkness.
But when all the challenges were met, the commotion made way for sheer awe. "As it was springtime, there was but little snow on the island –much less than in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky where we arrived," relates Haunholde. "And yet, just imagine the picture we beheld on the island: a plain sandy beach, the snow-capped volcano in the distance, surrounded by a majestic lake."
The extreme ascent that the team went to the island for was worth it. "It was toilsome to walk along the half-frozen lake, afraid of falling under all the way," said the downhill skier. "The more so due to the enormous amount of equipment, two video cameras, a picture camera and so on, that we were carrying along. There was a strong wind all the way, and the weather was rather dismal in general, even though it was not very cold. But when we made it to the volcano peak, the sun actually emerged from the clouds for a couple of minutes and illuminated a stunning view of the whole island. This was the most fabulous moment of the trip."
Haunholde and Meyer glimpsed the Cherskogo Range, a chain of mountains in Yakutia, from the plane when they were returning from their Onekotan expedition. Having but landed home, in Austria, the skiers rushed to search for some information on what they had seen and plan their future travel; this time to Peak Pobeda, which no one had ever skied from before.
The travelers went to Yakutia twice: in January – February 2015 and some months later, in spring. "During the first trip, we scouted everything out, made all arrangements and planned it all," explains Haunholde. "Back then it was extremely cold in Yakutia, with the temperature dropping to -55 °C. I brought along all the ski outfits I had and wore anything I could find. In the cold like this there was no point in even thinking about reaching the mountain, that's for sure."
In spring, the sportsmen returned and headed straight for the mountains. They were lucky again: a friend of Haunholde's went to Yakutia in the summer for a mountain-bike trip and put them in touch with a man who helped to arrange the trip to the Cherskogo Range. "He even found us an interpreter from German, a man who taught German in a local school," recollects Haunholde. "He was an ardent enthusiast and made it almost to the very mountain with us."
The skiers are the most deeply grateful for all the help from local reindeer herders, who put them up and drove them to the Range in snowmobiles. "They were very hospitable, and we hit it off with their children playing football in the cold," chuckles the traveler.
After an hours-long, tortuous ascent of the mountain, and a struggle with the wind and cold, lo and behold, Haunholde and Meyer are atop the mountain. "When we had finally made it to the peak and could see the whole Cherskogo Range, it was a a kind of magic," said Haunholde. "Not to mention the descent."
The budget for both movies made by the team of Haunholde and Meyer totaled approximately 100 thousand euro each – in Haunholde's words, not so great a deal compared to other similar movies. "While we travel, we neither stay at luxury hotels nor go to posh restaurants. What's more, as it turned out, the Far East is not so expensive a place for filming as is commonly believed," elaborates the downhill skier. "The tickets to Petropavlovsk or Yakutsk are far cheaper than tickets to, say, New Zealand, food and accommodation are reasonably priced as well. And the quality of everything is excellent at that."
It is a different story that not every Far East region is suitable for downhill skiing. In Yakutia, for instance, the snow is frozen and solid; it barely grips the skis, making the downhill run a more dangerous and less pleasant affair. The best place for ski adventures in the Far East is Kamchatka. But exclusively in the spring, in Haunholde's words. "In spring, the snow thaws out and becomes softer, gripping the skis a lot better, so spring skiing in Kamchatka is just the thing," explains the sportsman.
A yet another challenge faced during extreme ski trips is the region's remoteness. Places like Pobeda Mountain, in Haunholde's words, are inaccessible even to rescuers, so the sportsmen had to train rigorously in Austria getting themselves ready for the most unexpected situations: avalanches, injuries, passing the night in snow caves. "On expeditions like this, when you are aware that you have no one but yourself to rely on, it is of utmost importance to feel ready for any curve balls," says Haunholde. "Timidity makes you much more vulnerable, and travel becomes more dangerous."
Moreover, such remote locations as the Cherskogo Range had to be not only thoroughly studied in theory, but they also had to arrange a preparatory trip there to rule out the maximum number of unknown variables. However, even these measures do not safeguard travelers against various surprises.
"En route from the town of Ust-Nera to the Cherskogo Range, we became stuck, as what we were driving on was what you could hardly have called a road. No biggie, one would think! But we could move neither forward or backward for several hours. It was freezing cold outside and the situation was beginning to be reminiscent of a horror flick," narrates Haunholde.
It took some time getting used to the mores and morals of citizens of the Far East towns and villages, too. "Austria is a popular tourist destination, and we are hospitable to guests, try to help them out where required," says Haunholde. "But when I first arrived in Petropavlovsk, got off the plane and tried to speak to locals for help, to show or explain something, nobody helped me at all. My understanding is you have to make friends with Russians to draw out their generous spirit. We are still on friendly terms with those we hit it off with during our trips."
The immediate creative and sports plans of Haunholde's are to make a movie in the Alps and go on an expedition to the Antarctic. Afterwards, he's planning on coming back to the Far East to continue exploring far-off untrodden locations, slopes and peaks. The pristine, stunning nature of the Far East is worth it, despite the inclement weather and the not so ideal snow for a downhill skier, smiles the sportsman.
Matthias Haunholde and Matthias Meyer are not the only foreign sportsmen who have visited the Far East and made movies about their expeditions. Travis Rice, a famous snowboarder, released 'The Fourth Phase' in October 2016, a movie where snowboarders visit Kamchatka and Sakhalin, among other locations. All the three projects – 'The Fourth Phase', 'Onekotan. The Desert Island' and 'White Maze' – were sponsored by Red Bull.
"Filming in Kamchatka has become one of the most memorable episodes of our long travels," recalls Jon Klaczkiewicz, the director of The Fourth Phase. "We were faced with the most awful weather conditions and at the same time stood in awe of the ultimate beauty of the pristine nature of the volcano land." Alexey Litvinov