Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Plant pots and pebble storms

  • Written by  Martin Hartley
  • Published in Explorers
Plant pots and pebble storms Martin Hartley
18 Mar
Renowned photographer Martin Hartley recalls his part in an expedition to make the first snowboard descent of Klyuchevskaya Sopka, the highest active volcano in Eurasia

Life’s too short for this level of stress. Why can’t I be a carpenter or a boat builder?’ These thoughts whirled around my brain as I waited to discover if my application for a Russian visa had uploaded to the consulate’s server in time for it to be issued before I flew to Moscow.

I had arrived at the Russian consulate breathlessly three minutes before it closed on a wet Friday afternoon in April. Most travel companies recommend applying for a visa three to four weeks before departure. My flight to the Russian capital was leaving in less than 48 hours.

The previous day I had flown to London from Chamonix after five days of what I like to call ‘survival skiing’ instruction from Simon Halliwell. Simon had performed a minor miracle and taught me, a downhill tyro, how to descend almost anything – no matter the steepness of the terrain or the quality of the snow – without killing myself.

The trigger for these emergency skiing lessons – and the subsequent rush to the consulate – had come about in March when I answered a phone call from Julia Pickering, a renowned snowboarder and the first woman to climb and make snowboard descents of the three highest peaks inside the Arctic Circle. Julia had outlined her plan to make the first snowboard or mountainboard descent of the highest active volcano on each of the seven continents.

Julia’s first objective was Klyuchevskaya Sopka, the highest active volcano in Eurasia. Located on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East, this stratovolcano is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. A snowboard descent would be a world first.

Julia asked if I would join her Berghaus-sponsored expedition as its official photographer. Being a competent skier was a pre-requisite; the rest of her team wouldn’t have looked out of place on an episode of Ski Sunday.

dki2(image: Martin Hartley)


When it comes to accepting invitations to join expeditions, my rule of thumb is to say yes to everything and then deal with the consequences. ‘Of course I can downhill ski,’ I lied. ‘I’m a bit rusty but I’ll do some brushing up.’ After I hung up, I immediately called Simon to book some ski lessons and then disappeared to Cape Verde for a 20-day shoot.

A week before the flight to Moscow, I shot off to Chamonix. Would I have survived on Klyuchevskaya Sopka, much  less been able to make a meaningful contribution to Julia’s project, without Simon’s tuition? Not a chance.After I had paced the Russian consulate’s entrance hall and bitten my nails to the quick on the Friday afternoon, my visa application was finally approved. An official told me to collect my passport the next day. But I had to go to Bristol to pack my gear before the flight on the Sunday.

In the end, my passport was collected on the Saturday by a friend of a friend, who passed it to another contact, who tucked it under a plant pot on her doorstep before going to bed. My heart skipped a beat as I lifted the flowerpot en route to the airport that night: missing the flight because of a passport issue would have been embarrassing – both professionally and personally.

I said nothing to Julia about my close call with the visa as we tucked into breakfast at Heathrow. After that stressful debacle, the international flight to Moscow, the exhausting domestic flight across eight time zones to Yelizovo airport, the miserable ten-hour ride in an all-wheel-drive vehicle and the final, interminable, day of standing in a trailer behind a snowmobile (fun for the first three minutes) to reach base camp all came as sweet relief.

ski4(image: Martin Hartley)


Before I had left for Kamchatka, Simon had taken me to a shop in the Chamonix valley that specialises in custom fitting ski-boot liners. Four hours and several hundred euros later, I emerged with a hand-tuned pair of inner boots.

I wanted to give myself every technological advantage on this expedition. But the customised liners’ true worth didn’t become apparent until I arrived at base camp to discover that I had miscommunicated a request to our guide to take care of my hiking boots. He had diligently placed them under lock and key in the town of Klyuchi, the final outpost of civilisation en route to the volcano.

Without any footwear to change into after each day of skiing, I was resigned to wearing my ski boots whenever I wasn’t in my sleeping bag. But the liners proved to be so comfortable that I never envied the rest of the team when they peeled off their steaming boots at the end of each day and sank their feet into soft, down-filled booties.

At about 4,750 metres, Klyuchevskaya Sopka is roughly the same height as Mont Blanc, but that’s where the similarities end. The slopes of this stratovolcano are a constant 45°. When a child draws a mountain, she doesn’t draw a Mont Blanc – she draws a Klyuchevskaya Sopka.

The volcano was first climbed in 1788, but subsequent ascents have remained few and far between. In 1931, several climbers were killed by flying lava. However, the biggest hazard isn’t being struck by rocks ejected from the crater – you’re more likely to be injured by rubble dislodged from the unstable slope by a mountaineer climbing above you. But although steps can be taken to minimise the chance of rockfall injuries, nothing can be done about the volcano’s notorious pebble storms.

ski5(image: Martin Hartley)

Kamchatka lies close to the Pacific Ocean, so high winds are the norm. And Klyuchevskaya Sopka and her lofty neighbours are so tall that they generate their own weather patterns. Combine 200 kilometre per hour winds with a mountainous cone made from loose volcanic debris and that, from base to summit equals six Eiffel Towers, and you have the perfect recipe for a pebble storm.

The first time I sensed the approach of what turned out to be a pebble storm, I didn’t know what to expect. As a photographer, I’m used to remaining alert to changes in my local environment so that I can record whatever happens. But on this occasion, the noise was unlike anything I had previously experienced. It sounded as if a squadron of B-52 Stratofortress bombers was flying low and slow down the valley.

Whatever was coming towards us sounded… heavy. Warwick and I looked at each other and then braced ourselves for the onslaught.Twenty seconds later, the pebble storm struck. It felt as though hundreds of schoolchildren were assailing us with an unlimited supply of playground marbles. Pebbles fizzed horizontally through the air at the speed of a sports car. One struck me on my backside and it felt as though I had been shot with an air rifle. Instinctively, I spun around to see who had pulled the trigger.

Although he was wearing a thermal base layer, a thick fleece mid-layer and robust Gore-Tex salopettes, Warwick ended up with neat lines of rainbow-coloured bruises on his legs. It looked as though he had been caught in
the crossfire of rival paintball teams. Next time I go to Kamchatka, I’ll pack a set of mountain biker’s body armour.


On all my expeditions, I pack two DSLR cameras. I normally use one at a time to reduce the chance of both breaking simultaneously. However, the gritty conditions in Kamchatka made it impossible to change lenses outside the tent, so I had no choice but to fit each camera body with one of the two lenses I needed most, and then hang both around my neck inside drawstring bags.

In a volcanic environment, this was clearly a major risk. I was happy to take it only because I had a Leica MP film camera buried in my rucksack. The MP is my ‘get out of jail’ camera and has never failed me. I could only risk using both DSLRs at the same time in Kamchatka because I had the Leica in reserve.

We became accustomed to enduring the pebble storms during the daytime, but every night, the mind games began. Lying in our sleeping bags, we couldn’t tell whether each rapidly approaching roar was a pebble storm, a body-crushing landslide, an asphyxiating avalanche or a deadly volcanic eruption.

Eventually, I would fall asleep in temperatures of –30°C and dream of Herculaneum. Warwick and Julia had no such luck. Their tent lay on the windward edge of our camp, and during the night, successive waves of pebble storms sandblasted their carefully constructed snow wall, degrading it to such a degree that stones tore through their flysheet and tent. They took to wearing helmets
inside their sleeping bags.

Most evenings, we would retire to our tents in a virginal white snowscape, only to wake up the next morning to what appeared to be the aftermath of a cigarette smokers’ convention. Ash, either fresh from the bowels of Klyuchevskaya Sopka, or more usually older material from its coated slopes, had turned the landscape grey. We were the Lilliputian residents of a monumental ashtray.

On one memorable morning, we awoke to find that the thick blanket of snow had almost entirely disappeared, not just from base camp but from Klyuchevskaya Sopka, too. For 24 hours, a temporary spring enveloped the region. But this was no conjurer’s illusion; a titanic wind had moved the snow off in the direction of the Aleutian Islands. No wonder Julia and Warwick’s flysheet looked like a colander.

We waited patiently for a favourable combination of adequate snow cover and survivable windspeeds to settle over the volcano. It never materialised. Igor had been to the volcano on five previous occasions and made two successful ascents. On our last night in base camp, he told us sombrely that he had never experienced such persistently high winds over such a protracted period. Now we were out of time. And he was two for six.

Klyuchevskaya Sopka awaits its first descent by snowboard. But I’ll remember the grandeur of Kamchatka, the hospitality of the Russians who live on its fringes, and the assault on my rear end from those pebble storms,
for quite some time.


When setting out on Julia Pickering’s expedition to Klyuchevskaya Sopka, Martin Hartley looked for kit that would protect him from the weather – as well as from those infamous pebble storms. He chose to take both digital and film camera equipment, which enabled him to continue shooting no matter what sort of conditions he encountered

1. Shellkit

Berghaus Antelao

£233/557 grams

This Gore-Tex Pro shell is equipped
with five pockets, all of which have YKK Aquaguard zips. Sealable under-arm vents make temperature regulation
easy when toiling beneath a heavy pack. The peaked mountain hood can’t be removed, but the snow skirt is detachable

2. Snowboarding helmet

POC Fornix

£130/420 grams

This is Julia Pickering’s head protection of choice. On warm days, ear pads can be removed and vents can be opened to help keep your head cool. On cold days, the turn-ring size adjustment system accommodates a fleece liner hat

3. Down duvet jacket

Berghaus Ramche

£250/448 grams

The Ramche is insulated with 850-fill-power hydrophobic goose down that’s covered in Pertex Quantum GL fabric. Three different baffling systems help maximise warmth around the core while reducing bulk and weight on the arms

4. Gloves

Auclair Lillehammer Cross Country

US$50/150 grams

The Lillehammer is the best-fitting glove I’ve used. Its Thinsulate insulation keeps my fingers warmer than many heavier gloves I’ve worn. The palm is lined with goatskin and the inner is brushed polyester. My pair has lasted nine years

5. Synthetic duvet jacket

Montane Fireball Smock

£120/280 grams

For situations when a fleece jacket isn’t enough and a down duvet is too much, the superlight Fireball has a fantastic warmth-to-weight ratio and easily packs down to the size of an apple

6. Drybags

Lifeventure DriStore bags

from £9/from 39 grams

Available in seven sizes, ranging from
five to 100 litres, these lightweight and inexpensive bags are great for organising the inside of your rucksack, holdall, camera bag and tent for most land-based activities. Made from siliconised Cordura fabric, they’re equipped with a roll-top closure and a click-shut buckle

7. Rucksack

f-stop Satori EXP

from US$359/from 1.85 kilograms

This rucksack is the best combination camera bag/backpack I’ve used. After five expeditions, I can’t find fault with
any of its features. It can also be used as a dedicated mountaineering rucksack

8. Digital camera

Nikon D3x

£5,079 (body only)/1.22 kilograms (body only, without batteries)

The D3x is fast and easy to use. It
has continued to work even after I’ve dropped it on the ground, when wet,
in tropical conditions and after being sandblasted with volcanic debris

9. Gadget and document protection

aLOKSAK bags

from US$8 (pack of three)/
from 2.83 grams per bag

Available in 14 sizes, these are useful for protecting important paper documents and electronic gadgets. Unlike freezer bags, they remain malleable at –30°C. Waterproof to 60 metres

10. Film camera

Leica MP

£3,600 (body only)/585 grams
(body only without batteries)

I use the MP with Fuji Provia 100 film when temperatures fall below –38°C (which I’ve found to be the cut-off operational temperature for the D3x).
Its four functions – aperture size, shutter speed, film speed and focus – are the only controls you need to take a photograph

Martin Hartley is an expedition photographer and a Time magazine Hero of the Environment. He has taken part in more than 25 polar and mountaineering expeditions, and has won numerous awards for his photography. www.martinhartley.com

Related items

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.