Our today's story is a description of an incredible journey. This is a story about a real scientific expedition to the active Kudryavy volcano on the Iturup Island (Kuriles), which took place in September 2020.
The main goal of the expedition was to continue studying the possibility of industrial mining of one of the rarest and most valuable metals on the planet - rhenium. Our readers can learn about its significance for many strategic industries, including aerospace and aircraft construction, in the wonderful documentary The Rhenium Effect. It also tells about the Kudryavi volcano - the only place in Russia where rhenium was found.
Our story is focused primarily on the HUMAN factor: an amazing story about a unique experience of survival and work in extreme conditions was told to us by Lyudmila Borilo, Doctor of Technical Sciences, Professor, Director of the Siberian Institute of the Future "Trans-Siberian Scientific Way". Looking at this fragile, elegant, always wearing high heels, woman, it is impossible to imagine that she is able to endure such tests.
- What goals did you pursue going on an expedition to Kudryavy volcano?
- It was some kind of reconnaissance. I needed to complete three main tasks. First, I had to study the place from the point of organizing a university research station. TSU has such stations in Kaibasovo, Aktru, Khanymei. But not a single Russian higher educational institution has so far "volcanic" stations. We could be the first and the only one for a long time. The Kudryavy volcano itself is a kind of natural "collider". It can help to conduct a wide range of studies in climatology, biodiversity, ecology, geology, chemistry, and so on. It is mega-science that opens up new perspectives in the development of both fundamental scientific knowledge and new technologies. The second task was to look around and figure out whether it was possible to hold any scientific events in this unique but unsafe place. Of course, there was also the third task, purely research one: to carry out a series of experiments on rhenium. In particular, measurements of volcanic gas and sampling to find out if it is possible to obtain rhenium from this gas.
Initially, I planned to spend only three days on Kudryavi, but the weather conditions made me stay for two whole weeks. And now I can say for sure: this trip has become one of the most unforgettable in my life.
- The success of such expeditions largely depends on the team. Basically, you trust other people with your life and take responsibility for them. Who were the people on your team?
- On this expedition, I was the only woman in an interdisciplinary group, which consisted of 7 people, including me. Four people from the Institute of Volcanology: a volcanologist-geophysicist (Moscow), two chemists-technologists (Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk) and a cook from St. Petersburg, as well as two volcanologists-geochemists from the Institute of Geology of Ore Deposits, Petrography, Mineralogy, and Geochemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IGEM RAS, Moscow). They all were experienced professional scientists who had already climbed volcanoes several times. Taking this opportunity, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to everyone who supported me on this trip. Especially the head of the expedition, Mikhail Steinberg, and two brothers, Oleg and Ilya Chaplygin. They helped me a lot with adaptation, acclimatization, and research.
- Each team member usually has a role to play. What was yours?
- It was a difficult role: besides the fact that I had to deal with the tasks set for me by my TSU colleagues, I had to show myself as a capable and equal member of the team, that is, a person who could be trusted. In other words, I needed to not be a "weak link." Even before the expedition began, when other members learned that a female professor from TSU who had never been to the volcano would join them, they perceived this as an additional burden for themselves. After all, it was necessary to walk for hours with a heavy load, to endure the most difficult weather conditions, and to work in an aggressive natural environment. But rather quickly, their distrust and wariness disappeared, and by the end of the joint work, their attitude towards me changed dramatically. They were very surprised that I could walk with a load over rough terrain for a long time and sit in silence for a long time if it was necessary. In addition to endurance, it was important to show psychological stability. Especially in situations where it was literally a matter of life and death. For example, I needed to learn not to react to the appearance of bears. On several occasions, they came so close to us that we could smell their scent. Sometimes my colleagues would not even tell me that the animal was 2-3 meters away, fearing that I would start to panic.
- How should one prepare for such expeditions? What should you take with you to the volcano?
- Of course, one needs appropriate physical training and skills to work in the mountain. But it turned out that this was not enough for the first expedition to the volcano. Last year, I walked 54 kilometers through the mountains in Tibet and thought that walking a few kilometers on a volcano would be much easier. But I was wrong. I had to climb the volcano under the weight of a backpack and not along a path, but along a stream overgrown with bamboo and stones; often knee-deep in the icy water of a stream, where boots, soaked through, slide over the surface. Needless to say, a volcano requires Spartan health.
Very serious equipment is also required, including special clothing. Moreover, “ordinary” mountain clothes do not save you, and everything that is sold in chemical protection stores creeps up in a couple of days in such aggressive conditions. I learned that nothing protects from the chemical effects of gas better than ordinary overcoat fabric. My colleagues shared such clothes with me, gave me leggings - special gloves and shoes that could withstand high temperatures. At first, it was not easy to walk and work in all this, but then I adapted and even felt comfortable.
- Can you compare this expedition to anything you had experienced before?
- This trip cannot be compared with any of my previous trips. The very journey to the destination set me up for the fact that it would not be easy. First, we flew to Kurilsk, then - overcame the path from the Prostornaya Bay to the Medvezhya Bay (Bears’ Bay) along the Sea of Okhotsk. The journey took 10 hours, and we were not sailing on a liner or on a yacht. We were transported by an ordinary fishing boat, which chatted all the way. All 10 hours I had to spend sitting under the tarp, as the deck was constantly covered with waves. At the end of the journey, we got completely wet in a small boat that brought us on land to the bay. The ship had no way to approach the island without the risk of crashing on the rocks. But even a successful landing did not let us relax. Bears’ Bay is called so for a reason: bears roam here constantly and everywhere. Therefore, they immediately gave me a red fire flare and told me not to go anywhere without it.
- Could you describe your life there? Where did you live, what did you eat, and how did you cook?
- There are two separate, conditionally residential, buildings at the base. The first one is the "dome" built in 2015. It can accommodate 10 people. Its "first floor" is a kitchen with a large table. The "second floor" is a simple plank flooring where you can "stack" sleep. This “dome” is warm enough, there are a stove and electricity. The latter, by the way, is produced by generators only for 4 hours a day in the evenings. Then you can use the Internet. The second building is a small "bunker" made from the body-van of a Soviet-era military truck. It is all sheathed with iron and sealed on all sides so that moisture and gas do not go inside. There is no stove, but it also has electricity. I was asked to choose - to stay with everybody or live independently. I chose the second option, and this bunker became not only my place of residence but also a shelter during the typhoon.
- You have conquered more than one mountain peak. How useful was this experience?
- No trip to the mountains can be compared with climbing a volcano due to a number of factors. The first thing that comes to mind is that there are no paths on the volcano. The second is the aggressive environment. At our stations in the mountains and in the swamps, there is beautiful nature, there is wonderful breathing.
The territory around the volcano looks like a scorched or "lunar" space. Everything is gray, it feels like you are in a black and white movie. In addition, everything is shrouded in gas clouds and you need to constantly wear a gas mask. This was a separate test for me: it turned out that just putting on a gas mask was not enough. I needed to put it on correctly so that there was not a single gap, not a single hole into which gas could get inside. Otherwise, I simply would not get out of the danger zone alive. I studied, everything seemed to be working out, I started entering the gas zone on a hot field and ... a gas mask blows through with gases. And they were everywhere on the volcano and you need to go uphill in a gas mask, spend several hours wearing it. If the wind blows off the gas, the protection can be removed. But you need to constantly be on the lookout: the wind can change at any second and, being on a hot field, you must very quickly put on a gas mask correctly.
- What is a hot field?
- This is a field covered with fumaroles - cracks with uncooled lava flows, from which gas rises. At nights, fumaroles are clearly visible: they burn with a red flame. During the days, they are almost invisible and you can step on them and burn your leg. If the wind blows in your direction and catches the gas, you need to sit down as low as possible and wait until the gas is gone. At first, at such moments, I was overwhelmed with fear and panic. But it turned out that you can get used to it too. In addition, there is a rule: you need to enter the danger zone at least with two more people. Two people go to the hot field to work, one remains on the sidelines and helps to navigate if the field is covered with gas.
The fact that I am a professional chemist and worked in a chemical laboratory for a long time helped me to stay in such an aggressive environment. I am not afraid of the chemical environment and I understand how and what it can affect, what safety measures should be taken. But even for me, it was a surprise that on the very first day after working in a gas mask with open ears, I had to say goodbye to my golden earrings: they just crumbled. I did not take into account that along with sulfuric acid, which does not dissolve gold, selenic acid is present on the volcano. If it gets heavy on the skin, you can get burned, and it has an even stronger effect on metals. I was able to see how, in two weeks, an aggressive environment turned iron re-bars with a diameter of 2 centimeters into thin needles.
- You said that you went to the volcano at night. What for?
- Some experiments require 24/7 monitoring. Sometimes it was impossible to work during the day because of the rains. It was very dangerous: not only was nothing visible but also the gas mixed with water and acid was obtained. From 15 days on the volcano, it was possible to work on it for 6-7 days. And the typhoon kept us on the base for several more days.
- Tell us how you survived this natural disaster?
- My colleagues said that there had not been such a typhoon for 15 years. The continuous wind blowing at a speed of 200 km per hour cut us off from the rest of the world and me from the rest of the team for three days. Going out of my bunker was life-threatening: huge stones, logs, and parts of utility structures were flying everywhere. The wind blew off the roof of the generator room, broke through the dome of the building where my colleagues lived. Then everyone joked that I got the most proven dwelling. It was reinforced with steel beams, driven three meters deep, and covered with stones on all sides. However, during the typhoon, it was rocked so strongly that being inside felt like rushing down the mountain at great speed. There was no electricity, light penetrated the small window only during the day. I looked into it and was very afraid that the dome with the whole team would be demolished, I would be left all alone and simply would not survive until help appeared. At night, I sat in complete darkness. At first, the sound of stones hitting the iron casing did not let me sleep, but on the second day, terrible fatigue and stress allowed me to fall asleep even in such nightmarish conditions. There were several sweets and a thermos of water.
- While climbing the mountains, a person physically feels the difference in height. The body reacts to it very individually. It can be assumed that the combination of altitude, weather conditions, and an aggressive environment affects the human body in some special way. What unusual physical sensations did you experience during the expedition?
- The strongest feeling was a lack of time. As if you were in a kind of temporary vacuum. At the edge of the crater, the exact depth of which no one knows, it seemed that all earthly physical laws did not work there. The strength of the volcano exceeds the strength of the mountains. It rises from within with fire and permeates you with an incredible feeling of being connected to something very powerful, a kind of energy flow. At the beginning of my stay on the volcano, all these feelings were mixed with my fear, but after a few days, I got used to it, fell in love with the volcano. I began to like going to hot zones. And you know, it seemed to me that it was a mutual feeling and the volcano "accepted" me.
I was once again convinced how much we have inside of us and how much we do not fully realize in our daily life. Such expeditions allow solving purely professional tasks and studying oneself and one's capabilities. It turned out that on a volcano you can not only survive and conduct experiments but also get a lot of positive emotions from communicating with colleagues and nature. Do I even need to say that after coming back home from such a trip, you begin to see and evaluate everything differently?
The Editorial Board of the "Science and Life at TSU" blog congratulates Lyudmila Borilo and all the scientists of Tomsk State University on the coming New Year and wishes them good health and success in their research! May all their experiments and expeditions end safely!