Ko Mountain

Map--Khab-Ko

The Sikhote-Alin ridge lies in the south of the Russian Far East and occupies most of the Primorsky Kray and southern part of Khabarovsky Kray. Sikhote-Alin is covered with mixed and coniferous forests. The peaks of the ridge with a height of more than approximately 1500 meters are occupied by mountain tundras (so called “alpine zone”).

The Sikhote-Alin ridge has a diverse flora and fauna. Among the large animals here you can find such rare ones as the amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) and the siberian tiger (Panthera tigris tigris). The invertebrate fauna is also very rich and interesting. For example, here you can find both the largest beetle (Callipogon relictus) and largest butterfly (Papilio maackii) in Russia.

Ko mountain is the second highest (2003 meters above sea level) peak of the Sikhote-Alin ridge (the highest mountain is Tardoki-Yani, 2090m). Ko Mt. is located far from all settlements and is rather difficult to access. The name of the mountain is translated from the language of native tribes as “Witch” or “Witch’s Mountain”, which reflects its notoriety. The weather on the mountain is known for its unpredictability: a warm summer day can suddenly change to cold rain or even snow. For this reason, tourists who climb the mountain die from time to time.

Members of the expedition

This peak had long attracted our attention and was a coveted goal for our expedition. Main reason for that is a hope to find and collect mountain endemic species of spiders and insects. The first attempt to ascend ended rather poorly: one of the participants broke his leg and was evacuated by a rescue helicopter of Ministry of Emergency Situations.

Nevertheless, we did not abandon the idea of climbing it and after more thorough preparation, made a second attempt in 2013. The expedition members were I and two entomologists from Far East Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences.

Our expedition began on June 16. None of the expedition members owned a car, so we boarded a train in Vladivostok and headed towards the village of Pereyaslovka, whose railway station, for some strange reason, is called Verino. Arriving early in the morning, we went to the local bus station, where we soon found a private driver who agreed to take us to the village of Solontsevyi. It was only 20 km along a forest road from this village to the starting point of the ascent. We tried to persuade the driver to take us further, but he refused, alleging the poor condition of the road. It soon turned out he was absolutely right; the road was indeed in terrible condition. So, we unloaded from the car and went to a local shop to inquire about anyone who could take us deeper into the forest. Luck smiled upon us once again when a local hunter named Vasily arrived at the shop and agreed to take us to the desired point for a reasonable fee. We got into his SUV and, accompanied by his stories about life in taiga, sped away. As mentioned, the road was in terrible condition and only passable by truck or good SUV. Most loggers had left, and now no one maintained the road. Only a few small logging companies remained, reluctant to spend money on road maintenance. We saw a couple of places where logs were being loaded onto trucks, with workers violating safety rules and obstructing traffic.

Flowers in taiga forest

Nevertheless, we safely reached our destination and said goodbye to Vasily. Before leaving, he gave us his phone number so we could arrange our return trip via our satellite phone. Unfortunately, he gave us the wrong number, and getting out of the forest would prove more difficult than expected. Near the road exit was an old, uninviting winter hut, which we avoided by setting up our tents. Lying in a warm sleeping bag that evening, I was filled with thoughts of forthcoming work and unwarranted optimism. The following days quickly brought me back to reality.

The next morning began with unclear weather; it was either thick fog or drizzle. After photographing the white columbine (Aquilegia amurensis) by the road and the tall prickly wild rose (Rosa acicularis) near the winter hut, and setting up pitfall traps for catching spiders, we set off. Initially, the path followed a semi-abandoned road along a stream but soon turned into a regular forest trail. The trail was relatively well-maintained, with fallen trees cut away, making the walk easy at first. However, after a while, our journey turned into a trial. The stream Ko (name the same as mountain’s) has many tributaries, which we had to cross multiple times, often wading through mud and clambering over fallen logs. With heavy backpacks, this was exhausting and slowed us down greatly. The GPS in my chest pocket showed that we took breaks every 300-400 meters, with an average speed of no more than two kilometers per hour.

Soon, we reached a large scree, at an elevation of just 545 meters above sea level, according to the GPS. Before the scree lay a small bog covered in thick lichens, blooming marsh labrador tea (Rhododendron tomentosum), and lingonberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), filling the air with a pleasant spicy aroma. Such screes are favored habitats for certain spider species, so we stopped to collect samples.

We walked about four and a half kilometers on the first day, leaving everyone exhausted. This was followed by three more difficult days of the journey.

The trail along the stream Ko is well-trodden in places, with a log bridge reinforced with metal clamps at one point. There are many sable traps along the trail, indicating that hunters maintain the path regularly. The forest varies along the way, with some bright, pleasant sections and many areas with difficult-to-navigate deadfalls, requiring crawling on all fours, which is challenging with a heavy backpack. At one point, the stream hugs a fairly high scree. There you can either follow the shore or the slope, but either way, it’s dangerous since the rocks are unstable and there’s a risk of falling from a considerable height.

Taiga forest on slopes of Ko mountain
Taiga forest on the mountain slopes

On the fourth day of the climb, it got noticeably colder, and we started encountering holes with ice at the bottom. There were also minor injuries. While climbing over a fallen tree trunk, I mistakenly leaned on another one lying on top of it, my hand plunged through the rotten wood, and I fell heavily onto it with my fully loaded backpack. By evening, my wrist hurt so much I wanted to run away, and the pain lingered for a month after the trip.

Of note was an excellent winter hut, located shortly after the aforementioned scree. When we arrived at it on the second day of the ascent, after several hours of grueling struggle through the taiga, I felt like a traveler who had unexpectedly found an oasis in the middle of a desert. The winter hut was spacious, built very solidly, with a roof covered in roofing felt. There was a supply of dry firewood, and inside on the bunks, there are even mattresses and blankets. The lighting inside is provided by LED bulbs taped to the ceiling. Behind the hut there was a scree, and in front is a nice clearing with raspberries (Rubus crataegifolius) and currants (Ribes mandshuricum). In short, it’s a wonderful, clean place. Above the hut’s entrance was a plate with quasi-religious maxims, signed profoundly as “unknown fathers.” I don’t know who they are, perhaps a sect of men hiding from alimony or something similar. Inside, a more pragmatic inscription by local hunters threatens to kill anyone who litters in the hut. However, it was written politely, in beautiful handwriting, and even without any cursing.

Another good spot is located at 970 meters above sea level, where the stream splits into three. It’s clear that many groups of tourists stop here. There was a fire pit and several flat areas to pitch tents. A wooden cross was nailed to one of the trees – apparently, the alimony-escaping fathers reached there too.

Taiga forest on the mountain slopes

Amid the hardships of the ascent, there was a bright spot – a beautiful waterfall with flowers on the shore. We spent a considerable amount of time here photographing it and the surrounding vegetation. However, after climbing a bit higher than the waterfall, we mistakenly followed a different, side stream in our excitement. Venturing off course, we ended up in dense dwarf siberian pine (Pinus pumila) thickets. Realizing our mistake, we decided to cut through by crossing over a hill, but we couldn’t manage it and had to return to the Ko stream. We climbed a bit further but soon realized we were exhausted and decided to stop on a small, really tiny clearing above the stream. The tents had to be pitched almost touching each other. By this time, my morale had completely sunk; the peak seemed as distant and unattainable as Everest. Lying in the tent, scratching mosquito-bitten arms, vivid images of quiet family joys filled my mind: a soft bed, a young wife, affectionate cats, and hearty meals. Nevertheless, the forest surrounded me, there was work to be done, and retreat was not an option.

Despite the dire forebodings induced by the previous days’ hardships, the final day of the ascent turned out to be much easier than expected. Initially, the trail followed the stream and was quite difficult, but we quickly emerged onto a slope covered in grass and birch (Betula ermanii). The birch belt is very wide, probably a kilometer. Walking on it is easy: the grass is soft, and there are few rocks and fallen trunks. Despite ascending the southern slope, there were large snow patches. We were especially lucky with the weather – the sun was shining, it was warm, boosting our spirits and optimism.

Birch forest on Ko mountain
Birch forest located between taiga and mountain tundras
Meadow on Ko mountain
Meadow on the mountain slope

We set up our final base camp in a clearing surrounded by thickets of dwarf siberian pine, without climbing to the very peak of the ridge. The main challenge was finding a flat area close to water.

Overall, comparing the alpine zone of Ko (the area above the tree line) with such a well-known peak of the Sikhote-Alin range as Mount Oblachnaya (the highest mountain in Primorsky Krai), it can be said that this place is more beautiful. The meadows are vibrant with numerous Rhododendron redowskianum, marsh labrador tea (Rhododendron tomentosum), louseworts (Pedicularis oederi), and other flowering plants.   In many places, large areas covered with yellow-flowered rosebay (Rhododendron aureum) can be seen between the thickets of dwarf pine and scree slopes.

Blooming Rhododendron aureum (Ericaceae)

After working around the base camp, we decided to make a trek to the ridge towards the Ko peak on the second day. The weather in the morning was as beautiful as the previous day – the sun was shining gently. In high spirits, we set off. The climb turned out to be long, but the path was pleasant. The ridge features vast blooming alpine meadows with excellent views. From the top, we could see two glacial cirques covered with dwarf pine at the bottom. One of them had a visible lake, but it was too far to visit, so we saved it for a future trip.

Flowers in the alpine tundra on Ko mountain
Blooming Rhododendron redowskianum

The summit of Mount Ko stands out significantly from the surroundings, and to reach it, one must traverse a very narrow, dangerous looking ridge. Since the climb did not promise significant scientific benefits, we decided not to take the risk. At an altitude of 1900 meters, we found a couple of alpine accentors (Prunella collaris) and later their nest.

After collecting samples in the alpine meadows and taking photos, we noticed a threatening black cloud approaching and headed back to camp. I immediately remembered that I had left my waterproof raincoat behind, although it had been in my backpack all along. Despite our quick pace, the cloud caught up and unleashed a torrential cold rain on us. The entire expedition was soaked to the bone within minutes. Hiking in the mountains is challenging in any weather, but it is especially difficult when navigating slippery rocks in drenched clothing. As we struggled through the dwarf cedar thickets, I felt like a flea in the wet, coarse fur of a mammoth. As usual, the rain stopped as soon as we returned to camp and changed into dry clothes. Naturally, we had forgotten to cover the firewood with sheet of plastic, so it was also soaked.

Spurs of Ko mountain
Pedicularis oederi (Scrophulariaceae) from Ko mountain
Pedicularis oederi (Scrophulariaceae)

Flowering alpine tundra

The descent from the mountain took us only two days. On the first day, we covered 10 kilometers from the base camp to the second winter hut. This distance would be small in valley conditions, but in the mountains, we were exhausted to the limit. The last two kilometers, I walked on autopilot, too tired to think. The path from the second winter hut to the first was slightly shorter, just seven kilometers. Despite the challenging terrain, compared to the previous day, it felt like a resort because the trail was much better. Upon reaching the location, we discovered that Vasily had given us the wrong number, and we couldn’t reach him. One expedition member had to walk 20 kilometers by the forest road to the village to find the careless driver. The rest of the journey was straightforward: Vasily drove us to Pereyaslovka, and from there we took a train to Khabarovsk, departing for Vladivostok the next morning.

In addition to many photographs, the result of our expedition was the publication of two scientific articles on the spiders’ fauna. In one of these works, a new species and a new genus and species of the wolf spider (Gulacosa eskovi), which is endemic to this mountain, was described.

Alpine accentor (Prunella collaris) and its nest

Gulocosa eskovi, male and female

Alpine tundra on Ko mountain
Flowering alpine tundra
Blooming Diapensia obovata (Diapensiaceae)
Blooming Diapensia obovata (Diapensiaceae)
Mikhail M. Omelko

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My name is Mikhail Omelko, I am the developer and author of this site, living in Vladivostok (Russia). I have been doing wildlife photography, mainly macro photography, for over 20 years.

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