The best adventures are always touched by a little taste of vodka. Three stellar snow pros and one legendary photographer discover more than awesome backcountry on a heli-ski tour to Russia.
Words and pictures by Dan Milner
The dull thud-thudding of deep bass reverberated up through the snow beneath our snowy feet. It was the only give away to the building’s designated purpose. You’d never have known it from the outside, but this unassuming, single storey, rather drab building was Krasnaya’s only nightclub. Back in the UK from the outside it could have passed as a Methodist church. It was almost as if the club’s proprietors wanted to keep it a secret. Two burly henchmen, sporting the leather bomber jacket and shaved head uniform of bouncers worldwide, stood shadowing the entrance. They said something as we kicked the snow off our boots and stepped inside, but we had no idea what it was. Learning conversational Cyrillic had been the last thing on our minds when we set off to heli-ski in Russia.
Inside, the evening was in full swing. Neon seating contrasted with the matt black paintwork that glowed beneath a battery of UV lights. A glitter ball hung in the centre of the dance floor while the DJ hammered home a buoyant mix of 80s and current dance music. Girls sporting very short skirts entertained haggles of young men. It was like any unpretentious club anywhere. It was a blast.
It struck me that this little, almost secretive club tucked away in a small town near the Georgia border is a parody of modern Russia. From outside both the club and the post-Soviet country itself appear cold, uninviting, run down even, but once inside, the warmth, energy and friendliness of the people more than compensate for the false first impressions.
Certainly the three girls accompanying me on the trip – skier Andrea Binning, and snowboarders Jess Venables and Daniela Roth – didn’t seem to have any trouble being welcomed.
Unsurprisingly, we’d all jumped at the chance to spend a week in Southern Russia riding powder lines and getting whisked back to the top of the mountain by helicopter. Who wouldn’t? Our destination was Krasnaya Poliana, a small town about an hour inland from the Black Sea port and “Russia Riviera” resort of Sochi. Tucked away among the rising Caucasus mountains, Krasnaya boasts Russia’s highest annual snowfall record, reason enough to take a heli trip there. The resort itself has only four ageing chairlifts that creak and groan their way up past eye-opening billboard adverts for Sochi lap dance clubs, a clear indication that former Communism has now relinquished its grasp and succumbed to the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism.
Feel the rush
Due to miscommunication on my part, we’d arrived a day earlier than the heli package could accommodate us. With a day free we’d made use of the sunshine to get out and explore the local ski resort. Hiking backcountry bowls and chutes meant feeding on the endorphins that fresh powder turns release. Hiking along the top plateau I had trouble keeping up with my riders, so keen were they to drop in and lay out some turns. To our right, off in the distance, the Black Sea glittered, while to our left sat perhaps the most enormous and foreboding cornices I’ve ever laid eyes on. No place to drop in here then. I raced after the girls.
By 3:30pm we’d lapped enough powder runs to feel happy, worked up an appetite and had blown away the cobwebs (and vodka haze) of the previous day’s travel. Just beyond our tracks sat one more chute, still untouched even after four days without new snow. We regrouped at the top and looked down at the stash of pristine powder, sparkling in the sunlight. It would make an epic photo; we all knew the potential. Decisions decisions. In the red corner, photo incentive. In the blue, the resort café, food and hot chocolate. Blue wins again. Never get between a hungry girl and a sugar rush; my first lesson of the trip.
Deciphering a Russian mountain café’s menu without an interpreter is no easy task. But with a little gesticulation and a lot of pointing at other diners’ cuisine the girls proved to be worthy hunters and gatherers. While Andrea and Jess enviously seemed happy to consume more or less anything placed in front of them no matter what its source, for Daniela and myself being vegetarian presented its own challenges. We were saved by Daniela’s command of the art of mime, which secured us endless supply of cheese and olives every time we returned to the same café. I still have no idea how she mimed the word for olives.
The flying bus
After a day at the resort we immersed ourselves in the swirl of excitement that is heli-skiing. Unlike other destinations, the helis employed in Russia are enormous behemoth machines that swallow up 22 passengers at a time. Being a bloke, I’m always fascinated by heavy machinery, but even for my riders who take almost anything snow-related in their stride, the sight of one of these enormous machines flying in above us left them dumbstruck. The silence didn’t last long and suddenly we all started babbling excited gibberish, as if we’d just witnessed the resurrection of Christ.
Five minutes later the heli is emptying its cargo of fifteen passengers at the top of a snowy peak. We jump out blinking in the bright light and squint to watch the enormous flying bus lift off above us. Jess nudges me, reminding me to hold on tight to my board to stop it being blown away by the powerful downdraught. And then we were left in silence. It is one of the most amazing feelings on earth and one I firmly believe beats the elation of childbirth any day. Not that I’ll ever know that for sure. Below us sits 2000 metres of untouched, heavenly powder. All we need now is some sunshine to go with it! On a previous trip to Krasnaya a few years back, I enjoyed almost a whole week of sunshine; this week was to be different. After only one sunny day hiking the resort’s backcountry, the Caucasus became enveloped in a huge low-pressure system that dutifully laid down another metre of snow.
This kind of weather in other heli locations usually results in endless hours in the hot tub. But here, the strength of the helis, the skill of the two pilots and the expanse of tree-covered terrain mean heli-skiing can continue in all but the foulest weather. Right now the fact that the sun is conspicuously absent doesn’t matter to us. This forest is probably the best spaced for tree riding to be found anywhere, and the concept of needing sunshine to see the rider in the photos is all but redundant, so deep is the snow we’re riding. We blast descents, tagging along behind our guides Daniela and Marco, both Chamonix residents, and Russians Viteli and Nikolai. My riders Jess, Daniela and Andrea are doing what they do best; riding fast and leaving me to chase their disappearing forms down the mountain until we regroup at the designated heli pick-up spot. Marco then extracts a picnic hamper from his bulging backpack to the delight of everyone, not least the girls.
After ski antics
Three days of heli shuttles left us with aching legs and gave us the excuse to sample the hotel masseur’s muscle manipulating skills. Whether his technique was typical of the region or not I can’t guarantee, but I emerged from his treatment room feeling like I’d been pushed down the hotel stairs. The girls certainly didn’t seem in any hurry to book a repeat appointment; maybe it was something to do with the bear hug he dished out to each of them to close the session, something curiously I never received.
With worsening weather, the heli and the chairlifts became grounded. The storm strengthened and the snow refused to stop falling. Frustrating as it was, I felt my legs needed the rest. The girls had other ideas though, dragging my sorry form back up the resort and, through more gesticulation and mime, commandeered a patroller to shuttle us
up the hill on the back of his snowmobile. He seemed only too happy to help.
We shot pictures and headed to the café for more hot chocolate and to chat about the experience of riding powder in Russia. None of the girls had really known what to expect at the outset of the trip, but later that evening I discovered that it hadn’t stopped them packing a little special outfit, just in case the occasion arose. I was surprised, but at the same time thankful for their vanity. Without it I’m not sure we would have got into the nightclub and for that experience alone I am very grateful. In Russia, heli-skiing isn’t just about the ride.
CULTURE AND QUIRKS
Russia is a huge country made of contrasts and while the young are rapidly embracing modern lifestyles the country as a whole is a little slower to shed the trappings of the old Soviet Bloc. This is what makes Russia fascinating. It’s an eclectic mix of ageing communist iconography and liberal attitudes; think statues of Lenin brushing up against dance music. There’s also a big contrast in income, with new Russian millionaires rubbing shoulders with the chronically poor. Outside the capital, Moscow, fashion is still a little 80s.
Embroidered sweatshirts and legwarmers are sold on every market stall, a current fashionista’s paradise.
On heli down days a visit to Sochi is recommended with a browse around the food market for a taste of real Russia. A hundred different herbs and spices can be bought and stallholders will offer you a cup or bottle of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.
The people are genuinely warm and friendly, often breaking the ice (literally) with the offer of a shot of vodka or two and a chance to practise their english. Vodka and getting drunk feature highly in Russian social gatherings and it is more widespread than the ability to speak English. Brush up on your mime and wild gesticulation before you go.
Krasnaya’s success and discovery as a great ski station is leading to rapid changes. Construction is happening everywhere and before long the place will have changed markedly. Look for the market stalls selling handicrafts and local honey at the base of the resort while they are still there and before they become replaced by a McDonald’s.
A stopover in Moscow is a must (and easy to do as all travel to Sochi goes via Moscow). The city is supremely beautiful and powerful. Enormous monolithic buildings fill whole blocks and the river is often frozen over. Be prepared for the cold. Red square, the site of so many cold war military parades and still the location for Lenin’s tomb, is almost obligatory, but well worth it. For a different slant on shopping ride on Moscow’s underground (perhaps the most ornate and beautiful in the world) to Izmaylovo market where you will find a small stall selling old soviet military and communist memorabilia and more Russian dolls than you can shake a pot of caviar at.
Beer (in bar): £1.20
Coffee (on mountain): £0.80
Day lift pass at Krasnaya poliana: £17
Vertikalny-Mir offers heli-ski packages starting at £1640 for the Introduction package, which includes seven nights hotel B&B accommodation and 14 descents (taken during a six-day period) and three days’ riding at Krasnaya resort. The standard package is £2340, which inlcudes full board with seven hours’ heli (flying) time typically giving 23,000 metres of descent. Extra descents (if you have the legs for them) can be bought for approx. £50 per run.
Prices do not include travel to Sochi nor the cost of the tourist visa for entry into Russia (approx £70). Vertikalny does prepare the official and essential invitation for the visa application. Prices include guide services at a guide-client ratio of 1:4, use of safety gear, powder ski rental if needed and airport transfers. Flights from the UK to Sochi via Moscow start at £280 return with Aeroflot. See vertikalny-mir.com or eaheliskiing.com for further information.