"Snowboarders at Rosa Khutor near Sochi, Russia"
12/20/13, "A Test Run at Russia’s Olympic Hopeful," NY Times, Andy Isaacson
"Before I could board the gondola at Rosa Khutor, a ski area that is part
of Sochi, the site of next year’s Winter Olympics, I first had to
trundle through a metal detector manned by Russian soldiers with machine
guns and furry hats. This is not something I’m used to. At chairlifts
in the American West, where I typically ski, you find cheerful young
attendants who are stoked to be on their feet all day because that’s
what it takes to live the dream.
Unlike those armed soldiers, Sasha Krasnov, a local guide I’d arranged
to meet, would be at home in the Rockies. Twenty-seven and shaggy
haired, he is a self-identified “free rider” — an off-piste skier. A
storm had delivered two feet of fresh snow overnight
, ending a long dry
spell, and Sasha, his head tucked under a dirt bike helmet, was as giddy
as a child on Christmas morning.
The gondola ferried us out of the base area, high above an Italianate
clock tower built with an oligarch’s money, across a birch forest
stippled with powder. Thick clouds obscured my view, so I unfolded a
trail map, which was entirely in Russian. On it, I could see that Rosa
Khutor was laid out much like a European resort, with a series of
chairlifts linking the river valley, at 1,800 feet, with a craggy,
treeless summit at 7,612 feet. As in the Alps, the resort takes a
laissez-faire approach to marking trails
. Only a handful had designated
names, which weren’t helpful anyway, unless you read Cyrillic or had a
knack for symbol recognition. I wondered aloud whether any rope or
signage designated the resort’s boundary.
“No rope!” Sasha replied with a knowing smile. “This is Russia.”
Vladimir Putin may be better known as a judo master and shirtless
fisherman, but come winter, when snow coats the onion domes atop St.
Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, the Russian president heads for the slopes.
The Wikipedia entry for ski suit
in fact, features an image not of the Olympic stars Lindsey Vonn or
Bode Miller but of Mr. Putin, wearing the red two-piece uniform of
Russia’s national team. On his personal website
he declares skiing “a dynamic sport that requires mastering a
technique, and is a great opportunity for an active holiday, to stay fit
and get a boost of energy and good spirits.”
He also claims to prefer skiing in Russia. Until recently, however,
there was little the country offered a foreign skier seeking an active
holiday, never mind those good spirits. Russia’s tallest peaks are along
its southern border with Georgia, in the Caucasus mountain range. The
mountains stretch diagonally in a belt from the Black Sea, east to the
Caspian. The tallest of them, Mount Elbrus, reaches higher than any in
the rest of Europe, with an elevation of 18,500 feet. But beyond some
heli-skiing operations, the handful of ski areas dating from the Soviet
era hardly justified an Aeroflot ticket.
Not surprisingly, then, wealthy Russians have preferred skiing the Alps.
Around a decade ago, the Russian government decided that there was no
reason they needed to lose those vacation rubles
to Switzerland, France
and Italy. They flew in a mountain resort developer from Whistler,
British Columbia, Paul Mathews, to evaluate the potential of the
Caucasus for winter tourism. Mr. Mathews looked at the jagged ridgelines
surrounding the sleepy village of Krasnaya Polyana, nestled in a river
valley above Sochi, a city of about 400,000; at the long, deep gulleys
that tumbled down from them; at the region’s glaciated bowls and gentle
plateaus. It reminded him of Les Trois Vallées in France, among the
world’s largest linked ski areas. Mr. Mathews drafted some plans, and in
, Interros, a conglomerate controlled by Vladimir Potanin, one of
Russia’s richest men, and Gazprom, the world’s largest natural-gas
producer, began building ski resorts.
Situated on the Black Sea, Sochi has a pleasant, temperate climate
has lured Russians to seaside sanitariums since the days of Stalin. The
palm trees there can almost fool you into believing you’re in another
“Sochi is a unique place,” Mr. Putin told the International
Olympic Committee in his winning pitch
to host the 2014 Games. “On the seashore, you can enjoy a fine spring day — but up in the mountains, it’s winter.”
When I flew into Sochi last March, joined by my friend Than, it was
neither springlike nor fine. The late-winter storm, which had diverted
our flight from Moscow the previous night, cast a gray and despondent
mood over the subtropical city. We took a taxi to Krasnaya Polyana, an
hourlong trip up a winding, two-lane road, through the gorge of the
Mzymta River. (A new highway and high-speed railway, being built across
the river, will cut the travel time in half.) ...
At the top of the lift, a digital board displayed ski conditions, rating
the avalanche danger as four on a scale of five. “Very dangerous in
alpine zone,” Sasha said.
We were joined by a handful of other locals, including Inna Didenko, a
blond Sochi native and competitive free rider. Than and I followed their
tracks into the woods. The crystalline snow there was thigh-high and
untouched; a snowboarder in neon yellow pants jokingly declared, in
Russian, the universal skiing dictum of there being “no friends on a
powder day” before leaving us behind.
Each of us then picked our own line, first Sasha, who banked three turns
and swiftly vanished behind some birch trees. I chose a route to his
right. Midway down, from across the slope, I could make out Than,
That evening, at the swanky bar inside the Park Inn, I met with
Jean-Louis Tuaillon, the mountain manager at Rosa Khutor. “Have you been
on the road in Russia and seen how people are driving?” he asked me. I
thought of my taxi driver’s slalom turns and tailgating up the winding
road from the airport. “They are skiing the same way. The typical
Russian experience is wild skiing.”
Mr. Tuaillon was with the French company Compagnie des Alpes, which
operates major resorts like Chamonix and Val d’Isère and has been tasked
by Rosa Khutor’s owner with turning it into a world-class ski area.
This apparently entailed making Rosa Khutor less Russian.
I described my experience renting skis that morning
Rossignols, with a snazzy sticker reading “CZAR” — which had involved
the usual Russian formalities: relinquishing my passport at a cashier’s
in return for a paper stamped with an official-looking seal.
Mr. Farini nodded sympathetically. “For the cash register, I wanted to
adopt a single line, so you go up to the first one that’s available,” he
said. “But that just doesn’t work in Russia.”
The next morning, we found the mountain still socked in. With the upper
half of Rosa Khutor closed — still with an avalanche rating of “very
dangerous” — we took a free village bus 10 minutes downriver toward the
center of Krasnaya Polyana, to Gornaya Karusel (Mountain Carousel),
another new ski area.
The entrance to the base gondola is beside the main road, and as we
lifted off, I was afforded an aerial view of the bulldozers and
earthmovers remaking this former backwater. The build-out of the Sochi
Olympics — a megaproject of new tunnels, highways
, ski lifts, stadiums
and lodging — is said to have cost $51 billion, the highest price tag
ever for the Games. But its environmental cost might add untold billions
to that figure. Environmental groups point to
pollution and deforestation, of Sochi National Park shrinking in size,
of coastal wetlands being used as a dump, of the Mzymta River becoming
unswimmable. As activists have spoken, they’ve also been detained. ...
That security plan also includes armed soldiers at ski lifts
. After two
gondolas, we wended our way down an empty, untracked chute along the ski
boundary that fed into a spacious glade. The air was warmer than the
previous day, cementing the powder as we descended. Our trail petered
out at the edge of a dirt service road, which we had to walk across to
reach the chairlift. The security guard manning the lift glared
disapprovingly at our muddy boots, muttering something to Sasha, who
lectured something back. The guard shrugged and looked away.
Sasha later explained: “He says to us, ‘You cannot get on with your
dirty boots.’ I tell him, ‘You are not the boss. You have to be
hospitable to the guests.’”"...image from NY Times,