Before I could board the gondola at Rosa Khutor, a ski area that is part of Sochi, the site of the upcoming 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 on U.S. slopes. Twenty-seven and shaggy haired, he is a self-identified “free rider” — an off-piste skier. A storm had delivered 2 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.”
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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 mountain-resort developer Paul Mathews from Whistler, B.C., to evaluate the potential of the Caucasus for winter tourism.
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. Mathews drafted some plans, and in 2002, 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 that 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 country. “Sochi is a unique place,” President Vladimir 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.”
Ski your own way
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.)
“This is a nice present for us,” Sasha said as we rode the gondola the next morning. The storm had delivered too much of a good thing, it turned out, as the exposed upper half of the mountain — arrayed with chutes and couloirs — was closed. Sasha handed me an avalanche transceiver from his bag and asked if I had used one before. We would be skiing inbounds and close to the lift — nothing too steep — but the implication was clear: We were, for all practical purposes, on our own. This was Russia.
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 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, hooting loudly.
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.
Around midday, the clouds briefly lifted, and for the first time I glimpsed the jagged contour of the summit ridge. Gornaya Karusel is a much smaller ski area than Rosa Khutor, but Sasha finds its varied terrain and tree skiing superior. “Better for free riding,” he said.
We took a few laps down a wide-open bowl, before stopping in at a log chalet for lunch. We chatted about the differences between skiing in Russia and North America. Than and I had once taught skiing in Crested Butte, Colo. Sasha has never been to the States. “American people are very interesting to me,” he said. “If a bad skier has fallen, nobody is just waiting around. All come to help! If I fall, I must stand up myself. Because it’s my experience. It is, I don’t know, the school of life.”
Sasha was eager to show us a densely forested area that he called the Magic Forest. From the top of the lift, we traversed the slope, first passing by the entrance to a bowl where a sign was posted in Russian and English: “Driving outside of the lines is forbidden.”
Sasha grinned. “But if you do it,” he said, “no one will stop you.”