The Great Siberian Traverse—A Review

Sherpas Cinema and POWDER Magazine go long in Russia

The thought of going to Russia for one month is hard to swallow. When I heard my colleague and editor John Clary Davies was leading the charge, riding the longest rail in the world through Siberia for one cold, long, lonely month, my initial reaction was that he might be pushing the limits of ski journalism. Just how much story can you get from sitting on a train for 6,000 miles? Any hack with a liberal arts degree can write about heli skiing in Alaska, but to fully immerse oneself in foreign culture, all while making a film and writing a feature takes, well, guts.

Full disclosure, POWDER is paying me to write this review, but they have also given me the freedom to criticize their film as I have all other ski films this fall. I trust they’ll take my honesty with a spoonful of vodka and accept it. If you don’t see my byline here in the coming weeks, assume The Skier’s Magazine had me exiled to Russia. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the film.

“The Great Siberian Traverse” begins as an homage to filmmaker Wes Anderson’s signature style. We are quickly introduced to a kind Russian narrator who will storybook the journey of Ingrid Backstrom, Nick Martini, and Callum Pettit on the longest stretch of train track ever built. Rather than include inside looks at the entire crew, including Davies, who penned the feature for the September issue of POWDER, Sherpas Cinema focuses solely on the three characters and their experiences, which makes for a stronger narrative in the end.

Media today has a lot of “inside the crew” pieces. Few do that well and storytelling suffers because of it. Though I’m certain the crew has a lot of untold Russia stories, those are best left for when you run into one of them at an après bar this winter. Ask what really went down after all of that vodka.

No doubt a country like Russia is rich with cultural experiences that deviate from the norms of ski travel pieces. Avalanche Man, a guide in the film, giving a rundown of how to properly stab a bear in the heart while sacrificing your other hand is one of those moments. This film is filled with tiny treasures that remind us how strange and different microcosms of cultures can be.

Skiing’s risks are inherent. Throw foreign travel in and injuries take on a new level of seriousness. Martini suffers an early shoulder injury, which is no small snag in the road when you’re on the other side of the earth and have nearly a month to go in a journey, and yet, he still shows up for work, blasting pillows and making sweet, sweet pow turns. Backstrom and Pettit ski their asses off.

The powder skiing in this film is unique and filmed in a classic Sherpas way, making young skiers look like absolute dragon slayers. The terrain is diverse, a reminder of the expansive landscape. While the film is nearly a half hour long, it moves quickly through the arduous journey. I wanted more and thankfully there is more. A whole lot more.

For those traveling, trips of this nature change you, make you see the world through a different lens. Rarely does that come out in one piece of media.

There is a formula used in ski journalism and adventure writing that goes “We went on this amazing trip that was amazing with amazing people and this is what happened. It was amazing! The end.” For magazines, page count limits the amount of nuances—like not knowing what train to catch, meeting a curious local—because the medium doesn’t allow for it. But these are important details. For film, going too long is boring. On the Internet, anything goes, but it’s tough to rise above all the noise.

By combining film, print, social media, and digital content, The Great Siberian Traverse is a testament to rich storytelling. I have not seen the coffee table book, but having read Davies’ feature, seen the film, and followed along on Instagram, I’m left satisfied after a full, delicious meal of a story. I presume the book is the aperitif. Books always go down smooth. Hop aboard the train, take the ride, look out the window, and think about how far skiing has come in terms of storytelling. It’s quite amazing.

The Great Siberian Traverse is available on Vimeo On Demand and is touring around the West.