THE TRANSFORMATION OF A POWDER
PARADISE FOR OLYMPIC EXPLOITATION
SNOW RUSHES OFF the steep metal roof of our log cabin. The metallic grind of dump trucks and old buses struggle up the road outside. It's still dark out, but we're wide-eyed; our internal clocks twisted after 6,000 miles and two days of travel. A foot of fresh snow hides the dirty brown construction sites of Krasnaya Polyana--one of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic venues--in what has been one of the mildest winters in recent memory. After a breakfast of crepes with local raspberry jam and hot raisin tea, we hurry into a car just to wait in a 7 a.m. traffic jam--not of ski bums and tourists trying to get to the slopes, but soldiers, migrant workers, and police weaving through a concrete maze unlike anything these mountains have ever seen.
It takes almost an hour to drive two miles to Rosa Khutor, a shiny new ski area built for the Olympics. We pass hordes of dirty mop-headed workers walking along unpaved streets. Fires burn high in skeletal concrete buildings, steel sparking like fireworks. Columns of massive orange Kazaz dump trucks jockey past security checkpoints. The scars of newly cut ski lift lines slice through beech forests covering the mountainsides, and, along the Mzymta River, 40-foot shipping containers piled high and off-kilter double as worker accommodations.
After passing through airport-like security and arriving at the manicured slopes of Rosa Khutor--the host resort for the Games' ski and snowboard events--we're relieved to find deep, light powder on surprisingly big and varied terrain. We run into Chris Turpin, a Whistler local who coaches the Russian Freeride Team. His mustache is caked with snow and he has a wide-eyed grin. "It's Jackson, Whistler, Baker, and Japan all rolled into one," he gushes. A handful of his athletes and our posse of five North Americans dive into knee-deep blower together. The resort is not quite ready, or open, for public skiing, and security is tight. Even with special passes, we make bids to get onto the upper gondola but are turned away. Avalanche danger is high, they say, and a snow squall is raging on the summit.
But it doesn't really matter on this day. The lower mountain is all we need. Photographer Christian Pondella, cameraman Ike Smith, Eric Pollard, Chris Benchetler, and I find unskied lines full of deep powder on every run. It's exotic, euphoric, and even extraterrestrial in a way. The Cold War is over. Perestroika has delivered a new powder mecca to the world. Until, that is, our world comes crashing down and the paradox of skiing deep in the heart of Russia reveals itself.
LOCATED 40 MINUTES east of Sochi, the subtropical Black Sea resort town, the villages of Krasnaya Polyana and Estosadok were an unlikely pick for the Winter Olympics (over Austria and South Korea). The towns access the mighty Caucasus Mountains--a formidable range that's home to Europe's highest peak, 18,510-foot Mount Elbrus--but until Russia secured the 2014 Olympics six years ago, they used a single ski hill with four chairlifts.
Since then, the region has been transformed into a ski resort megalopolis, complete with 220 miles of new roads, 120 miles of new railways, 100 miles of gas pipelines, high-speed trains, four new or overhauled resorts, and 50 high-speed lifts that branch out in all directions. The total price tag for the makeover was $50 billion, four times the original estimate and three times as much as London's Olympics. Critics allege that much of that money lined the pockets of corrupt Russian oligarchs and officials. Locals have learned to keep quiet and finish the job. If they don't, authorities made it known, they will go to jail.
At the western edge of the valley sits Rosa Khutor, where the alpine events will take place. Working east are Laura (cross-country), Sanki (luge/bobsled), and RusSki Gorki (jumping). Laura is the ritziest resort, owned by the largest natural gas company in the world, and will be the equivalent of Aspen for visiting Russian aristocracy. Our group planned to stick mostly to the big vertical, around 5,000 feet to be exact, of Rosa Khutor.
Pondella and Pollard have been coming to the resort--which used to be named Al'pika--for many years. It was a secret back in the day, a pow-infused range set on the shores of the Black Sea. For two years, after several attempts to acquire the proper visa paperwork, they made plans to come back again. They wanted to see the transformation that mass media and Krasnaya locals claimed was unlike any the ski world had ever seen.
WHEN WE ARRIVED in Sochi, a sprawling seaside city of 350,000 that is caught somewhere between communist tourist trap and perennial construction site, it was cold and raining. We timed our arrival exactly one year before the opening ceremonies of the 22nd Olympic Winter Games. Local newspapers were already reporting the Sochi Olympics as the most expensive in history. Cranes and the shells of half-finished stadiums lined the horizon. We stuffed our gear into a taxi and immediately pulled into gridlock. The rain didn't wash away the dirt as we slowly made our way into the mountains.
We sped and stopped for an hour or so, past excavators uprooting the gravel banks of the Mzymta, until we arrived in the village of Krasnaya Polyana, 37 miles to the east. It was brown there, the mountains hidden behind a mid-February mist. Faded banners outside a half-finished hotel depicted happy families schussing white slopes. Across the street, dirt alleys, clapboard shacks, and chicken coops framed a grocery store. We pulled into Krasnaya and Alexander Konstantinov, or "Sasha," met us at the door of his parents' chalet. Born and raised in the village, Sasha grew up skiing Al'pika. The chalet is quaint and old, a log cabin with hand-hewn stonework. The snow outside covered the remnants of raspberry bushes and strawberries in the garden. "Usually there is much snow down here," says Sasha. "This year has been strange, but the snow up high is good."
Pondella first heard about Al'pika 15 years ago. Stories of over-the-head powder, epic vertical, and old-growth deciduous forests--all of it unpopulated and undiscovered, accessed only by antiquated double chairs--was too hard to resist. He became infatuated with the "red glade" (the literal translation of Krasnaya Polyana) on his first trip and was taken in by the small but passionate ski community. He'd share dinners with the Fenin family, owners of Al'pika who migrated from Moscow in the '80s and started the resort from scratch with a rope tow in 1991. Pondella got to know their kids, Sasha and Didi, and kept coming back, not for photos or for work, but just to ski.
"They are some of the most incredible experiences of my career," Pondella told me on the phone, months before our trip. "It's the best inbounds resort skiing in the world, I promise." Up until a few years ago, before Olympic development ramped up, Krasnaya remained the mysterious, impossibly hard-to-reach village that he discovered in 2001. Then it all changed.
ON THE LAST RUN of our first day at Rosa Khutor, the mountain remains empty, save for our group. Pollard sets up for a flat spin off a tree-stump kicker. He stomps it, but travels farther than anticipated, landing a few feet above a 12-foot drop to a rock-hard cat track. The fall breaks his tibia, badly, and he is evacuated off the mountain to a new, though mostly defunct, hospital in Krasnaya. After two stressful days, his doctors at home fear that if the break is not monitored correctly, he could develop a dangerous condition that, at worst, would mean amputation. We arrange to have Pollard medevac'd to Germany where he'd be slated for surgery.
Close friends, Benchetler and Smith spent the last two days and nights at Pollard's side, trying to articulate their worry to non-English speaking doctors who seemed none too concerned about the fracture. At one point, Benchetler's doctor back home told him that if he were to see signs of swelling, he might have to instruct him in emergency surgery to save Pollard's leg. Of course, the two want to accompany Pollard to Germany, their confidence in the safety net behind this place now tested, their worry for their friend at the forefront of every thought. But having come so far, with an entire mountain to ourselves and an epic adventure just begun, they decide to stay. So we dive in once again to this wild juxtaposition that is Krasnaya Polyana.
For the last two years, Rosa Khutor has been closed to the public because of Olympic construction. The lifts spin for staff, event personnel, and the odd VIP, which includes us since Pondella sent our passport information to Moscow months ago to receive special passes, enabling us to ski the mountain. But still, we need a guide and interpreter to ski the upper gondola, where few are allowed to ski. Thirty-two-year-old Maxim Anufrikov is assigned as our local guide. He used to work in the heli-ski industry here before the development killed it. Now, every spring, he relocates to Kazakhstan to guide heli skiing and river rafting. We soon realize that "Max" is our ticket. He leads us down massive couloirs we can't see the ends of. "Don't vorry," he says, "I heeave 20-meeter rope."
We drop slabby alpine faces into the trees and sneak back onto the gondola while he talks down irate security guards, who, even though they know we're allowed to ski here, still try to flex their muscle--a common trait of the Russian male in a position of power. A true product of this rugged environment, Max makes a ski-pole self-arrest in a small slough avalanche in the choke of a chute called Suicide Gully. But whether we're in the crosshairs of a sniper guarding the lifts or succumbing to terrain traps in the steep trees, we can't deny that between our tips is a skier's dream. We all feel it. The mountains look like they were sketched in a notebook of an overzealous ski artist. The fall lines are endless; the pillows huge, droopy, and fat; the trees old and incongruous. It is an unnatural populace of perfectly placed super-lofty booters, diced with cliffs and couloirs and every other type of skiing. We have our own backcountry hill, with our own private gondola.
Max introduced us to local shredders, like Mikhael and another Max--Rosa staffers sneaking away to ski with us for a run or two. When Putin arrives to ski the lower mountain, crews are told to stop working. The locals take us down steep couloirs, ones you'd need a map to find, and we ski big sloughing alpine faces, wild beech forests, and jagged rock features lap after lap. When Benchetler drops an AK-like 55-degree wall with a 20-foot cliffband through the middle, all just a 15-minute hike from the five-star summit restaurant, we decide Pondella was right. This is the best lift-accessed skiing on earth.
But it didn't come cheap. Owned by Vladamir Potanin, the fourth richest man in Russia, Rosa alone has 44 brand-new Gazex exploders used for avalanche control (the top of the Olympic downhill course travels through avalanche terrain). Add to that the recently christened 3,773-foot Caucasus Express gondola; 260 snowmaking guns; a fleet of 40 state-of-the-art snowcats with 70 winch anchors; another seven lifts (including two gondolas, one of which comes equipped to carry cars) and you get just one venue of the the XXII Olympic Winter Games.
UNDOUBTEDLY, RUSSIA'S ABOUT-FACE transition from the world's largest state-controlled economy to a frighteningly chaotic, market-driven one has been well documented. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the government created the Russian Federation just a week later. President Boris Yeltsin instituted the liberalization of foreign trade, prices, and currency. Pandemonium ensued, as chaos overwhelmed as systems such as food distribution, gas production, and banks, which went from being nationally run organizations to privately owned corporations. This chaos still swirls in the background of Russian life. Perhaps most notably, in the context of where we are, all the riches flowed primarily to Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana.
In 1994, executives at Russia's largest bank came up with a plan to help Yeltsin and his administration raise cash while privatizing government-held industries and businesses. The plan was called "loans for shares," whereby banks lent the government money in exchange for temporary stakes in state-owned companies. If the government defaulted on its loan, the banks got to keep their stakes.
Of course, the government did default, and those with the capital were able to take advantage of the fire sale, like Oneksim Bank's then-president Potanin, who became wealthy beyond measure. As a result, Russia ranks third in the number of billionaires in the world (behind the United States and China), and those billionaires control fortunes worth 20 percent of national GDP. Meanwhile, a survey by Moscow's Higher School of Economics found that 60 percent of the population in Russia lives on the same income it had 20 years ago, just after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Close to the end of our trip, we see a Putin cavalcade drive by. It's hard to know if it's really him. The convoys come multiple times a day: five or six crappy Lada police cars, sirens blazing, splitting traffic so that a handful of black Mercedes can scream by. It's no surprise the Russian president spends a lot of time here. As one of the world's most powerful men and the modern-day czar of 142 million people, Putin enjoys the schuss and acts as the face behind these Olympics. Russian media call them "Putin's Games."
During the '90s and early 2000s, Putin heli skied the mountains surrounding Al'pika. For him, it was the perfect scenario. With the Caucasus running east-west from the northeastern shores of the Black Sea, proximate to Sochi and as close to a Cannes as Russia was ever going to get, the mountains above Krasnaya Polyana would be the perfect destination ski resort. The fact the peaks see up to 50 feet of snow between December and March didn't hurt, either.
So why not make a Chamonix? Or Whistler? What better way to materialize an international ski destination overnight? Why not host the Olympics? With near totalitarian reign over a country and a people unwaveringly accustomed to doing what they're told, that's exactly what Putin is doing. By the time he's done, he will have taken a village of less than 1,000 people and one tiny ski hill and, in less than a decade, transformed it into a 30,000-bed resort. The ski world has never seen a metamorphosis so sweeping and absolute, one likely to never happen again. At $9 billion, just the train and highway from Sochi to Krasnaya Polyana will cost more than the total bill for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
At a traditional Russian restaurant in the old part of the Estosadok village, I sit down to dinner with Boris (a fake name requested for anonymity), a 30-something developer who currently has a hotel underway near the base of the RusSki Gorki. Boris looks cool and hip, with long curly blonde hair, a purple jump suit, and a big-ass watch. Over vodka and pickled everything, he tells me about the Wild West building environment he's found himself embroiled in. Putin's government had recently instituted legislation where if developers are unable to complete Olympic-oriented projects on time, they could face up to 25 years in jail. On top of that, Putin recently legislated that Olympic facilities that are behind schedule have to pay $65,000 a day in fines.
The threat has pushed lift companies to reportedly pour incomplete, non-rebarred concrete foundations for some towers to rush their completion, causing one to fail last season. Boris claims a master plan or architectural guidelines do not exist. "You just get your land, and you go," he says. "And through hell and high water, you get it done." But for more simple folk, like Sasha's mom, who still gardens amidst the dust of development, they carry a different tone. "They've wrecked this place, it will never be the same," she laments. In Russia, however, while people aren't afraid to complain, rarely do they protest. Sasha's mom is quick to follow up, "But what can we do?"
"PUT YOUR SKIS on behind zee rock."
Max's heavy Russian accent is difficult to decipher. Are we taking cover? Did the soldiers follow us? Our normally casual and slightly irreverent guide is anxious. Which is unsettling, seeing as he seemed to do fine with closeout cliff bands, self-arrests, and a heinous storm that, thanks to tracking over the Kyrgyzstan desert, dropped three feet of red-hued snow on the mountain a few days ago. "Pick your lines and let's go," he says, staring at us with intense, don't-fuck-with-me eyes. "Vee don't have much time."
On top of a long history of military presence, it turns out we're on the exact site of the Russia-Georgia War, a five-day conflict in 2008 during which Georgia launched a large-scale military offensive against South Ossetia in an attempt to reclaim the region. As recently as 2011, Muslim separatists bombed a gondola at nearby Mount Elbrus ski resort, yet, luckily, no one was injured. Later that same day as the bombing, three tourists driving up to the resort in a minibus were pulled to the side of the road and shot and killed by suspected Muslim extremists. We're only 250 miles from the republics of Chechnya and Dagestan, where most of Russia's rebels are based, many of which constantly threaten the Russian government with Olympic terrorist threats. According to Russia's Minister of Interior, the country will deploy 37,000 police during the Olympics.
I'm still huffing from the 20-minute ski-boot sprint along the highpoint of a cresting 7,600-foot-high east-west ridgeline. For the first time during our trip, we've left the ski-area boundary of Rosa Khutor. If this were six years ago, we wouldn't be hiding; we'd be standing just off the summit of Al'pika in the middle of a spectacular alpine wilderness--the jagged peaks of Caucasus National Park to our north, behind us the rolling forested mountains of Georgia.
But now, we are surrounded by zebra-suited snipers, who sit hunched against the wind, scouring the horizon for signs of attack. In the valley 5,500 feet below, battalions of military, police, and security guards cruise the streets. We climbed the ridge after Max noticed a breech in the security line, dipping into a zone that was off-limits. If it weren't for the steep, backlit flutes and cliffs of the north face beneath us, we would have stayed inbounds. Repeatedly, we've been made quite aware that the top gondola station was strictly forbidden.
But Pondella had skied these lines before, many times actually, and he wanted to ski and shoot them again. So here "vee" are, hiding behind a rock on what feels like the ultimate poach. And I'm scared shitless. Sneaking farther out onto the face, I look down at the scars of Olympic development that extend the entire length of the valley. The place is a mess. A taxi driver told me last night that "zee town is broken." Up here, however, the bright Caucasus sun illuminates a steep, feature-ridden ridgeline covered in boot-deep, light Russian pow.
"After your line, ski over to zee trees," instructs Max, his voice relaxing a little. Pondella and I watch Benchetler's line--a rib down to a perfect 360 booter. It seems like a lifetime before Pondella and Smith get their shit together. Tripods, memory cards, exposures. In the distance, I think I hear a helicopter. Benchetler pushes off, shredding perfect pow and nailing the spin. I lay a screw-you-KGB slash on a roll-over before diving back into a halfpipe chute. Max lays waste to his own wave of snow. We escape into perfect side-lit glades called the Magic Forest, the poach complete. We head back to our own private gondola for another lap. This time inbounds.
THE SUN IS GONE, replaced by a warm gray front that brings rain and melting snow. Many of the pre-Olympic ski and snowboard test events are cancelled due to the spike in temperatures. (The resort has stored 1.5 million cubic feet of snow high on Rosa Khutor for the Games next year, in case of another warm winter.) The frenzy of work in the valley hasn't slowed for a second since we arrived 10 days ago. Yesterday, we learned that Pollard did indeed develop compartment syndrome, and is undergoing numerous surgeries in Germany in a dire bid to save muscle function in his lower leg.
Pondella and I spend our last day in Russia skiing RusSki Gorski. We wait in our first line of the trip, riding up the gondola with the three Sashas: Sasha Fenin, the son of the original owner of Al'pika and a successful businessman in Moscow; Sasha Matveuchuk, a dreadlocked former heli guide who owns the local ski shop; and Sasha, our landlord. We brave tracked snow for the first time in over a week, cruising through another skier's paradise, one where steep trees, alpine couloirs, cliff bands, and gullies welcome big snows.
The terrain, for lack of a better word, is perfect. We stop to take a break. The three Sashas think the Olympics will be good. "Maybe in five years this place will settle down a bit," one of them says. We pass around a cigarette, chocolate, traditional pancakes, and snowberry tea. "Look at the terrain," another says. "The typical Russian skier can't go down there. They wear jeans and can barely survive the piste. We have this all to ourselves."
We pack up and head down into steeper and steeper trees, across a drainage and onto a groomed run to the download station. As we descend into the mud, dust, and hustle of the valley, it's hard to know what will become of this place. If anyone will ever ski here. Developers say the Russian skiing population is growing 15 to 20 percent a year. But after the Olympics will this infrastructure be able to sustain itself? Will people flock from Europe? North America? Moscow? I shuffle past the security guards and step into the gondola before it ascends to the riches.