Thump, thump, thump. Ryland Bell punches into a near-vertical wall to claw his way up a steep, undulating face of chutes and spines.
Thump, thump, thump. Kael Martin kicks steps toward a closeout air below a Seussian stack of ribbed rollovers.
Thump, thump, thump. The DJ plays his house mix as he does every afternoon. He picks up the pace little by little. We can hear it here, several thousand feet above the mid-mountain village, and see the building après scene down at the confluence of a collection of gondolas. The pair of Moscovian go-go girls is probably onstage by now, dancing for vodka-fueled vacationers from frozen cities up north.
Thump, thump, thump. Moss Halladay unconsciously bobs his head to the beat as he prepares to launch the drone. Ryland’s almost ready to drop.
We pretty much took the lifts to get here. A two-minute hike and one rope line, that’s it. It hasn’t snowed in four days. The sun has cooked south-facing slopes, but there’s stable, consolidated, untracked powder on most other aspects. Few, if any, have touched these lines recently. No one comes here to ride spines. This is Sochifornia, man.
It’s mid-February, 2018. The Olympics have just started in South Korea. Four years ago, the Sochi Winter Games featured snow events 25 miles up the Mzymta River Valley at Rosa Khutor. It changed the place. The mountain village of Krasnaya Polyana retained some of its character, while Esto-Sadok boomed with a village stroll, mall, casino and all the other trappings of a resort town. What the snowboard world saw of the Games generally took place down low with little snow and high security. What Ryland and Moss saw during a 2016 visit was entirely different. It snowed. They scored. And they wanted more.
Last fall, Ryland told me stories of untouched steeps and endless lines to the valley floor—massive walls, spines, open bowls, fluted faces and pillows among steep, well-spaced birch. He described it as Japan meets Alaska on the Black Sea. It was enough to convince me to go through the painstaking process of securing a Russian travel visa and a 40-hour itinerary each way. Same for Kael, Andrew Irwin and Chris Galvin. (The latter two and Ryland are part of what they call the “White Fire Crew.” They ride together in Tahoe nearly every day, regardless of conditions.)
Beyond Ryland’s impressions of the place, information on Sochi-area resorts was patchy at best. Here’s what I learned before arrival via hasty internet research:
Gazprom Mountain Resort, just up the valley from Krasnaya Polyana in Esto-Sadok, is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favorite ski area. It’s owned by the eponymous state-run gas giant Gazprom, was built in 2014 during the $50 billion Olympic development boom, and Putin can get there via helicopter from his vacation home near Sochi. It’s for rich people who like mellow groomers and high security.
Two more resorts, Alpika and Gorky Gorod, were also built in the 2010s and can be accessed from near the village stroll in lower Esto-Sadok (locally known as Gorky Gorod).
Rosa Khutor (pronounced “rose-ah hooter”), which broke ground in 2003, is by far the biggest of the resorts. With 5,770 vertical feet of riding and 26 lifts—including seven gondolas and an assortment of high-speed six-packs, fixed-grip doubles and quads, and surface lifts—its extensive infrastructure, managed in conjunction with French leisure industry leader Compagnie des Alpes since 2010, rivals mega resorts the world over in scope and amenities.
If you search for Rosa Khutor on Instagram, you’ll find as many pictures of people in bikinis and in hotel rooms as you will people on the slopes. It’s a place to party and flaunt one’s relative wealth as much as to go skiing and riding.
Western media reportage focused mostly on unfinished development, including shaky internet and utilities prior to the Olympics, but not so much on the current state of things in the mountains near Sochi. Indeed, I embarked without a clear picture of what we would find in Russia’s Western Caucuses.
A first impression of Esto-Sadok as we arrive in a haze of jet lag: This place is big. Like, Las Vegas big. Garish, angular buildings with Mediterranean-inspired facades loom above a well-lit village stroll with all the trappings of any other resort town—kitschy shops, nightclubs, an Irish Pub and so on and so forth. When we awake, closer inspection reveals a kind of new capitalist disposability. The towel dryer in our rented apartment leaks water onto the floor. The hallways reek of cigarettes. The floors are warped and bubbled. The elevator struggles. Fences that appear to be made of wood are made of sheet metal; wood-grained windowsills are plastic veneer.
Walking the village stroll that first morning, Kael, ever the engineer, points out survey markers on the bottoms of the high-rise buildings, which monitor the settlement of hastily built foundations. Spiderweb cracks already run up their stucco sidings.
In the valley, spring is encroaching. A thousand miles due south of ice-encrusted Moscow, Sochi sits at just 43 degrees north. Across the Black Sea from Istanbul, it was previously known as a summer beach resort. The near east influence is apparent in ample hookah bars. Their sickly sweet vapor mingles with cumin, nutmeg, cardamom and kebabs. Turkish taxi drivers blast to and fro in cheap sedans. We catch one headed toward Rosa Khutor, another 10 minutes up the valley. On the north side of the street, a row of large buildings seems half-abandoned, and I can just make out tin-roof shacks and empty lots. Stray dogs roam between pockets of new construction. At a major roundabout, a blue “Sochi 2014” sign lists precariously to one side, its paint peeling, in danger of toppling over.
With lift tickets secured, we pass through incessantly beeping metal detectors, fight our way onto a gondola to the mid-mountain village, switch to a second modern Doppelmayr, and are whisked to winter at 7,500 feet. There, waist-deep powder, avalanche-barrier airs and low-visibility tree lines wash away the jet lag.
When Ryland and Moss went to Sochi in 2016, they met Sasha Ilyin. One of several professional Russian freeriders, Sasha’s carved out a living as a guide, taking tourists to plentiful powder stashes at local resorts. At 35-years-old, he’s only been snowboarding for a decade, but he’s got a locker at the local snowboard shop, a polished white-and-chrome motorcycle, and spends his extra cash and time trying to qualify for the Freeride World Tour. With a lean build, shaved head and leather jacket, he looks every part the Gorky Gorod rock star. Sasha was our local connection. But when we arrived, he was busy guiding. So he linked us up with Dmitry Mukhin.
Dmitry meets us at the top station of the Kavkazskiy Ekspress gondola—the high point of Rosa Khutor, where tourists flock to take selfies and the occasional tandem parasail. It’s our second day on-slope, and sunshine has begun to burn through the clouds. Dmitry, flying under the color-pop Rosa radar in a black helmet and earth-toned outerwear, immediately takes us to the goods. But first, a warning, as we crawl through a little hole in the fluorescent orange fencing: “Somebody died here in an avalanche a few years ago. And when someone dies in Russia, someone must pay for it.”
We move quickly downslope and beyond sight of ski patrol, traversing hard right under the gondola toward a convex roll. Peering over the edge, I’m a little scared. What I can see: Gazex tubes—permanent explosive installations used for avalanche control across Europe—sit atop a wide apron that funnels into a tight, north-facing chute (we later learn it’s named Crazy Khutor and tops out at a claimed 68 degrees). The opposing wall holds spines—not long, but steep. The bottom of the tube is full of ice runnels and rubble from constant avalanche blasting. What I can’t see: anything beneath us or the exit. Dmitry says it goes just fine with a little wiggle past some rocks at the bottom. We put our faith in him and drop.
Dmitry doesn’t lie. We find deep turns down a steep wall with a few spines, a little traverse past the choke, then a thousand vertical feet of soft mogul-bashing. The cat track back to midstation is long, fast, and littered with beginners. As we cycle through several more laps, it only gets more crowded, the Texas-tucking and edge-catching populace of Rosa Khutor growing a little more reckless, perhaps due to the popularity of libationary lunches at mid-mountain. But the less-obvious alpine lines remain pristine as we put in billy-goat entrances and work our way from stash to stash.
At day’s end, Dmitry says he’d been a little scared, too. He’d met Sasha as a beginner just five years back, when Dmitry hired him as a guide. That intro to powder boarding had been enough for Dmitry to quit his job as an IT engineer in Moscow and move south in 2016, when he purchased a modest apartment in Krasnaya Polyana and dedicated himself to freeriding. Still, it was his first time down many of the day’s lines. We’ve lucked into prime conditions for the steeper venues of Rosa Khutor—warm enough for good stability, cold enough to stay soft and rippable.
For the better part of the week we work from Rosa Peak out toward the boundaries of the resort—open bowls and ribs to the west, bigger faces to the east on the border of Sochi National Park. As the snow consolidates, it remains stable, soft and fun, if not blower. Dmitry joins us most days. One afternoon, we traverse to Alpika and hike its ribbed, undulating terrain. After a long traverse back through the trees, we stop at the upper lodge and have a beer, watching beginners make a slide-for-life down a recklessly steep groomed lane. It’s a classic blooper reel, with 50/50 odds of a lost edge and out-of-control luge to the bottom with occasional multi-skier pileups. The next afternoon, we return to Crazy Khutor to find the straight shots down the chutes tracked out, but plenty of less-obvious options for fresh lines. And as the clouds move in, we even get some house beats guiding us down that final line of the day, to an awaiting sea of picnic tables, vodka shots, herbal aromas and vacationers in animal-themed onesies dancing in the fading light.
“Do you khave knife?” The giant tortoise of a man asks. Cascading neck rolls support a thick, sloped head atop his 6-foot-plus and eminently rotund body. He’s already tried the question twice in Russian. Maybe my Eastern European ancestry lends some local flair. And apparently some locals like to stab people.
“No, no knife,” I reply, relieved to be done with the interrogation.
He gives me a quick pat-down and, satisfied that I’m not in fact packing a blade, waves me into Harat’s Irish Pub. Visible from our apartment’s balcony, Harat’s is Andrew and Chris’s favorite party spot. They’ve been there most nights, sometimes well past midnight. One morning, Kael, Moss and I awoke at 6:30 to find the White Fire Crew still awake from the night prior. The story went like this: They’d done a pile of shots, arm-wrestled and went club-hopping with some new upper-class Russian friends. Andrew had traded his worn-out skate shoes for a pair of expensive dress shoes and sprained his ankle. This was a down day for some.
Inside, a half-dozen bartenders pour Guinness, Jager bombs, vodka shots and pitchers of beer, while a collection of servers roams with plates of appies. It’s not much different from Whistler’s slopeside Dubh Linn Gate at first glance. Olympic hockey is done for the day, but a Russian soccer match of great importance is on the television. St. Petersburg versus Moscow, or something like that. Russia’s warming up for the 2018 World Cup, and soccer’s on everyone’s mind. I go to the bar to order a beer and sit beside a thin, gray-haired man in a navy blue turtleneck. He looks at me unsmiling over a tumbler of absinthe, then turns away. I briefly wonder if I’m about to be smuggled to a back room and interrogated, then decide that stereotype is a thing of the past. Here, at least. An impending party swirls around behind us.
In the front corner, a band sets up, fronted by a towering blond woman in a sleek black dress. They take the stage. She starts with a few Russian numbers that draw healthy applause. She then transitions to Katy Perry, Dixie Chicks, Rod Stewart, Taylor Swift, Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC. I hypothesize that she has memorized the lyrics phonetically but may not fully understand their meaning.
People dance, mouthing along with liberatory zeal. A middle-aged woman with a Dolly Parton perm twirls blissfully front and center. I’m gonna go out on a limb and call them Esto-Sadok’s favorite cover band of winter 2018. Then the finale of the first set:
“In your head, in your head
They’re still fighting
With their tanks and their bombs
And their bombs and their guns
In your head, in your head they are dying
In your head
In your head
Zombie, zombie, zombie, ei, ei…”
Everyone sings along to The Cranberries’ Irish protest song, softly banging their heads. Then the leather-clad Jager girls take over the dance floor, coaxing us into test-tube shots, into conspicuous dance moves, into The Resort Town Experience, until I shimmy past tortoise man into the cooling streets.
High clouds have socked in the alpine. The snow is cooked, anyway. Those mid-mountain moguls beneath the steeps are now punishing blocks of chunder. Kael, Moss and I take a half-day on the hill then cruise down-valley to Krasnaya Polyana. Sasha meets us there at a back-alley restaurant serving borscht alongside kabobs grilled in a stone oven. Dmitry rolls in after he’s done riding.
We depart the restaurant. A weathered man walks by dragging a bundle of sticks with a German Shepherd in tow. “He’s the old Krasnaya Polyana,” Dmitry says. “The sticks are for building in his garden. Before the Olympics, this whole area was very rural, just a big swamp—Sochi was a big village, not a city like it is now. People would come here [to Krasnaya Polyana] to hunt for ducks. Now, they complain that they must go further to hunt. But I think Putin made good with the Olympics. It’s made this place for us to ride, for people to have fun.”
We climb a hill to a playground—next to it is a private compound belonging to Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus. We sit and gaze up the Mzymta River, the largest in Russia. There’s Esto-Sadok and the lifts of Alpika, Gorky Gorod and Gazprom’s blacked-out gondola. We can just make out the lower reaches of Rosa Khutor. I ask Sasha, who hails from a small town in northwestern Russia, why he calls this place home.
“When I came here first in 2011, Krasnaya Polyana was a little village,” he explains. “We sleep in little house, six people in one room. This was for the [Freeride World Tour] qualifiers and it was my first experience. Now, it’s a very nice place all the time—spring, winter, summer. I moved here after the Olympic Games for the nice infrastructure, the new resort.
“I didn’t even see the ocean for the first time until I was 25 years old, and I have a home now, I can train every day, and it has let me see the world. It lets us see what is possible, even on our own mountain, when people like Ryland and you guys come and ride lines. It helps everyone here understand the possibilities of snowboarding. I now have friends all over the world and I go, go, go. I find new emotions, new cultures. If I had stayed home, I would die inside. Many people are happy to just have a simple life, with their job, their TV, their food, their home. Snowboarding has given me much more.”
For a few folks like Sasha and Dmitry, the hasty development of Sochi’s alpine resorts has created lasting opportunities upon its shaky foundations—a new hope and direction in life. It’s symbolic of a new Russia, now a full generation removed from the Soviet regime. In an era of new capitalism and polarized wealth, those with the means can come play in the mountains, walk under palm trees by the sea, and buy Sochifornia T-shirts at the mall. It may not justify the government’s $50 billion Olympic development spend, but it’s something, right?
A cold wind brings thickening clouds and light precipitation from the sky—the return of winter. Soon, we’ll meet the rest of our crew for a few mellow beers. Tomorrow, we’ll go our separate ways. Our tracks will be gone by nightfall.
This article was originally published in Volume 16, Issue 2 of The Snowboarder’s Journal.