The Beginnings Of A Snowboarding Superpower
By Tracy Anderson
Photos by Zach Hooper and Crispin Cannon
Selected to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sochi, Russia is looking to establish itself as an internationally recognized winter destination. As major development gets underway, we hoped for a look at the region in its pre-Olympic state. What we found was some excellent terrain, but along with it came a culture very unlike our own, where everything you assume to be right, is probably wrong.
Meeting Boris: The Nature Of A Russian
The Aeroflot plane we loaded in Moscow bound for Sochi, with its tacky orange-themed décor, torn seats, and tattered seat belts, felt like it belonged more on the set of That 70s Show than it did in the air, actually, you know … flying. There had been no pre-takeoff checks, no information cards to tell us what to do if the plane took a sudden dive.
Our crew took up a large portion of the seating—we had with us seasoned Olympian Gretchen Bleiler, French femme fatal Anne-Flore Marxer, master-of-it-all Marie-France Roy, and our travel guide Shin Campos to round out the pros. Behind the scenes we had a film crew, two photographers, two team managers, a couple of skiers, two local Russian guides, both of whom would end up saving our lives on multiple accounts.
As soon as we got airborne, there stood in our aisle the first of many Russian characters we would meet: a man we'll call Boris, or at least he looked like a Boris with greased gray hair, a surly black beard, and a belly that peeked out from the bottom of a conspicuously stained shirt. He smiled at us, just large enough to flash a gold tooth. "My babushkas!" he said in broken English, arms extended outwards as if welcoming our whole crew to the motherland. Never afraid of awkward moments, Anne-Flore wasted no time encouraging the man, flashing her own smile back and trying out a few Russian phrases. Apparently this translated to, "Let's be best friends!" because before I knew it he'd taken the open seat next to me—thanks AF—his face now so close I could smell only vodka and potatoes. Boris not only looked Russian, he smelled Russian.
Waving a large stack of colored bills at me, he made it clear he wanted to trade his rubles for my American dollars. "Money!" he shouted, little drops of spit hitting my face and forcing me to look down at his gold chain nestled in a thick patch of chest hair. I gave him a few quarters but declined to take any money in return. That's when he grabbed the stewardess and pulled her onto his lap. She slapped him playfully and laughed, but he gave me this look like, "Well! Maybe you'd like her as payment?" It continued even during landing—this oily old man wrestling the stewardess as we descended, wearing no seat belt and nobody seeming to care. On a U.S. airline, it'd be five minutes before an undercover Federal Marshall would've had him tackled and handcuffed. But as I'd soon learn, in Russia it's all par for the course.
Sochi 2014: Winter Olympics In A Subtropical Climate?
When we arrived, the air was warm and humid, no snow in sight. We were greeted at the airport by sickly dogs sniffing our luggage and in-your-face taxi drivers snagging it. A new airport has been under construction for a decade, but for now we had to settle for one with no indoor bathroom—never a good situation when traveling with women.
Since the 1950s, Sochi has built a reputation as the premier Soviet summer resort destination, a place where the rich buy dachas and their wives tan topless on the beaches of the Black Sea. Stalin owned a summer home in Sochi, as did czars before him. That the Russians are confused about Sochi being named host of the 2014 Winter Olympics is understandable. Unless, of course, they know about Krasnaya Polyana, a resort town that magically appears with a 45-minute drive into the Caucasus Mountains. Like Vancouver 2010, where most of the alpine events will take place in Whistler, the same scenario applies for Krasnaya Polyana. Still, it at least gets cold in Vancouver. This place has palm trees. Palm trees!
Climate contradictions and complaints aside, we were off to the mountains in a triple mini-van procession. All road signs were in Russian Cyrillic, so it was up to our techno-loving driver to get us there, Gretchen and Anne-Flore dancing in their seats the whole way. Call it a pre-shred, bring-on-the-Russian-riding ritual …
Krasnaya Polyana: Mexico In The Mountains
Ever drive the coast of Mexico into Baja California? You know all those half-finished hotels, those concrete foundations that haven't been touched in years? How about those multi-colored homes that look like they were built from any material handy? Our home in Russia was fairly normal—running water (for now), electricity (for now), modern furnishings, and each floor even had its own sauna, although access to the house did require driving through a river and powering up a rocky dirt road.
Our neighbors' home was equally nice, if not eclectically designed: one wall brick, the other stucco; one side yellow, the other blue; odd-sized windows, one with bars, one next to it without; half the roof in shingles, the other in tile. The strange thing— this was no poor man's shanty—this was a large, modern home that just happened to have no rhyme or reason to its design or construction. Next to that was a concrete foundation filled with snow, and next to that was, well, an actual shanty. But next to the shanty was the real sight: Marie-France standing in the dirt road, trying to get a photo of three obese pigs eating garbage on the side of the road. As I took in the view of Krasnaya Polyana from one of the balconies of our four-story rental home, it struck me—this place was Mexico in the mountains.
When we arrived at the resort a mile or so down the way, the theme continued with a line of little shacks selling baubles and trinkets. Stray dogs sniffed at our feet, men clad in hardened leather jackets smoked cigarettes cradling costumed monkeys trained to jump us, literally, and then shake us down for a tip. "Monkeys, eagles, camels, you'll come across just about anything here," said Shin, who's traveled to the area many times.
"This is kind of sad … very sad," said Gretchen, smiling and posing with the primates, and then asking for hand sanitizer.
A Lot Of Work For A Little Snowboarding
After trekking across the world and overcoming various bureaucratic woes—from visas to official country invites—we finally stood waiting to load a turtle-speed, two-person chair. Men dressed in black bomber jackets, steel-toe boots, and banged-out berets checked our tickets. Oddly, nobody strapped in. Everyone carried their boards and skis in their arms. Twenty minutes later, another double chair, and this one too we carried our boards. Another twenty minutes and we do it again—a third double chair. At this landing is a spread of tables; we pass by people snacking on caviar-smeared crackers, already indulging in shots of vodka. Bottles of the hard stuff litter the ground like cans of Coke at a Christian rock concert. A bald guy with a ponytail watches over long skewers of steak and sturgeon on a nearby grill. I ride the last lift with a local who tells me, "In Russia, never new. We just buy used and re-paint." He was right. These may have been the sketchiest, slowest chairs I'd ever ridden, but the paint job was clean.
The snow—as deep and fresh as it was— had been attacked by the heavy sunshine, and it took every muscle we had to keep the nose up as we explored the inbounds riding. The good snow, we were told, lay hidden in the shadowed bowls of the backcountry, at the higher elevations. So early the next morning it was a quick beacon check at the 7,500-foot summit and we were off, our guide Maxine breaking trail across the ridgeline. Off the backside, the Black Sea undulated like a mirage in the far off distance. The terrain spans as far as the eye can see: Ridges to hike, bowls to drop, cliffs and rocks of every size, all of it above the tree line, but plenty of well-spaced silver birch at lower levels.
Finally we had found the zone, and this round went to Gretchen—proving that day how well rounded a rider she is—expertly navigating formidable big mountain lines with style and confidence. "That was my goal this year," Gretchen told me as we later relaxed in an après-lodge called Munchausen, sipping Georgian borscht soup. "I felt like I needed to take a step back from competing this season and really put more focus into the backcountry and filming."
That's when a skinny guy with a short-on-top, long-in-the-back haircut approached the table and said very matter of fact: "My name is Gorod, also you can call me Big City, and I would like to get everyone drunk from the Russian snowboarder drink, schlop."
Getting little interest from the girls, Gorod convinced our filmer John Roderick and Shin to get "schlepped," and soon after they were being challenged by every Russian in the bar to an arm-wrestling contest. Makes sense for a place that has a sign out front, "We do not serve CIA or FBI."
The Show Must Go On
The next few days we were set back by heavy rain—not only was the top of the mountain closed, but we also had no power or water at home. "This is cool. It's like we're camping in the house," Marie-France half-joked, after dumping a bucket of river water into the toilet so it would flush. At the resort, Anne-Flore and Marie-France spent their time in purple ponchos jibbing an old military trailer and dodging puddles, while Gretchen found a truck to jib. But six hours in steady rain and it was back to Munchausen for more borscht, beer, and arm wrestling.
With the rain persisting, we did some filming around town. We hired taxi drivers to take us down side streets in search of interesting backdrops. Next thing we know, the taxi drivers are shouting in Russian and our local guides are shouting back. Apparently we were telling the drivers to stop too close to the Georgia border, and they were worried they were going to get in trouble. And sure enough within ten minutes we were shut down, the drivers taken in for questioning and our Russian guides forced to the police station as well, told to bring with them our passports for "extended security checks." When we returned to our rental home, the police had even taken our groundskeeper. We never saw him again.
The night before we had been drunk and were shooting roman candles at the neighbor's house—that was cool. But taking photos on a dirt road—so not cool. And that's the way it goes in Russia. Just like Boris and the stewardess. Everything you'd think you'd get in trouble for, you don't; and just when you think you couldn't behave with any more civility, busted!
Rendezvous In A Russian Banya
After the traumatic shakedown, the loss of Victor the groundskeeper, and our house still without water, we felt we needed a night at a Russian banya, or bathhouse. Stories had circulated the past week about these establishments—from getting beat with sticks to naked people casually sweating it out together. If either were true, I was definitely game. When we arrived we were told to remove our clothing and given only a small towel. So, sitting in a room, unrobed and half-naked in our towels sipping tea, our host told us our options: either get the venik treatment in the sauna, a.k.a. get beat down by bundles of leafy birch branches, or get a special wet massage of oils and natural roots in the steam room. The tree-whippin' treatment sounded more extreme, so I opted for it and volunteered to go first. Here I was, laying fully naked, ass up for this half-naked super buff Russian dude who spoke no English and was beating my body with leaves. And then he turned me over. Let's just say it felt like those drive-through car washes with the foam strips that slap and scrub your car. You know, your car. Suffice it to say, it did get a little intense—but hey, I was here to do as the Russians do, even if that meant getting a bit gay in a sauna. From there I jumped into an ice-cold tub of water and stayed as long as my head could handle the freeze. And finally a soak in a regular hot tub—nice. Relaxed and feeling like a new man, I noticed that Anne-Flore was up next with Tarzan. And yes, she was naked, too …
Everyone Goes Home A Winner
It felt like Alaska, waiting for the bluebird, doing anything to keep preoccupied. And then one morning, it came. Shin was up early trying to negotiate a helicopter, but word was that former President Putin was in town and all flying (except for Putin) was banned. Fine, we'll call our guide Maxine and have him take us into the backcountry again. Also a no, as Maxine had been out the night before and broken both his wrists in a bar fight. Okay, to the mountain to find another guide. An hour later, heading up the third lift, it suddenly stopped … and started going backwards. It sped up—the chair still going backwards. I turned and looked at Anne-Flore. We both looked at the ground, way too high to jump. We went another hundred yards before our chair finally stopped rolling. Everyone was shouting and screaming—for all the years of our group's combined experience, this had never happened to any of us. Not only did we live through this experience, but we also found a replacement guide, and that day—our last—would be the most productive.
When it's "on" at Krasnaya Polyana, it has the big-mountain potential of an Aspen. The terrain is expansive and the snow, though wet down low due to humidity of the Black Sea, above 5,000 feet is consistently dry and the bowls are protected from the wind. As the area gears up for Sochi 2014, peaks currently accessed by heli only will begin to open up with the expansion of its boundaries and lifts.
Gretchen Bleiler. Photo: Zach Hooper
With six years still to go before the Games, there remains a world of preparation if this small-time town is to host an Olympic-sized crowd. We were out of water and power for the majority of our stay, and aside from the steady rain, the weather did not seem severe enough to justify the outage. Development aside, the area has now become a political hotbed, with conflict between Georgia happening only minutes away. The most critical watch groups are already calling for a ban on Sochi—of course this was the case with Beijing as well. But in the past months alone, two bombs have been detonated in Sochi killing several people, a sign of unrest yet to come. Fortunately for Sochi, the Winter Games are a pet project of former president and active skier Vladimir Putin, who visits Krasnaya Polyana and is currently building his own private resort there—so he'll do everything to make sure all goes according to plan. But the road is a long and bumpy one. We're just glad we got to experience it in its original state, because one thing's for certain: Come 2014, this place will not be the same.
Check the Video from the trip HERE