Three years ago, when the Olympics stormed Sochi, Russia’s Winter Olympic host venue seemed of dubious merit. Infrastructure for the just-add-water ski resort was so newborn, it hardly had the legs to withstand the shutter-clicks of the global media. With the paint barely dry, and the wet weather failing to deliver much snow, Russia’s leaders rolled onto the world stage with their cat-that-caught-the-mouse smiles and cued up the Great Show.
The medal bling bedazzled. Local culture and sport was served up, sandwiched between commercials and made-for-the-sponsor moments. The rush was instant and all-consuming. And then it vanished. The Olympic bulldozer had come and gone. The Sochi area went from the eye of the storm to, once again, “some place in a vast country.”
Its afterglow faded to near anonymity.
It was our happy task to discover that what was once in the spotlight, was now under heaps of powder.
With the Alps in the midst of a snow-drought, Thibaud Duchosal and I rallied a crew, seizing the opportunity to sample what a Russian winter had to offer.
We arrived on the shore of the Black Sea, a snowball’s throw from the Abkhazian border. Also known as the Russian Riviera, this southern reach of the country is the choice spot for Russians to get their summer sunburn on. Along the densely concreted waterfront, the smell of pines evokes the Mediterranean. We took our leave immediately. Within an hour, we had our reward, in the foothills of the Caucasus. A gem of a mountain range.
Krasnaïa Poliana, a melting pot of various cultures, is a small town that became a ski resort in the 90’s with the arrival of lift access. Its claim to fame, as the only ski attraction in the region, lasted only until the made-for-the-Olympics resorts stole its thunder.
However, the original destination now boasts a growing population of local ski enthusiasts. We moved among them for two weeks. We didn’t spy a single other foreigner. We didn’t get bored, either.
Like many mountains influenced by the sea’s moods, the weather in Krasnaïa Poliana knows fast ups and downs. Rain can drown your powder dreams overnight. Equally likely, the night can bring a complete reset. We’d wake up to half a meter of fresh snow and spend the days smashing pillows in the enchanted birch forest. 2500 metre summits and countless lines down the ridges offered all the thighburn we could handle, and more. We could have spent an entire winter there, touring the sticky snowpack and exploring the steeps.
In the “bania”, at the end of our stay, we washed away our cynicism that Russia had nothing to offer skiers other than Olympic hype. Listening to the silent hills, satiated and happy, we soaked in the realization that skiing up and down peaks is one of the best ways to ask nature to “open sesame” – slide open the doors and reveal a trove of wonders. More than just great turns, skiing is a way to earn a new way of looking at the world.
We went to Sochi as powder refugees. And found our own kind of gold.