FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES, DECEMBER 20, 2013
BEFORE I COULD BOARD the gondola at Rosa Khutor, a ski area that is part of Sochi, the site of next year’s Winter Olympics, I first had to trundle through a metal detector manned by Russian soldiers with machine guns and furry hats. This is not something I’m used to. At chairlifts in the American West, where I typically ski, you find cheerful young attendants who are stoked to be on their feet all day because that’s what it takes to live the dream.
Unlike those armed soldiers, Sasha Krasnov, a local guide I’d arranged to meet, would be at home in the Rockies. Twenty-seven and shaggy haired, he is a self-identified “free rider” — an off-piste skier. A storm had delivered two feet of fresh snow overnight, ending a long dry spell, and Sasha, his head tucked under a dirt bike helmet, was as giddy as a child on Christmas morning.
The gondola ferried us out of the base area, high above an Italianate clock tower built with an oligarch’s money, across a birch forest stippled with powder. Thick clouds obscured my view, so I unfolded a trail map, which was entirely in Russian. On it, I could see that Rosa Khutor was laid out much like a European resort, with a series of chairlifts linking the river valley, at 1,800 feet, with a craggy, treeless summit at 7,612 feet. As in the Alps, the resort takes a laissez-faire approach to marking trails. Only a handful had designated names, which weren’t helpful anyway, unless you read Cyrillic or had a knack for symbol recognition. I wondered aloud whether any rope or signage designated the resort’s boundary.
“No rope!” Sasha replied with a knowing smile. “This is Russia.”
Vladimir Putin may be better known as a judo master and shirtless fisherman, but come winter, when snow coats the onion domes atop St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, the Russian president heads for the slopes. The Wikipedia entry for ski suit, in fact, features an image not of the Olympic stars Lindsey Vonn or Bode Miller but of Mr. Putin, wearing the red two-piece uniform of Russia’s national team. On his personal website, he declares skiing “a dynamic sport that requires mastering a technique, and is a great opportunity for an active holiday, to stay fit and get a boost of energy and good spirits.”
He also claims to prefer skiing in Russia. Until recently, however, there was little the country offered a foreign skier seeking an active holiday, never mind those good spirits. Russia’s tallest peaks are along its southern border with Georgia, in the Caucasus mountain range. The mountains stretch diagonally in a belt from the Black Sea, east to the Caspian. The tallest of them, Mount Elbrus, reaches higher than any in the rest of Europe, with an elevation of 18,500 feet. But beyond some heli-skiing operations, the handful of ski areas dating from the Soviet era hardly justified an Aeroflot ticket.
Not surprisingly, then, wealthy Russians have preferred skiing the Alps. Around a decade ago, the Russian government decided that there was no reason they needed to lose those vacation rubles to Switzerland, France and Italy. They flew in a mountain resort developer from Whistler, British Columbia, Paul Mathews, to evaluate the potential of the Caucasus for winter tourism. Mr. Mathews looked at the jagged ridgelines surrounding the sleepy village of Krasnaya Polyana, nestled in a river valley above Sochi, a city of about 400,000; at the long, deep gulleys that tumbled down from them; at the region’s glaciated bowls and gentle plateaus. It reminded him of Les Trois Vallées in France, among the world’s largest linked ski areas. Mr. Mathews drafted some plans, and in 2002, Interros, a conglomerate controlled by Vladimir Potanin, one of Russia’s richest men, and Gazprom, the world’s largest natural-gas producer, began building ski resorts.
Situated on the Black Sea, Sochi has a pleasant, temperate climate that has lured Russians to seaside sanitariums since the days of Stalin. The palm trees there can almost fool you into believing you’re in another country. “Sochi is a unique place,” Mr. Putin told the International Olympic Committee in his winning pitch to host the 2014 Games. “On the seashore, you can enjoy a fine spring day — but up in the mountains, it’s winter.”
When I flew into Sochi last March, joined by my friend Than, it was neither springlike nor fine. The late-winter storm, which had diverted our flight from Moscow the previous night, cast a gray and despondent mood over the subtropical city. We took a taxi to Krasnaya Polyana, an hourlong trip up a winding, two-lane road, through the gorge of the Mzymta River. (A new highway and high-speed railway, being built across the river, will cut the travel time in half.)
It was less than a year before the Olympic torch would arrive in early February, and Krasnaya Polyana didn’t resemble a quaint French mountain valley so much as the world’s largest alpine construction site. Cranes towered over the half-built shells of condos and hotels that lined the river like a speculative stretch of a Monopoly board. Dump trucks rumbled down the main road, kicking up dust and snarling traffic. Out the taxi window, I watched groups of olive-skinned guest workers carrying plastic bags shuffle out of convenience stores and then disappear behind wire fences lined with banner ads that depicted sun-drenched resort villages and smiling ski tourists.
Rosa Khutor, the largest of the four new ski areas based a short drive apart along the valley floor, was nearly complete. It appeared much like a visitor will find it this season: two rows of pastel-colored hotels with ground-level restaurants flanking the Mzymta River; a clock tower square; lamp-lit pedestrian bridges; an indoor skating rink. When I arrived, a few families strolled the brick-lined esplanade lining the river, throwing snowballs. In the lobby of our hotel, the Tulip Inn, members of the Russian ski team lounged around with beers. Rosa Khutor, which is hosting the Olympic alpine events, ran test competitions last winter, but many had been canceled for lack of snow. Resolved not ever to let this happen again, the resort has been equipped with the most robust snow-making system in existence.
”This is a nice present for us,” Sasha said as we rode the gondola the next morning. The storm had delivered too much of a good thing, it turned out, as the exposed upper half of the mountain — arrayed with chutes and couloirs — was closed. Sasha handed me an avalanche transceiver from his bag, and asked if I had used one before. We would be skiing inbounds and close to the lift — nothing too steep — but the implication was clear: We were, for all practical purposes, on our own. This was Russia.
At the top of the lift, a digital board displayed ski conditions, rating the avalanche danger as four on a scale of five. “Very dangerous in alpine zone,” Sasha said.
We were joined by a handful of other locals, including Inna Didenko, a blond Sochi native and competitive free rider. Than and I followed their tracks into the woods. The crystalline snow there was thigh-high and untouched; a snowboarder in neon yellow pants jokingly declared, in Russian, the universal skiing dictum of there being “no friends on a powder day” before leaving us behind.
Each of us then picked our own line, first Sasha, who banked three turns and swiftly vanished behind some birch trees. I chose a route to his right. Midway down, from across the slope, I could make out Than, hooting loudly.
That evening, at the swanky bar inside the Park Inn, I met with Jean-Louis Tuaillon, the mountain manager at Rosa Khutor. “Have you been on the road in Russia and seen how people are driving?” he asked me. I thought of my taxi driver’s slalom turns and tailgating up the winding road from the airport. “They are skiing the same way. The typical Russian experience is wild skiing.”
Mr. Tuaillon was with the French company Compagnie des Alpes, which operates major resorts like Chamonix and Val d’Isère and has been tasked by Rosa Khutor’s owner with turning it into a world-class ski area. This apparently entailed making Rosa Khutor less Russian.
“Our goal is to have friendly people at guest services,” added Mr. Tuaillon’s colleague Jean-Marc Farini, the ski area’s general manager. “In Russia, this hasn’t been done before. You still have this Soviet legacy. People don’t care.”
I described my experience renting skis that morning — late-model Rossignols, with a snazzy sticker reading “CZAR” — which had involved the usual Russian formalities: relinquishing my passport at a cashier’s window in return for a paper stamped with an official-looking seal.
Mr. Farini nodded sympathetically. “For the cash register, I wanted to adopt a single line, so you go up to the first one that’s available,” he said. “But that just doesn’t work in Russia.”
The next morning, we found the mountain still socked in. With the upper half of Rosa Khutor closed — still with an avalanche rating of “very dangerous” — we took a free village bus 10 minutes downriver toward the center of Krasnaya Polyana, to Gornaya Karusel (Mountain Carousel), another new ski area.
The entrance to the base gondola is beside the main road, and as we lifted off, I was afforded an aerial view of the bulldozers and earthmovers remaking this former backwater. The build-out of the Sochi Olympics — a megaproject of new tunnels, highways, ski lifts, stadiums and lodging — is said to have cost $51 billion, the highest price tag ever for the Games. But its environmental cost might add untold billions to that figure. Environmental groups point to pollution and deforestation, of Sochi National Park shrinking in size, of coastal wetlands being used as a dump, of the Mzymta River becoming unswimmable. As activists have spoken, they’ve also been detained.
The issue that has gained more attention is gay rights, following a new Russian law banning “homosexual propaganda” that went into effect earlier this year. Though there have been calls for boycotts, officially, gay tourists are welcome, and Olympic organizers have agreed to set up protest zones during the Games. This week, in what has been widely perceived as a snub, President Obama named two openly gay athletes to be part of the American delegation to Sochi — but none of the nation’s top political figures.
Meanwhile, in response to violence promised by Islamist insurgent leaders, based just 250 miles or so from Sochi in the republics of Chechnya and Dagestan, Russia has put in place unprecedented security, including the use of underwater sonar and drones.
That security plan also includes armed soldiers at ski lifts. After two gondolas, we wended our way down an empty, untracked chute along the ski boundary that fed into a spacious glade. The air was warmer than the previous day, cementing the powder as we descended. Our trail petered out at the edge of a dirt service road, which we had to walk across to reach the chairlift. The security guard manning the lift glared disapprovingly at our muddy boots, muttering something to Sasha, who lectured something back. The guard shrugged and looked away.
Sasha later explained: “He says to us, ‘You cannot get on with your dirty boots.’ I tell him, ‘You are not the boss. You have to be hospitable to the guests.’”
Around midday, the clouds briefly lifted, and for the first time I glimpsed the jagged contour of the summit ridge. Gornaya Karusel is a much smaller ski area than Rosa Khutor, but Sasha finds its varied terrain and tree skiing superior. “Better for free riding,” he said. Eventually, all four ski areas surrounding Krasnaya Polyana will be linked by a single lift pass.
We took a few laps down a wide-open bowl, before stopping in at a log chalet for lunch. The place was packed with Russians. I ordered a bowl of solyanka, a hearty red soup, and a glass of mulled wine, and we chatted about the differences between skiing in Russia and North America. Than and I had once taught skiing in Crested Butte, Colo. Sasha has never been to the States. “American people are very interesting to me,” he said. “If a bad skier has fallen, nobody is just waiting around. All come to help! If I fall, I must stand up myself. Because it’s my experience. It is, I don’t know, the school of life.”
I looked out the window. Sleet had begun to fall, orienting my thoughts toward a sauna. We decided to take a final run. Sasha was eager to show us a densely forested area he called the Magic Forest that had “many Christmas trees.” From the top of the lift, we traversed the slope, first passing by the entrance to a bowl where a sign was posted in Russian and English: “Driving outside of the lines is forbidden.”
Sasha grinned. “But if you do it,” he said, “no one will stop you."