In February last year Onboard’s senior photographer Scalp conquered his fear of flying and headed east to the Russian resort of Krasnaya Polyana in search of snow. Accompanying him was a crew of riders from the Pirates including Dmitry Fesenko, Mone Monsberger, Marco Feichtner and Hannes Metzler. To see the trip in glorious technicolour check out the Pirate’s Boardbagged 2.
Krasnaya Polyana is a 2-hour white-knuckle flight from Moscow, within spitting distance of the Russian Riviera of the Black Sea and 70kms from the town of Sochi. In 2012 this sleepy retreat will become the arena for the winter Olympics, a deal pushed through by Gazprom and Putin, with a fair measure of Russian gangstarism. Welcome to Russia’s ‘Gateway to the future’.
We were flying in from Moscow to Krasnaya on a Tupolev that would have the most seasoned of flyers tearing at the upholstery. For Scalp, who has a bad case of flight fear, the trip had already been a nail-biter but when the plane suddenly aborted its landing and the Russian passengers revolted he was reaching for the parachute. Dmitry tried to calmed the situation by explaining that due to bad winds we were going to land at another airport 400kms away; perhaps the best option considering bad weather had already claimed two planes in that past months. Internal flights in Russia are, you hope, a once in a lifetime experience.
We were stranded for 14 hours as snow fell in lush abundance in Krasnaya. We basically had two options: one was to wait the storm out and fly when possible or escape by road. We chose the latter and hired a driver and knackered Fiat minibus to take us to the snow. The trip took 10 hours as we negotiated precarious mountain roads shared by drivers oblivious to the highway code. The minibus crawled at 40kph up inclines and peaked at the 100kph on the downhill stretches with a tail wind. Marco later described it as the ‘craziest bus ride’ of his life!
Arriving in Krasnaya, we drove through the old town made up battered datchas with glazed verandas dating back to the communist era. Along potholed streets babushkas bundled in shawls were selling meat from roadside stalls while rundown shops traded everything from sticky cakes to pirate DVDs. But as a whole the town is in a state of flux with Olympic fever fertilizing a rash of new buildings and businesses. Between A framed roofs, walls of fading paint and past grazing cows we caught sight of magnificent new homes and hotels in various states of finishing, all with shiny SUVs in the driveway. This charming village is set to become a ritzy Russian ‘Courchevel’.
We had the luck of Ullr with us for our entire trip. A pattern of dumps and bluebirds unfolded in sumptuous repetition. We had called it just right as film crews either side of our trip, including Absinthe, were plagued by rain and storm force winds. After one 4 day non-stop snowfall, the resort opened up the top runs after blasting for avalanches and we built a jump at the foot of the summit. While not jumping we watched skiers set off avalanches in the couloirs, one after another. The culprits found themselves buried up to their waists in 50 to 100m slides, losing jackets, gloves, skis and sticks and once they had dug themselves they had to walk back to the lifts. Oddly they seemed completely unfazed by the dangerous fiasco. The lift attendants also showed no interest in the chaos as the ski above hummed with fleets of private helicopters dropping legions of unskilled tourists at the top of the less accessible summits. We were tripping!
There is one major barrier for riders visiting Russia and that is language. Not only can you not understand when spoken to but also to read it is impossible – you know places by ear but when confronted by signs the Cyrillic alphabet it’s near on indecipherable. It was for this reason that Dmitry was our saviour both in Moscow and Krasnaya. Without him we would not have been able to sort out our little house with sauna which we rented off some locals, order food on the cheap and know what we were eating or navigate our way through the maze of bribes and bureaucracy that dominate ones experiences with the authorities. Few Russians speak English but knowing a few basic words will get you far or at least earn you a shot of vodka.
The town of Krasnaya sits at 600 metres above sea level in the Caucas mountains but the resort’s highest summits rising to 2,230m. The terrain here is incredible with Marco Feichtner, a first time visitor to Russia, describing it as “a paradise for backcountry riders". The pisted area is small with only two top to bottom runs accessed by 4 2-man chairlifts that date back to the middle of last century and which have the longest lift queues this side of Berlin. On busy days it takes about and hour and a half to reach the summit and snaking the mass of burly locals is not an option! Beyond the groomers Krasnaya is a freeriders paradise with tonnes of accessible off-piste terrain just waiting to be ridden. On a good powder day, you can drop 1700m through birch forests, broken by little cliff drops, windlips and jibtastic tree stumps… it’s a natural snowpark. If you want to shred the pow though you need to be quick, as Russians are keen on the fluffy white stuff despite the fact that many of them can hardly link turns. In the words of Dmitry “its the best but most crowded resort in Russia. There are so many gay skiers on fat skis, who track everything." But as he says the Krasnaya pow as “like sex" – so speaks a man of experience. If Dmitry’s cries of ecstasy and the masses are not to your liking though Krasnaya is perhaps the cheapest place in Europe to clock heli time – but be prepared to fly in pop-bellied ex-military Antonovs and for your pilot to have a whiff of vodka on his breath. Heli boarding in Russia is an experience not to be missed but be sure to know you mountain safety as your guide might not.
The makeup of our crew was a little on the peculiar side, as everyone who heard kept reminding us. Both characters and ridings styles from different. Old friends and rabble-rousers Dmitry and Hannes were sharing a room with Scalp that sometimes, especially on the night of Dmitry’s birthday, was a little tense. But snow and a shared amp for riding and the trip kept everyone stoked. Dmitry became know as Mr. “I need to shoot" due to his frenetic urge to squeeze Scalp for shots but by the end of the trip having hung out with Marco and Mone, who he describes as “mountains boys" he became “mountain Mitya". Marco and Mone are both very experienced backcountry riders and were a real driving force within the crew. Marco’s 7 in the forest was perhaps the most outstanding trick of the trip, spinning through a narrow gap between the trees to a powder landing. But we also built some sweet backcountry booters before the Russian powder hounds tracked it to oblivion.
Russia is an amazing country in which to ride and Karasnaya and Sochi are certainly two gems in the countries jewelry that deserve a visit. As Dmitry says “some dudes likes Russia and Russian mountains, some hate them. But Russia is sure one of the best places for professional snowboarding. There are so many different places where you can do the best stuff if you know good people and you have somebody who is doing security for you. If you want to heli go to Kamchatka, ghetto style do Moscow". If you want to ride Krasnaya we recommend that you get there before Putin’s Gateway to the Future turns it into a fur-coated lovies resort.