words & photos:: Ben Osborne
Google Earth, a few emails, a single 15-minute Skype session, and we were assured that we would be safe and that the riding would be epic. Pack the bags, we’re going to Russia to ski in the Caucasus Mountains near Mount Elbrus, a far-off corner of the country near the border with Georgia. It’s a funny thing, technology—it can make you feel so comforted like you know it all.
We exchanged a few emails with a contact on the ground in Russia, combed through an internet database of historical climate and snowfall data, and a watched few YouTube videos—surely this was enough to reassure our mothers that everything would be all right for a group of ski bums in their mid-20s travelling to a distant land. “Don’t worry,” we proclaimed, “we got this!”
But as we dug deeper (after the tickets were booked) the techno-comforts of instant access to information revealed a different perspective—a grave travel advisory from the Government of Canada warned, “Avoid all travel—Kabardino-Balkaria (including the Mount Elbrus region). Exercise a high degree of caution due to crime and the threat from terrorism.”
The terrain looked like a lovechild of the Alps (rocky peaks, high alpine seracs and icefalls) and the Coast Mountains (manageable couloirs and steep faces) that with the right snow conditions would have provided some of the best lines our lives.
We checked back in with our source in Whistler—Keith Reid had skied the area before to help train local mountain guides, one of whom he would eventually connect us with named Vitaly Stegno. Reid was our only real connection to the area, and a short ride with him up the Blackcomb T-bar was all we got. As former president of the ACMG and a celebrity mountain guide in Canada, Reid is a busy man. His smirk reassured us that our trip wasn’t a death wish, but his demeanour suggested we were in for an interesting experience. “Stay with Vitaly”, he told us. “And it’s gonna be f*ckin’ weird—get ready.”
We looped back to Google Earth one more time, scanning for recognizable terrain features and potential lines to make sure it was really worth it. We combed the internet for videos of riding in the area—there wasn’t much to be found. We spotted a few colouirs and zones we wanted to ride, but it looked a bit dry. We stayed positive: “Probably just a low snow year.”
Emails kept arriving from our guide. “This is a freeride paradise… you have to come. It will be so epic. Have you completed your visa application yet?”
We shrugged our shoulders, forked over $500 to secure travel visas, and we were off. In the age of over-saturated ski media, the idea to travel to Russia was born of a feeling that could most closely be related to spite. I had been to Japan and I knew the recipe: land in Tokyo, hit the Robot Bar, head to the mountains crammed into a van, and smash powder (and sake). It’s the best riding experience you could ever ask for, but we wanted something less packaged, less commodified, and less familiar.
And so, we were off, realizing almost immediately after stumbling off the plane in Moscow that Google Translate was our new best friend (we had missed one key piece of information in our web searches: almost nobody in Russia speaks English).
We arrived at Elbrus to find it hadn’t snowed in weeks, the wind had blown hard, and there wasn’t going to be much riding. However, our local guide Vitaly hadn’t lied. The terrain looked like a lovechild of the Alps (rocky peaks, high alpine seracs and icefalls) and the Coast Mountains (manageable couloirs and steep faces) that with the right snow conditions would have provided some of the best lines our lives.
That dire travel advisory, on the other hand, turned out to be the most misleading beta of all. We were consistently stopped in town—not to be hassled, but instead welcomed, asked where we were from, and usually invited to enjoy some combination of local meat, onions and dill. These were hearty mountain people working to survive and feed their families. No one seemed interested in telling us their politics, even if we could have understood what they said.
We left Elbrus appreciating a wild and unexplored place and peeved at our bad luck with snow.
However, weather sites predicted a storm coming to Sochi, home of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, so we headed west toward a more familiar snowpack. The trusty online forecast called for six centimetres a day right through the rest of our trip. And according to the translated online press, we could expect crowds at Russia’s most popular ski resort where Putin himself had just finished his annual vacation.
Once again, technology was misleading. It snowed 1.5 metres in three days, the crowds were non-existent and the locals were just as friendly as the ones we’d left behind—so much for a cold, unwelcoming culture.
I came to Russia because I wanted to do something different—to find adventure in a less-travelled place. While internet research and contact with a local guide helped draw me in, I also learned the push and pull of the information superhighway is not always to be trusted. For all our clicking and hunkering over screens beforehand, it was word of mouth that guided us through the countryside and culture of this incredible nation. When you take a dive into an unfamiliar place, the returns are never guaranteed—but the adventure always seems to give back. Mother Russia welcomed us with open arms, and beyond the word of mouth, our persistent “research” proved to be futile—the experience was the only truth on a trip into the unknown. —ML