Close

Member Login

Logging In
Invalid username or password.
Incorrect Login. Please try again.

not a member? sign-up now!

Signing up could earn you gear and it helps to keep offensive content off of our site.

PRINT DIGITAL

Prisoners of Winter

Features
posted: 10/03/2000

It was while riding the Moscow subway, deep below the mud-smeared streets of Russia's capital, that I gleaned my first insight into the local ski hills. A fellow passenger named Lena was my source. She had overheard me speaking with my travel partner, photographer Chris Anderson, and had wormed her way through the crowded train car and asked if she could practice her English.

Until that moment, our first day in Moscow last winter had been a series of cold receptions. Waiters seemed mortified that Chris and I had sat at their tables; salespeople did not smile, not a tooth. Such treatment was understandable¿as recently as the mid '80s, the Soviet regime was still sending citizens to Siberian labor camps for fraternizing too much with anti-Soviet foreigners. Many Russians learned to avoid outsiders, a practice that seems to have outlived the Soviet system itself.

Lena, not surprisingly, was young¿still in college. Majoring in literature. She wanted to know what we were doing in Russia.

"We're here to go skiing," I said. "Downhill skiing," I added, rolling my eyes to acknowledge that this might be construed as a joke.

Chris and I knew that plenty of Russians cross-country ski. But even the Russian tourism board in New York City was unable to confirm whether there were any Alpine resorts beyond two well-known places in the Caucasus Mountains, in southwestern Russia, where all the foreigners and wealthy Muscovites went skiing. Where, I wondered, did the nonwealthy, nonforeigners ski? No clue, said the tourism board.

Such an answer was both expected and, at the same time, confounding. Russia has more winter, hands down, than any other major nation. And yet from everything I knew, very few Russians were actually enjoying this bounty. Shouldn't a snow-covered nation with a population of 150 million contain more than two ski areas?

I explained to Lena that Chris and I had flown across 10 time zones and two continents in order to answer this question ourselves.

"I know a place you could go," Lena said.

Chris and I practically hugged her. I told Lena that we'd be willing to hop an airplane, hire a car, even ride the Trans-Siberian Railway if it were necessary.

"You can take the subway," she said. "The blue line. It's at the last stop."

The next morning, Chris and I were on the subway again. The last stop on the blue line is called Krylatskoe. In English, "krylatskoe" means "winged." Per Lena's instructions, we were looking for the Gornaya Krylatskoe¿the Winged Mountains. It's a lovely name, the Winged Mountains¿poetic, graceful, inspiring¿but I was skeptical. Moscow sprawls across the anvil-flat floodplain of the Moscow River; from the bay windows on the 15th floor of our hotel, I could see no sign of even the slightest terrain undulation. I didn't think you could sled in Moscow, let alone ski. Still, I was hoping for a surprise.

Chris and I exited the subway and stepped into the Moscow outskirts, a treeless forest of gloomy cement apartment buildings, the land in all directions flat as Kansas. The snow on the ground was gritty and brown¿city snow. There was no sign of a mountain anywhere.

I thumbed my Russian dictionary and worked up a rough sentence: Gde khadit na lyzhakh? Where can I ski? I strode up to a kiosk where vodka and cigarettes were being sold and, in my finest Russian intonation, asked the salesman this question. Where can I ski? The man glared at me as though I'd cursed his mother. It dawned on me that I might have, so I tried again with a kind-looking woman who was emerging from the subway, this time hoping to ensure that I hadn't said anything offensive by holding my dictionary open and pointing at the verb "to ski." She turned her back on me and practically fled.

With no one willing to provide guidance, Chris and I were forced to guess a direction. We began to walk north. The apartment buildings appeared to have replicated uncontrollably. There were hundre of them, perhaps thousands, all aligned in farm-crop rows, colorless, identical, monolithic. It occurred to me, as we walked, that this is how an insect might picture a graveyard.

We wandered for perhaps 20 minutes before we saw something that wasn't an apartment building. It was a Russian Orthodox Church, an old one, the onion domes made of wood and decaying badly. We agreed that we'd walk to the church and then, if we still saw no sign of a ski area, turn back to the subway. A moment later, from behind a block of buildings, the Winged Mountains emerged.

By even the most accommodating of definitions, it would not be accurate to call them mountains. They are hills, and quite possibly hillocks. I counted five of them, scoop-of-ice-cream shaped, each strung with a poma or T-bar, though only one lift was running. The slope it serviced was busy with skiers.

Chris and I hopped across a thin stream and made our way to the bottom of the operational lift. The base area, what little existed, had the feel of a Gypsy encampment, ready to roll out at sunset. There was a rental shop housed in a clapboard shanty. And two food carts, and a couple of sets of plastic tables and chairs. Whenever a decent gust of wind came through, the unoccupied chairs were knocked on their backs and sent sliding about the base area. Russian techno music¿a particularly grating subphylum of Euro-pop¿came through a few loudspeakers. Three rusty cars (two Ladas and a Volga) were parked in a small gravel lot; everyone else, it seemed, either lived in the apartment complex or had taken the subway.

The hill itself rose maybe 300 vertical feet. Halfway up was one of those huge, Cuisinart-of-the-gods-style snowguns, and the slope was covered with an unmistakable glass-bead layer of artificial snow. Moguls had established themselves like weeds; I could discern no sign of recent grooming. Thirty or so people were on the hill, a good mixture of kids and adults and skiers and snowboarders. The skiers were far better than I'd expected, though in a very old-school, Wayne Wongy way. Stretch pants were being modeled without a hint of irony. Four skiers and one snowboarder were wearing round fur hats the size of birthday cakes.

Milling around the base area, drinking beer and clearly not intending to ski, were a clutch of thuggish men, possibly affiliated with the ubiquitous Russian mafia, wrapped in leather jackets and sporting crewcuts. You see these kind of men everywhere in Russia. They're known (behind their backs) as "flatheads," and not merely because of their hair cuts¿it actually appears as if the tops of their skulls have achieved a levelness of near Euclidean perfection.

The rental equipment inside the shanty was surprisingly high-end. There were brand-new Salomon X-Scream skis and Performa boots and several pairs of Snowblades, as well as a few Burton snowboards. Someone had either cut a good deal with Salomon or had hijacked a truck. I don't mean this as a joke¿the post-Soviet justice system appears to have been lifted from a John Wayne movie. Virtually every business in Moscow, for example, has to pay protection money to the mob, and one of the city's biggest growth industries is private security.

Alexi, the sole rental-shack employee, spoke a bit of English. He explained that downhill skiing was in its infancy in Russia, though steadily gaining converts. This was the fourth season the Winged Mountain area had been in operation, Alexi said, and on weekends all the lifts were running and the rental gear sold out.

The main problem now, according to Alexi, was a familiar one: money. Many people simply can't afford to ski. The total cost of my trip to Winged Mountain, including transportation, rentals, lift rides, and food, was less than $20, but even this is beyond the means of the average Russian. The economy is in shambles. Unemployment may be as high as 25 percent. Between 30 and 40 million Russian workers earn less than $1 per day. At the same time, daily news stories trumpet the United States's ever-burgeoning wealth. No wonder people are irritable.

To accommodate low-income skiers, Winged Mountain is set up for brief skiing sessions. Rentals are by the hour ($5 per); the lift is paid each ride (18 cents a tow). I purchased a stack of gray plastic lift-ride cards and handed one to the attendant. I rode the poma and studied my fellow skiers. It was a relief to see Russians wearing bright clothes. In downtown Moscow, the prevailing fashions were so drab that tan had started to seem racy. To save a little money, a few people¿young snowboarders, mostly¿were walking up the hill. I noticed one boy in tattered ski pants hiking with a rectangular piece of plywood beneath his arm and I thought, No way.

Way. The kid's name was Karil. He said he was 13 years old. He could do things on a scrap of wood that I didn't think possible, such as carving turns and jumping moguls and avoiding compound fractures. All without bindings. I climbed the hill three times with him, and though I upped the speed on each descent, he appeared to have little trouble keeping up with me. During my third run with Karil, I saw something even more impressive. Another kid, not even a teenager, shredded the hill while riding atop a crushed two-liter plastic soda bottle.

I used up my lift cards and settled in at one of the tables with a hunk of cheese-stuffed bread and a bottle of Baltica beer¿a 12 percent brew, made in St. Petersburg, that's a Russian favorite between vodka bouts. I was soon joined by another skier, a gangly, sly-eyed man named Andrei. He happened to speak beautiful English¿he made his living translating books from English into Russian. Straight off, Andrei treated me with the casual informality one uses with an old friend. This confirmed my general theory of human behavior: Skiers, I believe, are better-natured people than nonskiers. People were nicer to me at Winged Mountain than anyplace else in Moscow. And even those people who weren't openly nice weren't not nice, either¿I felt none of the overt eye-contact avoidance that I'd sensed pretty much everywhere else. Also, I can reliably state that skiers at Winged Mountain were, without question, having fun, and it's conceivable that nobody was having more fun than Andrei.

Andrei was 42 years old, he told me, and in his second ski season. There was a glow about him of the acutely smitten. Though his ski style could be described, charitably, as the skid-and-slam mogul method, I could sense that he was going to be a skier for life. He was the least shy person I met in all of Russia, a sort of self-deprecating comedian who could out-cuss a drill sergeant. He said he had no interest in visiting America. "It's too organized and too puritanical," he explained, and then proceeded to inform me in unnecessary detail about his two mistresses, whom he sees¿occasionally at the same time, he claimed¿when his wife and son are away at the family dacha. "Have you been with a Russian woman?" he asked me. I shook my head no. "Then I still consider you a virgin," he said.

I bought him a Baltica and mentioned my Russian ski mission. Andrei insisted I had to visit the Ural Mountains, the north-south range a thousand miles east of Moscow that partitions European Russia from Siberian Russia. There were at least a dozen small ski hills in the Urals, said Andrei. If I wanted to get a real feel for his country, he continued, I had to get away from the big city and explore the vast interior. It was the Russian heartland, he said. The true backcountry.

Easy as that, I was sold.

Click here for part 2 of Prisoners of Winter.n $1 per day. At the same time, daily news stories trumpet the United States's ever-burgeoning wealth. No wonder people are irritable.

To accommodate low-income skiers, Winged Mountain is set up for brief skiing sessions. Rentals are by the hour ($5 per); the lift is paid each ride (18 cents a tow). I purchased a stack of gray plastic lift-ride cards and handed one to the attendant. I rode the poma and studied my fellow skiers. It was a relief to see Russians wearing bright clothes. In downtown Moscow, the prevailing fashions were so drab that tan had started to seem racy. To save a little money, a few people¿young snowboarders, mostly¿were walking up the hill. I noticed one boy in tattered ski pants hiking with a rectangular piece of plywood beneath his arm and I thought, No way.

Way. The kid's name was Karil. He said he was 13 years old. He could do things on a scrap of wood that I didn't think possible, such as carving turns and jumping moguls and avoiding compound fractures. All without bindings. I climbed the hill three times with him, and though I upped the speed on each descent, he appeared to have little trouble keeping up with me. During my third run with Karil, I saw something even more impressive. Another kid, not even a teenager, shredded the hill while riding atop a crushed two-liter plastic soda bottle.

I used up my lift cards and settled in at one of the tables with a hunk of cheese-stuffed bread and a bottle of Baltica beer¿a 12 percent brew, made in St. Petersburg, that's a Russian favorite between vodka bouts. I was soon joined by another skier, a gangly, sly-eyed man named Andrei. He happened to speak beautiful English¿he made his living translating books from English into Russian. Straight off, Andrei treated me with the casual informality one uses with an old friend. This confirmed my general theory of human behavior: Skiers, I believe, are better-natured people than nonskiers. People were nicer to me at Winged Mountain than anyplace else in Moscow. And even those people who weren't openly nice weren't not nice, either¿I felt none of the overt eye-contact avoidance that I'd sensed pretty much everywhere else. Also, I can reliably state that skiers at Winged Mountain were, without question, having fun, and it's conceivable that nobody was having more fun than Andrei.

Andrei was 42 years old, he told me, and in his second ski season. There was a glow about him of the acutely smitten. Though his ski style could be described, charitably, as the skid-and-slam mogul method, I could sense that he was going to be a skier for life. He was the least shy person I met in all of Russia, a sort of self-deprecating comedian who could out-cuss a drill sergeant. He said he had no interest in visiting America. "It's too organized and too puritanical," he explained, and then proceeded to inform me in unnecessary detail about his two mistresses, whom he sees¿occasionally at the same time, he claimed¿when his wife and son are away at the family dacha. "Have you been with a Russian woman?" he asked me. I shook my head no. "Then I still consider you a virgin," he said.

I bought him a Baltica and mentioned my Russian ski mission. Andrei insisted I had to visit the Ural Mountains, the north-south range a thousand miles east of Moscow that partitions European Russia from Siberian Russia. There were at least a dozen small ski hills in the Urals, said Andrei. If I wanted to get a real feel for his country, he continued, I had to get away from the big city and explore the vast interior. It was the Russian heartland, he said. The true backcountry.

Easy as that, I was sold.

Click here for part 2 of Prisoners of Winter.

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • No HTML tags allowed

More information about formatting options

Type the characters you see in this picture. (verify using audio)
Type the characters you see in the picture above; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.
All submitted comments are subject to the license terms set forth in our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use