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

Russian Roulette

Adventure
posted: 01/18/2005

Getting skunked on a ski excursion results from an aggregate of Little Things. Unremarkable incidents quietly pile onto seemingly minor decisions until-boom!-they gather critical mass, and you're suddenly 4,000 miles from home and thousands of dollars poorer, plying a snowcat track six times in a row during zero-visibility conditions charitably described as "white mice humping in a bowl of milk."

My response? Cursing the damn Little Things till foam flecks the corners of my mouth. It's good therapy. Not until later, on the flight back across the ocean, after the Valium has kicked in, do I calm down and see that the Little Things all result from One Big Truth: Mountains mess with our heads.

While humans ponder and mythologize them, mountains just stand there, oozing mystique and pissing rockfall. The Ozarks, the Himalayas, and every range in between infect our thoughts. We contemplate them obsessively, but still can't decide whether they're foreboding, beautiful, malevolent, or divine. We feel the gamut of human emotions just looking at the big oafs. Yet mountains couldn't care less. They're equally happy enticing us as they are murdering us.

Skiers, more than anyone, fall victim to this alpine mind game. We dream. We crave. We get rejected. We lose track of reality. Namely, the reality that man's influence over mountains begins and ends with the chairlift. When we venture beyond manmade resorts, the peaks smell the stink of our desperation.

I know. I followed an alpine crush across the Pacific Ocean to the remote Russian peninsula of Kamchatka. A fantasy of exotic snow warped my thinking. I forgot that mountains could tease. I forgot these words from the Rolling Stones: "I'm so hot for her, and she's so cold."

You'd have done the same, though. We're all suckers for a pretty, 5,000-vertical-foot face: you, me, and everyone else who hemorrhages disposable income to chase something as ephemeral and unpredictable as powder. Kamchatka's charms--200 snow-blanketed volcanoes, 9,000-foot drops, and zero prohibitions against helicopters--could turn any of us into simpering, goo-goo-eyed saps.

Call me pathetic, call me whipped, but I'd crawl back tomorrow if the volcanoes would only have me.

Kamchatka is suddenly the buzz among skiing's know-it-all wanderers. They say its predictable yet beefy snowpack and huge escarpments recall Alaska's Chugach; La Grave, France; and Bella Coola, British Columbia--the destinations that immediately preceded Kamchatka as the Big Mountains du jour. It's a must-ski, the wanderers say; the final frontier. Because the peninsula housed secret military installations, Cold War Soviets prohibited outsiders from visiting until the fall of the USSR in 1991. Still, were Kamchatka not in forlorn northeast Asia, it would be overrun with skiers and snowboarders (which is to say jam bands, $200 Oakleys, and yellow labs sporting Guatemalan-print collars).

I came to Kamchatka with seven Americans, two of whom--Hilaree O'Neill and Kasha Rigby--skied the bejesus out of the volcanoes a few years prior on an expedition sponsored by The North Face. Their trip coincided with a long spell of ideal weather."The allure is it's not Alaska," Hilaree told me before the trip. "It's not hyped and overvisited. The landings are sketchy. Communication is tough. You're super-removed from everything. But Kamchatka's got the same potential for great wilderness skiing that Alaska does."

Talking to Hilaree was enough to shift my gullible skier's imagination into overdrive. Look at Rob, hopping out of the giant orange Sikorsky helicopter atop a soaring, still-active volcano! See our hero turn away from the sulfuric smoke, gather his steely resolve, and point his skis down the sun-dappled cone where few Westerners have ever laid P-tex! The Bering Sea on the horizon almost matches the beauty of Rob's skiing as he carves sinuous turns for a grateful Free World!

So we gathered, brimming with optimism, on a Friday inate April at the Anchorage airport for the four-hour passage across the Pacific and the international date line. Someone said the forecast in Kamchatka was for clear skies, and we should be ready to ski upon arrival—under a sun that wouldn't set until 10 p.m.

Our flight took off five hours later than scheduled. We reached Kamchatka's capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy (or PK, as it's known), at 1 p.m. Though it was a painful reminder of Russia's lingering affection for Third-World status, the delay didn't bite into any heli-ski time. The sky was gray and heavy and low, like a lead ceiling in a bomb shelter.

Martha Madsen, an American expatriate and founder of the young ecotourism outfit Explore Kamchatka, met us. With her were two short, stocky Russian men: Valodya, a ski guide, and Gresha, the owner of PK's only ski shop. Later, we simplified their names to "Vodka" and "Greasy."

We drove to Martha's B&B—passing dead trees, crumbling buildings, and a vestigial hammer-and-sickle sign from the Soviet days. Vodka and Greasy helped us plan the week's routes while we sat around the dining- room table. They unfurled maps depicting vast stretches of wilderness pocked by volcanoes. Kamchatka's mountains help form the Pacific Ocean's Ring of Fire, the same volcanic chain that gave us Alaska's Chugach and Washington's Cascades. The highest peak, Klyuchevskoy, is 15,584 feet tall, but even those in the 8- to 10,000-foot-range seem huge since they're only a few miles from the sea.

The 750-mile peninsula—which extends south between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea—has a seemingly limitless potential for untracked lines. You can charter huge helicopters for around $1,300 per hour. Bring a group of 20 here and all of you can fly in the same helicopter, making 7,000-foot descents at a fraction of what it costs to heli-ski in Alaska or British Columbia. "Zatra eepadona geshgoshza shiteza," Greasy and Vodka raved in their glandular tongue, which sounds like a record being played backward. Martha translated: "Huge snowfields...easy helicopter flight...hot springs...hut for overnight...steep, north-facing pitches." Ahh, I think, that is the shiteza.

This is how exotic ski trips work. They take us to fairy-tale ranges and relentlessly stoke our fires. As Martha spoke, imaginations imagined. Expectations swelled. Anticipation ran unchecked.

I'd skied Russia once before, on a 1998 expedition to the Caucasus Mountains. The highlight: summiting 18,500-foot Mount Elbrus, Europe's tallest peak. The lowlights: steel-wool toilet paper, Moscow airport weasels withholding luggage until bribed, and the theft of my brand-new, adjust-able probe poles. I returned home loving the Russians only slightly more than Ronald "we-begin-bombing-in-five-minutes" Reagan did.

Why go back? When Boris Yeltsin sloshed out of the Kremlin in December 1999, a skier strode in. President Vladimir Putin likes skiing so much he schedules on-snow photo ops. The sport is subsequently booming. A BBC broadcast explained that "Russians have a long tradition of follow-the-leader, and they have gone ski-crazy." How 'bout that? Former Marxists embracing the most expensive sport the bourgeoisie ever invented. Lift lines in lieu of bread lines.

These days, Moscow strings cables on every conceivable hill, and the mountains of western Russia, especially the Caucasus, enjoy big crowds and fat cash infusions. I assumed the boom would extend to eastern Russia, too. I was wrong. In Russian Asia, the ski industry appears as advanced and evolved as Leonid Brezhnev's monobrow. Kamchatka hunkers nine time zones away from Moscow. No highway or railroad connects it to the mainland. Kamchatka waits, like an island, for ships and planes to deliver all its worldly goods. It also waits for skiers.

If Kamchatka is to transcend its cult status and resonate with skiing's mainstream, it will owe a debt to the North American skiers who come over in dribs and drabs on Endless Winter quests for the mirror image of Valdez. No one can say yet whether they'll multiply here, or go the way of the first nomads to cross the Bering Strait—the Inuit types who represented Kamchatka's only human inhabitants until Russian Cossacks barreled in from Siberia in the 18th century and slaughtered them.

While Kamchatka sits closer to the equator than Alaska (PK is at 53 degrees north latitude compared with Valdez's 61 degrees), the climate is similar. Storms from Siberia and the Sea of Okhotsk pound it, contributing to a thick, maritime snowpack that's usually skiable into late June. Of course, the frequent rain, fog, and low ceilings make lousy weather for flying helicopters up to mountains. As in the Chugach, down days happen. A lot.

So our second day was spent strolling an outdoor flea market instead of skiing. The people—old men with barrel chests and thick sweaters; scarfed babushkas with steel teeth; and young toughs sporting leather jackets and mysterious facial scars—regarded us Gore-Texed Americans with suspicion, but also sympathy. When ski model Kim Havell bought some orange, roundish bait she thought was salmon eggs, then persuaded me to eat some, several Russians shouted nyet, nyet! and directed us to the real roe.

Desperate for skiing, any skiing, we leapt at Martha's suggestion to accompany Vodka to the local hill in PK where he teaches kids to ski. On the following day, we drove with him through mist into a grimy industrial area—all broken glass and discarded tires. Above some ugly, hulking brick buildings, however, was a nicely pitched expanse of snow. Vodka and his comrades built something out of nothing here, adapting one abandoned building into a spartan warming hut and erecting a cable tow up the 600-vertical-foot hill. His students had been exposed enough to Western jib flicks to build a large kicker out of stray wood and tires.

We eagerly booted up to explore the unnamed, Field of Dreams hill. Yet the Fates had other plans. Skiers ascend the lift by affixing an iron, U-shaped hook to the cable, then holding onto a rope and wood plank attached to the hook. Hilaree slid her hook onto the cable, the rope tensioned, she prepared to jolt upward...and then the hook slipped off the cable. In a nanosecond she was screaming on the ground, a victim of hard metal, Newtonian physics, and a horrendous assault on her upper shin. She went to the hospital.

The rest of us drank, growing fon-der of vodka by the day. The Russians' affinity for nonstop binges started making perfect sense. After all, getting squiffy on 80-proof sauce marks the highlight of most days. The roadside liquor store was always busy, with pedestrians, townie bikes, motorcycles, and cars jockeying for position in the parking lot. On one of our many visits there, Vodka's van got scraped by a guy carelessly reversing in a Datsun. In L.A., this would be cause for gunplay. In Kamchatka, no one cared. Not even the cop who pulled in for a nip. So what if cars trade paint? In the Russian scheme of things, vodka procurement matters much more than unblemished quarterpanels.

Our morning ritual involved rising before seven from the simple beds—thin mattresses atop plywood planks—in Martha's house, shuffling downstairs (carefully, so as not to inflame hangovers), noshing on grainy pancakes sweetened with local honey, and waiting to hear from the helicopter pilots if the Russian military had pronounced conditions suitable for flying.

On two of our down days, we went to authentic Russian banyas, or steam baths. We segregated by gender; then we gathered with naked Kamchatkans in ancient tiled rooms to sweat. Like the Russians, we stimulated circulation by slapping ourselves with birch boughs.

You can't get this kind of cultural experience at most ski resorts, and as far as I know, even Orlando doesn't have any fake plaster banyas. Still, a little banya goes a long way. I went to Kamchatka to ski among volcanoes; instead, I sur Winter quests for the mirror image of Valdez. No one can say yet whether they'll multiply here, or go the way of the first nomads to cross the Bering Strait—the Inuit types who represented Kamchatka's only human inhabitants until Russian Cossacks barreled in from Siberia in the 18th century and slaughtered them.

While Kamchatka sits closer to the equator than Alaska (PK is at 53 degrees north latitude compared with Valdez's 61 degrees), the climate is similar. Storms from Siberia and the Sea of Okhotsk pound it, contributing to a thick, maritime snowpack that's usually skiable into late June. Of course, the frequent rain, fog, and low ceilings make lousy weather for flying helicopters up to mountains. As in the Chugach, down days happen. A lot.

So our second day was spent strolling an outdoor flea market instead of skiing. The people—old men with barrel chests and thick sweaters; scarfed babushkas with steel teeth; and young toughs sporting leather jackets and mysterious facial scars—regarded us Gore-Texed Americans with suspicion, but also sympathy. When ski model Kim Havell bought some orange, roundish bait she thought was salmon eggs, then persuaded me to eat some, several Russians shouted nyet, nyet! and directed us to the real roe.

Desperate for skiing, any skiing, we leapt at Martha's suggestion to accompany Vodka to the local hill in PK where he teaches kids to ski. On the following day, we drove with him through mist into a grimy industrial area—all broken glass and discarded tires. Above some ugly, hulking brick buildings, however, was a nicely pitched expanse of snow. Vodka and his comrades built something out of nothing here, adapting one abandoned building into a spartan warming hut and erecting a cable tow up the 600-vertical-foot hill. His students had been exposed enough to Western jib flicks to build a large kicker out of stray wood and tires.

We eagerly booted up to explore the unnamed, Field of Dreams hill. Yet the Fates had other plans. Skiers ascend the lift by affixing an iron, U-shaped hook to the cable, then holding onto a rope and wood plank attached to the hook. Hilaree slid her hook onto the cable, the rope tensioned, she prepared to jolt upward...and then the hook slipped off the cable. In a nanosecond she was screaming on the ground, a victim of hard metal, Newtonian physics, and a horrendous assault on her upper shin. She went to the hospital.

The rest of us drank, growing fon-der of vodka by the day. The Russians' affinity for nonstop binges started making perfect sense. After all, getting squiffy on 80-proof sauce marks the highlight of most days. The roadside liquor store was always busy, with pedestrians, townie bikes, motorcycles, and cars jockeying for position in the parking lot. On one of our many visits there, Vodka's van got scraped by a guy carelessly reversing in a Datsun. In L.A., this would be cause for gunplay. In Kamchatka, no one cared. Not even the cop who pulled in for a nip. So what if cars trade paint? In the Russian scheme of things, vodka procurement matters much more than unblemished quarterpanels.

Our morning ritual involved rising before seven from the simple beds—thin mattresses atop plywood planks—in Martha's house, shuffling downstairs (carefully, so as not to inflame hangovers), noshing on grainy pancakes sweetened with local honey, and waiting to hear from the helicopter pilots if the Russian military had pronounced conditions suitable for flying.

On two of our down days, we went to authentic Russian banyas, or steam baths. We segregated by gender; then we gathered with naked Kamchatkans in ancient tiled rooms to sweat. Like the Russians, we stimulated circulation by slapping ourselves with birch boughs.

You can't get this kind of cultural experience at most ski resorts, and as far as I know, even Orlando doesn't have any fake plaster banyas. Still, a little banya goes a long way. I went to Kamchatka to ski among volcanoes; instead, I surrounded myself with scrotums. It was like a cruel, cosmic joke on adventure sports writers like me who type "ballsy" into our stories far too often—especially when describing the kinds of descents I couldn't ski in Kamchatka. Point taken, weather gods. Concerning testes, I will write no more. Ever.

On another day, we clambered into a 20-year-old, six-wheel-drive military transport carrier and rumbled up an undulating, washboarded creekbed masquerading as a road. An hour and a half later, we reached a staging area for snowcat skiing. The cat rumbled 90 minutes longer to a saddle, which was barren and engulfed in the aforementioned mice-humping whiteout. Greasy and Vodka claimed there were snowy shoulders just a short hike away, but we couldn't see or ski them. We skied the cat track.

We were beginning to feel cursed. But our sixth day dawned brilliantly sunny. Hearing a positive report from the pilots, we rushed to the heli-pad—yet something was wrong. The birches were bending like yogis. Gusts howled, huffed, shrieked. To the eye, it was an achingly beautiful day, with assorted 10,000-foot-plus volcanoes finally popping on the horizon like so many Mount Rainiers. To the ear and skin, though, it was hideously windy. The pilot told us: "I can begin flight, yes, but I cannot guarantee your safety."

We waited at the heli-pad, hoping. A bus pulled up. Inside were a French film crew and 1998 World Extreme Skiing champion Arnaud Adam—more proof of Kamchatka's word-of-mouth buzz. The French waited, too.

An hour elapsed. Then another. Hungry for a distraction, Lee Cohen, our photographer, tried to talk to Greasy, our nominal translator. "So when is your birthday?" Lee asked.

"I was trained as an economist," answered Greasy.

We never flew that first sunny day. Nor the next. But the ensuing week finally delivered clear weather.

Our crew flew to the Jupanovsky volcano, where a run plunges more than a vertical mile from a 10,000-foot-high perch. While the skiing wasn't quite as gnarly as Alaska's 50-degree shots—the volcanoes are more like the steep, then gently tapering lines of Oregon's Mount Hood—it was magnificent, with views of the sea and ash-belching calderas. A series of 35- to 40-degree couloirs striped the massif, affording all kinds of distinct descents. "Two thousand feet of rime buff, 2,000 feet of powder, and 2,000 feet of corn," gushed Hilaree's husband Brian O'Neill, a Telluride Helitrax guide.

After two runs on Jupanovsky, the pilot choppered over to the Aag volcano, where the landing zone was so small he could set only one wheel on a knife-edge ridge. He had to keep the rotors fully powered so the rest of the behemoth bird would stay airborn. Again, a steep, virgin couloir relinquished itself, attended by zero of the annoyances of the Chugach: hype, posing, and morons blabbering "bro-brah" or "sick-bird."

The next day, the MI8 helicopters whisked five of our crew to a wide, pristine valley in the center of the peninsula. There were 1,600-vertical-foot couloirs blessed with forgiving spring snow, sunny southwest faces, and mountain goats.

Why five members of our crew instead of seven? Neither Kim Havell nor I saw any of it. We weren't there. For reasons that made little sense at the time, we returned home seven days earlier than the others. We fooled ourselves into thinking we could ski Kamchatka's raw volcanoes in the space of a week. We thought we could fly to Russian Asia and discover what exotic ski trips are all about. Alas, that's exactly what happened.

January 2005 surrounded myself with scrotums. It was like a cruel, cosmic joke on adventure sports writers like me who type "ballsy" into our stories far too often—especially when describing the kinds of descents I couldn't ski in Kamchatka. Point taken, weather gods. Concerning testes, I will write no more. Ever.

On another day, we clambered into a 20-year-old, six-wheel-drive military transport carrier and rumbled up an undulatting, washboarded creekbed masquerading as a road. An hour and a half later, we reached a staging area for snowcat skiing. The cat rumbled 90 minutes longer to a saddle, which was barren and engulfed in the aforementioned mice-humping whiteout. Greasy and Vodka claimed there were snowy shoulders just a short hike away, but we couldn't see or ski them. We skied the cat track.

We were beginning to feel cursed. But our sixth day dawned brilliantly sunny. Hearing a positive report from the pilots, we rushed to the heli-pad—yet something was wrong. The birches were bending like yogis. Gusts howled, huffed, shrieked. To the eye, it was an achingly beautiful day, with assorted 10,000-foot-plus volcanoes finally popping on the horizon like so many Mount Rainiers. To the ear and skin, though, it was hideously windy. The pilot told us: "I can begin flight, yes, but I cannot guarantee your safety."

We waited at the heli-pad, hoping. A bus pulled up. Inside were a French film crew and 1998 World Extreme Skiing champion Arnaud Adam—more proof of Kamchatka's word-of-mouth buzz. The French waited, too.

An hour elapsed. Then another. Hungry for a distraction, Lee Cohen, our photographer, tried to talk to Greasy, our nominal translator. "So when is your birthday?" Lee asked.

"I was trained as an economist," answered Greasy.

We never flew that first sunny day. Nor the next. But the ensuing week finally delivered clear weather.

Our crew flew to the Jupanovsky volcano, where a run plunges more than a vertical mile from a 10,000-foot-high perch. While the skiing wasn't quite as gnarly as Alaska's 50-degree shots—the volcanoes are more like the steep, then gently tapering lines of Oregon's Mount Hood—it was magnificent, with views of the sea and ash-belching calderas. A series of 35- to 40-degree couloirs striped the massif, affording all kinds of distinct descents. "Two thousand feet of rime buff, 2,000 feet of powder, and 2,000 feet of corn," gushed Hilaree's husband Brian O'Neill, a Telluride Helitrax guide.

After two runs on Jupanovsky, the pilot choppered over to the Aag volcano, where the landing zone was so small he could set only one wheel on a knife-edge ridge. He had to keep the rotors fully powered so the rest of the behemoth bird would stay airborn. Again, a steep, virgin couloir relinquished itself, attended by zero of the annoyances of the Chugach: hype, posing, and morons blabbering "bro-brah" or "sick-bird."

The next day, the MI8 helicopters whisked five of our crew to a wide, pristine valley in the center of the peninsula. There were 1,600-vertical-foot couloirs blessed with forgiving spring snow, sunny southwest faces, and mountain goats.

Why five members of our crew instead of seven? Neither Kim Havell nor I saw any of it. We weren't there. For reasons that made little sense at the time, we returned home seven days earlier than the others. We fooled ourselves into thinking we could ski Kamchatka's raw volcanoes in the space of a week. We thought we could fly to Russian Asia and discover what exotic ski trips are all about. Alas, that's exactly what happened.

January 2005

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