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Return to Kazakhstan

The Warren Miller crew traveled to Kazakhstan in 1996 to film for Snowriders 2 and returned for this year's film, Ticket to Ride. 1996 was nothing like what they found in 2013.
By Brigid Mander
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Photograph by Braden Gunem

One of the five Central Asian nations, Kazakhstan doesn’t normally inspire images of bluebird days and deep powder, at least for most people. Instead, images of the Silk Road, deserts, Mongol invasions and on a modern note, political instability and natural resources come to mind. Yet to mountaineers, skiers, and Warren Miller Entertainment, the region means vast swaths of fantastic mountains, amazing peaks, and incredible ski lines with light, dry powder.

In the east and south of Kazakhstan rise the Altai and the Tien Shan respectively; both ranges pierce upward from the steppes in dramatic fashion as part of the Himalayan belt. The altitudes are high: the Tien Shan’s Khan Tengri is the highest peak in Kazakhstan at a height of nearly 23,000 feet.

This winter, cameramen Chris Patterson, Braden Gunem, and skiers Chris Anthony, JT Holmes, and Espen Fadnes traveled to ski the Tien Shan. They arrived in the city of Almaty – once a part of the Silk Road and the Kazakh capital under the Soviets (losing capital city stature to Astana, in the north, in 1997), and now, a cultural center basking in newfound oil and gas wealth. They headed to nearby Shymbulak, Almaty’s ski area.

For Chris Anthony and Chris Patterson, the trip was not just about big mountain skiing, but witnessing the incredible changes in the post-Soviet era. Their previous visit, in 1996, was nothing like what they found in 2013. “17 years ago, post Soviet Union, the place was very cold and dark. We landed at three in the morning into a dark airport; I felt like I was going to prison,” said Anthony. “It was intimidating. Fires burned in barrels around the city and locals used it for heat.”

In 1996 Shymbulak, Almaty’s ski resort, miraculously not only existed but remained open despite only intermittent running water and electricity, according to Anthony. “Most of the chairs had already fallen off the single person chairlift that took us up, and on a busy day the weight of the passengers made the cable sag to the ground dragging us up the slope along on the snow rather than elevated in the air like most chair lifts. The lift ticket checkers were armed with semi- automatics,” remembers Anthony.

Free to pursue their own agendas, nations like Kazahkstan are struggling to find their place in the world. Conquered by Russia in the 18th century, Kazakhstan found independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. With a population of nearly 18 million and landmass of about four times the size of Texas, Kazakhstan has been fortunate to find itself sitting upon impressive oil gas, and mining wealth.

Change has come rapidly, and this time, people adorned are with luxury labels, not weaponry. “I was surprised how much it had changed. Almaty felt like Europe, and sometimes like Beverly Hills. We passed luxury labels, Land Rover, Bentley, Ferrari dealers, and the ski area has had a huge influx of money: $125 million in lifts, hotels, and infrastructure,” said Patterson.

What had not changed, of course, were the mountains and the abundant, light, dry powder. The snow was in fact so light that sometimes skiers sink deep in the fluff to obstacles underneath, said Anthony – but it’s the kind of snow the camera loves.

“Kazakhstan is an awesome place. It’s something different,” Patterson says, and Anthony concurs: people looking for unique ski destinations might want to take a look. “I would suggest it if you are the adventurous type and an avid snow rider, put it on the bucket list.“