Russia gets its skis on
Saturday 22 October 2011
Sochi will host the next Winter Olympics – and this season it's welcoming UK skiers for the first time. Will it be ready? Simon Usborne reports
In the panoply of Olympic scares and planning nightmares – think out-of-control budgets and traffic chaos – the issues facing a peculiar Black Sea resort, where officers with machine guns patrol the pistes, and soggy chips pass for breakfast, are of another order.
Sochi has been a summer retreat for Russia's elite since Stalin built a house that still looks out over the city's pebble beaches. But "Uncle Joe" was more a billiards than a bobsleigh man. The resort is a destination better known among Russians for its sub-tropical climate and the local delicacy, dried fish. When Sochi was chosen four years ago to stage the 2014 Winter Games, it was arguably the least suitable host in Olympic history. There were no venues, no railways, no international airport and, often, no snow.
Nevertheless Crystal Ski has added Sochi as one of its more exotic offerings for the coming winter. In February, I went on a test run to discover what pioneering clients of Britain's biggest ski operator can expect. I touched down on a flight from Istanbul, which sits diametrically across the Black Sea, into what was Russia's largest building site. Except I couldn't see it because it was 3am (there was no delay – the flight from Istanbul just lands at 3am).
A taxi driver as ancient as his car picked me up for the 40-mile ride to Krasnaya Polyana. This once-sleepy mountain town in the western Caucasus will host the Olympic Alpine events, including the downhill. It serves several small ski resorts, including my destination: the brand new Rosa Khutor.
It was not an ordinary airport-hotel transfer. Four times on the road to Krasnaya, our car was stopped at police checkpoints, where officers searched the boot and checked my passport while shining torches into my bleary eyes.
There was good reason for the high security, I learned later. President Dmitry Medvedev was in town for a conference, and to ski. And Sochi has become a turbulent place. Following the vast amount of money (officially £7bn) that is being pumped faster than concrete into this city in the far west of Russia, have come Mafia hits and terror attacks.
A year ago, after a simmering gang dispute related to Olympic contracts, a well-known crime boss they called "the Carp" was drinking coffee at a café when two gunmen on motorbikes shot him dead.
Then, in February, as Russia was still reeling after a suicide bomber had killed 36 people in the arrivals hall at Moscow's main airport, three skiers from the capital were shot dead by terrorists in the Elbrus area, not far from Sochi.
Blood on the snow is bad PR. But Medvedev is unbowed. So, too, is Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has a house here. He led the Olympic bid and also lured Formula 1 to Sochi in 2014, as well as some games of the 2018 football World Cup. Olympic bosses were concerned about Sochi's position, between the Black and Caspian Seas, on the doorstep of contested territories such as Dagestan and Chechnya. Putin promised the city would be safe. The budget for security at the Games continues to rise: it is already at a reported £1.2bn, way over double what Vancouver spent last year.
Besides high security, what can British skiers who go Russian this winter expect from the newest arrival to the global piste map?
Spectacularly bad breakfasts for a start. The oven chips, which appear to have been slow-poached in fat rather than fried, were the low point of a four-day trip during which I felt as if starvation was only one more inedible sausage away. Those chips were served with a frankfurter so hard and greasy that it might have been used to drive piles into granite, underpinning one of the rusty yellow cranes helping to lay the high-speed railway linking the city with the slopes.
My hotel, the Belarus, was set on top of a steep hill outside Krasnaya Polyana. My room was vast and overheated yet felt cold. When I opened the bathroom door, the chrome-plated handle fell on to the fake parquet. The Belarus has pretensions of being a spa resort. But the tepid basement pool was fanned by air dominated by the poorly plumbed and apparently well-used loos.
I slept as badly as I ate – but the Belarus is, thankfully, not the sort of place to which Crystal will send guests. When I visited Sochi, however, the good rooms did not have roofs let alone door handles. These are being built. A Radisson resort is among a handful of hotels due to open soon at Rosa Khutor, the newest of the three local resorts.
As I pulled up at its still unpaved car park, ringed with construction, there was a queue to get past yet another checkpoint. At the base station there was a ski rental shop, a ticket office, and a gleaming gondola lift imported from Austria. But what I didn't know then was that, at the other end of the cable, almost 2,000 metres above the carpark puddles, lay some of Europe's best terrain and the lightest snow I'd skied for years.
Sochi has already won fans among adventurous skiers thanks to the area's steep slopes and trees. The pistes at Rosa Khutor, while precipitous in places, are wide and sweeping and descend 1,700m from top to bottom – that's comparable to some of the biggest resorts in the Alps. I'm told the nearby Mountain Carousel resort offers similarly challenging off-piste skiing. Beginners are better off at Gazprom – with gentler slopes. But Rosa Khutor is getting the attention – and not just because it will host the downhill. It has already earned a spot on the Freeride World Tour alongside better-known magnets for extreme skiers such as Chamonix and Verbier.
I joined the tour, made up of a couple of dozen guys who live to ski but appear to want to die trying, for a three-day contest. The men hurl themselves off 10-metre cliffs with backward somersaults yet nail the landing as neatly as if they had stepped off a bus. I watched with the judges at the bottom of a 400m face that starts with a 45-degree couloir banked by sheer cliffs before easing slightly into steep glades studded with alder. It's a short run by tour standards and the pros ski or board it in less than a minute, picking up points for daring and artistry.
As the competition reached the halfway mark, I asked David, a former pro turned tour communications director, if I could have a go.
The drop out of the gates at the head of the couloir was vertical and tracks turned immediately and sharply left before disappearing over the first cliff. I dropped but continued straight down behind David, being the first to ski the couloir itself, which was steep and filled with more than two feet of fresh powder. It sloughed away below my skis as I turned more times in a few metres than the pros would in a whole run. But they were good turns. As the terrain opened, I started to create bigger arcs through the trees, building speed as I went.
I reached the bottom in about six minutes, of which I had spent barely a few seconds in the air, but for me it was the run of the season.
We were lucky. The Black Sea and its sub-tropical climate blows hot air up towards the Caucasus, where it cools and creates a lot of snow. When it keeps blowing warm, skiing here can be a washout. But in February, cold temperatures had preserved recent falls, and conditions at Rosa Khutor were the best the pros had skied anywhere, all year.
Olympic chiefs will be hoping for a similar pattern in 2014. Just in case, the hosts have promised to create and warehouse enough artificial snow to combat even the sort of freak heatwave that brought chaos to the Vancouver Games last year.
As I finished my last afternoon with untracked tree runs, worrying slightly that the rumblings of my stomach might be enough to trigger an avalanche, I exchanged glances with a man with a machine gun in white camouflage who looked like he was on the trail of Roger Moore.
I never did see Medvedev but he'll return to these mountains with Putin in 2014, when both men will hope the only storms rolling into the region come bearing snow. In the meantime, as I tackled a last dinner that comprised some kind of flat rissole filled with meat of indistinct origin and orange rind, served with cold mashed potatoes, I hoped some of the money being showered on Sochi might also trickle to its kitchens.
Travel essentials Sochi
* Crystal Ski (0871 231 5655; crystalski.co.uk) offers holidays in Sochi, with four-night breaks starting at £825 per person. The price includes Turkish Airlines flights from Heathrow via Istanbul, transfers and accommodation with breakfast at the four-star Park Inn Rosa Khutor.
* Sochi can also be reached with Aeroflot (020-7355 2233; aeroflot.co.uk) from Heathrow via Moscow.
* British passport-holders require a visa to visit Russia. These can be obtained from the Russian Federation's visa processing centre, VF Services, 15-27 Gee Street, London, EC1V 3RD (020-7499 1029; ru.vfsglobal.co.uk). Tourist visas cost £76.40 and should be applied for well in advance.
* Freeride World Tour: freerideworldtour.com
* Mountain Carousel: gornaya-karusel.ru
* Sochi 2014: sochi2014.com/en/
* Rosa Khutor Ski Resort: rosaski.com/en/
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