Russia gets its skis on

Winter sports

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

Getting there

* 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.

Red tape

* 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.

More information

* Freeride World Tour: freerideworldtour.com

* Mountain Carousel: gornaya-karusel.ru

* Sochi 2014: sochi2014.com/en/

* Rosa Khutor Ski Resort: rosaski.com/en/

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past