Gornaya Karusel, with a view of Olympic development in the valley below.
Words & photos: Ethan Stone
What's up Newschoolers,
After a solid week of cavorting through the five-ringed circus here in the Olympic Mountain Cluster, today I decided to take a break from the grind and get in my first ski turns on Russian snow.
It hasn't snowed for weeks here in the Caucasus, but I didn't fly halfway around the world with all my ski gear for nothing. So this morning I suit up and hop into the gondola at Gornaya Karusel - the one ski area in the valley that's open to the public during the Olympic Games.
Unfortunately Rosa Khutor, the main ski resort up here and the one hosting all the alpine events, is totally closed off to the public during the entirety of the Games for security reasons. Only alpine athletes, event staff and specially accredited media are allowed on the lifts, and very regrettably I'm neither one nor the other.
So I'll have to come back another time to ski the resort described by photographer Christian Pondella "the best in-bounds skiing in the world", and by Eric Pollard as "Alaska meets Japan."
But let's get past the obviously silly implications of closing off the resort that the Olympic Games are supposed to be advertising to the world, and look on the bright side: the lifts are turning for the rest of us at Gornaya Karusel, just a few kilometers down the valley on the same ridge as Rosa Khutor. Gornaya Karusel used to be known as Alpika Service, which was the first ski area in this region in the '90s. In the lead-up to the Olympic Games, Alpika was bought out by Gazprom, Russia's natural gas leviathan and one of the world's biggest companies. Gazprom redeveloped the resort with new lifts and hotels for the Olympics—but even now, halfway through the Games, much of the upgrade remains unfinished.
I share my first gondola with a young Russian snowboard instructor who looks like your typical snowboard/surfer bro—in fact, he tells me that he teaches windsurfing in the summertime, so the stereotype sticks. As the gondola rises to the top of Gornaya Karusel—top elevation about 7200 feet (2200m)—my new friend points out some attractions below, like Vladimir Putin's sprawling villa on a hill on the far side of the valley.
I'm more interested in the steep, fluted walls and sparse beech forest opening up on all sides. "This is a freeride place," my new friend (whose name I never get) says. "When there is more snow."
He points out across the valley at the sprawling range to the north and says, "I want to go backcountry riding over there. But after Olympics. Right now it is watched by Special Forces."
Best wait till the Olympics are over to ski on the far side of the valley.
Most of the resort is sun-baked and skied out. I spend some time gawking at the vast array of super-gnarly and untouched terrain within minutes of the lift—but it seems like almost every single access point to get to the goods is guarded by Russian military in camouflage gear. At least they aren't openly packing firearms, but who knows what's under those jackets.
Some of the awesome terrain at Gornaya Karusel....
...and some of the Russian military personnel preventing me from skiing it.
Security is tight up here, and just like in the Olympic venues down below, everyone is supposed to stay within designated areas. Rope lines are everywhere with signs warning skiers to stay on the piste. That definitely isn't going to happen, and eventually I find a small ridge that is apparently inessential to the Olympic security apparatus, because it's unguarded.
My little ridge accesses a shaded, north-facing aspect that amazingly—after weeks of sunny, warm weather—still offers soft, untracked powder. It's exactly not blower, but given the circumstances, it's pretty righteous. I find a steep, hairy chute that drops into a beech forest with well-spaced trees and playful terrain rollers, and lap the zone for the rest of the day.
The snow is still good on shady north-facing slopes.
Russian lines on American Lines. Lost my gloves on the chairlift, no biggie.
Great glade skiing in the beech forest.
Despite it being a Saturday, in the middle of the Olympics, things are fairly quiet up here. There are no lift lines, just a few crowds of non-skiing tourists come up to enjoy the sun and the view. I share gondolas with other journalists from England, Germany, and France who are also enjoying a quick break from their own Olympic coverage, and two endearing moms from New York, Sue and Shelly, who offer me some dried mango from Trader Joe's—nothing like some food from home!
One of my last gondola rides is with a group of Russians who ask why my skis are so big. I tell them "freeride", and point out the zone that I've been skiing. They are flabbergasted.
One tries out some English: "Extreme!" he says, and thumps his chest to indicate adrenaline. "Da," I agree. "Extreme."
No doubt about it — the rumors are true, this area harbors some of the gnarliest freeride terrain anywhere in the planet. With a bit more snow and a bit less security, it's right up there with any resort on your all-time best list. Just don't visit during the Olympics.