Sheregesh, Russia... After two weeks of straight travel we arrive in Sheregesh, Russia where it has snowed four feet over the past week. By morning, an additional six inches of snow had fallen and the sunrise marked my twenty-fifth birthday. A small Asian man in a taxi van picked us up at our “hotel”. His gold covered teeth were complimented by his high-energy personality. He screams “America!!” at the top of his lungs a dozen times as we pack our nine pairs of skis into the small vehicle. The single lane road leading to the mountain is grid locked and it seems that almost no vehicle can make it up the steep approach. Our driver lays on his horn and fearlessly weaves around stuck cars. We pass by large barbwire fences surrounded by personnel toting automatic weapons and I soon realize the region’s prison is located at the base of the resort. When we finally get to the base of the mountain I am overly excited by the two-story snow-banks. It feels like Christmas morning as we walk to the lifts, passing several vendors with shanty-like stands selling nuts, souvenirs, and animal furs. The crowd is too large for the available space surrounding the two-person vintage chairlifts and T-bars. As we try to buy day-passes we soon learn about the unique business model of the mountain. Different proprietors own each of the ten chairlifts, and each lift requires a separate pass that can be acquired at the lift’s base. The thought of spending the day in different ticket lines is ridiculous, and as I take note of the eccentric ski outfits around me, I can’t help audibly laughing at the whole situation. We then learn that our whole group will only be issued one ticket per-lift that we must share, and pass back-and-forth. After an hour of confusion we finally get on the only lift that is open (due to weather), and start our snails-paced accent. Our ride up the beginner-chair reveals the less than impressive breadth of the available terrain, and my excitement begins to fade. At the top of the lift, a mom is drinking from a flask as she readies her kids who are wear large butt-pads. The quirkiness of the scene lightens my mood and we all smile as we push our way down our first run.
I have already written off the potential of doing any legitimate skiing as we wait in our second ticket line. This lift, which has just opened for the day, goes all the way to the summit. I can see the peak not far in the distance, and it looks just as boring as our first run. As we wait, several local riders recognize Ingrid and begin to flock. Pictures are taken, questions in broken English are answered, and a few new acquaintances are made. Two friends from Kazakhstan assure us they know the “secret spots” and accompany us onto the chairlift. The lift’s nickname is “Satan”, and I soon find out why. As we crest the top of the mountain, our chair violently swings back and fourth, and the high winds and frigid temps are almost unbearable. We traverse across the top of the peak, following the Kazakhstani Duo into the trees where the wind subsides. They lead us towards the steepest pitch on the mountain, and on the approach the snow is wind-blown and grabby. We stand atop the slope staring into the mystery terrain as the film crew maneuvers into position. Ingrid and I discuss the unknown conditions below, and agree that at least the aspect appears to be stable and safe. After a quick radio call, I prepare myself, call my drop, and ski fast off a five-foot cornice into the line. When I land I am shocked at how far I sink in. Although the snow had been blown off the majority of the resort, the four feet of fresh snow still remained on these hidden wind-protected pitches. I begin submarining down the slope, and with each turn I sink deeper into the blower powder. When I stop, I have made the ten deepest turns of my winter. My twenty-fifth year is off to a good start. -Nick Martini