This post is an illustrated travel feature from my heli-skiing trip to the Caucasus Mountains of Russia. I have illustrated my account in artworks created in watercolour paints.
Heli-Skiing in Russia
By Kimberley Kay
As the Russian ski guide, Jonanin, adjusts my avalanche detector I pray I won’t need to use it. He tightens the straps across my chest and I realise I am not breathing.
Jonanin asks if I am okay – at least that is what I think he asks, I can’t hear him over the deafening roar of the helicopter rotors. I give the required ‘thumbs up’ – although I am sure that my eyes belie the fact that I am far from ‘okay’.
We climb away from the ramshackle village of Kransnaya Polyana. The peeling paint of the houses and the rusty roofs shrink to miniature as I peer through the window. The helicopter has seen better days, the interior is basic and dirty – I wonder whether the helicopter or the ski descents of the Caucasus Mountains pose greatest risk to my existence.
I have skied since I was five years old – but I know that the heli-skiing will be more challenging than any piste or slalom course I have ever encountered. I knew this when I booked the trip last October, I knew it when I boarded the plane in Moscow to fly south – I hope I have the mental strength to overcome the physical challenge.
Nausea set in at breakfast – I ate what I could stomach, knowing I would need the fuel – but recalling the smell of the dill laced fried eggs makes me wince once more.
We soar towards the mountains where Russia borders Georgia, near the Black Sea. I spot the shadow of the helicopter projected onto the snowy canvas. We are flying level with the mountains – it feels close enough to catch a rotary blade on the jagged granite rock – time to get a grip and calm down.
Twenty minutes later the helicopter begins to slow and hover – my heartbeat quickens and my mouth is dry. On the guide’s signal the skiers one by one jump from the doorway disappearing out of sight. I pull my goggles over my eyes, thank my former self from having the foresight to invest in a helmet, then I jump. Jumping in ski boots isn’t easy – they are rigid and can hyper extend your knee. I break through the icy crust into the soft sugary snow beneath. The lead guide’s advice front of mind, “stay low so that you don’t get sucked into the rotors”. I crawl across the steep slope to the rest of the group, digging my boots in to keep me from falling. The power of the blades whisks up the air. I feel like a commando – it feels hardcore and I like it. What an adventure!
Immediately the guide signals to the pilot, the helicopter rises and banks away – the noise goes with it leaving silence. The isolation of our location sinks in – we are aloft the landscape with peaks around us 360 degrees, the mountain slopes shimmer in the sun – looking like they have been draped in fondant icing.
My consciousness returns to my situation, knelt at the top of a slope – I look down between my boots and the world drops away almost vertically – oh my… I peer forwards to see over the crest of snow in front of me and see a valley that tumbles away as fiercely as the first. I start to feel my body go heavy as the reality sets in. I dig my skis into the snow at 45 degrees – the only way to clip into the bindings on such an incline.
The guide signals the off and drops over a cornice – I point my skis downwards, taking a deep breath. I focus what lies immediately ahead as I don’t want to become overfaced by the scale of the location.
These are the kind of conditions when people die – loosing their grip and ‘rag dolling’ down the slope until hitting the rocks below. I grip the icy incline with the edges of my skis determined that I will not fall.
Narrowly missing a crevasse brings home to me my naivety about the mountain conditions – I conclude that I have a better chance of surviving staying close to our French guide, Marc. I put my faith in him. And with the helicopter nowhere in sight or earshot and Marc and Jonanin holding the radios, the only means of hailing our ride home, who else can I count on.
I follow Marc down the steep slope my skis juddering on the ice as I fight to stay in control and ensure that I am attacking the mountain and not the other way round.
As we continue to descend the icy surface is then snow, and my skis glide on the surface, I relax and take in the view. There are only mountain peaks as far as I can see, that and the blue sky, I feel like I’m literally on top of the world. It feels like I’m a bird, flying.
We encounter the path of an avalanche – which has thundered down the mountain leaving behind a barrage of boulders of snow. I stand contemplating my descent.
My mind is telling me repeatedly that I can’t do this, as I hear the thoughts my body feels heavy and clumsy. I feel fear coursing through my muscles – debilitating and dangerous. I fight to change the thoughts, to believe I can ski this terrain. Before I have chance to think better of it I point my skis downhill.
Picking a route through icy avalanched snow blocks is like skiing through a collapsed building – very different from the perfectly groomed pistes where I normally ski.
I traverse to an area untracked by the avalanche – the snow is suddenly soft and my knees come up to my chest, throwing me forwards unexpectedly – my helmet hits the snow. The momentum, and the smooth surface of my helmet, means my legs flip quickly over – my helmet hits the snow again – once more the momentum ‘flick flacks’ my body over and I land on my skis. I laugh as I brush the snow crystals from my goggles – I had executed a double front somersault and skied out of it – I’m feeling awesome.
We must have covered 3 kilometres already. The snow is heavy now – it’s April after all. I pull on my strength, my resolve and my determination to ski the run of my life.
And then I am down, joining the guide as one by one the group arrive and gather for the helicopter pick up. To fly us another mountain to ski.
I peel my helmet from my head and survey the slope I have conquered. As the pain in my legs subsides my breath slows and I feel an overwhelming sense of achievement. I look up at the mountain so silent and still, yet so dangerous – an unpredictable opponent.
We all stand at the foot of a deep gorge waiting for our pick up. There is tranquillity in being so far from the busyness of the world. The only other sign of life are bear tracks. I scan the slopes to ensure that there aren’t any bears planning to bound down for an easy lunch. We wouldn’t stand a chance the snow here is too heavy to run or ski on.
The helicopter is now heading straight for us. Although we have to stay squatted down my instinct is to bolt.
Three more heli drops later I savour a bottle of cool water – such exertion in spring temperatures makes me feel like I have had a sauna with my ski gear on.
As we leave the snowy wilderness behind the foliage seems greener than before. It feels like we are flying through the seasons – from winter to spring. The day is warm so I choose to walk the two miles back to hotel. The houses I pass indicate the simple lifestyle of the residents which contrasts uneasily with the extravagance of our morning’s pursuit.
Back at the hotel I relax in the sunshine, my exerted muscles soothed by the sun’s warmth. My perfect day – a great morning skiing and then being able to get my bikini on and enjoy the sun in the hotel garden. I wear a smile inwardly and on my face – I have pitted myself against nature and survived – with some quite fun acrobatics.
Krasnaya Pollyana, Russia.
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