Whether you want to take a few quick runs after work or you’re planning a heli-skiing trip in the Caucasus, PASSPORT’s got the inside scoop for Moscow-based skiers and boarders, beginners and experts alike.
By George Dubenetsky
Because Russia is basically flat, cross-country skiing has traditionally enjoyed greater popularity here than the downhill variety. The few mountainous regions which lend themselves to skiing are so far-flung that access alone discourages many would-be skiers from making the effort to get to them.
A skier bashes through fresh powder at Krasnaya Polyana.
Nevertheless, improved economic conditions and President Putin’s well-known love for the sport have led to more people taking up downhill skiing in recent years. There are currently around 300 ski areas dotting the country, with new ones being built each year. Some boast modern, high-speed chairlifts, artificial snow-makers, professional instructors, equipment rentals and comfortable accommodations.
While the vast majority of Russian ski resorts are still not up to Western standards, there are a number of areas which are still well worth the effort required to reach them. Many require careful planning, several hours of flying time and a healthy dose of patience once you arrive, but you’ll be richly rewarded by stunning scenery, miles of untracked powder, and extreme, off-piste skiing that’s amongst the best in the world.
Closer to home, there are a number of areas which are easily accessible by car or even metro, offering comfortable (and sometimes modern) facilities, even if they do tend to be small and overcrowded, especially on weekends and holidays. With such a variety of options available, and with the winter holidays just around the corner, chances are Russia has something for you whatever your budget and level of ability, so read on.
Moscow and Moscow Region
Unfortunately, the short hills and shallow pitches of Moscow’s ski areas don’t offer much of a challenge to advanced skiers. With slopes averaging about 350 meters in length and vertical drops only up to 60 meters, they are better suited to beginners and day-trippers. Most of the local areas rent equipment and have ski instructors, some of whom speak English. Individual lessons usually cost up to $15 an hour. Go during a long lunch hour or, since the slopes are lit at night, after work.
Near Bitsevsky Park, Sevastopolsky Prospect (www.yzkoe.ru) is a wide, roomy incline with varied terrain, good for skiers and snowboarders of all experience levels and equipped with two modern rope tows and a baby lift. Powerful snow guns and a modern Pisten bully keep the slope in shape until mid-April.
Pros: A rental center with decent equipment, a good choice of trails for novices, and a nearby forest to make you forget you’re in the city.
Cons: A small parking lot, and no comfortable cafes or restaurants.
Tip: The best time to come is on a weekday afternoon, when the slopes are practically empty.
Kant Sporting Club (www.kant.ru) is located near metro Nagornaya, with seven well-groomed, night-lit slopes of varying difficulty, and special trails for children and beginners. There are seven surface lifts and one baby lift. The term surface lift, throughout this article, refers to T-bar, J-bar and Poma lifts. A baby lift is the smallest and slowest type of surface lift, suitable for novices and children. There is also a half-pipe for snowboarders and a slope with jumps for freestylers. There are two cafes and a restaurant, a well-stocked ski shop (one of the best in Moscow), a rental shop and a well-equipped repair center, plus a tanning salon, gym, aerobics studio, skate park and indoor tennis courts.
Pros: Very few skiers on weekdays, and everything you need is right next to the slopes.
Cons: A small parking lot and large weekend crowds, so queues for slopes and rentals are massive.
Tip: If you don’t have a car, take the metro to Nagornaya station, just a few hundred meters from the slope.
There are a number of small ski areas outside of Moscow, but only a few worth mentioning. Amongst these is Sorochany (www.sorochany.ru), with 10 groomed and night-lit slopes and trails ranging from 400-1000 meters in length with vertical drops of 70 to 90 meters. The cafe, rental shop, repair center and ski school are all conveniently located near the slopes. There’s also a park with ski-doo tracks.
How to get there: Take a right off Dmitrovskoe highway after Morozki (54 kilometers from the MKAD) and cross the bridge towards Yaroslavskoe highway. After the bridge, take a left and follow the major road. Signs for Sorochany indicate all the turns from Dmitrovskoe highway.
Pros: The longest trails in the region, serviced by chairlifts (not rope tows), a large parking lot, and 24-hour skiing.
Cons: The most expensive ski resort in the Moscow region, and large weekend crowds.
Tip: You can rent a helicopter or a small airplane from the nearby aerodrome.
The preferred ski resort of Russia’s political elite, Shukolovo (www.shukolovo.ru) has five modern surface lifts (button and T-bar) and seven well-maintained trails. There is also a separate slope for “new school” skiers and a gentle slope for beginners. Conveniences include a cozy restaurant designed to resemble an Alpine chalet, a log-cabin cafe, an open-air snack bar, an indoor swimming pool, indoor tennis courts, a bowling alley, a skating rink and a fitness club.
How to get there: Take Dmitrovskoe highway to the sign for Platforma Turist (about 40 kilometers from the MKAD), then turn left. After the railroad crossing, turn left again, cross the bridge over the river, then go through Shukolovo village and take the lighted highway uphill.
Pros: The best-groomed slopes in the Moscow region, and ample parking.
Cons: One slope is closed off to the general public when high-ranking government officials are here, causing lines to build up on the other trails.
Tip: There are cottages with all necessary conveniences if you want to stay overnight, but book in advance.
Volen Sporting Park (www.volen.ru) has thirteen illuminated trails for all levels, and seven new ring lifts that work until 2am. Non-skiers can ride ski-doos, snow tubes and quadrocycles. Other amenities include a half-pipe for snowboarders, skating rink, paintball, horseback riding and paraplanes. Not far from Volen’s main slopes is the Stepanovo complex, which has a wide kilometer-long slope (with a 120 meter vertical drop) and a double chairlift. A chalet-style lodge next to the hill houses a bar, cafe, ski shop, rental shop, service center and lockers.
How to get there: Volen Park and Stepanovo are easiest to reach by car (46 km from the MKAD on Dmitrovskoe highway, then follow the signs). You can also take a train from Savyolovsky Vokzal to Yakhroma (about 1 hour from Moscow), then hop on a bus for 15 minutes.
Pros: The Moscow region’s widest selection of ski slopes and winter sport options.
Cons: Often very crowded.
Tips: Some of the resort’s cottages have saunas, so ask for one when
A young skier gets a lesson in riding a T-bar at Volen.
The main attraction at Yakhroma Sporting Park ( http://www.ya-park.ru/) is the toboggan run, where you can control the speed of your two-man sled as you careen down the 750-meter long track. The area has ten ski trails served by four rope tows, including one for snowboarders and a baby lift for children, cross-country skiing, ice skating, ski doo-ing and paintball.
How to get there: Follow the same directions as to Volen.
Pros: A well-organized ski park with a variety of different restaurants, bars and cafes.
Cons: The entire complex is built along the side of a road which you have to cross from the parking lot.
Tips: There’s a hostel located at the snowboard fun park if you’re a snowboarder.
The North Caucasus
With two ski resorts, Elbrus and Cheget, the PriElbrusie National Park lies in the Baksan Valley, deep in the heart of the Caucasus Mountains. Dominating the valley is Mt. Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak at 5462 meters, with its surrounding landscape of peaks, cliffs, gorges, mountain lakes and streams.
The broad, gentle upper slopes of Elbrus (www.goelbrus.com) are ideal for novices, while its virgin powder fields appeal to snowboarders and experienced skiers. The ski zone has a vertical drop of 1400 meters and 6500 meters of trails. Lifts reach 3780 meters and, in good weather, cat tracks to 4200 meters. There is also an enclosed cable car built in 1959 that can transport 30 passengers. Off the beaten slopes are hundreds of strikingly beautiful trails, but wilderness skiers should keep in mind that Elbrus’s slopes are on giant floes, and that hidden cracks and fissures can be deadly. Use experienced guides who choose off-piste routes based on the ever-changing snow and safety conditions, and equip skiers with avalanche sensors and radios.
A group of skiers and snowboarders getting dropped off at the top of a mountain in the Caucasus.
Pros: This mountain is huge and between the lifts and heli the possibilities are almost endless.
Cons: On weekends, many non-skiing tour groups come to gawk at the views, clogging lifts and causing delays. Although there are abundant hotels a 15-minute drive away in Cheget, there are only a couple fairly primitive hotels at the base of Elbrus.
Tips: Check out www.goelbrus.com. Moscow-based Yuri Kolomiets, who runs the site, is one Russia’s most experienced Elbrus guides.
What makes Cheget (www.freeski.ru) unique is its steep, challenging terrain (with lifts to 3700 meters), and its famous mogul runs. Skiers come here from November to early May, but the best skiing is usually from January to the end of March. As on Elbrus, off-piste wilderness skiing is possible in good conditions, but should not be attempted without an experienced guide.
How to get there: Fly to Mineralnye Vody or Nalchik.
Pros: Beautiful mountains, an excellent place for freeriders. Great cheap cafes at the bottom of the mountain serving Caucasian food.
Cons: Old lifts, low capacity, no grooming or snow-making systems, very long lines in the spring and on holidays, no toilets on the slopes.
Tips: This remains one of the “wilder” corners of the Caucasus. Watch your back in the hotel bars and outside after dark.
The Dombai (www.dombai.ru) village settlement is the most famous resort in the Karachaevo-Cherkessky Republic and one of the most popular ski areas in the Caucasus. Dombai has more sunny days than many world-renowned resorts, and the crystal purity of the air is unmatched. Slopes of varying degrees of difficulty start at an altitude of 3000 meters, served by a tram plus six chairlifts and rope tows. The total length of trails is approximately 20 kilometers, with the longest stretching 3.5 km.
Advanced skiers can ski the Muss-Achitar Massif, including the Gonachkhir gorge, or on Semenov-basha and the Alibek glacier, which can only be reached on foot or by helicopter. Heli-skiing (around $40 per person per hour) has become quite popular here, with MI-8 and K-2 helicopters whisking skiers to the crest of the massif, then picking them up when they ski to the bottom. Decent equipment at the rental centers.
How to get there: Fly to Mineralnye Vody, then transfer by bus (3 hours). Microbus and taxis are faster.
Pros: One of the most beautiful places in the world. Food and accommodation are cheap.
Cons: The lift system can’t handle all the visitors, especially on peak days when tourists wanting to see the view from the top vie for places in line with skiers. No grooming systems or bathrooms on the slopes.
Tips: Get a room with a view at the famous “Letayushaya Tarelka” (Flying Saucer) Hotel, near the top of the mountain.
Black Sea Area
This is as close as Russia comes to a European-standard ski resort. With a good range of restaurants and hotels, Krasnaya Polyana (www.kraspol.ru) attracts hordes of well-heeled skiers from Moscow and other parts of Russia. While the area is generally undeveloped, the resort has been expanding with the installation of new, high-speed lifts which service parts of the mountain hitherto only accessible by helicopter. In the winter, despite the large amount of snow, temperatures rarely fall below -10° ë, and average around 0° ë. Visitors can take advantage of the bright sunshine and low winds to sunbathe while they ski.
Currently, the resort’s lift system is divided into four lifts installed one after another that carry skiers to the top of Aibga crest (2228 meters). The fourth line takes the most advanced skiers to the top of the slopes, where they can speed down 45-degree pitches. You can also paraplane, go hot-air ballooning, ride snowmobiles, or take a helicopter ride, but none of these can beat the heli-skiing here, at altitudes of up to 4000 meters.
A lucky snowboarder gets first tracks through virgin powder in the North Caucasus as his group looks on.
How to get there: The nearest airport is in Adler, one hour away by taxi or shuttle bus, or 15 minutes by helicopter.
Pros: Rental shops have a great selection of modern equipment, and there are experienced instructors and guides for off-piste skiing.
Cons: Even in winter, it can rain at the bottom of the mountain. Not many trails for beginners.
Tips: Several Moscow travel agencies offer weekends in Krasnaya Polyana: a charter plane flies to Adler Friday night after work, and the return flight gets in Sunday evening. A must-try is the local wine and honey at the small market at the base of the lifts. The “Munchausen” bar is popular for après-ski.
Murmansk Region (Komi Peninsula)
Near the main city of Kirovsk, there are three ski areas: Apatit/Yuzhny Sklon, Gorodskoi, 25km Posyolok. With three ski areas near the city, Kirovsk (www.kirovsk-snow.mels.ru) has some of the best spring skiing in Russia. Several meters of snow accumulate on the Khibin Mountains during the course of the long, cold (and dark) winter. By March, the days grow longer and it finally warms up enough to enjoy it. Unfortunately, most lifts here haven’t been updated for decades. Although, one of the areas, Yuzhny Sklon, has two high-speed button lifts on the south face, capable of moving 900 skiers an hour. The longest trail here is three kilometers, with a vertical drop of 550 meters.
How to get there: Fly to Murmansk or Apatity Airports, then taxi to Kirovsk.
Pros: Inexpensive ski passes (less than $10 a day), and a good choice of apartments near the slopes.
Cons: Kirovsk is very far north and there is very little daylight in winter. Furthermore, frequent snowstorms and strong winds shut down lifts. Very basic bathrooms and cafes.
Tips: Rent your equipment in Moscow as the selection there is quite limited. A good choice for thrifty skiers — reserve an apartment over the Internet and take the train from Moscow to Apatity. A week-long trip, excluding transport, costs about $250-300 per person.
The Southern Urals are home to several modern ski areas, the most famous of which are Abzakovo, Bannoe Lake and Zavyalikha. The main problems with skiing here are the extreme wind and cold, which often force areas to stop running their chairlifts. Temperatures of -25 are not uncommon in December and January. But for the most part the temperatures hover around 15-17 degrees below zero; when combined with sunny weather and piles of snow, these can make for excellent conditions for skiing, but can also be quite icy.
The Magnitogorsk Metal Works is responsible for developing the area ski resorts, and just built a new 2200-meter long chairlift at
Abzakovo (www.mgn.ru/~abzakovo/) with a capacity of 1000 people an hour. The resort also has five modern surface lifts. The 13 trails total 18 kilometers in length and the four slalom and giant slalom courses certified by the FIS make this a popular mountain for training. The maximum vertical drop is 320 meters. Bannoe Lake recently installed Russia’s first gondola, capable of transporting 2,800 people an hour. Both resorts supplement their snow with snow guns and manicure it with Pisten Bullies. There are good hotel options and this is a suitable place for a family holiday.
Skiing off the Edge…
of a Russian Volcano
The Kamchatka Peninsula is one of Russia’s last, unspoiled wilderness destinations (see the November issue of PASSPORT), replete with steaming geysers, breathtaking landscapes and one of the highest concentrations of active volcanoes in the world. While there are several small, ill-equipped ski areas (hardly worth the 10-hour direct flight from Moscow to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky), the real attraction for extreme skiers and snowboarders with a jones for the extraordinary is the chance to drop out of a hovering helicopter directly onto (or into) an active or dormant volcano.
Mid-March to mid-May is the best time for heli-skiing in Kamchatka, although the season sometimes extends into early June. A note of warning: if you go, allow 10-14 days for possible skiing, as the unpredictable weather can ground helicopters for several days at a time.
Snow conditions in Kamchatka are as unpredictable as the weather, although avalanches are rare as the snow pack is relatively stable. The snow here tends to be hard, but there are often unexpected variations on the same slope between summit and base. On one run alone, you can expect to find well-packed, smooth snow, powder and spring corn snow. The best times for powder are March and April, while snow tends to be harder in May when the melt-freeze cycle begins.
There are several local companies that offer heli-ski and snowboard packages with complete guide services. MI-8 helicopters can carry up to about 16 skiers and cost around 45,000 rubles an hour for hire. There’s also a ski-cat that operates at the pass between Avachinsky and Koryaksky volcanoes.
If you’d prefer a self-propelled ski trip, some of the finest backcountry spring skiing can be found here in March and April, when the top layers of snow melt in the warm days and re-freeze into a hard base, making the going smooth. You can also ski to a remote cabin or hot springs with an experienced backcountry guide to lead the way.
City accommodation ranges from home stays and a few B&Bs to hotels located in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and Yelizovo. If you don’t mind staying slightly out of the way, consider Paratunka (35 kilometers south), a valley of geothermal activity where each hotel has its own hot springs-fed swimming pool.
RusAdventure Travel in Moscow arranges tours in Kamchatka: www.rusadventure.com or 787 9016. Explore Kamchatka operates on the peninsula: www.explorekamchatka.com or 8-10 (41531) 2 6601.
by Martha Madsen and Fedor Farberov
How to get there: Fly to Magnitogorsk, then it’s a one-hour ride by bus or taxi.
Pros: Cheap skiing (about $17 a day), surrounded by pristine forests. Hospitable locals.
Cons: Experienced skiers won’t be satisfied, and neither will après-skiers.
Tips: If you’re bored, check out the Dolby Digital movie theater, dance hall, shooting range, billiards, table tennis, aqua-park and skating rink.
Zavyalikha is a Western standard resort (www.zavjalikha.ru) has Eastern Europe’s first high-speed six-seat Doppelmayr chairlift, running a length of 2.2 kilometers. The slopes are meticulously groomed and equipped with lighting for night skiing. Skiers can choose from seven trails of varying difficulty, 600 to 3000 meters long, with a vertical drop of up to 430 meters. Not far from the resort is the Popovyi Dol base, a training center for snowboarding teams, with two purpose-designed trails and a 200-meter-long half pipe. After skiing, relax at the billiard hall, sauna or discotheque.
How to get there: Ufa (210 kilometers) or Chelyabinsk (250 kilometers) Airports.
Pros: Cheap skiing (approx. $12 a day).
Cons: Poor choice of challenging slopes. Can get very cold.
Tips: Stay at the comfortable “Kamenny Tsvetok” hotel complex, located a 15-minute drive from the slopes.
The varied terrain and extensive trails of Sheregesh (www.sheregesh.ru) guarantee an interesting short trip for skiers of any level: novices can enjoy the long and gentle “plateau” in the foothills, and experts will appreciate the moguls, fresh powder and steep slopes. Plentiful snow makes for excellent skiing in the woods. Zelenaya mountain’s maximum altitude is 1270 meters, and the vertical drop is 600 meters, with trails reaching three kilometers in length. One double lift and two surface lifts service the mountain. A second skiing zone has three trails, the longest of which is 2.3 kilometers (vertical drop approximately 600 meters), served by one surface lift.
How to get there: Fly to Novokuznetsk Airport, then take a train, bus or taxi to Sheregesh.
Pros: Inexpensive skiing in the heart of the taiga. Sparsely wooded slopes with deep snow make for great tree-skiing.
Cons: Can be very cold. Après-ski options are limited.
Tips: If you’re in Novokuznetsk on business, Sheregesh is worth a side trip, but transfers from the airport can be problematic when it’s snowing.
By George Dubenetsky