We’re taught that first impressions are important, but once again, travel has shown us that things aren’t always as they seem.
At first glance, the town of Irkutsk was grim. Crumbling roads emerged from the melting cover of snow as beat up cars, trams and buses jostled around town in no tangible order. Our taxi driver delivered us to a tired wooden house that on first glance appeared to be sinking into the muddy earth surrounding it. He assured us that it was the spot, although the lack of conviction in his voice as he unloaded our entourage of bags left me doubting otherwise.
To our surprise the building did indeed house our accommodations for the next several days, and the interior was in much better shape than the exterior. We were greeted at the door by the owner, a tall and lanky young Russian named Maxim who spoke sufficient English with a typical Russian drawl. He’d been working on renovating the hostel over the past several months and had turned it into into a comfortable and cozy retreat from the outdoors. As we settled in and got our bearings, we began to realize how much Maxim’s hostel was a metaphor for his people; at once cold and unwelcoming on the outside, the longer you stayed the more the facade crumbled (or sank, if you will), leaving nothing but a warm invitation to stay on the inside.
It took us two days to convince Maxim we didn’t want to walk on a frozen lake or trek through the frozen tundra; we were here to ski the Siberian mountains! Some phone calls were made and the next day we found out that a group of locals were heading to the mountains in 3 days time; if we were able to feed ourselves and find some sleeping bags we were more than welcome to join them. We were overwhelmed by Maxim’s help and his friends’ willingness to let us tag along on their trip; Russian hospitality was definitely shaping up nicely, and we could only hope the snow proved to be just as good where ever the heck it was we were headed.
The following day Maxim put us in touch with the first of the many Serge’s we’d end up meeting throughout our travels through Russia. Through many rounds of Google translate Serge welcomed us into the fold of the Baikal backcountry ski community. It would be Serge’s cabin which we would be crashing at for the next four nights, and that night we went to dinner to meet up with his friend Stepan, who would be our guide while we navigated the slopes of the Siberian backcountry. Although Stepan wasn’t certified, he knew the area well and was happy to have more guests along on the trip, proud to show off the knowledge and skills he had acquired while exploring his regional mountain playground.
Situated three hours from Irkutsk by car, the mountains that sit on Lake Baikal’s southeastern shore form a natural boundary between the motherland and Mongolia. A unique microclimate from the lake allows cold air moving down from the north to pick up moisture and dump it on the opposing shores – creating a skiing paradise that begins in late fall and continues into the following new year. Ten years ago the recreational possibilities were realized and the first accommodation was built, which it turns out, meant a shipping container was hauled up to the bottom of an avalanche chute and fixed with a stove that vented to the outside. It was enough to house those hearty souls passionate for the sport however, and since then the area has only grown in popularity. Fortunately for us the container has long been abandoned (but still remains in place), and we were treated to stay in Sergey’s cabin, one of approximately twenty that are now used throughout the year.
Arriving at the cabin that afternoon after a quick snowmobile lift up (from a kind gentleman named Sergey nonetheless), we were soon introduced to the rest of our crew; Kes, a young pilot from Moscow, Sergey “kamikaze” from Sheregesh, Yannick from Chamonix and Aubrey and Marie from Quebec. With just enough time for two laps before dark set in we strapped on our skis. Spring conditions were setting in and the snow was soft and crumbly under our feet, and we skied it with grins on our faces, whopping and hollering the whole way down. Somehow, beyond our greatest expectations, we had made it into the backcountry of Siberia, and to our delight, by the time we pulled back up to the cabin, it had begun to snow.
The next morning we awoke to a foot of fresh power. Our motly crew enjoyed an excited breakfast knowing it was ours for the taking; such are the rewards of backcountry skiing. With only a small handful of other locals there during the week, we would have our pick of lines on the mountain all day long. After everyone was strapped in and a safety check was done, Sergey led the charge up the mountain, breaking a trail with the finesse and ease of someone who has spent the last ten years of his life exploring these hills. Later we would learn that it was only three years prior that someone had introduced the locals to ski touring equipment; before then they had simply strapped everything on their back and walked up the mountain in their boots, or if they were lucky enough to own a pair, snowshoes. Such was the way of the Russian though, and it was inspiring and infectious; like stories from our grandparents time, they didn’t wait for someone to come along and show them where to find adventure and explore; they took the lead and the risk and made the adventure their own; simply teaching themselves as they went.
As we wound our way up the valleys and onto the ridge line of the mountain, the sun broke through the clouds, highlighting beautiful alpine bowls that ran into long treed descents. The group excitedly switched over our gear and one by one enjoyed our first taste of Siberian powder as we descended to the valley bottom. We did three more runs on that day, stopping only briefly for lunch and tea in the warm sunshine of the valley bottom.
Over the next few days we enjoyed beautiful sunshine and warming temperatures. Although quickly changing spring conditions steered our decision making process we were still able to find fresh snow on the northern aspects, skiing hard all day and basking in the sun with a cold beer back at the cabin by late afternoon. As the weekend approached the locals started to trickle in, joining in on the turns when they could and stopping by the cabin at night to swap stories and drink. Although a little off the mark Alison was delighted when a group of four barged into the cabin one evening demanding to know which one of us was ‘Alice’. After deciding that it must be she they were looking for and declaring so, the group burst into song, serenading her with a full rendition of a popular Russian tune which revolves around the bearer’s name. It was heartwarming and hilarious all at the same time, and only stood to reaffirm our love of the Russian people. With open arms we were welcomed into a close knit community of friends and quickly became one of their own; with a shared passion for the outdoors we bonded, never having felt more at home.
As we packed our bags four days later plans were already in the works for the adventure to continue. Marie and Aubrey and Alison and I would end up renting a car and driving two days south to see Sergey (kamikaze) in Sheregesh, where a few more days of skiing awaited us on his local mountain. We bid farewell to the rest of the group after one last night of debauchery and dinner back in town, sad for the trip to end but looking forward already to everything that lay ahead. Russia was continuing to prove itself beyond expectation, and we couldn’t wait to see where else the road was going to take us.