By Adam Ü
Once again, our friend and intrepid traveling pro skier Adam Ü shares his experiences from exploring the globe in pursuit of deep snow. This entry focuses on Turkey – a country recently in the news for more distressing reasons than the quest for powder.
There’s no question that the situation in Syria is cause for global concern, and the escalating tensions between Turkey and Russia are not helping. The whole situation is tragic, but the frequent mention of Turkey and Russia in the news has jogged my memory of a more peaceful time a decade ago, when I was part of an international crew of skiers on a snow-seeking journey through Turkey – and almost Russia. This is how it all went down…
Estanislao “Tato” Vasiuk – Argentine skier
Benoît Vollmer – French photographer
Nacho Ferrer-Catena – Spanish journalist
Adam Ü – US/Canadian skier
As a traveling “professional” skier, one of the tasks during the off-season is coming up with ideas for stories. There are quite a few ways to go about this – you can either try to find a completely new zone that nobody’s ever been to, or you can find a creative angle on a more familiar area. During the summer of 2005, a group of friends and I thought it might be interesting to check out Turkey and Russia, so we carved out a month of the following winter and put together a loose itinerary. The plan was to fly from Geneva to Istanbul, take the Orient Express to the eastern part of the country and check out the mountains in the northeast. We found a new heli operation in the Kaçkar mountains that was interested in working with us and there was a ski area in the region. Combine lifts, helicopters, and backcountry skiing and you’ve got yourself a trip! Once we wrapped up the Turkish portion of our trip we planned to take the ferry across the Black Sea and head to Russia to check out the skiing in Krasnaya Polyana, near Sochi. After a week or so we’d fly out of Sochi and head back to Switzerland. A few months of emails and phone calls later, it was all sorted. In early February 2006 our crew assembled in the Geneva airport and started our Black Sea Adventure.
We gave ourselves a full day in Istanbul to get situated and meet with our media contacts. This also gave us time to explore a bit of the city – unique because it is the only major city on the planet that is on two continents! I’d been to Europe a few times already, and I’d skied in India, but the feeling I got from walking around Istanbul was different. It is the crossroads of East and West – a true melting pot of culture, religion, and history.
One of the first things I noticed was that there were mosques everywhere. I’ve never been much into religion of any kind but I’ve appreciated plenty of cathedrals and temples, so seeing mosques was no different. Here, Tato appreciates the art and architecture of the Süleymaniye mosque, which dates back to 1557 and is considered one of the greatest mosques in Istanbul.
If you had a chance to read my blog post about Japan, you know that one of my favorite traveling activities is seeking out the local street food. In this case, the cuisine of choice was deep-fried fish with fresh vegetables. Mmm! We also stopped in random teahouses where we did our best to interact with the locals. The language barrier was tough, but we did our best with a little help from my Lonely Planet Turkish language guidebook.
After a day of exploration and logistics it was time to catch a train, but first we had to catch a ferry. The pre-dawn morning was cold and snowy as we said goodbye to Europe, crossed the Straits of Bosporus, and made our way to the Haydarpasa station – our first steps in Asia and the end (or beginning) of the Orient Express. From there, 33 hours on the Dogu Ekspresi would take us to Erzurum and our first destination, Mt. Palandoken.
We traversed most of the country during the train ride. We spent a lot of time playing cards and chatting with the stewards in the galley, who were amused by our attempts at communicating in their language. We also admired the scenery; there were some pretty impressive mountains in the center of the country. I wish I wrote down the names of some of the places because it looked like there were plenty of options for ski touring.
Once we made it to Erzurum our first task was getting our mountain of gear into two taxis and making it to our hotel at the base of Mt. Palandoken.
Pro tip #1 – carry your own cam straps or cord! They don’t weigh much and you can’t rely on your rides to have anything to tie down your gear.
Once we checked into the hotel we decided to walk back to town to do some more exploring. We were walking down the road when a couple of locals passed us in their car, then slammed on the brakes, backed up and offered us a ride. It took us by surprise and I have to admit I was nervous at first, but so far everyone we’d met had been super friendly, and if it came down to it – we were four and they were two. Of course it never came to that, not even close, and looking back I feel ridiculous for even thinking that there could have been trouble. Tarek and Mustafa were just stoked to meet some western skiers! They took us to their favorite kebab place, then the skier bar where we met all of their friends. It was a great cultural experience that we never would have been able to pull off without local help. The brotherhood of skiers is strong.
As an Argentinian, Tato knows his grilled meats. This place passed the test!
As friendly as the people were, the skiing in Mt. Palandoken was not what we had hoped for. Most of the mountain was closed due to high winds, and those same winds had blown much of the snow away from the parts that were open. We did our best to find skiing, but it was apparent we didn’t need to stay here very long. Less than 24 hours after checking in we were on our way to our next destination – the tiny mountain town of Ayder.
Ayder is a tiny town about an hour up a valley from the Black Sea. Up till a year before our visit, it was inaccessible in the wintertime – the road wasn’t plowed. But now, barring a landslide or building-sized boulder blocking the road, there’s year round access. The Kaçkar region is famous for summer hiking and climbing, but during the winter it was nearly impossible to access until the heli ski company started operating.
Once we got to Ayder we met up with the good folks at Turkey Heliski. In a surprising twist we found out that both of our main contacts there had left the operation! Nico, the manager on-site, had no previous knowledge of our arrival. Still, we sat down with his crew and hashed out a plan. We had traveled for a long time to get this far, and we were going to ski – heli or no heli. They pointed us in the right direction for touring, gave us some maps, and offered whatever logistic support they could provide once their guests were accommodated. Fair enough! As usual, the locals were amazing and treated us like family. Our meals were excellent and the live music scene looked promising.
Our first morning dawned clear and we were excited to make some turns. But first we had a long skin ahead of us! Ayder is in the bottom of a deep valley, and we skinned up a snow-covered road for a few hours before we got near any terrain that was skiable. Once we got off the road and started up the mountains we got a better view of the terrain, and it looked awesome! After a couple more hours of skinning, we reached the first (and only) summit of the day, and our descent back to the road varied from wide open alpine to fun pillows.
While the skiing was excellent, the highlight of the day was having an encounter with a brown bear. Nacho, Tato and I were standing on top of a large rock and Benoît was on the other side of a small valley taking photographs when all of sudden we noticed movement coming from below the rock. Turns out the rock we were standing on doubled as the roof of a bear den! Sorry buddy, we didn’t mean to wake you.
That night we celebrated our first full day in Ayder with our new friends and hosts. The party included my trusty Martin Backpacker guitar as well as the goat-skinned bagpipe and some other local stringed instruments (possibly a sauz or oud?). We rocked out was as the snow began to fall.
The next day we woke up to plentiful new snow. Usually this is what you want when you’re on a ski trip, but in this case we were a bit bummed. No doubt our nice skintrack from the previous day was buried, but it didn’t matter; the visibility in the alpine was sure to be nonexistent. The only option for us was to explore the forested areas directly above Ayder, so we put on our skins and hoped for the best. As luck would have it, we found plenty of little areas and pockets to enjoy. This ended up being our daily routine for over a week, the snow just never stopped falling. It didn’t really matter that we weren’t crushing huge laps; just being out there and exploring the Turkish mountains was great. Still, knowing that getting to the alpine again would take at least six hours of hard skinning was always in the back of our minds.
We had been exploring the terrain near Ayder for over a week and hadn’t seen the sun since our first day, but the day before we were supposed to leave we checked the weather and it was calling for bluebird on our departure day. Nico, the heli ski manager, promised he’d get us a bump or two in the helicopter if we stayed, so we changed our plans to stay an extra day. Finally, the day we had all been waiting for came – blue skies and a heli ride!
This was my first time in a helicopter and wow, what a difference it makes! What took us six hours on our first day took us less than five minutes with the help of an A-Star! The excitement level was insane as we got out of the bird fresh and ready to shred. I had brought out the “big” skis that I had saved for this moment. They had been waxed and tuned to perfection before the trip, and I couldn’t wait to just let them run down the mountain. We got the ok from Nico and I dropped in to the first heli run of my life. The first turn was near orgasmic. The powder was perfect, the mountains were gorgeous, and I was in TURKEY! It couldn’t get any better!
…But it could get worse. On my second turn, my telemark binding broke and I had to stop suddenly and spend 15 minutes fixing it while the others waited around for me.
Pro tip #2 – always carry spare parts! For everything!
The embarrassment didn’t end there. Turns out the super ultra wax job I had done at home didn’t take into account the fact that the Turkish snow conditions were quite a bit different than the coastal glop I was used to in Washington state. The warm wax I had used had the effect of klister (a high traction ski wax) in the freezing continental snowpack, so every subsequent turn was a herky-jerky balancing act until I got enough momentum to glide.
Pro tip #3 – research the snow conditions of your destination before you tune your skis!
Eventually I got my junk show rolling and we settled into a nice pattern of shredding and exploring. Nico took us to zones we’d never have been able to explore on our own on daytrips from Ayder, but some of the buried summer villages made us think it might be possible to set up an advanced base camp and tour the surrounding peaks from there.
Sadly, it was not to be on this trip. Our time had run out and we had to catch another ferry, this time to Sochi. We reluctantly said goodbye to our new friends in Ayder (Tato was threatening to move in permanently!) and drove down to the port city of Trabzon, where we intended to board the ferry to Sochi.
Being a musician, one of my favorite things to do in a new place (aside from perusing local food vendors) is looking for local instruments. We passed this shop on our way through town and decided we’d stop in after looking around a little more. Amazingly, Benoît and I found it again while walking around! I had left my trusty translation book behind and my Turkish was limited to pleasantries, while the shopkeeper didn’t speak any English at all. Somehow we found out that both he and Benoît spoke a bit of German so we were able to communicate, and long story short, I ended up with a handmade Turkish Baglama (a traditional stringed instrument common in Turkish folk music) as a souvenir!
We were excited to check out the Russian side of the Black Sea, but as we explored the city we received news that the people that were helping organize the Russian portion of our trip for the past few months had in fact done nothing! The lodging we had arranged had fallen through, and even our airplane tickets for the trip home were no longer valid. Our “friends” offered us “special media rates” for last minute lodging and plane tickets, but a quick internet search showed their “special rates” to be significantly higher than what was publically available online! We were faced with a dilemma – do we go to Russia without a place to stay and no way out, or do we retreat back to Switzerland earlier than expected? After a quick discussion (the ferry was boarding in less than an hour!) we decided the safe bet was to abandon our plans for Russia, so we cancelled our ferry tickets and booked flights back to Istanbul instead.
Once again, Istanbul proved to be a spectacular city. We spent our last day exploring more of the culture and history, shopping in the bazaars, eating more delicious food, and drinking little cups of sugary tea by the dozen. None of us were ready to leave when it was finally time to fly back to Switzerland.
All in all, our Turkish adventure was a great success. The skiing was the main reason for going, but the highlight for me was definitely our interactions with the local people. Looking back ten years later, I can safely say that the Turks we encountered were some of the most genuinely friendly people I’ve ever met while traveling.