Ski poli­tik


Skiing - - Ode - By Fred­er­ick Reimers Photographs by Dan Arm­strong

Ski re­sorts are open­ing in un­likely spots like Turkey, Ge­or­gia, Kaza­khstan, and even North Korea. Is there re­ally de­mand for ski­ing in those places?

Never be­fore has a Magic Car­pet lift

served so many adults. It’s a warm day in March, and the two sur­face lifts at Shahdag, Azer­bai­jan’s brand-new ski area, are go­ing off. Hun­dreds of peo­ple load the car­pet in de­signer jeans tucked into their rental boots, wear­ing leather coats or fur hats. One guy yells ex­cit­edly into his cell phone as he moves slowly up­hill. On the snow, they are pre­dictably awk­ward, legs go­ing in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions. Groups of friends and cou­ples cling to each other, laugh­ing as they slip around. Nearby, cu­ri­ous on­look­ers crowd the deck. Old men with be­mused looks on their faces, chins bristling with white whiskers, watch their grand­kids be­ing towed across the snow on in­ner tubes.

At the big­ger lifts, the lines of peo­ple wait­ing to load in street shoes—to have a look around up top—are longer than the lines of those wear­ing skis. They’re great lifts, top-of-the-line Dop­pel­mayr quads with heated seats and re­tractable bub­bles, the same kind Utah’s Canyons re­cently built its en­tire mar­ket­ing cam­paign around. Shahdag’s got three of them. Not to men­tion six new Pis­ten-Bully snow­cats and 69 elec­tronic snow guns. The gov­ern­ment has sunk an undis­closed num­ber of mil­lions of dol­lars into its new ski area, the first of its kind in Azer­bai­jan. You know, Azer­bai­jan? Mus­lim coun­try sand­wiched be­tween Iran and Rus­sia? Wins a hand­ful of medals in wrestling and weight lifting each Olympics? Never heard of it? Me nei­ther, un­til Shahdag opened last De­cem­ber with its fancy lifts, a gleam­ing new base lodge, 80 ho­tel beds in two fa­cil­i­ties, and con­struc­tion un­der way on two other mam­moth ho­tels.

Which is amaz­ing when you con­sider that there hasn’t been a new ski re­sort built in the United States since Idaho’s Ta­ma­rack a decade ago, and that re­sort has been in and out of bank­ruptcy ever since. Be­fore that, the last ski ar­eas opened were Beaver Creek in 1980 and Deer Val­ley in 1981. Now, though, ski re­sorts are open­ing in un­likely spots like Turkey, Ge­or­gia, Kaza­khstan, and even North Korea. Is there re­ally de­mand for ski­ing in those places even as the in­dus­try has flat­lined in tra­di­tional ski­ing lo­cales? Of­fi­cially, Azer­bai­jan’s pres­i­dent has called Shahdag a “tourism in­fra­struc­ture ven­ture,” but will it re­ally at­tract tourists? How do you build a ski cul­ture from scratch? Hop­ing to find some an­swers, I join a group of Americans hired to pro­duce a promo film on Shahdag…and notch some first des­cents on the sur­round­ing peaks along the way.

Turns out the for­mer Soviet repub­lic

is newly flush with oil and gas money. Oil has been traded in Azer­bai­jan for cen­turies and was first drilled for in 1846, a decade be­fore that tech­nique was fa­mously ap­plied in Penn­syl­va­nia. For years the Soviet em­pire ap­pro­pri­ated that bounty, shipping it north in stained rail­cars along the Caspian Sea, but in 2006, Azer­bai­jan started sell­ing oil di­rectly to Europe through a pipe­line to Turkey, and the bo­nanza was on. The day I booked my ticket, the New York Times ran a story about an Azer­bai­jani bil­lion­aire’s plans to erect the world’s tallest build­ing— the 3,445-foot Azer­bai­jan Tower—on an ar­ti­fi­cial is­land in the Caspian Sea. When I ar­rived, my drive from the air­port took in block after block of gleam­ing new con­struc­tion.

Shahdag’s base lodge is a sleek ed­i­fice

curved to en­close the base area, with a huge wooden deck serv­ing as a grand­stand to watch skiers de­scend the slopes. The re­sort’s as­sis­tant di­rec­tor, Rus­tam Na­jafov, guides me through the bustling cafe­te­ria and the lux­ury restau­rant, which is not yet open, and then into a back room off of a back room. It’s a five-star sanc­tum with cream-col­ored leather couches and a pri­vate el­e­va­tor. “The pres­i­dent’s lounge,” he says, re­fer­ring to Il­ham Aliyev, whose fa­ther was also pres­i­dent of Azer­bai­jan.

“The pres­i­dent has been here?” I ask. “Yes, two times,” says Na­jafov. He skis? “Yes, he learned in Europe. His wife, she skis too.” Just two vis­its hardly makes Shahdag a pri­vate pres­i­den­tial play­ground. “He shares the ski area with the peo­ple,” I say, jok­ing around.

“Yes, he wants the peo­ple to be ac­tive,” says Na­jafov, not catch­ing my jest. “He wants them to en­joy the moun­tains. We have many of them.”

That’s cer­tainly true. The Cau­ca­sus range ter­mi­nates here after a swing through Rus­sia, Ge­or­gia, and Ar­me­nia. The ski area’s name­sake, 13,921-foot Mount Shahdag, rises just a few miles to the north. I load the long­est lift, which tops out 1,200 feet above the base lodge, and rise over the cor­ri­dor of snow guns and then over ter­raced sheep pas­tures cov­ered by just an inch or two of snow. Up top, dark-haired Azer­bai­ja­nis in street clothes pose for pic­tures with one another, and a few kids build a snow­man. Lift tick­ets cost $12 for pedes­tri­ans, or $18 for an all-day ski pass.

Shahdag’s runs are clev­erly named for styles of car­pets Azer­bai­jan is fa­mous for—Zili, Su­max, Kilim. I point my way down Kilim, a metic­u­lously groomed solid blue run, slalom­ing past a few guys on short Atomic rental skis. The win­ter-brown grass­lands spread be­low. Some­where off in the flat dis­tance is the Caspian Sea.

At the crux, a 30-de­gree rollover, there are a lot of wipe­outs. On one run I en­counter a guy sit­ting on the snow, star­ing down with a look of despair.

“Can I help you?” I ask. “Do you want to follow me down?”

He waves me off and says in thickly ac­cented English, “I know how, but I have the ter­ror.” I’ve def­i­nitely felt that way be­fore. Even­tu­ally, he clicks out of his skis and starts sidestep­ping gin­gerly downs­lope.

There is at least one ex­pert Azer­bai­jani skier, though. El­brus Isakov, named for the Cau­ca­sus’ 18,510-foot Mount El­brus, raced slalom for Azer­bai­jan in the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics and now teaches ski­ing at Shahdag. He DNF’d in both Olympics, but make no mis­take—he rips. When we ski a few runs, I can’t keep up. Through a trans­la­tor, he tells me he learned to race in the Repub­lic of Ge­or­gia, where his fam­ily win­tered and where he’s been teach­ing ski­ing for the last sev­eral sea­sons. “Most of the Azer­bai­jani clients I taught in Ge­or­gia, I have al­ready seen here this sea­son,” he says. So now they’re keep­ing their own skiers in coun­try, at least.

A few days later, Dy­lan Freed is

blow­ing off some steam. The 26-yearold staffer from Valdez Heli- Ski Guides is here to man­age the he­li­copter ski­ing for the Amer­i­can film group, but almost half­way through the week­long trip, there’s still no he­li­copter. We’ve pretty much skied out all of the shin-deep


“The lo­cals don’t give you a good re­port. For them, it’s a lot of snow if the farm an­i­mals have to dig a lit­tle for the grass.”

snow we can hike to from the re­sort. The no­to­ri­ously in­tense Freed is break­ing in the pool ta­ble in Shahdag’s shiny new bar and telling a story about his bat­tle with air­line counter per­son­nel. They’d tried to charge him $50 for a bag that was seven pounds over the limit. “I pointed to the next guy in line,” he says. “‘That guy there is 77 pounds over­weight him­self. Why don’t you charge him any ex­tra?’”

The bar pa­trons laugh. As Mus­lims, most Azer­bai­ja­nis don’t drink, so it’s just our Amer­i­can crew and groups of off-duty for­eign ski-area em­ploy­ees. The An­dor­ran firm PGI Man­age­ment has a three-year con­tract to man­age op­er­a­tions and train the lo­cals to even­tu­ally take over. PGI op­er­ates in Europe and Ar­gentina, but also in Turkey and Kaza­khstan, so they have some per­spec­tive on th­ese emerg­ing ski mar­kets. “The clinic is amaz­ing,” says PGI’s Gaby San­tec­chia, gush­ing about Shahdag’s state-of-the-art on-site med­i­cal equip­ment. “MRI ma­chines, surgery. Stuff we don’t see in the Alps.” To get the re­sort’s doc­tors up to speed on ski in­juries, PGI sent them to an An­dor­ran re­sort for a few weeks. He or­ders another beer from the young, dark-eyed Azer­bai­jani bar­tender, who fishes it out of the fridge be­low the bar. Be­fore he can hand it over, the Pak­istani restau­rant man­ager checks the beer’s tem­per­a­ture, de­cides it’s too warm, and di­rects the bar­tender to find a colder one. “There’s no ser­vice in­dus­try in Azer­bai­jan,” the bar man­ager says. “We teach them ev­ery­thing.”

Ac­cord­ing to PGI, the lo­cals have been more than apt pupils. “The big sur­prise is the guys who live in the moun­tains nearby,” PGI’s Josep Anon tells me a few months later. “They are there on time. They work hard.” Such lo­cal re­li­a­bil­ity does not seem like some­thing PGI has ex­pe­ri­enced in other coun­tries.

What else has been sur­pris­ing? That the skis are be­ing rented four times a day. “Peo­ple use them for an hour or two and then re­turn them. But they are very happy,” he says. They’ve also had to triple the ski-in­struc­tor ranks be­cause of de­mand for lessons. “We take guys off the lift crews and rush them through in­struc­tor train­ing,” says Anon, though none of them has been on skis for more than a few months.

What Shahdag has in common with the new re­sort PGI man­ages in Turkey are the crowds who ap­pear just to look the re­sort over and ride the lifts up and down with­out skis. Fifty per­cent of Shahdag’s lift tick­ets are sold to non­skiers, as com­pared to 80 per­cent for PGI’s Turk­ish re­sort, which of­fered free lift tick­ets to lo­cals for the first year. At­tract­ing the ca­su­ally cu­ri­ous lo­cal is an im­por­tant step in places like Turkey and Ge­or­gia, says Anon. “Nei­ther of them will get many tourists, but they both have emerg­ing mid­dle classes who will make up the cus­tomers.” Kaza­khstan, which has an es­tab­lished ski cul­ture, is a dif­fer­ent case, says Anon. The de­vel­op­ers of Kok Zhailau Moun­tain Re­sort, the mas­sive re­sort PGI is help­ing open in that coun­try, hope to at­tract tourists from In­dia and China.

I ask if the low snow base we en­coun­tered will be the norm for Shahdag. “We don’t know,” he says. “The lo­cals don’t give you a good re­port. For them, it’s a lot of snow if the farm an­i­mals have to dig a lit­tle for the grass. That could be 10 cen­time­ters, or 40.”

The snow sit­u­a­tion gets worse be­fore it gets bet­ter. The next day brings a misty rain, melt­ing what lit­tle snow re­mains off-piste. We de­cide to play tourist in a nearby moun­tain vil­lage. We check out a fa­mous wa­ter­fall, cur­rently frozen into a brown­ish ici­cle, and then wan­der around the muddy vil­lage pho­tograph­ing tur­keys

and look­ing at piles of cut sod, which our trans­la­tor tells us the vil­lagers burn for heat. At the town store, a tall young fel­low with a cast on his left arm ap­proaches.

“He works on the lifts at Shahdag,” says our trans­la­tor. “He broke his arm ski­ing.” I ask if he likes the job. “Yes, very much.” What would he be do­ing oth­er­wise? “Noth­ing,” he trans­lates. “In the win­ter, noth­ing hap­pens here. He can’t wait for his arm to heal to go back to work.”

The am­bas­sador is fired up. We

wake the fol­low­ing morn­ing, the same day for­mer U.S. Am­bas­sador Matt Bryza ar­rives to take some runs, to find 18 inches of snow blan­ket­ing the hill­sides. At the base lodge, in­stead of push­ing the snow off the deck, squads of guys la­bo­ri­ously shovel it into wheel­bar­rows to cart it away. (They’ve got a few de­tails to work out still.)

“This is fuck­ing awe­some,” says Bryza, 49, an ef­fu­sive guy who looks just like the ac­tor Matthew Mo­dine. “I can’t be­lieve I’m ski­ing pow­der in Azer­bai­jan.” We’re stand­ing atop an off-piste line—what was nearly bare grass yes­ter­day—ready to drop in. “Stay light on your feet,” I tell Bryza, who likely hasn’t done a lot of sketchy low-snow­pack pow­der ski­ing. “Be ready to hop if you hit a rock.” The snow is some of the light­est I’ve skied, bil­low­ing plumes on ev­ery turn. It’s a week­day, so we’ve got the place to our­selves. Not that it mat­ters—our only com­pe­ti­tion for the pow­der on the busiest day would be Isakov the Olympian and the Euro­peans who run the snow­cats.

Soon, how­ever, tracks ap­pear that aren’t ours, and then from the lift we see a group of the newly minted ski in­struc­tors mak­ing their way down a fresh line on their short rental skis. They’re im­pres­sive for peo­ple who’ve been ski­ing just a few months. “Look at those guys, dis­cov­er­ing their hill,” says Bryza.

The am­bas­sador was orig­i­nally sched­uled to ski from the he­li­copter with us, but it still hasn’t ar­rived, and won’t. “It could be the tourism min­is­ter couldn’t get one from the army,” he spec­u­lates. “It could be that there are some bad guys in the moun­tains with rocket launch­ers, and they don’t want to take the risk. We won’t likely ever find out.” After all, we’re only eight miles from the bor­der with the Rus­sian ter­ri­tory of Dages­tan, which has been a hot­bed for Mus­lim fun­da­men­tal­ists fight­ing the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment.

That prox­im­ity to Rus­sia, in fact, may be the real rea­son for Shahdag’s ex­is­tence. “Ge­or­gia has been putting a lot of money into their ski in­dus­try,” says Bryza, re­fer­ring to that other for­mer Soviet repub­lic. “They look to Ge­or­gia a lot around here.” Which means they can’t have failed to no­tice Rus­sia in­vad­ing Ge­or­gia in 2008. If Rus­sia is will­ing to go after that re­source-mod­est na­tion, how must it feel about an oil-rich plum like Azer­bai­jan?

“Ski­ing is seen as very Euro­pean here,” says Bryza as we lift the bar and pre­pare to off-load. “It’s very pres­ti­gious. They want to keep Europe’s eyes on them.” In other words, they want the pub­lic­ity from the ski area to let Euro­peans know that Azer­bai­jan is much like them and worth sav­ing in case the Rus­sian army starts mass­ing at the bor­der.

Though the he­li­copter never ar­rives, we per­suade the Euro­peans to drive us around in their fancy new snow­cats. They take us to an up­per ridge, where the pro­posed gon­dola might even­tu­ally be built. Even with the new snow­fall, the cat churns up mud and stones the whole way up the nar­row road that’s al­ready been cut. I ask San­tec­chia if he thinks they’ll ever build the gon­do­las and the five lifts pro­posed for the up­per moun­tain. He shrugs. His job is to run what’s here.

The cats drop Freed, Han­nah Har­d­away—a for­mer U.S. Ski Team mogulist—and me up top, and we mount an ex­pe­di­tion to ski a couloir we’ve been eye­ing all week. We skin and then boot­pack about 1,000 feet into a cleft in the lime­stone cliffs. We stop there be­cause we need time to ski back to the re­sort, but also be­cause it’s not clear there’s a route to the top of the peak. The snow is hard, and a lit­tle rot­ten, which makes for tough go­ing, but it works out and we feel good about it be­cause, as Freed says, “You have to at least try a new line.”

Which seems about right to me, metaphor­i­cally, for the whole Azer­bai­jan ski en­ter­prise. When I ask Bryza if he thinks Shahdag will make it, he cites the project’s goals of get­ting Europe’s at­ten­tion and ex­pos­ing the new mid­dle class to recre­ation and says, “I think it al­ready has.” At the base, I see Isakov stand­ing with a cir­cle of new in­struc­tors. He demon­strates how to cleanly slide the skis to­gether and then sling them, tails up, on their shoul­ders. As I watch them mimic his mo­tions and then walk off to­gether in a group to­ward the ski school, I find I agree.

Shahdag’s shiny new base lodge re­sem­bles an air­port ter­mi­nal. A re­ally nice one. So far its four new chair­lifts— Dop­pel­mayr quads with heated seats and re­tractable bub­bles— are lur­ing a lot of Azer­bai­ja­nis. Half of whom ac­tu­ally ski.

Left to right » Har­d­away

picks her way through the bones

in the back­coun­try;

the lo­cals adopt—sort of—the new

ski cul­ture.

From left » Euro snow­cat driv­ers churn to the top of an area slated for ex­pan­sion over the next few years; sta­teof-the-art chair­lifts and snow­mak­ers, check. Snow­blow­ers? Not so much; Shahdag’s an­nual snow­fall is any­one’s guess, but Dy­lan Freed counts this as just enough.

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