Верхнее меню - Travelling notes

Lineal translation by M.Morozova from:

The Article was published in Les Alpes,  March 2000

Free Heel Latitude

In the North of Russia, beyond the Polar Circle we have discovered a small chain of mountains, a real Paradise for all telemarkers and lovers of ski tour.

Nicolas Jaques, 1936 Verbier, Switzerland

St.Petersburg meets us at passport control, reminiscence of the time of the Cold War, but at the same time by a hardly visible smile of a frontier guard. One should say that people here are more relax than in the capital of Russia. Our luggage is quickly loaded into a minibus and we make our way towards the city. The sun shines rather pretty here at the end of April. And it practically doesn’t decline, except for a few hours in the night. We arrive to the centre of St.Petersburg, where the ancient palaces remind us of the times of Peter-the-Great, who dreamed of making his city the European capital of culture, arts and sciences.

The Kola Peninsula

It takes about twenty nine hours to get by train from St.Petersburg to the Kola Peninsula. The northern landscapes change in rhythm of the short stops. Taiga, frozen lakes and sleeping little villages. The horizon is desperately flat and we wonder from time to time what would we do here with our skis! In the morning we unload our luggage on the platform of the railway station Apatity, still frozen by the cold winter which never seems to end here. A truck takes us to Kirovsk, a little town nearby Apatity, which slowly awakes under the grey sky. It is here that the testing of “Lunohod-1”, engine for investigations of the moon, took place. The town is proud of its botanical garden which is the northernmost in the world. But Kirovsk is also a prominent ski centre, which usually organizes part of the freestyle ski world cup, discipline, in which some Russians are excellent.

After shower and breakfast on the rescue station we drive towards the North of the town. There a strange engine, hybrid of a tank and a ratrac, waits for our luggage in order to transport it to our base camp. We watch as it moves off into the boundless landscape and several minutes later we put on our skies and follow the caterpillar tracks.

The Khibina Mountains are practically unknown to the occidental tourists. Situated beyond the polar circle just in the heart of the Kola Peninsula, they rise to the height of 1191 m (Mount Chasnotchorr). Vestige from the glacial age, huge circuses, the valleys looks like they've been scooped with a spoon in the hand of a giant, canyons and granite precipices create here an unforgettable mountain landscape. Through the pass Kuckisvumchorr we get to another valley and there, at a distance of 20 kilometers we arrive to our base camp.

Our first arctic curves

Mechanical lifts of Verbier are closed until the next winter and with this trip to Kuelporr we try to extend our ski season for some weeks. We settle in the wooden houses of the base of geologists and soon the heat of the oven which is stoked by firewood warms us up.

Outside the sky is bright and after a meal prepared by Irina we can’t wait any longer. I propose to go out and explore the outskirts. We select a wonderful curve on the slope which is rather steep and inviting. And thus we fulfill our first descents beyond the polar circle. The sun is still rather high and we almost forget that it is already 19 o’clock and Yuri with Ira await us for supper! But everything is so wonderful that Stephen doesn’t want to go back and continues to make long and short curves on this marvelous slope. Even John, to whom it is not the first trip here, also discovers with great pleasure this new descent.

A collection of premieres

Breakfast takes place at 8 o’clock and departure at 9. These are the advantages of skiing in arctic zone. And they please me greatly. There is no necessity to get up early in the inhuman morning. And there is practically no night here in this period of the year, the sun declines only for several hours. To the contrary the heat is not very strong and the condition of spring snow stays perfect during the whole journey with the exception of the bottoms of the valleys. But when we reach the plateau Kaskasniunchorr it becomes very cold, the strong arctic wind rises and we don’t want to delay our descent. John selects a rather steep couloir beginning directly from the summit. If the summits here are shaped like vast plateaus, the sides are often very steep and intersected by numerous couloirs. We even spotted some nice icy gutters which look interesting to try a little bit earlier in the winter. Stephen goes down to the couloir and I follow him. It’s steep, little more than 45? for about twenty meters, but very soon it becomes wider and gentle and we make a whole festival of curves here. The rare Russian ski tourists who come to this region abandon such steep descents due to the lack of equipment and not very good technique of skiing. Our friends Yuri and Alexei know exactly which slopes have been investigated and practically all of them are those where John skied during his previous stay here. For Stephen, Laurent and me this is our first «premiere».

After coming down to the bottom of the couloir we rest not very long before climbing to the summit of the mountain Marchenko. We had spotted a wonderful S-line from the hut and we can't resist the pleasure of skiing it. The telemark curves interlace one after another with joyful shouts and sometimes we replace them with alpine turns in order to give some rest for our legs.

This first day out is a real dream and in returning to the camp we see a light smoke arising from the house on the bank of the river: Yuri is preparing a sauna for us! We let the heat penetrate our muscles, steam us up with birch branches and then dive into the icy water of the polar river. The effect doesn’t keep waiting and cold grips us in a vice! We repeat this procedure every two – three evenings under the careful supervision of Yuri.

Paradise of telemark

Though the Kola Peninsula is part of Scandinavia the telemark culture has not crossed over the Iron Curtain. Is it a question of culture? Or politics? In any case our friends from St.Petersburg are the first Russians to practice this original style of their neighbors. And today they are ones of only a few local skiers to free their heels. We have shown them telemark in Verbier several years ago and now they have opened up the doors of Khibini for us. This area is a real paradise for a telemarker of any level. There are descents to every taste, from gentle wide slopes to steep couloirs, from light powder snow to firm spring snow. The altitude is low, vertical drops between 600 and 800 meters and there are no glaciers here. Nevertheless one should always be careful of the risk of avalanches. The freedom and mobility of our equipment are ideal for traveling across the great valleys often covered by thick forests. The ascents to the summits are usually done following gullies or ridges from where it is usually possible to go down. But we prefer steeper slopes and couloirs. Our free heels give us wings! During one dozen of days we do on average two wonderful “first” descents per day.

We have planned to leave for three days in order to reach the valley of Meridionalny where Misha and Roman await us. After crossing the Chorrgor pass in a thick fog, we arrive to our meeting place. The smoke arises straight above the forest where our two friends have organized the camp in a clearing for us. A long evening around the campfire in a night as clear as day, with a bottle of vodka which is passed around… the arctic white nights are bewildering! In the morning it is snowing and clouds envelop the summits. Stephen kindles the fire and we make our first coffee. We have planned a descent from a Mount Chasnotchorr, but the sky doesn’t seem to clear and the call of sauna is too strong. In the afternoon we traverse another pass which leads to the valley of Kuniok to our base camp on Kuelporr. Light smoke arises above the river…

The next morning the weather is clear again and a blanket of fresh powder covers the slopes. From the top of the Rischorr pass Stephen breaks down the snow cornice which falls with terrible noise. The way is free now and with great care we ski along the side of the avalanche. With each turn the snow surrounds us and makes us almost blind. John descends with his legendary style, graceful and effortless. Five hundred meters of perfect powder snow and nobody around in the distance of thousands kilometers! Then we climb again to Mt Marchenko, where we have seen an interesting line a few days ago. The slope is absolutely white and its virginity inviting. John, Stephen and I call it “Vodka Blues” although Laurent suggests the name “Pict’s Bowl”. With enthusiasm we ascend for the third time to the ridge which dominates above camp. John and Alexi choose a wonderful way leading down to the valley. But we prefer another couloir which is steeper and with hard snow but perfect for skiing at the end of the journey. Result of the day – three “first”!

A festival of couloirs

Before the end of our stay we need to get to the valley of Malaya Belaya. John decides to investigate one pass which he doesn’t know yet. We split in two groups and Stephen and I go for a steep slope right from the summit towering above us. It becomes too hot and we leave our packs at the pass and begin the ascent. But as we reach the top, the wind begins to blow strongly and it snows softly. The light is fantastic but fearing that the weather deteriorates seriously, we don’t want to get late and engage in our descent. It is magnificent! The snow is very hard, but our edges hold firm. Several minutes later we put on our packs again and name the descent “Pyramidal” after the shape of this nameless peak.

On the other side of the pass we go down to the valley of Malaya Belaya and there we can’t believe our eyes. Along kilometers of descent, on each side there are nothing but couloir after couloir. There are dozens of them between 30? to 50?, 300 to 500 meters high. Here projects and dreams materialize in our minds! One could come here for a month and still it wouldn’t be enough!

A few hours later we meet our friends in the camp at the junction of two valleys. The fire crackles, and the tent is standing at the foot of the magnificent slope where John and Nikolai had skied one year earlier. An Australian and a Russian could only call it “Kangarusski”. We are full of enthusiasm about our trip and cunning Misha has something in mind for us. He serves us a self-made cocktail but doesn’t want to tell us what's in there… Well, it is easily drinkable and at least we find out the mixture – one part of strong beer and one part of vodka!

Boosted by the alcohol we admire the magnificent colors of the sunset and after several minutes we can’t keep in place anymore. We should do “Kangarusski”! We are ready in a second and with uncertain balance we traverse the river. Being very mobile without packs we climb very fast snow spur along the wide slope. At the same time we notice a couloir which is much narrower and definitely steeper. We don’t hesitate a second and climb to the summit in an unbelievable windstorm. In the fog there is practically no visibility and we carefully try to enter the couloir. It is hard, it is steep, but after several timid turns we find ourselves below the fog and the whole slope opens up under our skis. The sun tries to look out and in its magic light we short turn 600 meters down. One can hardly believe it and we call our descent “Canyoubelieveski”.

The next day a long ascent leads us to the plateau which dominate the lake of Maliy Vudyavr and Kirovsk. We try to enter the couloir which leads 800 meters lower to the valley, but it is very steep and the snow is strange. John fixes a rope in order to test the cohesion and fortunately only the surface snow slides and several meters lower the snow is hard and solid. We are heavily ladden with our luggage and must ensure each turn. We let down our Russian friends with the rope. Yuri has a ski-binding which is about to break and his old leather boots don't help him very much. He patiently side-steps down and we wait for him under the high cliffs which dominate us now.

Again we discover a serie of couloirs, each nicer from the other, and we begin to dream about next year… It is certain that we will be back. But at the moment we should board the plane to St.Petersburg and then a night train to Moscow. There we meet a group from Geneva and go south to telemark Elbrus. But that is another story…

The telemarkers who participated in the trip to the Khibina Mountains were: John Falkiner and Stephen Hadic, aspirant-guides; Laurent Pict, Rolf Hunziker and Nicolas Jaques, photograph. Our friends Angelin Luisier and Myriam Filliez accompanied us and this trip couldn’t take place without of our Russian friends “whipping» Yuri, Ira and Alexi.

For more details regarding our future journeys to these mountains and other ski-trips to exotic places, please call Horizons Nouveaux, Verbier, +41 27 7717171