Between shifts in the commentary box at Sochi, Graham Bell was on a mission to hunt out powder
The XXII Winter Olympic Games in Sochi saw more medals awarded than any previous winter Games. Of the 98 total, 69 were decided in the mountains surrounding the resort of Kransaya Polyana. The ski area of Rosa Khutor took the lion’s share, with 10 alpine skiing, 10 snowboarding and 10 freestyle skiing medals up for grabs.
By way of legacy, the ‘coastal cluster’ can boast a brand new Formula 1 track and a 40,000-seat capacity stadium. But for me, Rosa Khutor is the best gift the Olympic Games could have left behind. OK, some of the Olympic venues may not stand the test of time.I am no structural engineer, but the halfpipe, aerials and moguls site looked a landslide waiting to happen a few heavy rainstorms down the line.
The greatest asset of Rosa Khutor, however, is not the steep and challenging pistes that hosted the alpine skiing at the Games, but the off-piste opportunities that lay almost untouched during those two weeks last February.
Access to the mountain was restricted to competitors, coaches and organising officials, most of whom were far too busy to be distracted by the wonderful array of big-mountain terrain Rosa Khutor can offer.
I did spot Ted Ligety getting into the gondola with some Head Cyclic 115s on an off day, and saw some lines left by a couple of snowboarders who clearly knew what they were doing, but otherwise the powder on the peaks stayed fresh and inviting.
I was allowed on the mountain for my POV camera-runs down the men’s and women’s downhill course, but needed a special green bib to ride the lifts. Luckily I took the precaution of ‘forgetting’ to return my bib on the first day, before the organisers locked their security down, so I had a ticket to ride for all of the Games. Not that I had much chance to use it – of the 30 medals awarded on Rosa Khutor, I was there for 25 of them.
It was not until the men’s GS day, well into the second week, that I got my first taste of the couloirs that drop from the Rosa Khutor peak. It was closed for avalanche blasting before run one, so my short window of op-pow-tunity came between the race runs.
I was breaking rule number one of off-piste skiing by being on my own, so did my best to buddy up with some locals on the lift. They headed skier’s right from the top and set off down ‘Crazy Khutor’. Marked as a black run on the piste map, this is actually an itinerary or patrolled off-piste and would be marked yellow on most alpine maps. My three ‘buddies’ all stacked it shortly after dropping in, so I ditched them and blasted down the wide couloir, having way too much fun.
Next time down I played it safe and headed skier’s left of the main pistes, but the powder was starting to get skied out. Third time lucky and I joined two Canadian team officials who were dropping into a steep and narrow couloir under the gondola. The snow was untracked and inviting. Foolishly I got carried away and missed my buddies cutting out to the left half way down. When I stopped I could see their tracks above me, but had no time for hiking.
Skiing on down the ever-narrowing gully, I came to a 15ft drop as the couloir ‘cliffed out’. A fixed rope bolted to the rock was there as a ‘get out of jail’ card, but I opted not to use it and went for the drop. The landing was lumpy from the sluff that had come down, but luckily still soft and powdery. I motored back down to the finish area well fired up.
The last day of the Games I covered the men’s night slalom, so had a full day to explore the backcountry before the race started. I hooked up with double Olympic gold medalist Marcus Wasmeier and spent most of the day hiking lines on the Choraya Pyramid, then looping back via the main gondola and the Krokus back-chairlift.
I skied some lines right on the edge of my comfort zone, and as gnarly as anything I would take on in St Anton or Val d’Isère. By mid-afternoon I was exhausted!
Rosa Khutor doesn’t have a massive freeride area, but with good snow conditions there’s more than enough to keep you entertained for a week, free from the hordes of powder hounds who stake out the big Alpine resorts. FL