It was 15 January 2022 when our plane touched down in Lviv. Twelve skiers on a cat-skiing mission to enjoy some epic powder and Ukrainian hospitality to boot.
At the time there was a considerate warning by the US and British intelligence services that the build-up of over 100,000 Russian troops close to the border may not be a training exercise. That said, there was no official travel warning by the government to travel to Ukraine (apart from the Donbas area, which had been in place for several years). Our clients were more worried about Covid than the very thought of a war in Europe. Many experts also suggested that if something were to happen it would only be in the East, in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which was over 1,000 miles by road to where we planned to ski.
I had previously been in Ukraine in 2015 and upon arrival in January 2022 I sensed a completely different country to my previous visit. It was clearly wealthier and Lviv was extremely lively with loads of great restaurants and bars, ice skating rinks and people enjoying themselves. It mirrored many other thriving European cities. More people could speak English than my previous visit and many asked what we were doing in their country in the heart of winter. When they learnt we were here to ski their mountains they were over the moon with national pride. The general feeling was this was a nation on the up and up.
We did, of course, pay attention to the news before leaving the UK, and the media’s coverage of the Russian military build-up. We all shared the view that it was a US verses Russia arm-wrestle and sabre-rattling competition. Not one of us would’ve believed what was to happen a few weeks later. We asked the locals what they thought, and the consensus was that both the US and Russia were blowing hot air at each other and Ukraine was just piggy in the middle… The narrative from the Ukrainian government was that Putin was just acting big brother by conducting their military training close to the Ukrainian border, but this was NOT an invasion force.
Since 2014, when Russia first took control and annexed the region of Crimea, the Ukrainians had grown to hate Putin’s incessant rhetoric that ‘Ukraine was Russian’. In fact, the complete opposite had occurred now that more people spoke Ukrainian than Russian, and even the Russian speakers believed themselves as Ukrainian not Russian. The country had never been more united with a massive dislike of Putin trying to medal in Ukrainian affairs.
POWDER FOR DAYS
After a big night out in Lviv, where we had sung songs with locals and toasted “Ukraine Sláva Ukrayíni!” (Glory to Ukraine), we travelled by road for five hours to Dragobrat, a mountain in the eastern part of the Svydovets massif (Ukrainian Carpathians) and the destination for our cat-skiing adventure.
Dragobrat is an extremely difficult place to reach; the final hour we changed from our mini-bus to a military 4×4 vehicle, as there are no made roads on the final leg of the journey.
From day one it was snowing and it barely stopped for weeks; the temperature was very low, around -16. Every night it snowed and some days we were gifted with the most incredible blue bird powder days imaginable. We had a standard joke in the morning when we came down for breakfast at the hotel about how the snow level kept creeping up the windows, it is finally covered them we’d have to dig a tunnel to get out of the hotel.
The skiing was out of this world. Dragobrat is known by the Ukrainians as the ‘freeride capital of the Carpathians’ and several lifts give skiers easy access to some amazing terrain. On our first day, led by our guides Ludger, Morton and Halina, we lapped a T-bar, accessing some amazing off-piste with untracked trees and gullies to play in.
Over the following days we ventured further into the wilderness following pre-prepared cat-ski routes. There are plenty of different areas and aspects to ride, and we never skied the same line twice. Think snorkel-deep powder through widely spaced spruce trees. Pitches that were 30-35 degrees. We did 11 runs on our first day, with the last run taking us all the way back to our hotel, where the spa, and dinner, were waiting.
The food was amazing both in the hotel and the few family run restaurants we visited in the village. Being the only foreigners in the village, locals were shocked to hear our accents and immediately wanted to chat with us, and in some cases offer us vodka shots… Sláva Ukrayíni! We made lots of lots friends. Little did we, or the world, know about what was to come.
At the end of the first week, our guests returned to Lviv to catch their flights back to their corresponding countries and we welcomed the next group. We had five weeks of cat-skiing arranged with five different groups. The snow continued to be incredible. The locals got to know us and many evening parties occurred. We knew we had found an amazing place.
We also had a heli-skiing trip booked in Mestia, Georgia, so I flew out to meet our guests there, and Ludger, Morton and Halina stayed to look after the remaining weeks in Dragobrat. In the final week the whole situation changed, and governments advised against any travel to the Ukraine.
I had just waved goodbye to our guests in Mestia when I received a barrage of messages and texts. “Jem mate, the Russians have invaded the whole bloody country.”
We had previously discussed a plan B if anything were to happen, but we never imagined we’d actually have to use it, especially in the area of the country we were located in. Airspace was immediately shut down and our Plan B was to minibus everyone into Romania as quickly as possible. Immediately everyone packed and loaded into the vehicles to get off the mountain to the valley where the minibus waited.
The bus would take approximately one hour, but fuel was needed. Ludger, Morton and Halina had to make the decision whether to push onto the border or queue in very long lines at fuel stations. They decided to push for the border and thankfully made it across with just enough fuel. All was safe again.
Never in a million years did we expect what happened. We are completely gutted and horrified about what has occurred since our visit and we stand by Ukraine in every way possible. Halina went on to join the medical service in Kiev and thereafter drafted to the front line to help try and save lives. Our thoughts and prayers are with all Ukrainians this winter; however, we will be back to ski that powder again one day that is for absolute sure.
Jem Rose is the owner of PowderMad, a company that takes clients epic powder adventures in wild locations. This year they will be in North Macadonia and Georgia. To find out more go to powdermad.com or Whatsapp Jem on 07880511700; or join their open group on Facebook (search Powder Mad Ski Group).
SHOW YOUR SUPPORT – PowderMad is launching a new merino-blend ski sock to raise money for Ukraine. “With recent attacks on energy infrastructure and the general cost of energy spiralling, the Ukrainian people have a hard winter ahead. The money raised will help to buy warm clothes and essentials to keep people caught in the conflict warm over winter.” The socks will cost £23.50 with a £5 donation. To find out more visit PowderMad