Wild things: The ultimate ski road trip
After rebuilding a fire truck that could serve as their home on wheels for four months, Fabian Lentsch and his ‘Snowmads’ team went in search of the highest and steepest peaks and virgin lines across the far reaches of Turkey, Iran and Georgia. Here’s their story…
The story begins with a crazy trip, driving a camper van from Austria to Kyrgyzstan and back in summer 2013. The van barely made it home after chugging 25,000km through all sorts of terrain. Though considering our sloppy preparations and numerous incidents during the trip, we can still be glad that we actually made it home in one piece.
While travelling through those remarkable landscapes I couldn’t stop thinking about skiing these places in winter. But I was aware that I definitely had to get my hands on a more suitable vehicle to do so. So I kept this idea of building a proper expedition truck in my mind for a couple of years and just waited for the right time to get started…
That time came in 2015. My good ski friend Moggä (Markus Ascher) had just finished an amazing 4×4 van construction and together we embarked on an eight-month project to build a home on wheels that provided enough space for eight people, plus all skiing, mountaineering and filming equipment. It turned out to be the hardest and most intensive time of my life. Finding the right vehicle took us four months. It was an old 4×4 Mercedes Benz 1113 fire truck, built in 1985, which had been used as as civil protection vehicle in Germany.
Throughout the rebuild we had countless ups and downs, namely having to take the driver’s cabin completely apart and build a new main body – a far bigger job that we had anticipated – plus money and time pressure, but finally, on 5 January 2016, we mounted the last shelf and hit the road the following day.
The complex organisation of our four-month trip made it impossible to have a detailed plan all the way through. But our rough itinerary was to set off from Innsbruck in Austria, and head to Turkey passing the Balkans and Greece, stopping wherever there was snow. The two other major goals were Georgia and the mountains around Tehran, following the Zagros mountain range. Beyond that we’d just see where our truck took us.
Our Snowmads team consisted of eight riders, filmers and photographers, who joined us for different stages of our journey. It is almost impossible to pick the highlights, but here, a few riders, do just that.
Turkey, 9-17 January 2016 – Neil Williman
When you’re over a week into a ski trip and you’ve barely put your boots on, already spent a couple of days fixing the newly completed camper and you arrive at your first destination – Yaylalar, in Turkey’s Kaçkar Range – to find out that the conditions were not what you were hoping for, what do you do? Make the most of the situation, that’s what. The snow was good (we had to negotiate a narrow, twisty road in knee-deep snow to get there) but unstable, so we had to stay on the low-angle terrain.
The small 1,900m village has over a hundred inhabitants in summer but only 16 in winter (we met them all). There were no lifts and most of the locals had never seen anything like what we were doing – skinning up to ski the deep pow runs in the open forest. It might not have been the rad skiing we’d had in mind, but it was a much-needed release after the stress of getting the show on the road.
We learnt many lessons during our expedition. Like, always carry spare slings, so you can tie them around loose power lines to keep them out of the way of your truck on sketchy roads. And you can always rely on the locals when in trouble. We met some of the most open-hearted people I’ve ever encountered. For example, Murat, the mechanic in a small Turkish village, who took us into his garage/home for two days, fed us like his family, introduced us to his friends and did repair work on the truck for only €130.
It was thrilling to be so far from home, but the excitement meant that we let fall-line fever and pillow-pow pandemonium pull us away from making more conservative safety decisions in search of rad shots. We quickly got taught a lesson; we were skiing steep pillow lines in the trees, thinking that it would be OK since trees are usually safer than open terrain, but both Fabi and I kicked off scary-sized slides that took everything below with them and ended up in a terrain trap gully a couple of hundred metres below.
It wasn’t long before we found the rad terrain we’d been dreaming off. We stumbled across a small, unknown resort with sick terrain, just above the city of Artvin. There was just one poma and an old two-man chairlift, which was broken, so the locals shuttled us up to the top with groomers and sleds.
Steep tree runs and deep pow – this was the reward for all the hard work we’d put into getting there, but there was no guarantee the conditions were going to stick around. We all know that the best powder can be quickly decimated by one warm day, a stiff breeze, bad stability or a spot of rain, and so, exhausted, we dragged ourselves out of bed early – to bag some shots just as the sun came up. It paid off. And after the resort closed (if it was indeed ever ‘open’) we hiked up to some short fun lines with our Asmo Powsurfers, which have no bindings and make you feel like you are surfing the mountain. It was a perfect ending to what was actually my 30th birthday!
Iran, 16 February – 9 March – Jochen Mesle
Accompanied by a beautiful sunrise we drove to Tarik Darreh, 330km east of Tehran, where we were welcomed by techno music coming out of the speakers at each lift station. The vibe was perfect and we enjoyed some short laps in spring conditions with a beautiful view – desert on the one side, Zagros mountain range on the other.
During a snack stop we noticed a family examining us. Politely, they invited us to have dinner at their place in Hamadan. Just hours later we were feasting on Iran’s national dish – Chelow kabab (skewered meat served over a bed of rice) – in the family’s home, which was filled with homemade art and family photos. It is amazing how fast you can build up a close relationship in Iran – six hours before we didn’t even know them and now we were saying goodbye, as if they were close relatives. What a start to what would be three thrilling weeks.
The optimistic vibes soon started to fizzle out however – besides facing some of the strongest winds I’ve ever experienced, we got stopped by some ‘Environmental Guardians’. Because it was winter, and we didn’t have written permission, we had no chance to go to a beautiful spot directly next to a lake with rad spine lines in the backyard, where we’d planned to spend several days for the main mission of our Iran trip. We were also stopped by police almost daily, but we soon realised that the officers were only interested in having a chat and a look at our truck.
After a week of setbacks we finally got the chance to go on a first mission in the Chelgerd region, about 200km west of Isfahan in central Iran. With 25kg on our backs, we started hiking in the first light and after five exhausting hours we set up our camp surrounded by impressive mountains. It hadn’t snowed in a while, but the area offered us some nice lines at high altitude and the spring snow allowed us to easily build some fun features – my favourite combination.
After vainly trying to find an area with less wind to ski some proper big mountain lines, we ended up on the northern coast of the Persian Gulf and decided to visit Qeshm Island – a land of sun-scorched canyons, hills and valleys – and this turned out to be my favourite few days of the trip.
Temperatures were over 30°C and we enjoyed sitting on the rooftop of the Snowmads truck while driving along deserted off-road tracks – we felt like cowboys riding bulls.
We spotted some faces which – despite consisting of hard sand instead of soft powder – looked like Alaskan spines. We decided to try to ski them. But, as always, ‘Team Useless’ was late getting organised and only half an hour of light was left in the Valley of Stars, the valley of sand dunes we wanted to ski.
Our initial plan was to go slow and check out the lower sections of a sand spine, but there was no chance to put the skis on. So with the sun about to go down we teamed up and somehow made it to the dusty peak in time, the only way back to the truck now was to ski that super-sketchy spine back down. Rock-paper-scissors forced Fabi to hit it first. I haven’t seen him so nervous for a long time but, as always, he somehow found a way down unscathed. First thing he shouts up is: “Boooooys, you really have to watch out, it’s soooo sketchy!” Exactly the motivational speech we needed!
After our experiment succeeded, we settled down to a tasty barbecue under the stars and let the evening fade away. Soon I would be on my way back to Tehran, reflecting on my time spent with the Snowmads. Definitely an adventure I will never forget.
Georgia, 12 March – 29 March – Tobi Tritscher
Pally Learmond (photographer) and I arrived at Tiflis airport in the middle of the night and got picked up by Fabi. It was the first time I’d seen the truck finished in real life and I was more than impressed.
After spending two days in the city soaking up Georgia’s culture, food and wine, we headed towards the next little ski resort, Bakuriani. You wouldn’t expect it but this little Georgian ski resort has 14 lifts, including a modern-looking gondola, two chairlifts and a funicular to bring you up on top to 2,702m. We didn’t find all-time classy conditions but still had a lot of fun searching for sneaky powder pockets.
One of our favourite lines was skier’s right from the top of the funicular. Pretty open and steep at first, it continues into the woods where it mellows out for some fun easy cruising. We’d refuel with lunch in a small restaurant, always warmly welcomed by the owner and the other guests, who’d offer us all local delicacies, including fiery schnapps, straight away.
All too soon we were leaving Bakuriani for our next destination – Mestia, a highland settlement in north-west Georgia. After a 10-hour drive on pretty ropey roads through beautiful Georgian landscapes we were welcomed by the most awesome sight: monstrous mountains all over the place. Caucasus to the fullest!
Driving up to the ski lift at Khatsvali resort, which has just one chairlift, was the next highlight. Heavy snowfall, super-tight and slippery roads, cars getting stuck in front of us, getting stuck ourselves, fitting heavy snow chains on the truck and crawling up inch by inch. But it payed off. In the afternoon the weather cleared and we were welcomed by a stunning view over the valley with Mount Ushba in the distance. Everyone felt super-energised by area’s magic and just wanted to jump on a heli to further explore the area.
So we caught up with heli-skiing operator Flori Kern and talked about possibilities, areas and faces we could fly to during the days to come. The terrain got us super-excited: big, steep faces with spines all over the place. But when we finally went out, it turned out to be a little different. Lines looking amazing from far away apparently weren’t rideable because of too little snow. But, the next day, we hit the jackpot! We headed towards another zone on the glacier next to Mount Ushba. We flew over a gigantic and mind-blowing massif and, being dropped off close to 4,000m next to the mountain, it took Fabi and I a while to realise what opened up in front of us: 40-50cm of pure fresh powder covering an awesome face with crazy Alaskan-like spines. So we did what we came for: dropped in and, yeah… pure fun to the maximum.
Georgia Glacier, 18 April – 25 April – Fabian Lentsch
Our big goal from the start was to end this journey with a proper glacier camp, which turned out to be harder than expected. After exploring the area close to Mestia in a heli, we’d seen that most of the skiable terrain was at lower altitudes. There was just this one ridgeline left, which ended on a glacier that was facing the Russian border within a distance of 2km. It seemed to be a no-man’s land with hardly any pictures on the Internet. However on our topographic map the terrain looked promising, so we decided to charter a small Cessna aircraft and have a look. It didn’t take us long to agree that we needed to ski this place.
The biggest issue was the lack of helicopters in Georgia, as the heli-ski season was already over. In fact there was just an Alouette III left with a maximum operation level of 3,200m when halfway loaded. We needed to go above 3,300m, fully loaded. After talking to the pilot for about 10 days we finally succeeded in convincing him to take us (we solved the problem by splitting up into three loads and landing just before the glacier).
We touched down at one of the most remote places I’ve ever been to with supplies for nine nights and lots of motivation. The camp life itself was a great and unique experience. The six of us, including my dad who joined us for this last part of the trip, were often hanging in a snow cave that we’d shovelled underneath our tents, as a couple of snowstorms handcuffed us to the basecamp. The experience of toughing it out in a group, in probably one of the most forbidding situations you can imagine, bonds you together in a way that nothing else can.
On good days, the face looked super-impressive and most of the lines seemed to be both reachable and skiable. The up to 55° climbs were really challenging, especially after a snowfall. Many times I had to dig out the snow in front of me in order to make the next few steps. But the conditions were good and skiing down this one exposed run, which had some 55-60° sections in it, with a double cliff in the middle, sluff rushing down next to me, was probably the most memorable run of the whole trip.
Eight days later we made our way out of the glacier in nine long and exhausting hours. Our backpacks were excruciatingly heavy while skiing through the wet snow in the lower valleys, and once the snow ran out we had the additional weight of our skis and boots on our backs. At times we even had to hike uphill.
We had to push hard to make it back before the sun went down, but we did it. And everyone agreed that, despite our jelly legs and blisters, the glacier trip was the perfect last stage to a memorable journey we’ll never forget.
To read more about the Snowmads adventure and for videos visit redbull.com/uk