Get to know Sochi, one year out from the start of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games

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The 2014 Winter Olympic Games kick off in Sochi, Russia one year from today. Three hundred and sixty five days. It doesn’t seem all that far off when you consider the amount of time many skiers have spent fighting to get slopestyle and superpipe added to the Olympic roster. In honor of today’s milestone, we present some background information on Sochi—a city still widely unknown to skiers, and Olympic enthusiasts worldwide.

Sochi, regarded as a “resort city,” is situated in southwest Russia, on the eastern side of the Black Sea, and neighboring the Caucasus Mountains. Home to more than 343,000 individuals, Sochi borders Georgia to the southeast. Across the Black Sea to the south is Turkey; to the west, Bulgaria and Romania; and to the north, Moldova and Ukraine.

618_Sochi_Map

Sochi, marked on the map by a red pin

The Olympic Games in Sochi will be hosted in two distinctly different areas: the coastal hub, which will host indoor sports including figure skating, hockey and curling, and the mountain hub at Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort, where skiing, snowboarding, nordic and sliding sports will be contested. Travel between the two venues has been made easy, thanks to a new train service that will shuttle people to and from each hub in less than 30 minutes. Previously, and for the moment, skiers and snowboarders access the resort by car; the jaunt takes a little over an hour. The new train service is just one of many upgrades to Sochi’s infrastructure; the Russian government signed off on a $12 billion investment package to get the city ready for the Olympics. The New York Times reports that by some estimates, the investments needed to prepare Sochi for the Games may exceed that of any prior Olympic event.

Sochi’s topography is varied. The city itself lies at a lower elevation than surrounding areas. As a result, the Caucasus Mountains serve as a picturesque backdrop for many of the city sites. Also as a result of its proximity to the Black Sea, Sochi’s climate is considered humid subtropical. Temperatures in the wintertime rarely drop below freezing point for extended periods of time. What can Olympic athletes and spectators expect in terms of weather? According to goeasteurope.com, Sochi’s average high temperature in February is 50 degrees F. February is historically a drier month, in relation to the three months preceding it, averaging just 5 inches of precipitation. As you had towards Krasnaya Polyana, home to Rosa Khutor, naturally the temperatures are a bit lower.

According to a friend, Christopher Owen, who visited Sochi once before, “It’s like flying into San Diego. There are literally palm trees down in the city,” Owen said. “You fly in over the Black Sea, which oddly enough is blue. Typically, you’ll fly in from Moscow. The flight takes a little over two hours.” Owen also shed some light on the skiing to be had at Rosa Khutor:

“When you drive into town, there’s a hillside on the left that has a military base, and the other thing you’ll notice is a lot of half-built homes. What people told me, and I don’t know if it’s fact or not, but what the Russians said was that if you don’t finish your home, you don’t have to pay taxes on it… so all the homes look like they need to have another story built on top.”

“The chairlifts are small and old,” continued Owen. “The mountain doesn’t get much sunlight in the morning, so it’s a cold lift ride early on. There are a few chairs you have to take up to the top, it takes a while to get up. Once up there though, there’s like, this big unloading station, and you look out in both directions and there’s this massive cornice going off in either direction. It’s just epic lines everywhere, all stuff you can hike right to. Basically, it’s all these great backcountry lines you can ride, but you start on this big cornice. That takes about an hour to get to, if that’s what you’re going for. You can ride and hike, or ride and cut out, get down to some halfway loading points at the chair and come back up.”

I asked Owen if he could compare the Caucasus Mountains to any mountain ranges we have here in the States. “It’s tough to compare to any other mountain range,” he said. “It’s one of those weird things. The Rockies look like the Rockies, the Sierras like the Sierras, the Cascades like the Cascades… when you’re up there and looking around, it’s just like, valleys and mountains, valleys and mountains… it’s pretty awesome. When you off-load at the top, you can look down the backside, which drains into Soviet Georgia. There’s a bunch of stuff you can ride there, too, until you get to the treeline. They tell you you can’t go below the treeline, as that marks the Russia/Georgia border. You’re no longer the responsibility of the Russian government if you go beyond there. They yelled at us in Russian over a load speaker, so I don’t know exactly what they were saying, but our translator told us not to go there. [laughs] There are armed Russian guards patrolling at the top of the ridge. And there are Georgian soliders out further, in the distance beyond the treeline. But they’re visible. [The Russians and the Georgians] definitely look at each other every day.”

As for the slow chairs and the half-built homes, things will look a bit different come February, 2014. New lifts are under construction, and new hotels are being erected. As for the hostility between the Russians and the Georgians? Tension between the two nations has been high since 2008, when the two countries accused one another of military buildup near the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Sparing you the history lesson, bottom line is you can certainly expect your 360-degree panorama at the summit of the resort (2,228 meters) to include some Russian military folk wielding machine guns. “It’s actually a cool experience to be around it all,” said Owen.

The Olympics return to Russia for the first time since 1980’s Moscow Summer Games. That particular Olympiad was marked by a U.S.-led boycott, which prevented nearly 50 nations from competing. The boycott was spearheaded by U.S. President Jimmy Carter, in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan just seven months prior to the Opening Ceremony. Russia has since emerged as a world leader, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Sochi Games present the country an opportunity to showcase a “new Russia,” said Sochi’s mayor, Anatoly Pakhomov, to Time Magazine.

The 2014 Winter Games run from February 6-23, 2014, beginning with figure skating, snowboarding and freestyle skiing on the 6th. The Opening Ceremony will, in fact, be held on the 7th. The Games will feature 15 disciplines in seven sports, as recognized by the IOC. Twelve new events have been added to the Olympic roster for 2014: biathlon mixed relay, figure skating team event, freestyle skiing halfpipe and slopestyle, luge team relay, women’s ski jumping and snowboard slopestyle and parallel slalom events, for a total of 98 medal events.

Skiers are heading to Sochi this week for an Olympic test event. While the slopestyle contest was cancelled on account of low snow totals, the superpipe contest remains a go. Early fears that a similar scenario could play out in 2014, hampering event organizers’ ability to host events, have been quelled, as NBC reports 250,000 cubic meters of snow will be stored under ground just in case the weather proves uncooperative.

To celebrate today’s one-year-to-Sochi mark, Tom Wallisch, Bobby Brown and Keri Herman appeared on the Today show this morning, skiing on a rail erected atop “Mt. Rockefeller,” a modified slopestyle course constructed outside Studio 1A. While most of America is unfamilar with the sport of freeskiing, today’s broadcast marks the beginnings of increased recognition for freeskiers, and the sport of freeskiing as we continue down the Road to Sochi.

And after all you’ve just learned about Sochi, we’ve ourselves only begun our foray into exploring the 2014 host city. Freeskier Senior Editor, Nate Abbott, is heading out next week for the Olympic test event and will do some continued investigation. And over the next few months, we’ll be compiling loads of information for a special Olympic issue of Freeskier, which will go into production this fall. Stay tuned. By the time some of you read this article, we may have already torn a few pages off the desktop calendar. Three hundred and sixty four days… three hundred and sixty three…

Related: Destination: Rosa Khutor, Russia—more than just an Olympic venue