As seen in the October 2011 issue of FREESKIER.
Words and photos:
THREE TOUGH LOOKING RUSSIAN POLICE WALK TOWARDS US TOTING PISTOL GRIP KALASHNIKOV RIFLES. It’s 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning in the suburbs of Moscow, in a country where few people (especially police) smile in public and corruption is rampant. All I can think about is that things can go real bad, real quick. I look around at my crew—skiers Tom Wallisch, Ahmet Dadali and Mike Hornbeck, and Level 1 Productions filmer Kyle Decker— and see they all appear similarly gripped, out of place and less than comfortable in the minus 18-degree morning.
The mission is a quad-kink rail we had been kicked of the previous night by a crazed tenant of the nearby housing projects. Obviously, it wasn’t the first time someone had come to shred the solid quad-kink rail; an old lady was on us before we even had a chance to set up the tripods. She wouldn’t stop yelling at us in angry Russian, so we left while our guide Alex yelled his own Russian insults in return. Figuring she’d be asleep early Saturday morning, passed out from a $2 bottle of vodka, we hoped the odds of an uninterrupted session would be in our favor.
The problem with the morning mission was that Alex, our only sure means to communicate with any person in the city, couldn’t make it. So, brain surgeons that we are, we used our GPS to navigate back to the spot and found ourselves confronted by Kalashnikov-packing Russian police. We played some roulette, in Russia, and got caught. Not good.
Even in cosmopolitan Moscow, very few people speak English. In this case, that worked in our favor. The absolute breakdown in communication frustrated the cops so much that they put their hands up in a big X and took off. We had already bagged a few shots on the rail before they arrived, and since visiting a Russian police station without our translator wasn’t appealing, we decided not to push our luck and bailed quickly after them.
The angry woman and this confrontation with the police would be the only resistance we faced during our ten days in Russia. The 16-million strong populace, trained by years of communist rule, largely minded their own business. The contrast between being left alone and then being confronted by machine-gun-wielding police got me thinking of the approaching meeting between skiers and this country on the world stage: in less than three years slopestyle and halfpipe Olympic ski events will make their debut in Sochi, just an hour flight from Moscow.
Red Square, Moscow
A FEW DAYS EARLIER, WE HAD ARRIVED IN MOSCOW’S LARGEST AIRPORT, DOMODEDOVO. Less than a month before a terrorist bombing killed 36 people and injured another 120 in the international arrivals area. I asked our Avis car rental agent where the bomb went off.
“Right there,” he said, pointing about 50 feet away. “Were you here?” “Yes.”
He happened to be sitting down behind the desk at the time of the huge explosion. Blood and body parts splattered the wall behind him but miraculously he was okay. He seemed unfazed by the whole incident, but he must have been traumatized. The way he told the story, so matter of fact in spite of the temporary walls hiding the damage all around the international arrival hall, was a wake up call as to the nature of the place.
Tom Wallisch, lipslide above the Moskva River.
A cold spell struck Moscow upon our arrival and midday temps never got above minus 15 for the entire week. Even the Muscovites were saying it was really cold. It was brutal to function outside during the day. Nighttime shoots weren’t even a consideration, even before we considered risking our personal safety in such a treacherous city.
Although we experienced crushing cold, global climate change has wreaked havoc in Russia year round. Last summer an unprecedented heat wave during with sustained 120-degree temperatures killed 11,000 people in Moscow and contributed to catastrophic fires that scorched hundreds of thousands of acres across Russia. This country makes Quebec look temperate. Luckily for skiers in Moscow, Snow Dome Krasnogorsk, an indoor ski hill with a quad chairlift and small park, is open year round, a perfect way to escape both oppressive summertime heat and absurd winter cold. During the heat wave our guide Alex and his friends spent their days lapping the jib line in a com- fortable below freezing environment.
Hornbeck displays great style on this quad kink. The same cannot be said for the architecture of the apartments in the background.
Our group’s one commitment for the week was an appearance at the snow dome to shred with the kids and sign autographs. About 50 kids showed up, including one group of guys decked out in long hoodie dresses they’d made themselves, who drove 1,000 kilometers to ski with Tom, Mike and Ahmet. We realized what an impact the internet has had on the growth of skiing in places far removed from the Breck park scene. The internet has opened doors for Alex: he taught himself English online, knew that Mike Hornbeck has “the greatest” style, and could show us in his internet-equipped car images of every rail before we went to it. Even in Russia, kids are on the web ordering Level 1 XXXL tall tees and checking Newschoolers to see what’s going on in the park scene.
“JUST TRAINING FOR THE OLYMPICS,” says Ahmet while doing push-ups next to a rail, mocking the comp jock scene. “Things are getting serious around here,” adds Hornbeck, doing jumping jacks and punching the air. “I need to warm up to be as competitive as possible on this trip.”
Ahmet Dadali, switch lip.
Ahmet most likely will not be representing the U.S., but his presence would certainly add comedy and provide endless face-palm-worthy quotes for mainstream media to misinterpret and misrepresent. So Olympic training became the joke of the week for the crew.
Sochi, the site of the 2014 Games, sits on the Black Sea under the looming Caucasus Mountains, a region known for its endemic unrest. Six autonomous republics make up the area, including Chechnya where separatists have been battling the Russian government for most of the past 18 years. The Chechen rebels have claimed or been blamed for innumerable attacks in and out of the region and against Russian infrastructure, including the bombing at Domodedovo. On the third day of our trip, a group of Muscovite tourists driving up to the ski hill at Mt. Elbrus were stopped by masked gunmen who proceeded to open fire on the van, killing three and injuring two others. The gunmen also bombed a cable car tower at the resort that same day, sending gondolas crashing to the ground. Some separatist groups within the North Caucasus region either don’t want the Olympics in the area or are looking to gain greater recognition for their causes by disrupting the Olympics.
Flat landings? Ahmet didn't give a bowl of Borscht as long as he got the goods.
A few days later, a grenade exploded at a shopping center in Moscow. It turned out to be an unrelated suicide, but the violent incidents left the city on edge and didn’t make our all-American crew feel any safer cruising around trying to shoot handrails.
The unrest, language barriers, Russian-style customer disservice, and the poor infrastructure in Sochi are going to make things difficult for international visitors and competitors during the Olympics. The rebels have stated, and the Russian government has confirmed, that attacks aimed at the Olympics in Sochi are already in the planning stages. Security will be at levels never before seen at an Olympic Games.
Mike Hornbeck locked onto this rail and avoided denting this luxurious russian vehicle.
BACK WTH OUR CREW IN MOSCOW, the shots were coming easy. The calculated craziness of Ahmet Dadali, the effortless style of Mike Hornbeck and the precision technicality of Tom Wallisch made for an urban dream team of athletes. The only problem for documenting the trip was staying warm enough to turn the dials on our cameras. Kyle Decker had the solution for us: vodka. Kyle deduced that since vodka was really cheap in Russia, really good vodka must be affordable as well. Cold weather and standing around all day is a nightmare, so Kyle spent big bucks (like $15) on some vodka. A little pull here and there made things tolerable. I must say it does warm the body up. Does drinking make a more artistic film? I guess you will have to watch the Russia segment in After Dark to find out.
If a crew can film two features a day anywhere in the world, it’s considered a success. Even with encountering the worst traffic jams I’ve ever seen (and I live near L.A.), our crew still managed to shoot at least two features a day, some days as many as four. In some spots, we hit three different features within a few hundred meters of one another.
Moscow makes for an efficient urban playground and you can be sure to see some serious urban skiing talent emerge from its streets over the next few years. Skiing, as we define it, is in its infancy in Russia—think 10 years ago in North America. But with year-round shredding at the indoor area, urban features that make Helsinki look tame and some of the best ski areas in the world for back- country access, Russia is sure to make its mark on skiing over the next decade.
Without question, Russia was the most interesting trip of our lives. We met awesome people, had our first visit to an indoor ski area, drank the best vodka in the world (chased with homemade pickles, of course) and went to a bar with more beautiful women in one place than I’ve ever seen. We didn’t run into another snowboard or ski crew the entire time, which never happens on an urban trip nowadays no matter where on the globe you land.
We may take a year off, but I’m sure we will all return, maybe after Ahmet takes gold in slopestyle and can finally get himself some legit bling.