Living a dream. photo credit www.heli-ski.kg
As Bodhi says in Point Break: “If you want the ultimate you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price”. In this case the price was S$7,000 ($5,000 approx) which was something of a bargain to be flown to Kazakhstan and back, driven around Kyrgyzstan, ferried about in a giant Russian chopper for a week, to be terrified beyond belief numerous times, to sleep happily in a warm yurt, to meet the strange, tough people of central Asia, to enjoy as much vodka & beer as I could drink, to ski dry powder at 4000m, to stand in the dark and see the stars at their most vivid and wonder why i worry about the future even though it doesn’t really matter. It was that kind of trip and I still get flashbacks months on.
I read about heliskiing in the Tien Shan mountains of Central Asia way back in the 1990s in Onboard magazine, and it finally happened in February 2015 when I headed to Kyrgyzstan with my friends John Aitken and Charlie Fullerton. Before we embarked I only had the vaguest notions of what to expect, and any research I did just raised more questions than answers. We only confirmed we were going in late December and I wasn’t clear on the details of where we would stay and how many days heli we would get, until the week we set out. The combination of travelling to a remote and little known country, the scale of the Tien Shan peaks, and the prospect of being flown around by an old Russian military chopper, certainly generated a rare sense of adventure.
The TienShan mountains we were skiing, just above the Issy Kul lake near Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
We first flew to Almaty in Kazakhstan, staying overnight before heading to the Kyrgyz border in a cab. The flight on SQ to Bangkok, then Air Astana to Almaty was uneventful and they didn’t charge us for the massive ski/board bags. We skirted the Himalayas on the Indian side, and as it was a blue sky day, and I was in the right window seat, saw the Annapurna sanctuary and other great peaks. Air Astana even had a relic of a lost, glamorous era of air travel, in the form of big beers (well i was impressed anyway). It’s a decent airline and I would recommend it.
Efes on Air Astana
Almaty is a post-Soviet city with the resultant drab architecture, but has a nice atmosphere. It feels as European as it does Asian, and I enjoyed a lovely horse steak, and we visited a few bars before turning in. Next morning was a two hour foggy drive to the border across the steppe. As soon as we neared the border we could see the mountains above the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. Our Kyrgyz driver met us on the Kazakh side and even helped with my 20KG ski bag which was cool.
Heading across the steppe to the Kyrgyzstan border near Bishkek
We then drove for 6-7 hours to reach our base at Karakol on the southern shore of the enormous and beautiful Issy Kul lake. Our driver Almaz was the fastest thing on wheels and did not respect red lights or other vehicles so we got there about as fast as we could, managing to catch the occasional nap. Kyrgyzstan’s status as one of the Central Asia region’s poorest countries is clear from the infrastructure, with many roads potholed, gravelly and muddy with meltwater from the winter snows. You can also see the economy remains tied to agriculture, with lots of people riding horses and plenty of happy looking livestock.
We camped & skied in the Terskey-alatau mountains just south west of Karakol on the southern eastern shore of Issy Kul lake. Map from www.mapsofworld.com
We stopped a couple of times. First to eat at a god-awful motorway rest stop, and then to help the police arrest a “gangster” who was reluctant to leave his vehicle. Alamaz couldn’t wait to get involved and could obviously handle himself, bringing the skirmish to quick conclusion in the authorities’ favor.
Issy Kul is 113 miles long and the second largest mountain lake in the world behind Lake Titicaca. It apparently never freezes as it’s slightly saline so looks spectacular against the huge peaks of the TienShan.
After finally arriving at the comfortable and friendly Green View Hotel in Karakol we met up with Charlie who had flown direct to Bishkek, and hit the town for some beers & food. While we did not explore Karakol thoroughly, it’s a pretty drab, sprawling place with the post-industrial blight of the Soviet era obvious.
A photo of Karakol I took from the heli when we were going to refuel. Interlaken it is not.
However we found a nice enough bar/restaurant after a brief taxi ride and I enjoyed a bizarre savoury pancake with mutton & cheese while the lads had a kebab which came in a paper bag with stale bread. Beer was good though.
Kyrgyz cuisine was strange but hearty. Mountain food!
Next day it was onto the snow for the first time with a trip up to the Karakol ski resort which is up a steep snowy/muddy road from the town. The terrain is pretty expansive and it had some nice bars and one hotel.
Looking back down towards Karakol with the mountainous border with Kazahkstan in the background to the north, and the eastern shore of Issy Kul far left. Les Menuires chairlift also visible.
The lift system was comprised of chairlifts of questionable provenance. This orange one I used to ride out of the centre of Les Menuires towards the Meribel valley back in the 1990s and they still had the signs to prove it. Brought back memories of La Masse and some good times.
There were Les Menuires signs at the top and bottom of this rickety orange chairlift. Chances are I’d ridden it at least 50 times before in a different life back in the 1990s!
The snow was icy hardpack but it was nice to have a warm up and for our last run we had a 2 minute traverse and got a few powder turns in, giving us a taste of things to come. The views were also awesome with the Issy Kul lake stretching away as far as the eyes could see and the border range with Kazakhstan beyond.
John struggled on his Jeremy Jones powder board which wasn’t made for ice. Charlie’s Lib Tech was still in Bishkek so he was on some kind of fibreglass dinner tray. They still had fun though.
There were 5,000m + Tien Shan peaks behind us.
After an excellent kebab in a mountain restaurant we then met our driver Slavan and headed for Yurt camp out in the wilderness. It was here when the adventure really started. The drive into the mountains was around 45 mins until we reached the trailhead situated at a small farm. We then took to Skidoos, with Charlie riding pillion while me & John were dragged along on a plastic tray.
Our chariot into the wilderness
It wasn’t the most comfortable 4 km of my life and I was relieved when the giant helicopter hoved into view, sitting on a plateau just above a picturesque Yurt camp.
The Mi8 TV-1, a military version of the Russian helicopter dating from 1961. This one was built in 1980 according to the pilots.
They greeted us with beer which was nice and we met some of the other guests, a mixed group of mostly Brits who all worked at an international school in Almaty. We then got to settle into our Yurt which we were sharing with the guides.
Our cosy Yurt. There were 12 of us in there!
Inside it was all bunk beds with a wood-burning fire at one end. I was excited about sleeping in a Yurt after reading Tim Cope’s brilliant book “On the trail of Genghis Khan” and it didn’t disappoint, being cosy but clubbable. It reminded me of the good old days (not sure I felt that at the time) staying in a 16-bed dorm in a hostel in Bayswater road back in the summer of 1999.
It was toasty. I love camping and despite the sub-zero temps, it’s just as good in the winter.
The toilet facilities were rather basic. Clean but cold. Less said the better. The washroom was rather Red Army 1942, and consisted of a weird Sauna tent plus a freezing stream which they had dammed to create a pool.
After a pre-heli briefing with the guides which thoroughly scared me, we sat down to dinner. The food was pretty decent and we polished of plenty off freeflow beer & vodka before heading to bed around midnight. The heli pilots were partying til about 2am but I felt quite fatalistic, and was unusually excited for the coming day.
First heli-skiing day dawned with a bright blue sky and after porridge and eggs for breakfast we got our kit together and readied for the off. Have to say I became pretty nervous during the wait – probably about the heli rather than the skiing (that was soon to change). Here’s the big bird coming into land (actually the vid is from Day 2). It always felt like it would land on top of you but landing close is the only safe thing apparently due to the rotors or something.
My memories of the first drop are pretty hazy to be honest…The snow was nothing special as I recall and the run ended in a 5km proper combat ski traverse through a forest. It took about an hour and I had one big stack and we all had to rescue the boarders multiple times as there wasn’t much of a gradient. I can’t imagine what the logic was behind the choice of first run but it certainly got us sweating.
Legs were like Jelly by this point and didn’t expect the photographer to appear from behind a tree!
The runs got better from there and enjoyed some nice snow although I struggled at the top. It definitely wasn’t Japow and my Volkl Mantras were sinking right through it unless I went pretty fast, which was hard to sustain.
Some of the snow was amazing, some less so!
The lads on the boards were doing better and really flying, although the exit runs were too flat for them for the most part and they often had to get one or both feet out. Every single run seemed to end in a long traverse through the trees, which was pleasant enough but wasn’t quite what I expected, Here’s a video of the third time I went through the trees just before lunch – Be warned it’s 8 mins of pootling along through a pretty forest, but not sure why the heli couldn’t have landed further up the hill!
The guides were pretty technical apart from the sweeper Dennis, a young Kyrgyz lad who just straight-lined everything and knew how to jump. If he was from Canada or France he’d be in ski movies for sure. After 3 runs we had a packed lunch next to the chopper in fairly balmy temperatures and I actually had to apply some more sunscreen. It was then we found out it hadn’t snowed for more than 6 weeks…which put the conditions into perspective. Not bad at all.
Sometimes it was a smooth ride
The last run of the day was probably my favorite. The boarders and a couple of the skiers went with the rest of the guides down a steeper route, while I chose to follow the oldest, but canniest guide Oleg on a more leisurely path. There were some nice turns above the tree line at the top (3600m) then down into the forest and back to the Yurts, leaving the heli to make its own way back. By this stage, although I was tired, I was feeling a bit more confident and really loved being out there in the complete quiet, without lifts whirring, mountain restaurants, or any other real sign of human activity.
Descending towards the Yurt camp back down the valley. There was a beautiful light and complete silence. Magic.
Being greeted in the Yurt camp with beer and barbecued chicken was a perfect end to the day and we got our fill as the other group were about an hour after us, having being taken into a forested gorge which apparently was an absolute nightmare. John was almost catatonic and it’s fair to say we were all knackered. I wolfed dinner and retired to bed with my Kindle before 9pm and got a good 12 hours sleep in.
Fish from Issy Kul, potatoes, rice, bread….all major food groups…just what was needed.
The next heli ski day was completely different. There were no less than 14 guests in the heli as a random group of 6 Austrians had come for the day. Plus the 4 crew, 4 guides and a photographer made for a packed chopper.
The big bird takes off after leaving us on windswept plateau.
The terrain they took us on was higher and more open and the snow was generally very good. The Austrians, who I’d naturally assumed would be godlike skiers, were nothing special, and one, who was on a board, even dropped out after first run.
Big wide open runs made it easy
The big group did mean it got a bit more tracked out but I was much more comfortable than the previous day and let my skis go a bit more. The runs were also shorter with no tree dodging exits so we got plenty of turns in, and all in all it was great fun.
Because of the size of the group we didn’t do anything steep and a lot of the runs were gentle and open – just the way I
imagined like it.
The 12 hours sleep the night before had also done me good and even the final run of the day through a thickly wooded gorge was fun. The snow was amazing, presumably because the sun never got on it and while the Austrians tumbled and lost their Teutonic cool, I felt, just for a moment, I was back in Hokkaido!
The beers afterwards went down even more easily and I must admit the partying was probably a bit hard this night given what was ahead. Freeflow vodka is addictive, what can I say?
The heli crew were enjoying John’s company.
I’ve already written about the events of the last heli day in a separate post. The one thing I didn’t mention was the aborted landing we had at the first drop. We seemed to come into the ridge to hard and bounced off, with the whole machine wobbling. It was the only truly scary moment in the heli of the whole trip, and we were all relieved when he came back round and landed on a lower part of the ridge without incident. Here’s a 50 second video of the successful drop.
After that, and in between all the avalanche anxiety, there was some great skiing though.
Being in a different valley was interesting and on the way down to the heli we happened on another Yurt camp. What a life this fellow has!
Got fogged up…I was sweating.
I was feeling relieved to get off the hill unscathed and get to the chopper!!
Not sure if it was the night before or the strange granular type snow, but I got really tired and only did 3 runs in the end. We were a few valleys away from the camp so took the Heli back. It stopped off in a field near Karakol for some refueling and attracted a large crowd who raced to see the whirligig in their Ladas.
Men & their Motors
Quite a crowd!
When we took off again the pilot flew crazy low sending the locals scattering before pulling into what seemed like an unwisely steep ascent, before letting the heli fall, which left you feeling weightless for a moment. Was unexpected, but thrilling in its own way, especially given the size of the chopper! The heli and pilots had just arrived in Kyrgyzstan after working in Afghanistan for the previous few months so I guess they were entitled to have a bit of fun just like us.
The night was one of some disappointment but some celebration. Snow was forecast and even we paid for more time in the heli, it wouldn’t be likely to be flying the next day. So what do you do? Well we hit the beers and the vodka and reviewed some of our video footage on Charlie’s laptop in the yurt.
This one which features some rather tired skiing from me, a lost John, and where me & Charlie both questioned John’s eyesight, proved a favorite.
The next morning dawned and the camp looked beautiful after maybe 18 inches of fresh.
Looked beautiful when the sun came out!
We packed up and decided to head back to Almaty that day rather than try the questionable delights of Karakol. Before we left we had the fun of joining head guide Nikolai’s birthday celebration with the other guides and the pilots. I provided a bottle of Johnny Walker Explorer’s Edition (a very smooth drop) and the guys had a bottle of Red label which went great with some fresh pancakes, Nikolai is obviously held in very high esteem by his peers and after seeing his YouTube channel including his ascent of Nanga Parbat you can see why. He is a tough, capable and decisive ski guide, but never arrogant, disdainful or impatient. Glad he was in charge!
Liquid breakfast with pancakes chaser
We finally left, drunk, mid-morning on the skidoo – this time with me riding pillion and Charlie suffering the bumps. The road we had driven in on was gone, covered in snow so you couldn’t see it at all, so we took about an hour to get out of the valley.
The lads are never happier than when spooning!
The road had disappeared. No snowploughs in these parts it seems.
Back in Karakol we bought a bottle of vodka and drank it and talked bollocks as we went the 6 hours to the border. It was beautiful with all the snow and the lake and until I drifted off to sleep it was a wonderful drive!
Conversation was rather rambling 3 hours into the journey
A pretty snowbound Mosque near Karakol
The border was absolute chaos on the Kazakhstan side with a riot rather than a queue for only two or three immigration officials. It really felt like it would come to blows and carrying all the ski gear with a weird 6pm hangover wasn’t ideal. When we got through we were lucky to find our old taxi driver who took us to the border the previous week and then we had the long, boring drive across the steppe to Almaty.
The next day was a free one for us as we were all flying Sunday night so we decided to check out Almaty’s local ski resort, Shymbulak, which is only a 20 minute taxi from the city. I have to say I was blown away by the facilities and the mountain was a decent size. It felt like a European resort and there was easily enough terrain for a day. The lifts were modern, and the stylish, sunny bars at the base were a great place to hang out, listen to some tunes, and have a beer and a kebab.
The lads make a spectacle of themselves at the behest of Famous Grouse
It had snowed the previous day (the same storm that hit in Kyrg), so conditions on the piste were perfect which may have colored my perception somewhat. I got my Volkl’s, which had suffered a number of serious rock impacts down to the base, repaired at the resort, so hired some skis which were 161 Fischer’s. Truth be told they were more like snowblades but it was fun after the intensity of the heli-skiing.
There was even a glacier at the top which was 3200m
This kebab in Almaty was awesome. just want to put that on the record.
In the evening we headed back into the city, swapped to a rather rough & ready hotel on the outskirts and then hit the town. There’s a good atmosphere in Almaty and I would recommend it. People, especially the girls, dress up and everyone is friendly. We started with a rather lavish Georgian meal with Georgian wine and then went to various bars. It was a fun end to a very exciting trip.
Thanks to Charlie for doing a lot of the organization, and I would be happy to recommend Sergey and the team at Ski-Pro Kyrgyzstan to anyone who wants to head to the Tien Shan, whether it’s ski touring or heliskiing,
All photos Sony Z3 Compact smartphone
All videos Contour Roam 2 action cam http://contour.com