West Siberia – paradise for free-ride lovers

Russia’s West Sibertian region of Kemerovo is mostly known for its rich cultural roots, and coalmines. But to snowboarders in the know, the piles of fresh-powder make it a free-riders’ paradise.

The best way to explore the place you visit is to ask locals what they consider to be “must-see” locations in their home area. Without hesitation, Kemerovo region resident Elena Samuseva named the Sheregesh ski resort in first place.

“Local authorities plan to put more money into this project so it will be possible to make the place an international-level ski resort where national and international competitions can be held,” Elena told RT.

While international competitions are only plans on paper, free-riding is the reason thousands of winter action lovers flock to western Siberia’s snow-capped mountains every year. When off-piste riding is what you are after, it is not size that matters, but the quality and quantity of snow.

The peaks of the Sheregesh ski resort are not particularly high – they certainly do not compare with those you find in the Alps, or even in Russia’s southerly Caucasus. But with its season-long downpours of fresh, light, powder, this resort in Kemerovo region is every free-rider’s dream.

“The snow here lasts from October right through until May. These are perfect conditions for free-riding – the powder is incredibly thick and the slopes aren’t too steep, meaning that it’s much safer here than in Europe. I can understand why it’s so heavily restricted over there, but here in Siberia we’re free to ride wherever we like,” free-ride snowboarder Kostya says.

And if you want to have a go yourself Kostya and his friends have even set up a local school – open to all. Good news for those who share their passion for living life on the edge.

Not so good for those charged with the job of rescuing Kemerovo’s skiers and boarders who run into trouble.

“Free-riders can do whatever they want here, and use any part of the mountain. Insofar as they can ever be safe, the conditions here are good thanks to the low avalanche risk. But the problem is they refuse to acknowledge their own limitations, and last year we had more than 200 riders that needed rescuing. But there’s nothing we can do to stop them. I understand that it’s their passion and it’s why they come here,” a representative of Mountain Rescue Service says.

And while off-piste free-riding may be the main attraction here, this Sheregesh resort does also have a few odd pistes, serviced by 17 different lifts, for those of us after a slightly more sedate skiing experience. Last year these mountains hosted some 240,000 skiers and boarders.

Just an hour’s drive from the green and blues of the resort, you will find a slope not open to the likes of everyone. Russia’s sports stars of the future come here to improve their skills.

Olga is 18 years old, and this year she managed third place in Russia’s Snowboarding Championships. She and her friends share the same dream – to compete in the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

“When I saw Ekaterina Tudegesheva win gold at the World Champs in 2007, I knew I wanted to do the same, and so I came here,” Olga said.

“I think we have the best training conditions – huge amounts of powder and mountains that aren’t too steep. We never suffer the kinds of problems they had in Vancouver when they ended up importing snow,” snowboarder Viktor Kulikov says.

This training ground near the village of Tashtagol has produced some of Russia’s best over the years – Ekaterina Ilukhina who won silver at this year’s Vancouver Winter Olympics, Stanislav Dektov and Ekaterina Tudegesheva herself have all trained here.

Talented teens and pre-teens from across the country come here to hone their skills

But compared with its European and American equivalents, the center’s infrastructure is outdated and in desperate need of expansion. This is something that both boarders and their trainers say needs urgent attention if Russia’s future-Olympians are to really compete and reach the heights of which they are clearly capable.