I loaded my Salomon Tornados into the basket under the helicopter. They are 76 millimeters under the boot—an excellent all-mountain ski in almost all conditions. The chopper quickly deposited us onto a distant peak, and I followed my guide intrepidly downward. After only a short distance, it was clear that this was the wrong ski for these conditions. The snow was too deep.
After one run, I exchanged my boards for a pair of Scott skis belonging to the helicopter operation—a big-mountain ski measuring 89 mm.
under the boot. Now, at least I could turn in the copious amounts of snow, but it was still not easy. The watchword of the day was “lean back”, an improper powder technique reserved for only the most unusual of circumstances. It was just such a day. Only by placing one’s weight entirely on one’s heels was it possible to negotiate some turns that left a track more rounded than a squiggle. Steeper slopes would have been perfect for this amount of snow—we were sinking about 80- 90 centimeters into the powder, even with fatter skis—but the steep slopes were much too avalanche prone such a short time after a snowfall. This storm had dumped close to a meter-and-a-half of fresh powder onto the upper slopes, and we would have to do the best we could on descents of 20-25 degrees. Experienced skiers were all leaning against the backs of their boots looking somewhat like water skiers. Some in the group were using much more upper-body motion than they normally would, to try to help the turns around. After each slope, our thighs were burning. One time, I got my weight a tad forward, dug a tip and almost drowned in snow. I poked my head back up spitting and coughing. It was really that deep. By afternoon, Hervé, George, and Trevor, our three guides, felt the snow had settled enough to attempt a few slopes that were somewhat steeper. We could see by the snow texture where sloughs had self-released during the storm, and we surmised that skiing the locations that had sloughed might mean that the snow would be somewhat more compacted. Pay dirt! Now, instead of sinking in to our waists, we could get a bounce back from the skis at about 60 centimeters of depth. By the time the ski day was finished, we had done 11 runs and skied about 5,500 vertical meters of extremely deep snow, and the hotel bar was full of tired thighs and happy faces.
Where was this heliskiing taking place? The Chugach Mountains of Alaska? The Monashees of Canada? Maybe the Caucasus of Russia? Perhaps the Himalayas of India? All wrong. We were up to our eyeballs in powder in the Kaçkar Range of Turkey! When I first traveled to Turkey for skiing close to 20 years ago, various friends thought I was nuts. When I returned to this exotic land where Europe meets Asia to heliski in 2010, nuts was just the introduction to my description, which also included crazy and insane. While many friends were perplexed why I would choose Turkey for heliskiing rather than one of the more conventional heliski countries, I was ultimately joined by my Danish friend, watchmaker Jorn Werdelin, another skier with a pioneer spirit. In the end, insane and crazy were appropriate descriptive words—the two of us enjoyed a week of insane powder, which was crazy deep. Turkey is one of very few countries that have everything — beautiful seashore, spectacular desert, stunning mountains, rich culture, long and interesting history, delicious food and extremely hospitable inhabitants. Most people know aboutthe seaside resorts, many know about the culture and history, some are aware of the good food and
the extremely friendly locals, but very few are knowledgeable about the mountains, let alone - the snow. Turkey is actually full of mountains, including the Armenian Highland of Eastern Turkey that include Mt. Ararat (5165 m), the Taurus and Anti-Taurus Ranges in the south, and numerous other smaller ranges, but perhaps the group of mountains that is most amenable to skiing is the Kaçkar Range that runs along the Black Sea in the northeastern part of the country. Krasnaya Polyana, the Russian ski resort on the western flank of the Black Sea that will
host the ski events at the 2014 Olympics, is legendary for its powder. So it is strange that the Turks have not built a conventional ski resort
here in the Kaçkars to take advantage of the many storms that blow in off this large body of water and keep the mountains drenched in fluff
all winter long. In 2003, Swiss born Thierry Gasser discovered the potential of this area for heliskiing. Not long after that, he teamed up with countryman Nicolas Clerc and local entrepreneur FilipAmram. They established bases in the villages of Ayder and Ikizdere and they brought the first 75 skiing clients to the Kaçkars. According to Nicolas, he was dissatisfied with a heliski experience in nearby Krasnaya, and simultaneously found out from Thierry about his idea to try to build up a heliski business on the Turkish side of the Black Sea.
Nicolas reflects. “I had only known Thierry for a couple of hours, but I really felt that he was somebody I could trust. I gave him a substantial sum of money, we shook hands, and that was it. Thierry asked me, “Don’t you want a contract?” but I said it was not necessary. He asked why I should give him money when he did not have a matching amount to invest. I told him, Your experience is worth more than my money.”
“I had spent years involved in international banking. Thierry was not like those people. I remember that my secretary thought I was mad, but I told her, ‘Maybe I am doing the best thing I have ever done — I am getting out of this way of life and getting into something that suits me.”
And, so it was. Since that time, Nicolas has hardly had time to look back and ponder that decision. Everything between he and Thierry has worked perfectly from the very start. Thierry was responsible for the practical aspect of the operation, including day-to-day operations and guiding, while Nicolas took care of the administrative side of things. He set up the company, took care of the civil aviation aspect, and all the other such boring, behind-the-scenes details that are so necessary in any such operation. In addition, an avid skier, during the season, Nicolas has literally spent hundreds of days sampling his own product — skiing deep powder alongside his clients. Adding to his own 30-plus seasons of guiding, Thierry has assembled an international team of guides with a myriad of exploits to their names and whose total seasons of experience has to be counted in centuries. One of his guides, Swiss born Erhard Loretan, was the third man to climb
all 14 of the 8000-meter peaks and conquered Everest in an astounding ascent that took only 40 hours! Italian Abele Blanc only needs Annapurna to reach the same lofty status, and Jean Troillet has conquered ten of the monster mountains and was the first man to snowboard from the top of Everest. In between expeditions and adventures, these three have spent most of their lives working as mountain guides.
Add to this auspicious lineup, Swiss born George Robbi, who has done about 30 seasons of heliski guiding in Canada, New Zealand, and
Turkey, Chamonix native Hervé Thivierge, with 39 years of guiding under his belt, and Kiwi Trevor Streat, who also has more than 30 seasons heliski guiding experience in India, New Zealand and Turkey, and it adds up to well over 200 seasons of ski guiding experience. Suffice it to say that we felt very safe amidst this team of leaders.
Jorn and I flew by way of Istanbul to Trabzon, the largest port on the Black Sea, and were driven for a couple hours along the northern
coastline. All along the highway, the snow-covered Kaçkars — only 30 kilometers inland—rose majestically above the rooftops of the drab, rectangular apartment blocks that line the city streets along the seacoast. Various river valleys stretch upward from the sea toward the mountains including the ones that bring skiers to Ikizdere and Ayder. At first glance, these narrow canyons look quite similar to their counterparts in the Alps. Rushing water glides over rocks and boulders alongside a windy road. Every now and then, a waterfall cascades
down over the cliffs to meet the stream, and high above the road, in sporadic clearings that appear in the forest, are small hamlets of old wooden houses.
At closer inspection, however, one immediately notices a number of distinct differences that make it clear that one is not driving up the Aosta
Valley or the Val d’Anniviers. Interspersed with various sorts of pines is an abundance of chestnut and linden trees, as well as a myriad of other plants and shrubs that one does not see in the Alps. Abundant stretches of land are covered with a low growing bush that is cultivated along the hillsides here—tea plantations. Instead of the obligatory church steeple that one is used to seeing in the center of almost every settlement in the Alps, here, the pointy tower of a minaret appears around every other bend in the road. Of course, the women that one passes in the streets of the mountain towns all adorn the obligatory hijab (headscarf). This is not the modern, cosmopolitan Turkey of Istanbul, but the oldfashioned part of the country. This is Asia… the Middle East… a location where long-standing traditions and religious customs live on and flourish.
Before even arriving in Ayder, we were perfectly aware that we would be skiing in a more exotic location than that which we were accustomed to. If we had not been cognizant of that fact, the dawn call-to-prayer from the mosque adjacent to our hotel was a subtle reminder. The breakfast buffet also looked quite different from your standard morning meal in the Alps. Here,alongside the cornflakes and eggs was a sampling of four different sorts of olives, a plate of feta cheese and a large chunk of bee’s honeycomb. As I dragged my tired thighs out of bed and prepared myself for day two of our Turkish powder extravaganza, I was still not sure that I had found the best ski solution. I rarely use a wide ski because I love to sink deep into the powder. I adore immersing myself into bottomless fluff, feeling it batter my goggles and spray my face each time I reach the nadir of my turn. But for our second day, I chose to use a pair of fat skis that were 109 millimeters under the boot. It was not that the snow was heavy — it was just so deep!
The week that we had chosen to visit Turkey was not a busy one for Turkey Heliski. Both Nicolas and Thierry were not in Ayder when we arrived, but we did have the good fortune to meet Filip, their silent partner, who was the third skier in our group. The operation uses
six-seat Ecureuil B-3 helicopters which usually make for groups of four skiers per guide, but our team was a small exclusive
group of three.
Trevor led us on a few superb runs in the morning — two on a north-facing slope called Kangoo and one more on Tachicule. The snow
seemed to have settled a little from the day before and the fat skis served me well as I bounced blissfully down one virgin line after another. Three additional morning runs on the likes of Easy Woman and Arete a l’Ours were all that weredestined for this day, as high winds gusted up and closed down our skiing after two hours and 4000 vertical meters. With some extra time on our hands, Jorn and I decided to explore a few of the local towns and villages. We got a ride 18 kilometers down to Çamlihemsin and walked around town, exploring the old teahouses where the local men wile away the hours playing cards, telling tales, and avoiding their wives. We admired the many Ottoman style
stone-arch bridges that crossed over the Ayder and Firtina Rivers, and then took a taxi up to the mountain village of Ortan. While wandering through the pathways of Ortan, admiring the houses with hundreds of years of sunshine burnt into their old façades, a local woman noticed me from her window. Apparently there are only two homes that are currently inhabited year round in the hamlet and she was curious to see a local visitor. Or, perhaps it was just the famous Turkish hospitality that inspired her, but Jorn and I soon found ourselves sitting with the woman and her husband drinking tea in their living room. We came for the powder, but it was very pleasant to also get to experience the local penchant for spontaneous hospitality.
After each ski day, we enjoyed another aspect of the Turkish experience—their excellent cuisine. Turkey is famous for its mezes (appetizers)
as well as their kebabs and rich desserts, such as baklava and kadayif. Each evening, the restaurant of the Hotel Hasimoglu laid out a long buffet table full of enticing salads and mezes and an additional buffet with a choice of Turkish desserts.
After a scrumptious dinner and a deep sleep, the morning sand was still in my eyes as we wandered out to the heli-pad at 8:30. You can
be sure that a winter helicopter pick-up is quite a wake-up call for anyone who is still a bit drowsy. The whap-whap-whap began softly and
rhythmically from a good distance away until it eventually bombarded my eardrums with an incessant roar. The roar, of course, was accompanied by a blast of manmade Arctic wind that sent the snow swirling and flying in all directions. No matter how I tried to cover my face, all efforts were futile, and by the time the whirring blades had retreated into the distance, I was shaking snow out of my hat, picking bits of ice out of my eyebrows and wiping my face dry.
Now all was perfectly silent. Looking around me, I could see an endless vista of snowdecked mountains and valleys in all directions and beyond the last row of peaks to the north were the blue waters of the Black Sea. The sky above was also a deep blue and one could hardly
distinguish the horizon line where the sky met the sea. Small hamlets of old wooden houses almost buried under large pillows of snow were
nestled into many of the valleys and along some of the ridges around us.
There was not much time to enjoy the view. The weather and snow were perfect and it was time to ski. George, Trevor, and Hervé are in
their fifties, but if the Ironman competition included skiing, they would all be prime candidates for a trophy. They seemed to be of the opinion
that heliskiing is an endurance sport. Hervé was our lead guide on day three, and he shifted directly into fifth gear and did not come up for air
until lunchtime. He was clearly having as much fun as a kid in a candy store—he still skied with the zest and enthusiasm of a young ski bum spending his first full winter on the slopes. By ow, the snow had settled enough that Hervé had no qualms about leading us down slopes up to 35 degrees, and we were sinking in a comfortable 40-60 centimeters.
The snow depth was ideal for the slopes we were skiing.
Filip was also in great shape and as a partner in the operation, he knew the terrain here very well. He seemed to have no problem keeping
up with Hervé, but for Jorn and I, it was a somewhat different story. We both ski old-school, pumping out short symmetrical turns in powder. Ten turns… twenty…effortless…thirty…forty…I’m starting to feel my legs…fifty…sixty…doesn’t Hervé ever stop to rest?…seventy…eighty…lactic acid overload. I pulled up panting and watched Hervé bounce merrily onward toward our waiting chariot
of the ski gods. I pushed off again as soon as I had caught my breath, but I never really caught up all day. With me bringing up the rear, Hervé had plenty of time to pull out his camera on numerous occasions and snap some wonderful photos of us.
We stayed above the tree line most of the day, landing at around 2700 meters and skiing primarily runs of 700-800 vertical meters. We did
many lines on a run called Courchevel—a lovely descent which began with a long pitch of 30-35 degrees and mellowed into a meandering cruiser, ending with some turns between some small trees just below the tree line. We skied Clariere and la Petite Souri and just before lunch, we dove into some steep pitches in the trees on a descent called Arête au Village. By the time the chopper came to rest back at the hotel, we had amassed 11,000 vertical meters and my legs were overcooked spaghetti. In Turkey, they have just the solution for such a situation. Just a few minutes walk from the hotel was a hammam. While a hammam is usually a steam bath, in this case, the local bath
consisted of hot spring water that bubbles out of the ground and into a swimming pool at a soothing 43 degrees C. A relaxing visit to the hammam followed by a few bottles of the local Efes beer and I felt as if I had been the Ironman rather than a shadow trying desperately to keep pace with Hervé. I felt rejuvenated and ready for whatever tomorrow would throw at me.
Tomorrow offered another morning of bluebird. Today, Trevor was our leader, and he must have commiserated a little with my muscle
aches, for he softened the pace a bit. After all, there were 400 different runs available here with a myriad of lines on every run, and there was no way we were going to be able to do them all anyway, no matter how fast we skied. Today, we landed somewhat higher on a few runs, up over 3000 meters, and we saw a lot of new terrain in the Polavit and Zikale Valleys. We skied descents called Easy Rider, Alone on the Mountain, Faceà la Mer, Face à la Biere, and a brilliant run called Les Masses. I was beginning to get my ski legs.
We finished with 11 runs and about 8,200 vertical meters, but I didn’t feel nearly as exhausted as the day before. Into every life a little rain must fall. On our final morning, we awoke to a light drizzle in the village and a snowstorm in the higher mountains, rendering flying impossible. But, we were not secluded away in an isolated lodge. Here in Turkey, a bit of inclement weather only meant a change of program. A day of culture and history can easily be substituted in place of pumping powder. In this case, surprisingly, the day included an unwritten
page of snowsports history.
Nicolas had made a phone call to one of the locals to inform them of my visit, and after a long taxi ride that culminated with 12 switchbacks up a steep mountain road, I was met at the village mosque by three or four villagers. They invited me for tea and cookies and then showed me the amazing Turkish sport that apparently beat Jake Burton by about 370 years. Looking very similar to Sherman Poppen’s 1965 invention, the snurfer, this forefather of the snowboard is about two feet wide and eight feet long, and looks a bit like a flat toboggan. The rider’s feet are not attached with any kind of binding, so he controls the board by holding a cord connected to the front and helps steer by holding a long stick in his other hand, dragging it behind the board like a primitive rudder.
The day was mild and sunny, and after finishing our tea, 53-year-old Haluk Kurt took me outside to show me what Lazboarding was all about.
I had noticed upon arriving in Petran that the corn snow amidst the ancient farmhouses was rife with strange looking tracks, and my suspicion
proved to be correct—those odd markings were indeed Lazboard tracks. According to Ali, 90% of the locals participate in boarding—it is indeed one of the only forms of entertainment that this poor mountain village has to offer their inhabitants, and it has been passed down from father to son for generations. The hills around the village were gentle, and Ali stood more or less in the middle of the board and glided smoothly down over the snowcovered landscape. He assured me, however, that one can ride a Lazboard in deep snow and on steep slopes as well, but one must adjust one’s weight further back for those kinds of conditions. He was skilled and he was confident, and one
knew by just watching him that he was in harmony with his board and the mountains around him. “I’ll keep boarding until I’m a hunched over old man…” Ali promised with a chuckle, and I felt a commonality with him, for I certainly feel the same about my skiing.
My time was running out, as I had one more location I wanted to see before my evening flight back to Istanbul — the famous S¨ümela
Monastery close to Trabzon. My taxi driver hurried me off so that I could get there while there was still light. It was well worth the trip. This
was still one more amazing site — a 1600-year old monastery built into a cave in a rock cliff about 300 meters above a river gorge in the valley below.
While the rain prevented me from a final day of helisking, I was ultimately grateful for the opportunity to see and experience some extremely
interesting chapters of local culture and history. By the time the last powder dust had settled back onto the mountains and all had been said and done about our trip, we realized that we really had gotten the full value of our visit to Turkey. We had enjoyed some of the deepest
snow we had ever skied, but we had also been able to experience many things that are indigenous and unique to this remarkable country.
We skied on many occasions with snow-tosea views. We enjoyed the delightful Turkish cuisine and local hospitality every day. We indulged
ourselves in an extravagant 21st century mountain and sports experience, but at the same time,, we were able to go back to the roots and see and feel how local mountain people have lived through a broad period of history. Mountain folk have always lived an isolated lifestyle. They are separated from large population centers by rugged peaks and valleys, and the snow makes their seclusion during the winter
months that much more intense. The early monks chose their rocky environment purposely so that their devotion to God would not be distracted by worldly diversions. The present-day Laz people have inherited their isolated environment from their forefathers, but have inherited, as well, a wonderful pastime with which to enjoy the lonely winter months. But, we modern-day skiers are different. We
may have inherited our snowsports hobby from our parents; or we may have been inspired by friends to learn to ski or board. Most of us, however, live in large population centers. We seek a path away from these crowded habitats—back to nature and to the more solitary but peaceful environments that made up the normal lifestyle of our forefathers.
My mother taught me to ski powder and she also inspired me with a love for deep snow. But, she grew up in Austria in a period of ski history before ski lifts, when untracked slopes were the norm. With a ski-upbringing of that nature, it is not so strange that I and others like me, search far off the beaten path for mountains where a helicopter can drop us into solitude atop a peak where there rarely treads a human foot.
Here in the Kaçkar Mountains of eastern Turkey, it all came together. Jorn and I came searching for the solitude of virgin slopes and we
found common ground with the local people of Petran, where an isolated snowsports experience is still a part of their daily winter life. We were forced to make one more realization — perhaps… we are really mountain men at heart and our every day lives in the large western cities that we call home are out of synch with our true nature.
Selim (72 years old)
Many people claim, rightly or wrongly, to have played a crucial role in the development of snowboarding, while some even claim to have invented it.
By the start of the 1900s, the Americans, who are extremely proud of their reputation for 'inventing new board sports', had pretty much monopolised the discipline. After various legal battles and the first patent applications, Jake Burton declared himself the inventor of the snowboard and Sherman Poppen claimed the invention of the 'snurfer', a forerunner of modern boards.
Yet it would appear that men have been standing on planks of wood and sliding down the slopes of the Kaçkar Mountains, in the northeast of Turkey, since well before the start of the 20th century.
We could rewrite the history of snowboarding. But that's not important. Instead this is simply a story about life and shared snowboarding moments in the Kaçkar Mountains.
The action takes place in the small village of Meşeköy in the Ikizdere valley, part of Rize Province.
January 2008. Two world-class snowboarders, Jeremy Jones and Stefan Gimpl, found themselves in Ayder with several other professional riders to shoot a film with Turkey Héliski. As soon as they heard about this little village of snowboarders they wanted to see and perhaps even board with the Turks, who no-one in the snowboarding community had ever mentioned before.
After a few hours of driving, a little after Ikizdere, we left the main road and started up a small snow-covered road. A series of hairpin bends bordered by steep, impressive-looking slopes led to the small village of Meşeköy, which sits at an altitude of over 2000m on a stunning rocky balcony overlooking the valley.
We had seen wide tracks in the snow before we even arrived in the village. And no doubt about it, they had been made by a snowboard or at least something very like a snowboard. We were convinced that in winter the local inhabitants used boards to move around and for fun.
The welcome that awaited us in the village was extraordinary. We were invited into the mosque and took part in a friendly and brotherly cultural exchange. As is traditional, we drank tea with our hosts who were eager to communicate with us.
Excitement levels rose a little more when Selim Kara, at 72 the oldest man in the village, went off to get his 'board'. We couldn't stop asking questions about the 'thing', which was made from a plank with some string and a few bits of wood added on.
A champion of the history of his sport, the American snowboarder Jeremy Jones finally dared to ask the burning question which had been on everyone's lips: “How many years have people been 'boarding' on snow with these contraptions?”
There was hushed silence as Selim told us that his father had taught him to board in 1946 and that his grandfather and great grandfather before him were also boarders.
The boarding here involves using a pole and holding on to a piece of string with the other hand. It is good fun and was also used in ancient times to transport the sick down to the valley and as the quickest way of getting from one mountain range to another.
On hearing these words, we knew that snowboarding was born in these mountains in deepest Turkey a very long time ago.
Selim, Jeremy Jones and Stefan Gimpl
Then came a truly unforgettable moment for everyone. Outside the mosque we joined the village's inhabitants as they took to their snowboards from a bygone age.
Selim went first. Our minds were immediately filled with images of Sherman Poppen and his 'snurf', which now seemed faintly ridiculous.
This was a moment of complete happiness, a perfect communion between men who share the same pleasure and the same passion for the mountains, for snow and for boarding.
The energy arising from this mix of cultures centred around a common interest and was incredibly exhilarating.
Soon all the village's 'riders' had turned out to share the moment with us.
After a few runs, Jeremy and Stefan were getting the hang of the board and were entertaining the locals as they linked their turns.
We celebrated the day's extraordinary events with tea. We left with many happy memories and in the knowledge that we had shared something very special.
It was a very moving departure. Before leaving, we had suggested to Selim and his friends that we give them some snowboard equipment, goggles, hats and gloves. They all refused.
The simple fact of having spent the day with us was enough for them.
We left an isolated population devoid of all superficiality and advantages.
Hats off gentlemen, we have a great deal of respect for you.
The silence in the minibus as we left the mountains spoke volumes about our inner thoughts:
“'HISTORY' and who invented an activity is not always what others would have us believe. In any case, the history of snowboarding didn't begin with legal battles and commercial interests, and so much the better!”
Jeremy Jones, Selim and Stefan Gimpl
"...We were invited to the mosque. The cultural exchange was fraternal and friendly..."
"...When the senior went to seek its machine ofgliding, theexcitementof the assembled rose several notches..."
"...The senior "took off " first..."