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Heliskiing in the Russian Caucasus with Yak & Yeti

The Caucasus Mountains
The Caucasus mountains are a 1,000-kilometre long mountain system lying between the Black Sea to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east. It spans Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, and marks the border between Europe and Asia. The Caucasus mountain range boast 6 peaks exceeding 5000 m in altitude. The highest, Mount Elbrus, peaks at 5642 m, dethroning Mont Blanc as the highest mountain Europe.
The Caucasus mountains have remained very much unspoilt, and affords the visitor magnificent vistas of breathtaking beauty. Located as they are between the Black and Caspian Seas, the mountains enjoy exceptional snowfall conditions, which is uncommon at this latitude.
Krasnaya Polyana ski resort
Krasnaya Polyana ski resort is one of the most highly rated resorts in Russia, and particularly for heliskiing. Although the resort is small, if not minimalist, it does possess a certain charm. And despite its limited facilities (4 non-detachable chair-lifts), the sites boasts a more-than-reasonable altitude difference (with departures at 600 m and arrivals at 2200 m!), and there is enough to keep boredom at bay on days when adverse weather conditions make helicopter flights impossible.
The demarcated skiing area is limited to a few wide boulevards winding nonchalantly near the chair-lifts. The off-trail area, on the other hand, offers much more variety, including great conditions for forest skiing. Lift passes are not cheap, though, but then again queuing is unheard of and the scenery makes for a totally new experience. Tip: the grilled, marinated pork ribs sold at the foot of the resort are an absolute must!
Sparsely wooded birch-tree forests contribute to the superb skiing conditions (photo Yak and Yeti)>
The Chamonix-based company, Yak & Yeti, has several years' experience in organising heliski trips to this part of the Caucasus where, to gain access to the full potential of these mountains, the helicopter is the sole method of transport. Marc Testut, the director of the company, and a qualified mountain guide, actually lives in Krasnaya Polyana, organising trips himself directly from the resort...
The helicopter is an enhanced version of the MI8 (MIL), which is often used for mountain work. Leased by Yak & Yeti on a seasonal basis, the aircraft is operated by a 3-man crew and can transport up to 20 passengers (a group of 11 skiers and 2 guides is easily accommodated).

Drop-offs and pick-ups are generally made in full-hover or semi-hover mode (i.e., with one or three wheels on the ground but with the rotor blades rotating to ease the weight of the aircraft and prevent it from sinking into the snow).
< Boarding the MI8 before take-off
Because ascents are made by helicopter, ascent times are very short... as are rest times. As such, it is highly recommended that skiers be in relatively good physical condition.
The MI8 preparing to land >
There's no two ways about it: this is as good as it gets... By helicopter, and weather permitting, one is able to access those zones offering the best conditions. The contrast between the quality of the snow and the cool ambient temperature is striking. Apparently, for some obscure reason, the snow here changes form more slowly than in the Alps...The variety of terrains is remarkable, ranging from steep slopes and partially wooded valleys, to birch-tree or conifer forests.
< The variety of terrains accounts for much of the pleasure of heliskiing in this region (photo: Yak & Yeti)
For YAK & YET safety is of paramount importance. Each group (11 skiers) is accompanied by a European mountain guide (French in our case) - who heads the group and ensures that trails are safe for skiing - and by a Russian guide, who brings up the rear (and whose assistance is precious if you lose your skis in the snow). The two guides are in permanent radio contact with each other and with the helicopter. Each skier is given a bag containing a shovel, a probe and an avalanche beacon on the day of their arrival. They also attend a briefing session of safety procedures and the use of the avalanche beacon.
The safety of skiers owes much to the presence of the European-trained Alain Payot (member of the Society of Chamonix mountain Guides), shown here at a morning briefing at the hotel>
Accommodation and dining
In terms of accommodation, Yak & Yeti propose 2 options: private guest house or hotel. While each option has its own advantages, we recommend the hotel option, which is much more comfortable (and closer to Marc's restaurant, too). The clientele is mainly Russian and in most cases easy to get along with (for those who speak some English or French). The hotel boasts a swimming pool as well as a sauna (warning: Russians begin to perspire at around 115°C...), which very much appreciated after a full day on the trails...

Marc Testut's restaurant is the resort's main gathering point on evenings. Admittedly, the food (Russian) is good and the atmosphere warm and cosy, what with the logs, the Russian band, the immense fireplace and the vodka... Marc also organizes caviar tasting sessions on request. The caviar is good and inexpensive: The Caspian Sea is not far...
The Russian way of life
The Russian atmosphere adds a dimension which is difficult to find elsewhere. Because of the language barrier, communication is not always easy, but relations are generally cordial. However, with a glass of vodka (more often a bottle) "cordial" becomes "downright friendly" and it is quite likely that you will leave Russia with a few addresses in Moscow, Saint Petersburg or elsewhere in your pocket...
Unlike Alpine ski resorts, the village of Krasnaya Polyana is a haven of peace and tranquility. Shops are practically non-existent (buy your souvenirs in Moscow or Sochi), horses can often be seen roaming freely in the streets, and the atmosphere decidedly laid-back..
The trip
The program organised by Yak & Yeti is as follows:

To Russia:
Saturday or Friday evening: flight to Moscow
Overnight in Moscow (hotel booking made by Yak & Yeti; hourly shuttles to downtown Moscow),
Sunday: flight to Sochi
Transfers are organised by Yak & Yeti.
< Red Square
Remember to take very warm clothes for your walks in Moscow. In January, expect temperatures in the range of -7° to -13°C... However, once you get to Sochi (Russia's most well-known seaside resort) you'll be able to take off your schapska.... You'll be surprised to find palm trees and the Mediterranean temperatures are in sharp contrast with those in the capital. On arrival, you will be met by a charming interpretor who will conduct you to the Yak & Yeti van for the drive to Krasnaya Polyana along a small but pleasant winding road overlooking a gorge. For the return trip the following Sunday same-day connections for the Sochi-Moscow and the Moscow-Paris legs are possible.
View of the road to Krasnaya Polyana >
Our opinion
Fantastic skiing conditions, breathtaking panoramic views, and a unique cultural setting, at a price which is much more affordable than similar trips to Canada or Alaska... A must for those who enjoy adventure skiing but without compromising comfort and safety.
Our recommendations
Beware of overweight luggage... The baggage allowances which generally apply on other airlines do not apply on Russian airline. On internal flights, hand luggage is weighed along with luggage to be stored in the hold (and Yes, that can make all the difference, especially if you are carrying a pair of Langes...).
Airport formalities (security, customs, check-in, luggage taxes, luggage collection) take much longer and are much more fastidious in Russia... Make allowance for this when planning your trip. Also make allowance for inter-airport transfers: flights from Sochi arrive at Vnukovo airport while Moscow-Paris flights leave from Sheremetivo-2 (plan for between 45 minutes to 1 hour in transfer time).
A visa is required for trips to Russia. To obtain a visa, you need to provide valid passport, an invitation (provided by Yak & Yeti) and repatriation insurance. Note that the Russian consulate only accepts policies delivered by certain insurance companies (i.e., those which have a reinsurance policy with a Russian company). Make enquiries beforehand... (NB: one solution is to pay for your trip using a Premier Visa card).

When going out in Moscow, remember to take your passport with you (or a photocopy of your passport and your visa). ID checks are quite frequent...
Do not hesitate to take cash (dollars or euros). ATMs are available in hotels but cash withdrawals are a bit complicated (the person must be present and must call Moscow, if the telephone is working, etc...).
Yak & Yeti provides fat ski rentals on site. Fat skis are highly recommended as they make skiing on powdery snow much less tiring (especially if it is fresh). Unless you own your own fat skis, don't bother to bring your skis. The Caucasus in not Siberia...Temperatures are quite cool so you can leave your extreme weather clothing (your bear-skin suit, for example) at home. Carline type underwear, a polar fleece top and a protective jacket will be more than sufficient. Take a good back-pack which is large enough to carry a shovel, a probe and your personal effects...
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