Akela.World, Travelling Photographers | Adventure-gram

This awesome Austrian family are doing things differently

tajikistan_190617-140-bearbeitet

All photos by Akela.World

“I think everybody dreams of making a world trip, or something like this,” says Leander Nardin, his face slightly pixelated on my phone screen as he dials in from Eastern Siberia. Lots of people dream of making a world trip, sure. But not everyone finds themselves driving a converted 1977 Mercedes truck halfway across the world.

Yet this is exactly what Austrian photographer Leander, his girlfriend Maria and their six-year-old son Lennox have been doing for that past year and a bit. “I think it started five years ago,” says Leander, explaining the genesis of this crazy journey. “We went to Thailand when Lennox was one year old. We just went with backpacks for a few weeks but you know when you’re traveling with children, you have lots of stuff. It was way too exhausting and complicated.”

“He was just laughing, he said: ‘No mechanic is coming into the desert.’”

“Our dream destination was always New Zealand,” he explains, but after the Thailand experience they realised that it would be difficult enough as a couple, let alone with a young kid. “Flights only and the campervan for two or three months in New Zealand is about 10 or 15 thousand euros.

tajikistan_230617-15

Maria, Lennox, Leander and Akela.

“So I came up with the idea to buy a small bus and drive all the way down to New Zealand. Maria was like ‘man that’s a crazy idea, it’s bullshit’. But somehow it worked out.” So far this ‘bullshit’ idea has taken them almost 40,000km, and through some of the most incredible landscapes on earth. “My favourite has definitely been Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia,” says Maria. “Kyrgyzstan felt a little bit like home, like Austria – all the beautiful lakes and mountains”.

Follow the family on Instagram and you can see instantly why they have no regrets about their decision to pack up and go. Leander is a talented snapper, whose photos include portraits of interesting locals (“the eagle hunters in Kyrgyzstan were people I always wanted to shoot”, he says), and incredible landscapes. In fact, he says, “the only thing I regret is that we travelled through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan way too fast.”

Certainly on the surface, their life looks pretty perfect. Leander’s shots include plenty of Lennox, who’s an almost unbelievably photogenic kid with a cheeky smile and a mop of blonde hair. As we speak, he occasionally chips in in impressively fluent English.

There are also a lot of photos of what they refer to as “the fourth member of our family,” the truck itself. “The truck is named Akela because he’s our leading wolf,” explains Maria. Like the leader of the pack from the Jungle Book, “he protects us when it’s hot outside, when it’s raining, when it’s cold outside”.

tajikistan_080617-110

Tajikistan, home to the highest peaks in former-Soviet Central Asia.

However, Akela is not always the infallible guiding force the guys might have hoped for. “When he doesn’t work,” says Maria, “it’s pretty shitty.” But this is the great thing about Leander, Maria and the Akela.World Instagram account and blog they run, and what makes them really worth following.

They don’t try to project the always-perfect #VanLife cliché, they’re more real than that. Neither of them are about to pretend that life on the road doesn’t come with problems, and their account is full of pictures of the truck breaking down at inopportune moments. “Engine overheated with outside temperatures of -10 degree Celsius!! Really?? In the middle of nowhere in Siberia – on a Sunday!” reads one post.

Leander tells another story of a breakdown in rural Iran, “300 kilometres from the last big city. There are not many people on this road so we just waited and stopped a truck driver. Truck drivers actually know about other trucks. But my Farsi is pretty shitty so it was quite difficult. We figured out it’s a big problem, and he couldn’t help us. I asked him if he could call a mechanic. He was just laughing, he said: ‘No mechanic is coming into the desert.’”

As well as the truck the couple also worry about Lennox’s wellbeing. He’s homeschooled, and life on the road has been great for his English, which far outstrips the level you’d expect from a regular 6-year-old Austrian kid. But at the same time, Maria says, “meeting other children on the road is not the same like having friends at home. It’s only for a very short time and language is always a problem.

“He’s missing all his friends. We are two adults so we can speak on the same level, but Lennox is alone, and he misses his friends.”

But for all that life on the road can be tough, overall the experience has been a massively positive one according to Leander. “It’s more intense, for sure,” he says when I ask if it’s brought them closer together. “But more so in positive than in negative ways I think.”

Leander and Lennox take a spin on the motorbike.

Even back in Austria, the family was adventurous. And having brought a motorbike, snowboards, and even Leander’s wingsuit with them, they get out into the mountains at every available opportunity. But for every shot they post of skiing in Japan, or hiking up hills in Mongolia, there’s something self-deprecating to bring things their Instagram account back to earth.

“Let’s start with a kistchy sunset at one of Borneo’s beautiful beaches,” reads one post – which sums up exactly why we love Akela.World and why you should follow them. In an environment characterised by ‘hashtag influencers’ on ‘hashtag adventures’, these guys are the real deal.

They’re going all the places we wish we could get to, and taking better photos than we ever could. But they’re not taking any of it – or themselves – too seriously.

russia_140817-96-bearbeitet

A shot from the Siberian leg of the journey.

Follow Akela.World on Instagram here, check out their Akela.World blog here and their profile on Stocksy here.

To read the rest of Mpora’s Remote Issue head here

To read the rest of the Adventure-gram series go here

You may also like:

Adventure-gram | Ed Stafford, Explorer
My Life In Pictures | Josh Cunningham, Adventure Photographer

The post Akela.World, Travelling Photographers | Adventure-gram appeared first on Mpora.

The Fjällräven Classic | Conquering the King’s Trail in Sweden

A multi-day hike through the wilderness of Northern Sweden sounded exciting on paper. But we weren’t prepared for just how exciting things would get…

fjallraven-classic-hiking-the-kungsleden-in-swedenimg_9364

It’s only day three of our week-long trek, but as we struggle to pitch our tent behind the shelter of a boulder it’s obvious our best-laid plans have already gone out the window – or at least the mesh flap which passes for one. With the winds gusting at over 40 knots (a force nine gale in layman’s terms) we’re lucky the whole thing hasn’t blown away.

The following morning, a grim-faced volunteer at the next checkpoint tells us: “It’s been bad. I’ve just been looking at some statistics. We had 60 tents pitched near here last night and maybe 11 or 12 collapsed.”

“The Classic was dreamt up by Åke Nordin as a way to celebrate the Scandinavian concept of friluftsliv.”

None of this, it’s fair to say, fits with the picture I’d painted to my long-suffering girlfriend Simona when I’d persuaded her to come on the walk with me a month or so before. “Hiking, camping and cooking in the open air. It’ll be fun,” I’d said. “Plus loads of people do it every year, how hard can it be?”

Started in 2005, the Fjällräven Classic is a multi-day trek along a stretch of the trail known as the Kungsleden (or “King’s Trail”) in Northern Sweden. It was dreamt up by the brand’s founder Åke Nordin as a way to celebrate not only the company itself, but also the peculiarly Scandinavian conception of adventure it embodies, known as friluftsliv.

fjallraven-classic-hiking-the-kungsleden-in-swedenimg_9536

Twisted fire starters. Wild camping and lighting your own fire is expected in northern Sweden.

Literally this translates as “free air life” but (as you might expect from the people who invented flatpack furniture and the Tetra Pak) there are multiple layers of meaning folded into this neat little word. It’s not just a description of an activity, it’s also tied to a set of beliefs – the idea getting outside is good for you, that access is a fundamental right, and that the outdoors is for everyone, not just the hardcore.

Given the everyman ideals he’s espousing, Nordin’s idea of a fun hike looks quite daunting, at least on paper. The route stretches for 110 kilometres, beginning where the tarmac road ends at Nikkaluokta and winding through broad glacial valleys and past Sweden’s highest peaks. The finish line, which we’re told will take around a week to reach, is in the small frontier town of Abisko, nearly 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.

However, I wasn’t lying to Simona when I told her that lots of people complete the trek every year. From its humble beginnings when just 152 took part, the event has grown exponentially. In 2016 more than 2,000 people finished the Classic, and as we line up at the start, it’s obvious that our fellow trekkers have come from far and wide. We see Canadians, Germans, Koreans, Japanese, many of them obviously fans of of Fjällräven, who’ve dressed head-to-toe in the company’s kit for the occasion.

fjallraven-classic-hiking-the-kungsleden-in-swedenimg_1698

Simona, wearing the blues, not feeling them.

“There are actually people from 38 nations at the Classic this year, and only one quarter are Swedish,” says Anna-Luisa Stadelman, one of the startline volunteers, who admits to being something of a Fjällräven fangirl herself. “It’s my seventh year here,” she explains. “I’m German originally but I studied in Sweden in 2002 and first came on the Classic in 2008.”

fjallraven-classic-hiking-the-kungsleden-in-swedenimg_1598

Toytown. On certain sections of the route, like the Alesjaure Lake here, boats ferry people and goods between huts and the few tiny settlements.

As we set off, it’s easy to see what keeps people like Anna-Luisa keep coming back to the Classic year after year. Everything is as well-organised as you’d expect a mass-participation event to be. Maps, camping gas and free freeze-dried food are handed out to participants, and there are busses to take us to the start line. When we start walking the group quickly strings out, so it never feels crowded however, and by the time we stop to pitch our tent on the first evening, we’re completely alone.

When you’re this far north of the Arctic Circle in August it only gets dark for a couple of hours each day, and even then the light never fully leaves the sky. This means the sunsets are long, drawn out and spectacular. We cook our dinner in front of an incredible display as the sun goes slowly down over the snow-capped peaks ahead of us, painting the sky orange, red and purple as it sinks.

The following morning is equally idyllic. We’re in no rush, and wander down to the shore of a nearby lake to wash before hitting the trail. The water is bright turquoise, the result of glacier run-off further upstream, and icy cold. Simona, who’s Italian, thinks I’m mental for wanting to swim in it, but the sun’s shining and I warm up quickly once I’m out.

The hiking remains relatively easy until we reach the first checkpoint the picturesque fjällstation, or hill station, beneath Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain. Fjallraven Classic rules forbid us from staying in the pretty wooden huts (you have to camp from start to finish for the challenge to count). But thankfully they don’t stop us from eating in the restaurant.

Named Elsa’s kök (Elsa’s kitchen) after the legendary hostess who managed the hill station from the 1930s to the 1960s, it’s impressively gourmet given the remote location, serving modern Swedish food to guests seated at long, communal tables.

Our fellow diners are a mixed bunch – day trippers who’ve flown in on one of the distinctive red helicopters that resupply the Kungsleden’s network of huts, hikers who’ve been up the mountain (a hike that’s apparently the equivalent of going up Ben Nevis) and the properly hardcore.

fjallraven-classic-hiking-the-kungsleden-in-swedenimg_1757

Still as a millpond. Fresh water is everywhere on the Kungsleden, and you never go long without finding a drinkable source.

One side two wealthy 40-something women from Boston tell us how they come hiking in a different destination every year, travelling from hut to hut while someone else transports their bags. On the other side there’s a young Belgian couple who have already been on the trail for fifteen days. They obviously take this sort of thing very seriously. “We bought a kiln this year so we can make our own dehydrated food,” they tell us.

If the hiking thus far has shown us what attracted the Americans here, then the next few days will give us a taste of the more serious side of northern Sweden – the reason people like our Belgian friends consider the Kungsleden a challenge worthy of their attention.

“As we’re cooking breakfast, we look up to see a herd of wild reindeer trotting across the hillside opposite.”

It’s cold when we wake up, and drizzling slightly. Even through the trees that surround our tent, we can feel the wind is beginning to get up and as we set off and walk out above the treeline, both the rain and the wind get worse. Extra layers are put on, hoods are put up and rain covers are stretched over our backpacks.

We lean forward onto our poles, drop our shoulders and power on. But it’s exposed up here, and the storm seems to make the packs on our backs feel heavier. Suddenly carrying the extra camera gear, which has made my pack a hefty 25kg and taken Simona’s up to 19kg, doesn’t feel like such a good idea.

At one point we pass two fellow Classic participants, a Russian mother and daughter team from St. Petersburg, huddled behind a rock, sheltering against the wind.

They look like they’re struggling, and we’re glad when we see them make it to checkpoint two later that evening.

They’re far from the worst off though. A look at the route map on Fjällräven’s website shows images of happy hikers splashing around in a stream at the next checkpoint, Sälka. Yet it was here that the storm hit hardest, flattening all of those tents. “Some people carried on,” says Marie Olsson, the volunteer who’s been helping people pick up the pieces. “But because they’re staying in the huts it won’t count as completing the Classic.”

One couple have decided to call it a day altogether – as we’re eating our lunch one of the resupply helicopters lands next to us and they climb in, looking very grateful for the rescue. “Their tent was one of the ones that was destroyed,” says Marie sadly. “But also their boots were not good, their backpacks were too thin.” We thank our lucky stars that we’re kitted out in the right gear.

Certainly if the next few days teach us anything, it’s that neither the Kungsleden as a trail, nor the Classic as an event, should be underestimated. The terrain is never particularly steep, but the pathway is often strewn with rocks and can be tricky underfoot. For long sections the trail is just planks over boggy marshland and when the winds aren’t high enough to be an issue, the mosquitoes definitely are.

fjallraven-classic-hiking-the-kungsleden-in-swedenimg_1562

Down from on high. The highest point on the Classic route is only 1,140 metres but this far north snow isn’t infrequent even in August.

At the Tjäktja checkpoint we find three volunteers, Mathias, Tomas and Frederick, bundled up in multiple jackets and sheltering inside the check-in tent against the weather. “You wouldn’t believe it,” says Frederick, “but sometimes it’s so hot at this time of year people are walking the Classic with no shirts on. You have to jump in the streams to cool down.”

“Hmmm,” says Simona, as we warm our hands around the cups of tea they’ve kindly poured us. Then we head back out into the rain.

fjallraven-classic-hiking-the-kungsleden-in-swedenimg_9798

Somewhere over the rainbow. Stunning moments more than made up for the sometimes inclement weather.

But if there are moments where the Fjällräven Classic doesn’t feel like a summer holiday, they’re few and far between. More often, we find ourselves revelling in the sense of space, blown away by Lapland’s bleak beauty.

As we’re cooking breakfast one morning, with not another soul for miles around, we look up to see a herd of wild reindeer trotting across the hillside opposite. They stop just long enough for me to grab my camera and fire off a few frames, before they disappear over the next ridge.

On our penultimate day we find ourselves heading northwards across a wide open plateau, the sun dipping slowly behind the tents of a traditional Sami settlement to our left. Off to the right, we can see the tongues of two massive glaciers, reminders of the ice age that shaped and sculpted this ancient-looking landscape. “I feel like we might see a dinosaur here,” says Simona. If we did it certainly wouldn’t look out of place.

In the end, we don’t come across any sauropods. But we do come away with an appreciation of why this part of Sweden has attracted generations of outdoor enthusiasts. The Svenska Turistföreningen (the Swedish Tourist Association, or STF), has been managing and promoting this wilderness since it was first formed in 1885.

At strategic points along the trail, they’ve created what they call meditationsplats (meditation spaces) marked by stones carved with quotations by Däg Hammarskjöld, the Swedish diplomat and author.

As the second Secretary General of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld was a man who gave his life to the cause of peace (quite literally – he was killed on the job in 1961). And when he wasn’t working this part of the world, where he had a house, was where he came in search of it.

fjallraven-classic-hiking-the-kungsleden-in-swedenimg_9618

A sun-soaked section of trail near one of the meditationsplats.

Taken from his book Markings, the quotes are carved here in Swedish and Sami. Neither are languages that I speak. Nor am I normally given to meditation. But standing next to the stones and looking out at the rugged landscape which surrounds them, I start to understand why it was that Hammarskjöld thought this place was so special.

It’s the same reason Åke Nordin was so keen on enabling other people to explore it. Friluftsliv might be a tricky concept to define in English, but spend a few days hiking here, in Fjällräven’s home country, and it’s instantly obvious what the whole thing is about.

Do It Yourself:

Getting there:

Norwegian Airlines (norwegian.com) and SAS (flysas.com) both fly from London to Kiruna via Stockholm, from £305 return.

Accommodation:

Contestants on the Classic must stay in the tent that they carry with them. However, you can stay in the STF huts along the Kungsleden if you’re not part of the event. Visit swedishtouristassociation.com for the English language version of their website.

At the end of the Classic, we stayed in the Abisko Guesthouse (abiskoguesthouse.com)

Joining the Fjällräven Classic
You can sign up for the next Fjällräven Classic Sweden (or any of their global spin off events) at classic.fjallraven.com.

As a way for international visitors to explore this unique part of Sweden, it really is hard to beat. Fjällräven provide food and gas to participants, as well as organising a finishing party. Navigation is very straightforward but it’s worth remembering that while there are regular checkpoints, you’re on your own for the most part, so make sure you have everything on Fjällräven’s helpful packing list.

The Fjällräven Classic Sweden usually takes five to six days to complete, although you can definitely do it faster – the first pair across the finish line when we took part were trail runners who completed the whole thing non-stop in under 20 hours!

Tristan and Simona’s trip was hosted by Fjällräven. For more info visit fjällräven.co.uk

To read the rest of The Remote Issue, click here.

You may also like:

Walking Wales | Exploring the Remote Cambrian Way

Breaking the Dragon’s Back | Competing in the Legendary Fell-running Event

The post The Fjällräven Classic | Conquering the King’s Trail in Sweden appeared first on Mpora.

Leaving Las Vegas | Going From Neon To Nature In The American West

Discovering an adventure paradise in southern Utah, just four hours drive from Sin City

Bryce Canyon Utah guide

I’ve been on the Las Vegas Strip for less than ten seconds before I see four women, naked save for diamante nipple-tassels and tiny thongs. They’re posing for photographs with tourists, before asking for a not-so voluntary tip.

Dance music plays loudly. Initially, I assume, from the stereo of the many nearby sports cars that appear to be everywhere. Only after a short walk south on the Strip do I realise that the music isn’t coming from a car at all. It’s being pumped out into the street, seemingly from the ether.

From a distance, the vast hotel casinos that line the Las Vegas Strip glitter and shimmer in the bright sun, creating an enticing mirage in the middle of the desert. Up close, and at street level, they’re dizzying, 250 foot tall intimidating monoliths – save for the entrances that are designed to entice you in.

“Everyone appears to be getting drunk, already drunk, or high on what I can only assume is excitement and definitely not drugs”

Away from the entrance – and therefore the ability to separate visitors from their money – they are just towering, solid white walls, only interrupted by occasional posters for shows featuring young women, the likes of who I saw earlier, or young men wearing cowboy hats and thongs, but who look like they have little experience of herding cattle. Although, arguably, maybe that’s exactly what they do.

Outside, literally thousands of people walk slowly around on the Strip, clutching over-sized cans of American lager or brightly coloured frozen daiquiris in thin, five foot long, novelty plastic containers. The air is thick with the saccharine combination of sun-beaten tarmac, generously applied aftershave, and the vapour from a million e-cigarettes. Everyone appears to be getting drunk, already drunk, or high on what I can only assume is excitement, and definitely not amphetamines and cocaine. It’s 7.30pm on a Monday evening.

Las Vegas casino Bryce Canyon Utah guide

Slot-fiends feed the machines – Photo: Getty

Las Vegas casino Bryce Canyon Utah guide

Gamblers play in the Las Vegas casino’s around the clock – Photo: James Renhard

It’s like Freshers week for adults, but with cheap cider and innuendo-themed club nights replaced with the availability of anything you want, if you’re willing to pay the price for it. Vans drive past towing advertising hoardings offering the opportunity to have, what they claim to be, Las Vegas’ best looking women delivered direct to your hotel room. There are gigantic billboards advertising the chance to shoot guns, fly helicopters or a combination of the two. I’ve still only been in Las Vegas for 15 minutes and I find myself confused, and slightly intimidated.

It’s time for a drink.

Finding a drink in Las Vegas is like finding a spray-tan in Liverpool. However, what proves significantly harder is finding a bar that will sell you a beer while not encouraging you to gamble in some form or other. Getting to a casino bar involves walking past endless roulette tables and slot machines, and even then, there are gaming machines embedded in the actual bar themselves. Eventually, I opt for a sports bar that sold American lager in plastic cups. One beer later and it’s time for bed.

Las Vegas casino Bryce Canyon Utah guide

“You’re under arrest, and I’m under a vest. Just.” – Photo: Getty

The next morning I head back to the airport to collect my rental car. It means a short walk south on the Strip again. It’s quieter than last night, but still busy. There are less people drinking, and more people jogging. Dance music still pumps out of, well, I don’t know where. One homeless man urinates in the street while another is curled away from the Strip, leaning up against one of the many towering walls, lighter in one hand, a glass pipe in the other. I notice people still pumping money into slot machines, some with suitcases next to them, presumably trying one last time to win big before traveling home to normality. Las Vegas, baby!

I’m leaving.

***

Driving out of Las Vegas is a little like the minutes immediately after an argument with a loved one. The noise, chaos, and mild fear that’s gone immediately before is suddenly replaced with a still, quiet limbo. As the casinos, crowds and round-the-clock music disappear, I find myself braced for it to suddenly emerge again until long after the Strip has disappeared in the rear view mirror.

On the road from Las Vegas into southern Utah and Bryce Canyon, I ponder what I’m really trying to discover. I’m staying within reach of Sin City, but want something entirely removed from it. I want peace, nature and, most of all, space. At this point, I’d have no idea how different southern Utah would be to Las Vegas. Or quite how much it would be the same.

Bryce Canyon Utah guide

Fiery red rocks flank the road – Photo: James Renhard

The long nothingness of Nevada suddenly erupts into massive, otherworldly mountains of Utah. Just two hours from Las Vegas, and the road is flanked by imposing, fire red rocks. These give way to forests, then fields and plains, then rocks again. It’s a mesmerising pattern that continues until I pull into Snow Canyon State Park.

After stopping, I glance up from the map on my phone to the rearview mirror and notice a stranger approaching the car with some intent. It’s hard to tell if he genuinely looks like Old Man Marley from Home Alone, or if that’s just in my head. Either way, he’s getting closer, and I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do when this inevitably goes south.

“A natural energy seemingly pours out of the environment here”

“I can see from your licence plate you’re a foreigner” drawls the stranger, spotting the rental car’s California plates. A bellowing laugh follows a short pause, which does little to settle my nerves.

Despite my initial fear, the stranger was a Snow Canyon trail steward named Rich. Within minutes we’re both laughing, and he’s is suggesting local hikes and trails to take. His enthusiasm and love for his surrounding is obvious – something I’d later find out is not unique to Rich.

“Johnson Canyon is a nice short hike. You can go up to Scotts Cave. It’s a little bit longer, but an interesting hike” he tells me with the wide-eyed expression of a kid at Christmas. “We’ve got lava tubes!” he adds with the kind of gasp that suggests he almost forgot to mention them. “They’re really cool!”

Bryce Canyon Utah guide

The walls of slot canyons tower high above hikers below – Photo: James Renhard

In fact, his childlike joy only seems to drop when I mention that, after three nights in Utah, I’d be heading back to Las Vegas to fly home. “Oh. Okay.” The disappointment is audible in Rich’s voice before he quickly shifts the attention back to Snow Canyon.

“Do you know about the petroglyphs in the area? Oh wow. We’ve got some really cool petroglyphs here. It’s not a terribly difficult hike to get to them.” If Rich had a tail, it would be wagging. His warmth and enthusiasm is infectious. And it’s not in the hope of a tip, it’s not service with a smile. It seems to be the energy he gets from his surroundings.

Eventually, Rich bounds away, and I drive in the other direction, through Snow Canyon Park, stopping to explore. Before long the massive walls of Jenny’s Canyon tower high above as I walk deeper and deeper into it. Daylight is just a scratch in the darkness above, as the rock around me is dizzyingly high.

The next morning begins early and with an unusual freshness. I tell myself it’s the natural energy that seemingly pours out of the environment here, but Utah’s strict alcohol licensing laws may also be a factor.

As the journey continues towards Bryce Canyon, the sheer otherworldliness of the surroundings gets increasingly, well, otherworldly. On the way, I stop at Red Canyon with it’s gigantic rusty rocks that line the road on either side, broken up by patches of green trees. Two arches of rock reach over the road, like arms trying to rip the tarmac from the floor. It’s a psychedelic experience – a completely natural splash of colours and vivid imagery.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid once roamed this area, back when the west was wild, often hiding out for days at a time in a hut along what is now imaginatively called the Cassidy Trail. I can’t help but think that, with such wild imagery and views around me, mixed with the exciting brush of criminal history, this place feels like everything Las Vegas tries so hard to convince you it is.

Bryce Canyon Utah guide

The archways in Red Canyon, Utah – Photo: James Renhard

As noon approached, I’m back on the road, heading along Byway 12 to Kodachrome Basin State Park. At over 2000 acres, it’s a huge expanse of canyons and plains, disrupted by over 60 burnt orange stone spires that reach up towards the sky from the ground, some reaching 52 metres in the air.

So taken with the beauty and vivid colours of the area when they explored it in 1949, the US National Geographic Society named the park Kodachrome Flat, after the then relatively new range of Kodak film they used. It was later changed to the more literal Chimney Rock State Park, before National Geographic successfully had the name returned to Kodachrome Basin State Park.

“The three state parks we have in Bryce rival national parks in other states”

Pulling into the carpark of the visitors centre, I’m greeted by Park Manager, Jon Wikan. “Do you mind if I record” I ask Jon, taking my dictaphone out as I walk into his office. Every other American I’ve ever met has an ability to be stern, yet polite. Wikan didn’t get the memo. “I will not be recorded” he insisted bluntly, simultaneously channeling both Gunnery Sergeant Hartman and a mid-tantrum Elton John.

Wikan talks through the history of Kodachrome, the name changes, the geology, and the slightly terrifying natural inhabitants , including cougars, coyotes and rattlesnakes. None of them are as frightening as Wikan himself. However, when I ask him for recommendations for trails, he warms. It’s as if he now sees somebody who’s here to enjoy this amazing, natural playground, and not just stand in an office asking questions.

Wanting to capitalise on this change of atmosphere, I ask Wikan – who lives in the state park itself – what he does when he wants a break from it all. Confusion at the notion of not being in the park is briefly written across his face until he replies, “Well, I go and visit other national parks.” I stifle an unfair chuckle. After all, it’s clear Wikan is deeply in love with this very special place he calls home.

Risking displeasing him just as we’d brokered as close to a friendship as Wikan and I will ever have, I confess that, after my brief stay in the area, I’m heading back to Las Vegas. “Las Vegas?” he retorts in a tone with far less disgust that I’d imagined, “On your way in, check out Valley Of Fire State Park. It’s got some really good terrain.”

Bryce Canyon Utah guide

The incredible red chimney-like formations at Kodachrome Basin State Park – Photo: Getty

Bryce Canyon Utah guide

The arid, petrified foliage in Kodachrome – Photo: James Renhard

I leave Park Manager Wikan and continue exploring the park he clearly loves. Now well into the afternoon, I head to the two-mile Grand Parade Trail, wandering between the huge red chimneys and petrified trees, listening for wildlife rustling in the arid bushes, and really hoping not to hear those rattlesnakes.

That evening I head back on myself to Bryce Canyon to meet local resident and history buff Falyn Owens for dinner in a suitable wild west-feeling roadside restaurant. I want to know what she thinks makes this part of Utah so special.

“Honestly, I don’t think there is any place like it anywhere.” replies Falyn with gushing enthusiasm “Around every turn, there’s something different. There’s the red rocks of Bryce, the forest, the desert… ”

“People relocate here because of the energy, and the peacefulness”

Just like everybody I’ve spoken to since leaving Las Vegas and crossing into Utah, Falyn’s enthusiasm for her environment is boundless, and infectious. I try to hide what I’m sure is wide-eyed wonder on my face. With things going so well, I can’t help but see if mention of my Las Vegas origins changes the tone. Still smiling, Owens shifts to what appears to be a more diplomatic approach. “Vegas is iconic,” she admits, “ and everyone wants to do the Vegas thing at least once. Most people fly into Vegas for Bryce Canyon. It’s actually our biggest gateway city. We call it Neon to Nature!”

I try to hide my disappointment at realising this particular adventure is maybe not as original as I once thought. I broach the strange, peaceful energy that there seems to be in the area. “I think people relocate here because of that energy, and that peacefulness that it brings. A lot of people like to get out into the desert area just because of that.”

“Bryce is the hook – the three state parks we have rival national parks in other states – but we have so many hidden gems. The Thunder Mountain trail is very popular for mountain biking. Disney has a ride called Thunder Mountain that’s actually based on that trail. Canyoneering, horseback riding, we’ve hosted the Tour de Utah in the past…”

Before we part ways, Falyn recommends a few hiking trails to try, including Lower Calf Creek Falls in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is apparently a must.

Bryce Canyon Utah guide

Hoodoo’s in the Amphitheater at Bryce Canyon National Park – Photo: Getty

It’s the morning of my last full day in Utah and, again, I’m awake with an energy and freshness I’m not usually accustomed to, especially prior to coffee. I drive down to Bryce Canyon State Park. This natural, orange and red theatre is home to hoodoo’s: long spires of rock that point skywards, the product of millions of years of geological magic and weather erosion.

There are over 50 miles of hikeable trails, twisting and turning like veins through the network of hoodoos and other geological anomalies. However, the words of Falyn are still ringing in my ears, and the pull of Lower Calf Creek Falls proves irresistible.

From Byway 12, the pink, orange, and white rock formation that staggers up to the sky giving Grand Staircase it’s name is clear. It looks like it’s specifically designed for some deity, or a giant to use to ascend into the heavens. I’m around a four hour drive from Las Vegas, but it seems like a million years away.

Bryce Canyon Utah guide

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is worth a lot in Scrabble if you can get it – Photo: James Renhard

I arrive at the trailhead for Lower Calf Creek Falls. Jon Wikan had told me it was an easy hike. The sign at the start of the trail said it was an easy hike. Scrambling up the side of a sandstone boulder, 20 minutes in suggested that my definition of easy differed from that of other people. The variable terrain, switching from deep soft sand, to hard rock, to small climbs was enough to eat the hours away. Being sunk deep into the gorge that makes up a lot of the trail felt slightly intimidating, but also strangely affirming, in the same way that being in the ocean, or at the top of a mountain can.

Some hours later, I find the reward for my excursion; a 65 metre high waterfall. The rock behind it shines with a thousand different colours, the afternoon sun constantly changing it like a giant kaleidoscope. I spend a few minutes there, which feel genuinely special.

These falls somehow sum up the entire Bryce Canyon area. Intimidatingly powerful, yet calm. Vast, yet intimate. Awash with incredible, psychedelic pallet that no photograph can ever do justice.

I head back to the car where, en route, a hiker stops and asks if I’ve seen any cougars on the trail. She seems disappointed when I say no, adding that they’re quite common in the area. My pace quickened.

Bryce Canyon Utah guide

The breathtaking Lower Calf Creek Falls – Photo: James Renhard

After a final night in Bryce Canyon, I find myself back on the road, headed towards Las Vegas, the town I’d been so keen to escape. I wanted to find somewhere that offered the opposite of Sin City, but stay within reasonable reach. In Bryce Canyon I certainly found that.

Gone were the crowds of slow moving, slot-machine devotees. Hell, for the most part, gone were people all together. There was no facade of service with a smile. The bluff and puff of showmanship was absent. Bryce Canyon offers the kind of space and tranquility that’s simply unimaginable when standing four hours away on the Las Vegas Strip. The two places couldn’t be more different. I was prepared for that. What I didn’t expect was to find that they were also kind of the same.

Looking up at those Las Vegas casinos is much like standing at the base of a hoodoo, or in a slot canyon, looking up at the tiny slither of sky above. Both places can easily confound and bewilder visitors, with their sheer size and vast array of options. Las Vegas has a kind of sickly, synthetic conveyor-belt energy to it. Bryce Canyon has a more holistic, natural pulse that seems to seep into your skin.

Hours pass and eventually Las Vegas appears on the horizon. My eyes are fixed on the glistening, shimmering mirage in the desert ahead, but my heart is still a few hours behind, among the fire red rocks, and the peace and quiet of Bryce Canyon.

Getting There

Bryce Canyon Utah guide

Norwegian fly a winter service from London Gatwick to Las Vegas using brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, with a choice of Premium or Economy cabins.

Economy fares start from £200 one way, £350 return. For more information see the Norwegian website.

Bon Voyage offer a seven night stay in Utah, flying from London Gatwick to Las Vegas with Norwegian from £1095 per person, based on two people traveling. The price included the above mentioned flights, three nights B&B at Inn on the Cliff, St. George, three nights room only at Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel and one night room only at the Canyon’s Boutique Hotel in Kanab. The price is valid for travel between November 2018 and March 2019

From Las Vegas, Bryce Canyon is about a four hour drive north-east along Interstate 15, via a 50 mile stretch of Arizona and on to the infinitely photogrenic Byway 12. We used Rhino Car Hire to rent an SUV. A seven day car rental starts from £190. For more information see RhinoCarHire.com

For more information about Bruce Canyon Country and Utah, see visitutah.com

Read the rest of the April ‘Remote’ issue here

You May Also Like:

Mountain Biking Sierra Leone & Liberia | A West African Cycle Adventure for Street Child

Bryce Canyon | Adventure Travel Guide

The post Leaving Las Vegas | Going From Neon To Nature In The American West appeared first on Mpora.

Ski Touring in France | The Secret Powder Stashes of the Maurienne Valley

Incredible terrain, cheap lift passes and its own microclimate. This valley really has it all

_edited-ski-touring-in-france-haute-maurienne-33

It’s still early, my breakfast has barely settled, and yet here I am halfway up an icy, 55-degree slope, kicking footholds and digging my board in with every step to stop myself from slipping. Most guides would start a new group of skiers off with a cruisey red or blue run to assess their level. But Sylvain Rechu, who’s bounding up the hill ahead of me with the sure-footed self-assurance of the proverbial mountain goat, has no such time for such niceties.

The experience is all the more discombobulating because less than 24 hours ago I was at home in London. In between there have been two high-speed trains, a metro journey in Paris, a taxi to resort and three chairlifts rides, but it’s definitely still one of the more rapid ascents to 3,000 metres I’ve ever made.

“In winter the road is closed, so the valley remains a hidden secret, tucked away from the tourist crowds.”

In Sylvain’s defence, our group is pretty experienced, and no-one is uncomfortable getting stuck straight into this kind of terrain. Also, we have a lot of ground to cover if he’s going to show us the best that the Maurienne valley has to offer in just three and a half days.

Although it’s home to no fewer than 24 separate ski resorts, the Maurienne remains something of an unknown quantity, at least to most British skiers. Between us, our group, which includes my friends Matt, Cat and Abi, have spent decades exploring the French Alps, both for business and pleasure. Yet most of us have never been here, and none of us knows the area well.

Stairway to heaven. Matt scales the steep ascent in Bonneval-sur-Arc on our first day.

Stairway to heaven. Matt scales the steep ascent in Bonneval-sur-Arc on our first day.

The zone we’ll be exploring, the Haute Maurienne, is just a stone’s throw from some of France’s most famous mega-resorts as the crow flies. From Bonneval-Sur-Arc, where we met Sylvain this morning, you can actually drive to Val d’Isere in under two hours in the summer. But in winter the road, which winds over the Col d’Iseran, is closed. And so the valley remains a hidden secret, tucked away from the tourist crowds. As Eric Provost, Bonneval’s directeur de domaine skiable, tells us: “We have two kinds of visitors here – families who want something a bit quieter, and freeriders.”

The advantages of the Haute Maurienne’s lesser-known reputation are instantly obvious as we reach the objective that Sylvain’s set his sights on – a ridgeline just below the 3,217 metre Pointe d’Andagne. Down the other side we can see a broad, open valley which looks like it could provide a whole season’s worth of lines. Incredibly, although it’s five days since it last snowed, it’s nearly all untracked.

It’s hard not to be excited as we remove skins from our skis and splitboards. But this expectation is tempered by a certain amount of rationalisation. It’s the middle of April and it’s sunny. Even though the bowl isn’t tracked out, the snow surely can’t be fresh, can it? Yet as I follow Sylvain down into the face, I find myself letting out an involuntary whoop. It is fresh! At least a lot of it is.

ski-touring-in-france-haute-maurienne-66

A man of many talents. Sylvain Rechu, the guide, trades in his skis for a snowboard one day and kills it on both.

The long, 600 vertical metre descent (named Anselmet after a local guide) winds its way down chutes and around ice cliffs. On the north facing aspects and in the shade of the rocks, the snow feels as if it could have fallen just hours before. Stopping to gather the group before the runout, there are high fives and broad grins all round. It’s some of the best snow we’ve had all season.

ski-touring-in-france-haute-maurienne-63

Lads & lasses on tour. The group in La Norma, high above the Haute Maurienne.

I don’t care how hardcore you are, one of the best things about skiing in spring is the leisurely lunches in the sun. Thankfully the Haute Maurienne doesn’t disappoint. A quick tour up and a run down a more sun-affected lower slope takes us to the village of l’Ecot. Beyond the absurdly pretty stone church and down the winding streets we find Sylvain’s favourite restaurant, a converted farmhouse called Chez Mumu. It’s been a solid morning’s workout and we wash down our plates of pasta and boudin noir (French black pudding) with a couple of well-deserved beers.

As we eat, Sylvain explains more about the surrounding area and its unique microclimate. The valley benefits from a weather system called the Retour d’Est, which spirals up northwards from the gulf of Genoa and regularly dumps snow on the Maurienne even when the more northerly resorts in France are missing out. Could this place be much better for freeriding?

Our impression of the area as something of a secret backcountry paradise is reinforced the following day. Sylvain drives us down the valley (past a 19th century chateau perched improbably on the edge of a cliff) to the resort of La Norma. Unseasonal clouds swirl around the peak as we ride up the chairlift, but they begin to clear as we put skins on skis and boards and begin the tour up to the ridgeline below the peak at 2,917 metres.

From here, a series of steep couloirs plunge down towards a red piste some 400 vertical metres below, offering a whole plethora of different lines. The chute we drop into has a few tracks down it, and the snow is more chopped up and challenging than what we’d ridden the day before. But there are still some of the same miraculous pockets of fresh, and the run out – fast and open – sees us slashing and spraying each other all the way down to the piste.

Our next stop is Aussois, another of the resorts that are covered by the unified Haute Maurienne Eski-mo pass. Like La Norma and Bonneval-sur-Arc, it boasts fewer than a dozen lifts, but that still doesn’t explain how they can justify selling their six-day, five-resort passes for the ludicrously low price of €158. That’s more than €100 cheaper than a 6-day Espace Killy pass, which covers Tignes and Val d’Isere in the Tarantaise.

ski-touring-in-france-haute-maurienne-140

Crusin’ – Cat Weakley enjoys a sunny run down to the refuge.

This difference in price between the two valleys is something Franck Buisson is fond of reminding his guests of. We meet Franck, the long-serving guardian of the Refuge de la Dent Parachée, after an hour or so of touring off the top of Aussois through the late afternoon sunshine. A jovial man with an easy smile and a twinkle in his eye, he welcomes us with a bottle of genepi and a whole slew of stories, most of which involve the stuck up rich folks from the Tarantaise getting their comeuppance at the hands of the wily Mauriennais.

ski-touring-in-france-haute-maurienne-112

To be franck… The man, the myth, the legend in full swing.

It’s apparently a fairly common stereotype round these parts, but Franck is such an excellent raconteur that even the guides bringing clients over from Val d’Isere can’t help but chuckle. As dinner arrives and the genepi keeps flowing he tells the story of a friend who’s a helicopter pilot stopping in for lunch one day, and accidentally taking off with one of his chickens in the cockpit. “And then I went to Courchevel and they were trying to sell me chicken and chips for €120 – not only did my chicken get taken to the Tarentaise but now they’re trying to sell it back to me for €120!” He laughs, outraged.

Sleeping arrangements in the refuge are basic – there’s one main dorm which fits around 30 guests, who have to share the wide on wooden bunks in groups of three or four. But whether it’s the genepi, the long day outdoors, or the quiet of the remote location, I sleep soundly, despite the inevitable snore-chestra that cranks into action after lights out.

“A jovial man with an easy smile and a twinkle in his eye, he welcomes us with a bottle of genepi.”

It’s just as well because the following morning we’re out early, strapping harnesses over our ski pants and adding ice axes and crampons to our touring packs. From the refuge at 2,520 metres we’re aiming to tour to the 3,300 metre Col d’Abby. The snow here has definitely been affected by the sun, and where it’s refrozen on the steeper slopes, the ice is slippery enough that skins are no longer enough.

Strapping on crampons and using axes makes everything feel instantly more sketchy, but in the end the final ascent isn’t too taxing. Once again we’re treated to an incredible panoramic view, with fun-looking lines in all directions. Unfortunately despite Sylvain’s dynamic leadership, we’ve reached the ridge a little bit late and won’t have time to drop down the other side and make it back over. There’s a last lift we need to catch in Aussois if we’re going to make it back up the valley to Val Cenis, our final stop of this trip, tonight.

But if we’ve not quite completed the full tour Sylvain had planned, no-one in the group is hugely disappointed. Instead, we opt to take our time over the sunny line back the way we came at a leisurely pace. Arriving at the refuge earlier means we can enjoy another long, sunny lunch too, and a few more of Franck’s stories.

We might not have seen everything the valley has to offer – that would have been impossible in such a short space of time. But we’ve certainly seen enough to get a sense of the potential. With its 3,000 metre-plus peaks, its peculiarly consistent snow, and its lack of crowds, this place offers everything a freerider could want, and all at a fraction of the price you’d pay elsewhere. And then of course there are the friendly locals.

As the TGV whisks us back across France after an entertaining final morning in Val Cenis I reach into my bag and pull out the bottle that Franck had pushed into my hands as we left.

“This is a your payment,” he’d said with a wink, after I promised to send him some photos of the refuge to hang on his wall. Franck hasn’t bothered listing such trifles as the alcohol percentage on the homemade label, but needless to say it’s powerful stuff. Whether it’s the speed of the train, the strength of the moonshine, or simply the excellent company, the journey flies by in a blur. And when we pull into London’s crowded St Pancras station with a bump, I feel a little like Lucy coming back from Narnia. Were we really exploring a secret powdery paradise just a few hours before?

ski-touring-in-france-haute-maurienne-116

Happy valley… The sun setting over the Maurienne.

Do it yourself:

screen-shot-2018-04-17-at-12-24-24

Getting there:

Train fares from London to Modane, in the Maurienne Valley, start at £116 standard class return. Book with SNCF (voyages-sncf.com).

Accommodation:

In the valley, we stayed at he 2-star Hotel La Clé des Champs in Val Cenis Lanslevillard (hotel-lacledeschamps.com) where rooms start at €68 per night.

Up the mountain we stayed at the Refuge de la Dent Parachée (refugeladentparrachee.ffcam.fr) which is open from March 1st and offers Bed, Breakfast, Dinner for €45.20.

Guides & Liftpasses:

We were guided by the awesome Sylvain Rechu, who kills is on skis and a snowboard equally. He works for the French/Swedish outfit Off Piste Maurienne (offpistmaurienne.com)

The 6-day Eski-Mo liftpass includes a day at each of the five Haute Maurienne member resorts (Aussois, Bonneval, La Norma, Val Cenis, Valfréjus) and a second day at the resort at which the pass is purchased. Prices range from €158-€198 depending on the time of year. Book from the Eski-Mo website (eski-mo.com)

Tristan’s trip was hosted by the French Tourist board and the Haute Maurienne region. For more info on the area, visit haute-maurienne-vanoise.com.

You may also like:

Ski Touring in France | In Pursuit of Powder in the Tarentaise Valley

Cat Skiing in Kazakhstan | Exploring the East Pole

The post Ski Touring in France | The Secret Powder Stashes of the Maurienne Valley appeared first on Mpora.

Cat Skiing in Kazakhstan | Exploring the East Pole

This new, family-run cat-skiing lodge is seriously remote, but well worth the journey

snowboarding-in-kazakhstan

Words by Tristan Kennedy | Photos by Dan Medhurst

We can hear the snow cats well before we can see them. The grumble of their low-ratio diesel engines, the clank and clatter of their tracks. Using head torches, we start to unload our bags from the bus, working quickly to keep warm in the subzero temperatures.

And then they emerge from the woods, lights blazing, wheels whirring, gearboxes clunking as they climb the final incline: Two small, snub-nosed, tank-like machines that look like it might have been designed for driving on the moon. These rickety-looking vehicles will provide our transport for the next week, and also our only connection to the outside world.

“These rickety-looking vehicles will provide our transport for the next week, and also our only connection to the outside world.”

Jumping in snow cats to ride the last few miles through a frozen forest is far from your average ski resort transfer, but then the place we’re heading is far from your average ski resort. In fact, it’s pretty far from anything.

This is Vostochnyy Polyus, which means the East Pole in Russian – an apt name for this remote cat-skiing lodge. Located in the Altai Mountains, where the borders of Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet, it’s a place that takes some getting to.

cat-skiing-in-kazakhstan-east-pole-ridder-altai-mountains-snowboard-kazakhstan-2017-dan-medhurst-0789

“They’re small, snub-nosed, tank-like machines that look like they might have been designed for driving on the moon.”

An eight-hour flight from London via Kiev gets you to Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. From there, you fly northwards for a further hour and a half across the empty vastness of the Central Asian steppe to Ust-Kamenogorsk.

This slightly down-on-its-luck city was a centre for the mining and metallurgical industries in Soviet times, but the mountains it gets its ore from are still a two-and-a-half hour drive away. So if, like us, you want to go snowboarding, you then pile into a bus which takes you down a series of increasingly icy and increasingly remote roads.

The snow drifts on the roadsides get higher the further we get from town. At one point our driver slows down to let a hunter in arctic camouflage cross. He’s got an old, bolt-action rifle and wooden skis with actual animal skins on the bottom – technology that hasn’t been seen in the West since the 1950s. When we finally arrive in the small town of Ridder and transfer to the snow cats, we really do feel like we’re in the middle of nowhere.

cat-skiing-in-kazakhstan-east-pole-ridder-altai-mountains-snowboard-kazakhstan-2017-dan-medhurst-1058

“We really do feel like we’re in the middle of nowhere…”

Luckily both the lodge and the welcome that awaits us are warm. East Pole is a family-run affair, set up by Zhenya, his wife Dasha and his friends Boris and Misha.

They’re ably assisted in their efforts by their mothers (Dasha’s mum is a sixty-something badass who walks the dogs by taking them ski touring each morning) and occasionally impeded by their sweet young son, who insists on taking them tobogganing at the least convenient times. My brother Rowan and his wife Olya, who live and work in Almaty, discovered this last season and our party is greeted like old friends.

The following morning it quickly becomes apparent why someone would want to build a lodge somewhere this remote – there is just so much snow. It’s piled high on the roofs of the outbuildings and lies thick on the paths. It hasn’t snowed for several days, but somehow there’s a lot of it still clinging to the branches of the dark pine trees that surround the cabins.

Most of Kazakhstan, a country the size of Western Europe, is covered in dry, desert-like grassland. But the mountain ranges which flank its Eastern border enjoy an impressive amount of precipitation, despite their distance from the sea.

The extreme continental climate means it’s cold (from November to March it rarely gets above minus 5°C), so that the snow that falls stays light and fluffy and the season is long. “We can be skiing here in May,” says Zhenya, as we get ready to head out for the day.

cat-skiing-in-kazakhstan-east-pole-ridder-altai-mountains-snowboard-kazakhstan-2017-dan-medhurst-0925

“They might not look like much, but they’ve got it where it counts.”

If today’s snowcats, with their button-filled, spaceship-like cockpits, are marvels of modern technology, then the two at East Pole are the equivalent of the Millenium Falcon. The controls are beyond basic – two sticks that you move back and forth like a tank – and starting them up involves jamming a key into the ignition. But while they might not look like much, they’ve got it where it counts.

“They’re a Japanese model from the 1980s originally,” Rowan translates from Russian as we climb. “They bought these in Siberia, where apparently they’re pretty popular all over because they’re easy to fix.”

“If today’s snowcats are marvels of modern technology, then the two at East Pole are the equivalent of the Millenium Falcon.”

Zhenya meanwhile, combines Chewbacca’s piloting skills and strong, silent-demeanour with Han Solo’s abilities as an engineer. Like Solo, he’s done a lot of modifications himself. “He spent a lot of the summer working on the white cat,” Rowan explains.

“He put in a new Nissan turbo diesel engine, so it really goes.” And although the engine breaks down at one stage during our stay, it’s nothing that he can’t fix with a couple of curses and a few well-placed blows of his hammer.

The mountains around East Pole are not particularly high. The highest peak in this part of the Altai is the 2,760m Mount Voroshilov and nearly everything we ride is below the treeline. It still takes over an hour to get to the top at the speed of the slower cat, but the sight that greets us from the top of the ridge is more than worth the wait.

It’s a grey, overcast day, with low-hanging clouds obscuring much of the sky. In the distance, the pitheads and chimneys or Ridder are still visible. But it’s not what’s in front of us that’s exciting, it’s what we can see beneath our boards and skis.

Soft, deep, fluffy powder snow, the stuff that dreams are made of. The slope drops away gently ahead of us, and there’s not a single blemish on it anywhere.

After a quick check of our avalanche beacons, Zhenya leads us off, and right from the first turn, it’s perfect. The trees are widely spaced and easy to dodge around, and the gradient is ideal for our mixed ability group – gentle enough that it doesn’t scare the intermediates, but steep enough that you can tear down it at speed should you choose.

By the time I’ve ridden 100 metres, I’ve got spray covering my goggles and a huge grin on my face that won’t leave it all day.

cat-skiing-in-kazakhstan-east-pole-ridder-altai-mountains-snowboard-kazakhstan-2017-dan-medhurst-0557

Pillow talk – Dan Bott drops a cornice near in the East Pole lodge.

The days are short at this time of year, and by 3.30pm the sun is already dipping towards the horizon. A group of our size (there are 11 of us, plus another couple of guests staying over from the previous week) will get three or possibly four runs in a day.

But this hardly seems to matter when each one is a screaming, back-leg-burning descent of the kind you could wait a whole season for in Europe. In the 20 years I’ve been snowboarding, this is the best snow I’ve ever ridden anywhere, and by the time we get to base, we’re buzzing.

Like the cats, the lodge is a homemade affair. The original building was a beekeeper’s shack, before Zhenya, Boris and Misha built the bunkhouse, the garage and the banya (or Russian sauna).

Guests sleep six to a room in the main cabin and dry their kit on a series of washing lines strung around the wood-burning stove in the kitchen. It’s basic but it’s cosy, and the food, traditional fare cooked by Boris’ mother Natasha, is excellent.

cat-skiing-in-kazakhstan-east-pole-ridder-altai-mountains-snowboard-kazakhstan-2017-dan-medhurst-1031

“The food prepared by Boris’ mum, Natasha, is excellent.”

Breakfast each day is a different kind of kasha (or porridge), and evening meals are never less than three courses – a soup and a salad followed by something hearty and filling.

Natasha’s plov (Uzbek fried rice) is super tasty, and despite the initial misgivings of some in our party, beshbarmak, a traditional Kazakh dish made of noodles and horsemeat sausage, proves to be a huge hit. I draw the line at saleh though. However much I try, there’s simply no way I can chew the chunks of raw pig fat without gagging.

cat-skiing-in-kazakhstan-east-pole-ridder-altai-mountains-snowboard-kazakhstan-2017-dan-medhurst-0842

Slasher porn – Dan Bott with a toeside turn.

By day three we’ve settled into a rhythm. Wake up early, endure the inevitable faff that comes with getting 11 people ready to go out in subzero temperatures, and get as many hours hard riding in as we can before it begins to get dark.

Lunches are brief affairs – a 20 minute break with sandwiches and hot, black tea served off the bonnet of the snow cats. Unfortunately for me, saleh seems to feature regularly.

“You’ve got pig fat on your goggles mate,” says my Australian friend Matt as I pick them up one afternoon. Not a phrase you hear every day.

cat-skiing-in-kazakhstan-east-pole-ridder-altai-mountains-snowboard-kazakhstan-2017-dan-medhurst-0174

Pointing it – an indy nose bone off a pillow drop

We spend our evenings back at the base reading, playing cards or the guitar. There’s no WiFi or mobile phone reception out here, but that bothers no-one – looking through the day’s shots together or watching snowboard films on laptops feels more friendly than everyone checking Instagram individually anyway.

If the lack of WiFi makes evenings communal, the lack of showers makes them even more so. The lodge does have hot water (Zhenya has rigged up a typically ingenious plumbing system) but it all comes from a tank, so it’s reserved for Natasha’s kitchen, the cleaning of teeth and the flushing of toilets. If you want a wash, you have to head to the banya.

Banyas are an institution in this part of the world. They’re usually homemade, and a whole lot more sketchy than the sauna you might find down your local gym. You don’t shower when you’re hot and sweaty, you run out and dive face first into the snow (an experience best described as err… bracing). Nudity is actively encouraged, and drinking is de rigueur. More often than not, by the time we’ve finished washing and staggered back towards the bunkhouse in a cloud of steam, we’re several beers down.

cat-skiing-in-kazakhstan-east-pole-ridder-altai-mountains-snowboard-kazakhstan-2017-dan-medhurst-0310

Digging your heels in – the author taking his turns.

The party-like atmosphere of these sessions is amplified significantly by the arrival halfway through the week of Stas Jerikhov and his group of friends.

A big bear of a man with a penchant for bawdy stories (a typical one involves a banya-goer who somehow managed to nail his foreskin to the floor) he introduces banny venik to the proceedings – birch twigs that you beat each other with to bring your blood to the surface of the skin. He’s also a fan of pre and post banya shots of vodka. His favourite toast? To “sport, sex and rock n’ roll!”

“Stas Jerikhov has a penchant for bawdy stories and vodka shots. His favourite toast? To ‘sport, sex and rock n’ roll!’.”

Towards the end of the week we decide to swap the cats for a couple of days ski touring. We don’t cover as much ground in a day, but breathing fresh air between runs makes a welcome change from being cooped up in diesel fumes. Conversation also becomes easier when you’re not shouting over the noise of the engine.

“These mountains were famous even back in Soviet times,” says Stas as we skin up the hill. “People used to come here for hiking but there are resorts so they used to ski.”

And although East Pole is the first cat-skiing lodge in the Altai, locals have been touring here for longer, Stas explains. He owns a chain of outdoor shops called Limpopo, which started in nearby Ust-Kamenogorsk “We first sold touring equipment in our stores maybe nine or ten years back.”

cat-skiing-in-kazakhstan-east-pole-ridder-altai-mountains-snowboard-kazakhstan-2017-dan-medhurst-0622

On tour – skinning up through the silver birches.

Skiing as a whole has been growing steadily in Kazakhstan in recent years. The mountains around Almaty boast several resorts with modern lifts. These are expanding all the time as the country’s growing middle class takes to the slopes, and the city only narrowly missed out on hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics.

But while a few adventure-minded enthusiasts are starting to venture further afield, the numbers at East Pole are still small. Aside from a few shepherds the only other people we see up in the mountains all week are a group of noisy slednecks from Ridder.

On our final morning the sky clears and the clouds lift. “It’s the first time I’ve seen the sun properly in a month,” says Zhenya, a sign of just how snowy it is here. We pile into the cats and head up into a new zone, rising above the treeline for the first time.

cat-skiing-in-kazakhstan-east-pole-ridder-altai-mountains-snowboard-kazakhstan-2017-dan-medhurst-1019

“Zhenya and his family have created something pretty special out here. The lodge is both warm and welcoming…”

As we break trail across a wide, flat plateau Dan the photographer hangs out the window to snap photos of the second cat charging through the virgin snow. “It looks like the surface of pluto or something,” he says as the sun glints off the icy crystals.

Looking round at the scene, with our moon-rover like means of transport in the background, it’s hard not to agree. There are no signs of human habitation here and apart from the wind, there’s very little sound. For those of us from the UK, we’re a long, long way from home.

But Zhenya and his family have created something pretty special out here in the wilderness, and however isolated and remote we are, it never feels anything other than safe and hospitable. As I strap my board on and prepare to follow him down yet another incredible, powdery descent, I realise there’s nowhere on earth I’d rather be.

Do It Yourself:

Mpora Map East Pole Kazakhstan cat skiing lodge location

Getting there:

We flew via Kiev and Almaty on Aerosvit Ukrainian Airlines, but I wouldn’t recommend them. The best route from to Ust-Kamenogorsk (sometimes written as Oskamen) is via Astana. Air Astana (airastana.com) fly London – Astana – Ust-Kamenogorsk from £375 return.

East Pole can arrange a transfer bus from Ust-Kamenogorsk to the lodge.

Accomodation & Guiding:

East Pole has an English language version of the site (eastpole.kz/en). They can be contacted on email (grafkinaea@mail.ru) or phone (+7 777 988 10 42 – Ekaterina
+7 705 500 01 26 – Boris)

Depending on group numbers, a week full board inc. four cat days can cost as little as £265 per person.

A word on safety:

Zhenya is a very experienced mountain leader, a steady pair of hands and an excellent guide around his local hills. However he holds no official qualifications so it’s worth checking that your insurance covers off-piste riding or skiing without a guide.

Most of the terrain is not hugely technical, and because it’s below the treeline the risk of avalanche is reduced. However it’s worth re-emphasising that backcountry experience is essential for this kind of riding. As is the right kit. Having an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe and knowing how to use it, is a must.

Read the rest of Mpora’s Family Issue here.

Read more of Mpora’s Far Flung Series here.

You May Also Like:

Wendy Fisher Interview | How To Be An Extreme Skier & An Awesome Parent
“My Parents Didn’t Drag Me Up The Mountain” | An Interview With The Man Who Climbed Everest Aged 13

The post Cat Skiing in Kazakhstan | Exploring the East Pole appeared first on Mpora.