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What a unique experience! Last Saturday I flew from London to Trabzon via Istanbul. It was slightly unnerving being the minority, surrounded by people who didn't speak any European language and looked very different. Old women dressed in traditional shawls and dresses, men with large moustaches and serious faces.
I felt more at ease as we landed and were greeted by the rep from the Verbier-based Turkey Heliski SA. They put us up at Otel Hasimoglu, located in a small mountain village called Ayder. The area is a national park but the town is for tourists and the locals don't ski. Houses are made of stone and wood - most of which being summerhouses for people from the larger cities in Turkey. The inside of the hotel is traditional Turkish with good local food aplenty.
Each morning, we would start the day with an extensive breakfast buffet serving all kinds of Turkish delicacies - fresh and dried fruit, local honey, eggs of every kind, bread, cheese, olives..... And freshly squeezed local orange juice. We would be off to get ready for the first lift at 8.30 just outside the hotel. Except for the first day when we spent half an hour to go through the obligatory safety information (which makes you not want to go skiing, especially not with a helicopter!). The guide team was professional and with new helicopters brought here every season from Switzerland. They only have heli ski here for 10 weeks per season.
We would have four to six lifts each morning/afternoon skiing approximately 4,500 vertical meters. The snow was so deep that it was hard to get any speed and turn when we first started. It literally was about leaning back and surfing. All you can think about is "do not fall in this snow". Because of the depth of the new snow it is very difficult and tiring to get up again; it may also be a little dangerous as you do run the risk of disappearing under the snow and not being able to orientate or breathe. At most times when you are on a peak you can see the Black Sea in the background - pretty awesome.
When the snow had condensed, the skiing was much better, which also reduced avalanche danger. At least our skis would bounce back from the snow. It wasn't particularly cold which is always good. The temperature there is normally just around zero and it is rarely extremely cold. On the 2,800 meter peaks we have had down to -6 degrees. A reason for this is that the proximity of the Black Sea acts as a regulator.
After a day’s skiing, a massage was in order. They do a very good deep massage there, which is very good for your back and tired legs. Dinner was a sumptuous affair where the Grand Chef donning a white hat carved the turkey (yes turkey) in front of us. It was baked in grapes leaves and salt crust. Very tasty and succulent. Plus a large Turkish mezze buffet, with cakes and fruit for desert, all very good.
Everyday the guides would make snow test by digging out the various layers and checking the stability and other things of the snow. Habitually I would check the barometer on The Rock (our ski instrument) every morning which would suggest the weather conditions for the day. The readings corresponded to the forecast we received. Our guides got fairly interested by what The Rock could do and tried it out. A lot of the functionality is relevant to heli skiing, and especially in areas where the mountains and their behaviour are so unknown. Altitude, total vertical meters skied, number and history of runs, temperature, freeze level and temperature changes, barometer for changes in weather, inclination for testing of slopes, compass for orientation of slopes.
On day 3, having done six lifts and 3770 meters of vertical skiing, the barometer went down which suggested a storm coming in hopefully bringing snow. The freeze level (2200 meters) had also gone up slightly, meaning that we would have to ski higher up. We finished the day before a 30 knot wind called because having wind alone does not help the skiing conditions.
We decided to take pictures of the local places and people so we ventured to the nearest village (Camlihemsin) from Ayder which in a European context certainly is authentic. It mainly consisted of one through road with a lot of small shops selling tea pots, carpentry, steaming cows meat, fruit and vegetables. We photographed the men who on a Monday afternoon played cards, drank tea and smoked cigarettes in the local tea houses. For religious and cultural reasons there are no bars, pubs or anything like that. After that we drove up to a small deserted village in the mountains where the houses are more than 300 years old. In the house at the farthest end of the path, the only ones living there were an old couple. We were invited in for tea in the only room heated. It was heated with wood as electricity or any other energy source is apparently unreliable up there. One of the nick-nacks on the wall was a magnum German schaumwein from 1873 (before Kaiser Wilhelm was born!). This is also skiing in Turkey for you.
Day 4, I woke up at 7:15 and looked at The Rock - pressure slightly up at 873 and looking out I could see blue sky with fast-moving white clouds. And, what a day! It had to rate among the top three heli skiing days in my life. Perfect snow (not a snow flake in the wrong place) blue sky, a few degrees below zero. In the morning before lunch we had done ten lifts skiing more than 6,000 meters vertical. After a lunch by the helicopter in the sun we skied another 5,000 meters totalling 11,000 meters vertical skiing all in immaculate powder, knee and some times thigh deep. All of our skiing was on north facing 30 - 40 degrees faces with no crust, no rocks, sometimes trees - just woaw. After this I have to say that skiing in Turkey is absolutely top class - forget travelling to Canada from Europe when you can get to this with no jetlag, much better food and all.
There is a traditional Turkish bath in the town and apparently the water of Ayder has healing powers. We went to the local (Turkish) public bath. Their water comes straight out of the ground at 42 degrees. It was very calm with about 10 local men enjoying the baths which is really a large marble pool where you walk around in it and wash off in the adjoining rooms where water flows straight out of taps. Even if there are separate changing rooms you are told to change in a cabin.
Day after day things started to become a little repetitive - wake up early, look at the weather, eat breakfast, go to helicopter, ski powder, come back to hotel, get massage, have dinner, go to sleep. It got to a point where I thought a nice little mountain town such as Champoluc would do wonders. Go to a restaurant, see other people, buy a drink in a bar and maybe go touring the next day rather than going up in a helicopter again. It sounds spoiled but it can become too much of a good thing. [Continue to 'Final Thought' in the next post...]