Few Europeans have yet discovered the pleasure of the post-Soviet ski holiday, slaloming down the powder on a Caucasus slope. But thanks to Austrian investment, they may soon.
It's all downhill from here
When around 150 extreme skiers from all over Europe gathered in the Russian Caucasus for the "Big Mountain Festival" to test their skills as hardcore cross-country racers recently, the weather made it impossible.
The risk of an avalanche made it too dangerous even for adrenaline freaks to venture out.
So Thomas Hofstädter of the Atomic brand ski team turned his attention to business. He's been asked by representatives of the Austrian skiing industry to look out for investment opportunities on the eastern edge of Europe, and you don’t get much further east than this.
Welcome to the post-Soviet skiing experience. What the Cold War never let you see, let alone ski, may one day provide Europeans ski vacations par excellence.
Dinky lifts, giant slopes
"The ski resort needs a lot of development. There's hardly any infrastructure here," says Hofstädter. "The lifts are a disaster, like in Austria thirty or forty years ago. Just the old one or two-seater chair lifts."
To reach the best slopes, Hofstädter says, he had to go either on foot or by helicopter. For experienced skiers the Elbrus, the Caucasus’ highest peak, may be a paradise. But beginners can forget it; prepared ski-runs are very rare here.
What lifts there are may soon be gone. In spring, the Austrians plan to build the Elbrus’ first modern-style three-seater chair-lift. "It's an experiment," Hofstädter says.
Avalanches of snow are not the only sort the Austrian investors Hofstädter represents are worried about.
Political fallout threatens these idyllic valleys as well. The Caucasus have had their fair share of trouble, and it only makes sense to invest in the resort's run-down hotels and dilapidated buildings if the political situation is likely to remain stable.
"200 kilometres from here there's a war raging in Chechyna right now. As an investor, I have to consider whether it's worth pouring money into the region or not. Europeans won't come here if they think someone might drop a bomb on their head," he says
But at the moment, that is not an issue.
A bit of target practice
The only explosions going off on Mount Elbrus right now are those detonated by the mountain safety service.
Evidently no novices with military equipment, they use anti-aircraft guns are used to clear the mountain ridges of sagging snow-shelves formed by blizzard conditions and strong winds. The men may fire up to hundred times a day, depending on the amount of snowfall.
They're employed by the local families and clans, which hold sway in these parts. Sounds homey enough, but the same clans are the biggest discouragement to investors. They make the rules of business in these mountains, not just the market. This is not European business 101.
Still, the head of the local administration sees things quite differently:
"We're doing all we can to attract investors," says Saur Gezziev of the Elbrus District Administration. "At the moment we're doing the groundwork. That includes passing laws which make life easier for investors. It's important that those who come here don't have any bad experiences, but rather feel happy here."
The "investors" are basically the Austrians.
The district governor claims to have persuaded local businesses with interest in the deal to clean up their acts. And it seems to have paid off. Touring the local village, Hofstädter is satisfied with what he sees. He's prepared to recommend the Elbrus region to potential investors.
"If the Europeans don't invest here, others will and we'll get left behind. But it'll be another 10 to 15 years before mass tourism makes it to here. It's not so easy to convince Europeans that the Caucasus is a place to ski as much as Europe or the US," he says.
So for now, the Elbrus is likely to remain a remote paradise for extreme skiers.
But Hofstädter says one thing is inevitable: it won't be long before other foreign investors line up behind to the Austrians for their share of the highest mountain in the Caucasus.