My journey began at the Vancouver International Airport. At the bar next to Harrison, a frontiersman from up north.He was on his way to Costa Rica for his annual blowout – which was much deserved. The guy had been laying ground connecting parts of northern BC into the grid for the better part of 9 months. We were having a chat with the barista-bartender who was getting me a shipload of hops and the most basic $26 burger I have yet to have the displeasure of paying for. He set down my second pint and asked; “Where are you off to then?” With some hesitation to consider the stigma created from that god awful movie, I say “Almaty”. His eyebrows raised – “Where the hell is that?” Confusion and Borat jokes shortly became the topic of conversation.
The truth is Borat is bullshit – Almaty is a Gem that, for the most part, goes unnoticed by the western world. Nestled at the base of the Tianshan range Almaty is the biggest city in Kazakhstan, and it is surrounded by some of the largest and most beautiful mountains I have ever set foot on. With that said there is a distinctly layered society with much of the wealth being held by a select number of families, who make that quite clear. But, none the less, there is a blossoming ski culture with lift access across soon to be four resorts to 3,500 meters and some super access to featherlight powder. At the moment Almaty has a bid in for the 2022 Winter Olympics, and that is doing wonders for mountain infrastructure. Currently there are two resorts with one more under development, and the thing they all have in common is the vast amount of untapped potential they offer both in and out of their boundaries.
5 lifts in total – 3 gondolas and 2 quads offer access to 3250 meters. There is not much around the base, the lift sits at the top of Dostyk road next the world renowned Medeo speed skating ring. Slightly further is the base of operations for the resort. A sprawling deck with a few restaurants that are decked out with all the trimmings – including the occasional moosehead. The terrain on the lower part of the mountain is super wide with a gentile pitch. As you move up you start to see some variation and some serious potential. Up the top there are some gnarly looking couloirs that are still holding some summer slush.
From the top of the gondola to skier’s right there lies a small horseshoe ridge which holds three major couloirs and beautiful steep wide face. Down the backside of Shumbalak there is one lift with plenty of skiing to be had underneath it. Including 2 wide bowls and an awesome line of 4-8m cliffs with super smooth landings. The last and definitely most notable line would have to be a gaping 700m long couloir it is super steep, 7-8m wide and ends in a giant mound of landslide debris that offers plenty of room for a couple of streaming turns out the bottom. It stares down at the base of the backside lift with seeming way smaller as it shoots of into the clouds. There is magnitude on this mountain and, for what it seems, the ski industry is just blooming here. moreover there is huge potential for growth that could easily rival operations anywhere.
I spent a few days hiking a few the peaks around the resort before heading out to the Charyn Canyon. 4 hours east of Almaty is the small national guard outpost that marks the park. The road passe through the odd village, but for the most part it was quite barron. There was the occasional giant ex-soviet transport trucks coming in from China to give us something to look at other than sand. The awesome thing about the day was, for a few backhand tengis, we were allowed to drive through the dry bed of the canyon. The track ended in a river, a restaurant, and a few yurts that you can stay in overnight. All in all it was a great day with some amazing views.
Before I knew it the short trip was over. Its always a melancholy feeling, you are both excited to return home, whilst nourished from your recent adventure, but there is a nagging feeling that the “real world” is just a few cramped uncomfortable hours away. The day before I left I had a great conversation with one of the local expats over a beer. He was complaining about the lack of international instructors and guides operating in the area. The market is largely untapped and with a large tight knit international community of expat skiers there is opportunity to be had, so if you want to get away for a season to ski some amazing terrain, Almaty could be calling.