Clustered around a Soviet-era military helicopter, teenaged soldiers stood guard with Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers and soldierly ennui. They were waiting for a flight to track Al-Qaeda along the mountainous Georgian/Chechen border, and we wanted to tag along for some free heli-skiing. We had nothing in common with these soldiers but our current geography. Like all strange pilgrims in strange places, by dint of meeting each other in this depopulated valley, it was as though we’d broken bread together, only without the bread and the breaking.
With nothing to lose, we asked them for a ride via Shota, our translator and driver. A large soldier spoke back without taking the cigarette from his lips: We would have to wait for the pilots and ask them ourselves.
The pilots arrived minutes later down the severe mud road in a Lada sedan that wasn’t safe to drive around the block. A small man got out of the car, also with a cigarette balanced on his lower lip. Shota shook his hand and gave him a kiss on the cheek, the traditional Georgian greeting between close friends. The pilot knew Shota but they hadn’t seen each other in years. Through nothing but the dumbest of dumb luck, we were going heli-skiing.
The soldiers loaded our skis in the MI-8 without blinking, as though flying four greasy Canadians with ski mountaineering equipment was the first thing they’d learned in basic training. Shota wasn’t coming. He’d stay in his 4x4 and attempt to pick us up in the valley somewhere. We gave him a $29.95 radio with a two-kilometer range and flew 11 kilometers away from it.
Inside the cockpit, our rudimentary Georgian and the pilots’ poor English collided with rotor noise. We pointed where we wanted to go, the pilots pointed to confirm, we pointed again, and the pilots pointed again. Then everyone nodded. A doorman called out the fathoms as the helicopter nestled into her landing. We unloaded and the helicopter took off toward the east, leaving us with eventual silence and a small oil stain on the snow.
We hadn’t map or compass but were pretty sure we could have lobbed snowballs into Chechnya. We decided against touring into the warring enclave and would ski back to the valley, some 7,000 feet below. Millions of unskied lines danced around us, each steeper than the next. No matter where we spun the bottle, we would lock lips with a gorgeous first descent.
My companions were overwhelmed with choice. Kevin pounced on a narrow ridge and humped to a tight couloir with a 65-degree entrance. JD kicked steps up an open chute, 50-degrees steep and piled with the buttery powder found only in wind-protected pockets at 15,000 feet and higher. Each turn sent a spiral of crystalline cloud into the calm air.
Past the crux of the descent and one hour before dark, the valley bottom was still 5,000 feet below. We hoped Shota’s radio was switched on, working and in range ...