We all know that trips abroad can quickly unravel from the planned itinerary, but one trip to Sochi, Russia, five years ago that Oakley marketing manager Liesl Holtz took with snowboarders Anne-Flore Marxer, Marie-France Roy, and Gretchen Bleiler and skiers Angeli VanLaanen and Grete Eliassen for a filming project went particularly haywire.
"Our plan was to ride the resort of Krasnaya Polyana as well as explore the backcountry behind the resort that was set to become the snowboard halfpipe venue, among other things, in 2014," says Holtz.
But when the group arrived at the resort, they discovered that it had slid from the top of the mountain, due in part to unseasonable, nonstop rain. Then, the group's backup lodging plan didn’t turn out as advertised. "The plumbing for the house failed, so we had to shower outside in freezing river water and bring water into the house so we could flush the toilets," says Holtz.
The women also dealt with dangerous terrain, terrifying ski lifts, and even a run-in with the KGB.
With the Sochi Winter Olympics less than a month away, Holtz reminisces on their event-filled trip. And just in case you’re wondering, she’s more than confident Sochi will be ready for the Opening Ceremonies on February 7. Here’s what she had to say.
Since you couldn't ride the resort as planned, where did you go?
We had to ride the backcountry in some of the most dangerous conditions I have ever been in with a local guide who didn't speak English. Thank goodness veteran guide Shin Campos was with us and knew the area and snow conditions well, or we could have been in a lot of trouble.
We got one sunny, stable day and in that single day, we accomplished a lot. Nothing slid on us, we found awesome terrain, and we got home safe and sound. [It turned out better] in the end because the lifts at the resort were terrifying. They were old, small, high, and Gretchen could barely talk or even breathe while on them.
What else went wrong?
We were filming action segments on the mountain and lifestyle segments in town. Sochi sits right on the border of Georgia and Russia, which burst into war about six months after we left. In our ignorance, we were sitting in the middle of this future war zone and while shooting in the streets of Krasnaya Polyana, we took a picture of the wrong government official's house. That resulted in the KGB hunting us down at the resort and taking our passports for 12 hours. That was scary and we later found out the gardener was deported among all of the questioning. We had no idea about the tension, only that Georgia was a dangerous place.
How did Russia’s landscape and the political mood make an impact on you and the other riders?
Every barrier we ran into became part of the adventure. We were lucky to have local guides and Shin, who had filmed there many times. Our local Russian guides were incredibly hospitable and got us to some great spots and out of a lot of trouble!
You can only survive a trip like that with good people around you. Everyone worked hard despite the trials and tribulations.
It will be exciting to see what Sochi and the resort look like now compared to five years ago—it's going to be a much different place. With Gretchen, Angeli, and Grete all looking good for the U.S. Olympic teams, they have their experience to build upon and reminisce about once they get there. I think it will be a little more special to them because of our experiences there.
How different is the terrain from what they saw four years ago?
It should be quite a shock to see a manicured mountain cut out of the backcountry terrain we rode. While we were there we were trying to picture the venue, but I'm sure the extent of change will be shocking.
Do you have any concerns for your Olympic hopeful athletes?
No, I think Russia will do a great job at security. As we saw, somebody is always watching! The snow conditions will be fine from a safety perspective. I think the biggest concern is going to be the snow quality and the halfpipe and slopestyle courses. Only Mother Nature can hand out sunshine and snow but anytime the real experts are not in charge of design and build, it's hard on the athletes.
What advice do you have for future travelers going to Sochi and Russia?
Get a local guide, go with someone who has been there before, and bring clothes for wet weather. Understand "someone" is watching you. Go with zero expectations, drink the vodka, and spend the night in Moscow on your way out. The city has amazing architecture and history that is evident throughout its infrastructure.
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