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Ski Politik: Azerbaijan

When is a ski area not just a ski area? When it’s in the tiny Muslim nation of Azerbaijan, whose flanks are being eyed by oil-hungry neighbors.

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Never before has a Magic Carpet lift served so many adults. It’s a warm day in March, and the two surface lifts at Shahdag, Azerbaijan’s brand-new ski area, are going off. Hundreds of people load the carpet in designer jeans tucked into their rental boots, wearing leather coats or fur hats. One guy yells excitedly into his cell phone as he moves slowly uphill. On the snow, they are predictably awkward, legs going in different directions. Groups of friends and couples cling to each other, laughing as they slip around. Nearby, curious onlookers crowd the deck. Old men with bemused looks on their faces, chins bristling with white whiskers, watch their grandkids being towed across the snow on inner tubes.

At the bigger lifts, the lines of people waiting to load in street shoes—to have a look around up top—are longer than the lines of those wearing skis. They’re great lifts, top-of-the-line Doppelmayr quads with heated seats and retractable bubbles, the same kind Utah’s Canyons recently built its entire marketing campaign around. Shahdag’s got three of them. Not to mention six new PistenBully snowcats and 69 electronic snow guns. The government has sunk an undisclosed number of millions of dollars into its new ski area, the first of its kind in Azerbaijan. You know, Azerbaijan? Muslim country sandwiched between Iran and Russia? Wins a handful of medals in wrestling and weight lifting each Olympics? Never heard of it? Me neither, until Shahdag opened last December with its fancy lifts, a gleaming new base lodge, 80 hotel beds in two facilities, and construction under way on two other mammoth hotels.

Which is amazing when you consider that there hasn’t been a new ski resort built in the United States since Idaho’s Tamarack a decade ago, and that resort has been in and out of bankruptcy ever since. Before that, the last ski areas opened were Beaver Creek in 1980 and Deer Valley in 1981. Now, though, ski resorts are opening in unlikely spots like Turkey, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and even North Korea. Is there really demand for skiing in those places even as the industry has flatlined in traditional skiing locales? Officially, Azerbaijan’s president has called Shahdag a “tourism infrastructure venture,” but will it really attract tourists? How do you build a ski culture from scratch? Hoping to find some answers, I join a group of Americans hired to produce a promo film on Shahdag…and notch some first descents on the surrounding peaks along the way.

Turns out the former Soviet republic is newly flush with oil and gas money. Oil has been traded in Azerbaijan for centuries and was first drilled for in 1846, a decade before that technique was famously applied in Pennsylvania. For years the Soviet empire appropriated that bounty, shipping it north in stained railcars along the Caspian Sea, but in 2006, Azerbaijan started selling oil directly to Europe through a pipeline to Turkey, and the bonanza was on. The day I booked my ticket, the New York Times ran a story about an Azerbaijani billionaire’s plans to erect the world’s tallest building— the 3,445-foot Azerbaijan Tower—on an artificial island in the Caspian Sea. When I arrived, my drive from the airport took in block after block of gleaming new construction.

Shahdag’s base lodge is a sleek edifice curved to enclose the base area, with a huge wooden deck serving as a grandstand to watch skiers descend the slopes. The resort’s assistant director, Rustam Najafov, guides me through the bustling cafeteria and the luxury restaurant, which is not yet open, and then into a back room off of a back room. It’s a five-star sanctum with cream-colored leather couches and a private elevator. “The president’s lounge,” he says, referring to Ilham Aliyev, whose father was also president of Azerbaijan.

“The president has been here?” I ask. “Yes, two times,” says Najafov. He skis? “Yes, he learned in Europe. His wife, she skis too.” Just two visits hardly makes Shahdag a private presidential playground. “He shares the ski area with the people,” I say, joking around.

“Yes, he wants the people to be active,” says Najafov, not catching my jest. “He wants them to enjoy the mountains. We have many of them.”

(Left: A villager from nearby Khinalug, population 2,000. Photo: Dan Armstrong)

That’s certainly true. The Caucasus range terminates here after a swing through Russia, Georgia, and Armenia. The ski area’s namesake, 13,921-foot Mount Shahdag, rises just a few miles to the north. I load the longest lift, which tops out 1,200 feet above the base lodge, and rise over the corridor of snow guns and then over terraced sheep pastures covered by just an inch or two of snow. Up top, dark-haired Azerbaijanis in street clothes pose for pictures with one another, and a few kids build a snowman. Lift tickets cost $12 for pedestrians, or $18 for an all-day ski pass.

Shahdag’s runs are cleverly named for styles of carpets Azerbaijan is famous for—Zili, Sumax, Kilim. I point my way down Kilim, a meticulously groomed solid blue run, slaloming past a few guys on short Atomic rental skis. The winter-brown grasslands spread below. Somewhere off in the flat distance is the Caspian Sea.

At the crux, a 30-degree rollover, there are a lot of wipeouts. On one run I encounter a guy sitting on the snow, staring down with a look of despair.

“Can I help you?” I ask. “Do you want to follow me down?”

He waves me off and says in thickly accented English, “I know how, but I have the terror.” I’ve definitely felt that way before. Eventually, he clicks out of his skis and starts sidestepping gingerly downslope.

There is at least one expert Azerbaijani skier, though. Elbrus Isakov, named for the Caucasus’ 18,510-foot Mount Elbrus, raced slalom for Azerbaijan in the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics and now teaches skiing at Shahdag. He DNF’d in both Olympics, but make no mistake—he rips. When we ski a few runs, I can’t keep up. Through a translator, he tells me he learned to race in the Republic of Georgia, where his family wintered and where he’s been teaching skiing for the last several seasons. “Most of the Azerbaijani clients I taught in Georgia, I have already seen here this season,” he says. So now they’re keeping their own skiers in country, at least.

A few days later, Dylan Freed is blowing off some steam. The 26-year-old staffer from Valdez Heli-Ski Guides is here to manage the helicopter skiing for the American film group, but almost halfway through the weeklong trip, there’s still no helicopter. We’ve pretty much skied out all of the shin-deep snow we can hike to from the resort. The notoriously intense Freed is breaking in the pool table in Shahdag’s shiny new bar and telling a story about his battle with airline counter personnel. They’d tried to charge him $50 for a bag that was seven pounds over the limit. “I pointed to the next guy in line,” he says. “‘That guy there is 77 pounds overweight himself. Why don’t you charge him any extra?’”

The bar patrons laugh. As Muslims, most Azerbaijanis don’t drink, so it’s just our American crew and groups of off-duty foreign ski-area employees. The Andorran firm PGI Management has a three-year contract to manage operations and train the locals to eventually take over. PGI operates in Europe and Argentina, but also in Turkey and Kazakhstan, so they have some perspective on these emerging ski markets. “The clinic is amazing,” says PGI’s Gaby Santecchia, gushing about Shahdag’s state-of-the-art on-site medical equipment. “MRI machines, surgery. Stuff we don’t see in the Alps.” To get the resort’s doctors up to speed on ski injuries, PGI sent them to an Andorran resort for a few weeks. He orders another beer from the young, dark-eyed Azerbaijani bartender, who fishes it out of the fridge below the bar. Before he can hand it over, the Pakistani restaurant manager checks the beer’s temperature, decides it’s too warm, and directs the bartender to find a colder one. “There’s no service industry in Azerbaijan,” the bar manager says. “We teach them everything.”

According to PGI, the locals have been more than apt pupils. “The big surprise is the guys who live in the mountains nearby,” PGI’s Josep Anon tells me a few months later. “They are there on time. They work hard.” Such local reliability does not seem like something PGI has experienced in other countries.

What else has been surprising? That the skis are being rented four times a day. “People use them for an hour or two and then return them. But they are very happy,” he says. They’ve also had to triple the ski-instructor ranks because of demand for lessons. “We take guys off the lift crews and rush them through instructor training,” says Anon, though none of them has been on skis for more than a few months.

What Shahdag has in common with the new resort PGI manages in Turkey are the crowds who appear just to look the resort over and ride the lifts up and down without skis. Fifty percent of Shahdag’s lift tickets are sold to nonskiers, as compared to 80 percent for PGI’s Turkish resort, which offered free lift tickets to locals for the first year. Attracting the casually curious local is an important step in places like Turkey and Georgia, says Anon. “Neither of them will get many tourists, but they both have emerging middle classes who will make up the customers.” Kazakhstan, which has an established ski culture, is a different case, says Anon. The developers of Kok Zhailau Mountain Resort, the massive resort PGI is helping open in that country, hope to attract tourists from India and China.

I ask if the low snow base we encountered will be the norm for Shahdag. “We don’t know,” he says. “The locals don’t give you a good report. For them, it’s a lot of snow if the farm animals have to dig a little for the grass. That could be 10 centimeters, or 40.”

(Right: Hannah Hardaway and Dylan Freed venture into a couloir in the Shahdag backcountry. Photo: Dan Armstrong)

The snow situation gets worse before it gets better. The next day brings a misty rain, melting what little snow remains off-piste. We decide to play tourist in a nearby mountain village. We check out a famous waterfall, currently frozen into a brownish icicle, and then wander around the muddy village photographing turkeys and looking at piles of cut sod, which our translator tells us the villagers burn for heat. At the town store, a tall young fellow with a cast on his left arm approaches.

“He works on the lifts at Shahdag,” says our translator. “He broke his arm skiing.” I ask if he likes the job. “Yes, very much.” What would he be doing otherwise? “Nothing,” he translates. “In the winter, nothing happens here. He can’t wait for his arm to heal to go back to work.”

The ambassador is fired up. We wake the following morning, the same day former U.S. Ambassador Matt Bryza arrives to take some runs, to find 18 inches of snow blanketing the hillsides. At the base lodge, instead of pushing the snow off the deck, squads of guys laboriously shovel it into wheelbarrows to cart it away. (They’ve got a few details to work out still.)

“This is fucking awesome,” says Bryza, 49, an effusive guy who looks just like the actor Matthew Modine. “I can’t believe I’m skiing powder in Azerbaijan.” We’re standing atop an off-piste line—what was nearly bare grass yesterday—ready to drop in. “Stay light on your feet,” I tell Bryza, who likely hasn’t done a lot of sketchy low-snowpack powder skiing. “Be ready to hop if you hit a rock.” The snow is some of the lightest I’ve skied, billowing plumes on every turn. It’s a weekday, so we’ve got the place to ourselves. Not that it matters—our only competition for the powder on the busiest day would be Isakov the Olympian and the Europeans who run the snowcats.

Soon, however, tracks appear that aren’t ours, and then from the lift we see a group of the newly minted ski instructors making their way down a fresh line on their short rental skis. They’re impressive for people who’ve been skiing just a few months. “Look at those guys, discovering their hill,” says Bryza.

The ambassador was originally scheduled to ski from the helicopter with us, but it still hasn’t arrived, and won’t. “It could be the tourism minister couldn’t get one from the army,” he speculates. “It could be that there are some bad guys in the mountains with rocket launchers, and they don’t want to take the risk. We won’t likely ever find out.” After all, we’re only eight miles from the border with the Russian territory of Dagestan, which has been a hotbed for Muslim fundamentalists fighting the Russian government.

That proximity to Russia, in fact, may be the real reason for Shahdag’s existence. “Georgia has been putting a lot of money into their ski industry,” says Bryza, referring to that other former Soviet republic. “They look to Georgia a lot around here.” Which means they can’t have failed to notice Russia invading Georgia in 2008. If Russia is willing to go after that resource-modest nation, how must it feel about an oil-rich plum like Azerbaijan?

“Skiing is seen as very European here,” says Bryza as we lift the bar and prepare to off-load. “It’s very prestigious. They want to keep Europe’s eyes on them.��� In other words, they want the publicity from the ski area to let Europeans know that Azerbaijan is much like them and worth saving in case the Russian army starts massing at the border.

Though the helicopter never arrives, we persuade the Europeans to drive us around in their fancy new snowcats. They take us to an upper ridge, where the proposed gondola might eventually be built. Even with the new snowfall, the cat churns up mud and stones the whole way up the narrow road that’s already been cut. I ask Santecchia if he thinks they’ll ever build the gondolas and the five lifts proposed for the upper mountain. He shrugs. His job is to run what’s here.

The cats drop Freed, Hannah Hardaway—a former U.S. Ski Team mogulist—and me up top, and we mount an expedition to ski a couloir we’ve been eyeing all week. We skin and then bootpack about 1,000 feet into a cleft in the limestone cliffs. We stop there because we need time to ski back to the resort, but also because it’s not clear there���s a route to the top of the peak. The snow is hard, and a little rotten, which makes for tough going, but it works out and we feel good about it because, as Freed says, “You have to at least try a new line.”

Which seems about right to me, metaphorically, for the whole Azerbaijan ski enterprise. When I ask Bryza if he thinks Shahdag will make it, he cites the project’s goals of getting Europe’s attention and exposing the new middle class to recreation and says, “I think it already has.” At the base, I see Isakov standing with a circle of new instructors. He demonstrates how to cleanly slide the skis together and then sling them, tails up, on their shoulders. As I watch them mimic his motions and then walk off together in a group toward the ski school, I find I agree.