Cat Skiing in Kazakhstan | Exploring the East Pole
This new, family-run cat-skiing lodge is seriously remote, but well worth the journey
Words by Tristan Kennedy | Photos by Dan Medhurst
We can hear the snow cats well before we can see them. The grumble of their low-ratio diesel engines, the clank and clatter of their tracks. Using head torches, we start to unload our bags from the bus, working quickly to keep warm in the subzero temperatures.
And then they emerge from the woods, lights blazing, wheels whirring, gearboxes clunking as they climb the final incline: Two small, snub-nosed, tank-like machines that look like they might have been designed for driving on the moon. These rickety-looking vehicles will provide our transport for the next week, and also our only connection to the outside world.
“These rickety-looking vehicles will provide our transport for the next week, and also our only connection to the outside world."
Jumping in snow cats to ride the last few miles through a frozen forest is far from your average ski resort transfer, but then the place we’re heading is far from your average ski resort. In fact, it’s pretty far from anything.
Located in the Altai Mountains, where the borders of Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet, the cat-skiing lodge is called Vostochnyy Polyus, meaning "The East Pole" in Russian. It's an apt name. After all, this is a place that takes some getting to.
An eight-hour flight from London via Kiev gets you to Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. From there, you fly northwards for a further hour and a half across the empty vastness of the Central Asian steppe to Ust-Kamenogorsk.
This slightly down-on-its-luck city was a centre for the mining and metallurgical industries in Soviet times, but the mountains it gets its ore from are still a two-and-a-half hour drive away. So if like us, you want to go snowboarding, you then pile into a bus which takes you down a series of increasingly icy and increasingly remote roads.
The snow drifts on the roadsides get higher the further we get from town. At one point our driver slows down to let a hunter in arctic camouflage cross. He’s got an old, bolt-action rifle and wooden skis with actual animal skins on the bottom - technology that hasn’t been seen in the West since the 1950s. When we finally arrive in the small town of Ridder and transfer to the snow cats, we really do feel like we’re in the middle of nowhere.
Luckily both the lodge and the welcome that awaits us are warm. East Pole is a family-run affair, set up by Zhenya, his wife Dasha and his friends Boris and Misha.
They’re ably assisted in their efforts by their mothers (Dasha’s mum is a sixty-something badass who walks the dogs by taking them ski touring each morning) and occasionally impeded by their sweet young son, who insists on taking them tobogganing at the least convenient times.
The following morning it quickly becomes apparent why someone would want to build a lodge somewhere this remote - there is just so much snow. It’s piled high on the roofs of the outbuildings and lies thick on the paths. It hasn’t snowed for several days, but somehow there’s a lot of it still clinging to the branches of the dark pine trees that surround the cabins.
Most of Kazakhstan, a country the size of Western Europe, is covered in dry, desert-like grassland. But the mountain ranges which flank its Eastern border enjoy an impressive amount of precipitation, despite their distance from the sea.
The extreme continental climate means it’s cold (from November to March it rarely gets above minus 5°C), so that the snow that falls stays light and fluffy and the season is long. “We can be skiing here in May," says Zhenya, as we get ready to head out for the day.
If today’s snowcats, with their button-filled, spaceship-like cockpits, are marvels of modern technology, then the two at East Pole are the equivalent of the Millenium Falcon. The controls are beyond basic - two sticks that you move back and forth like a tank - and starting them up involves jamming a screwdriver into the ignition. But while they might not look like much, they’ve got it where it counts.
“They’re a Japanese model from the 1980s originally." My brother Rowan, who lives in Almaty, translates Zhenya's Russian as we climb. “They bought these in Siberia, where apparently they’re pretty popular all over because they’re easy to fix."
"If today’s snowcats are marvels of modern technology, then the two at East Pole are the equivalent of the Millenium Falcon."
Zhenya meanwhile, combines Chewbacca’s piloting skills and strong, silent-demeanour with Han Solo’s abilities as an engineer. Like Solo, he’s done a lot of modifications himself.
“He put in a new Nissan turbo diesel engine in the white cat, so it really goes," says Rowan. And although the motor breaks down at one stage during our stay, it’s nothing that Zhenya can’t fix with a couple of curses and a few well-placed blows of his hammer.
The mountains around East Pole are not particularly high. The highest peak in this part of the Altai is the 2,760m Mount Voroshilov, and nearly everything we ride is below the treeline. Driving at the speed of the slower cat, it still takes over an hour to get to the top. But the sight that greets us from the ridge is more than worth the wait.
It’s a grey, overcast day, with low-hanging clouds obscuring much of the sky. In the distance, we can see the pitheads and chimneys of Ridder. But it’s not what’s in front of us that’s exciting, it’s what's beneath our boards and skis. Soft, deep, fluffy powder snow. The stuff that dreams are made of.
After a quick check of our avalanche beacons, Zhenya leads us off, and right from the first turn, it’s perfect. The trees are widely spaced and easy to dodge around, and the gradient is ideal for our mixed ability group - gentle enough that it doesn’t scare the intermediates, but steep enough that you can tear down it at speed should you choose.
By the time I’ve ridden 100 metres, I’ve got spray covering my goggles and a huge grin on my face that won’t leave it all day.
The days are short at this time of year, and by 3.30pm the sun is already dipping towards the horizon. A group of our size (there are 11 of us, plus another couple of guests staying over from the previous week) will get three or possibly four runs in a day.
But this hardly seems to matter when each one is a screaming, back-leg-burning descent of the kind you could wait a whole season for in Europe. In the 20 years I’ve been snowboarding, this is the best snow I’ve ever ridden anywhere. By the time we get to base, we’re buzzing.
Like the cats, the lodge is a homemade affair. The original building was a beekeeper’s shack before Zhenya, Boris and Misha built the bunkhouse, the garage and the banya (or Russian sauna).
Guests sleep six to a room in the main cabin and dry their kit on a series of washing lines strung around the wood-burning stove in the kitchen. It’s basic but it’s cosy, and the food, traditional fare cooked by Boris’ mother Natasha, is excellent.
Breakfast each day is a different kind of kasha (or porridge), and evening meals are never less than three courses - a soup and a salad followed by something hearty and filling.
Natasha’s plov (Uzbek fried rice) is super tasty, and despite the initial misgivings of some in our party, beshbarmak, a traditional Kazakh dish made of noodles and horsemeat sausage, proves to be a huge hit. I draw the line at saleh though. However much I try, there’s simply no way I can chew the chunks of raw pig fat without gagging.
By day three we’ve settled into a rhythm. Wake up early, endure the inevitable faff that comes with getting 11 people ready to go out in subzero temperatures, and get as many hours hard riding in as we can before it begins to get dark.
Lunches are brief affairs - a 20 minute break with sandwiches and hot, black tea served off the bonnet of the snow cats. Unfortunately for me, saleh seems to feature regularly.
“You’ve got pig fat on your goggles mate," says my Australian friend Matt as I pick them up one afternoon. Not a phrase you hear every day.
We spend our evenings back at the base reading, playing cards or the guitar. There’s no WiFi or mobile phone reception out here, but that bothers no-one - looking through the day’s shots together or watching snowboard films on laptops feels more friendly than everyone checking Instagram individually anyway.
If the lack of WiFi makes evenings communal, the lack of showers makes them even more so. The lodge does have hot water (Zhenya has rigged up a typically ingenious plumbing system) but it all comes from a tank, so it’s reserved for Natasha’s kitchen, the cleaning of teeth and the flushing of toilets. If you want a wash, you have to head to the banya.
Banyas are an institution in this part of the world. They’re usually homemade, and a whole lot more sketchy than the sauna you might find down your local gym. You don’t shower when you’re hot and sweaty, you run out and dive face first into the snow (an experience best described as err… bracing). Nudity is actively encouraged, and drinking is de rigueur. More often than not, by the time we’ve finished washing and staggered back towards the bunkhouse in a cloud of steam, we’re several beers down.
The party-like atmosphere of these sessions is amplified significantly by the arrival halfway through the week of Stas Jerikhov and his group of friends.
A big bear of a man with a penchant for bawdy stories (a typical one involves a banya-goer who somehow managed to nail his foreskin to the floor) he introduces banny venik to the proceedings - birch twigs that you beat each other with to bring your blood to the surface of the skin. He’s also a fan of pre and post banya shots of vodka. His favourite toast? To “sport, sex and rock n' roll!"
"Stas Jerikhov has a penchant for bawdy stories and vodka shots. His favourite toast? To 'sport, sex and rock n' roll!'."
Towards the end of the week we decide to swap the cats for a couple of days ski touring. We don’t cover as much ground in a day, but breathing fresh air between runs makes a welcome change from being cooped up in diesel fumes. Conversation also becomes easier when you’re not shouting over the noise of the engine.
“These mountains were famous even back in Soviet times," says Stas as we skin up the hill. “People used to come here for hiking but there are resorts so they used to ski."
And although East Pole is the first cat-skiing lodge in the Altai, locals have been touring here for longer, Stas explains. He owns a chain of outdoor shops called Limpopo, which started in nearby Ust-Kamenogorsk “We first sold touring equipment in our stores maybe nine or ten years back."
Skiing as a whole has been growing steadily in Kazakhstan in recent years. The mountains around Almaty boast several resorts with modern lifts. These are expanding all the time as the country’s growing middle class takes to the slopes, and the city only narrowly missed out on hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics.
But while a few adventure-minded enthusiasts are starting to venture further afield, the numbers at East Pole are still small. Aside from a few shepherds the only other people we see up in the mountains all week are a group of noisy slednecks from Ridder.
On our final morning the sky clears and the clouds lift. “It’s the first time I’ve seen the sun properly in a month," says Zhenya, a sign of just how snowy it is here. We pile into the cats and head up into a new zone, rising above the treeline for the first time.
As we break trail across a wide, flat plateau Dan the photographer hangs out the window to snap photos of the second cat charging through the virgin snow. “It looks like the surface of Pluto or something," he says as the sun glints off the icy crystals.
Looking round at the scene, with our moon-rover-like means of transport in the background, it’s hard not to agree. There are no signs of human habitation here and apart from the wind, there’s very little sound. For those of us from the UK, we’re a long, long way from home.
But Zhenya and his family have created something pretty special out here in the wilderness, and however isolated and remote we are, it never feels anything other than safe and hospitable. As I strap my board on and prepare to follow him down yet another incredible, powdery descent, I realise there’s nowhere on earth I’d rather be.
Do It Yourself:
We flew via Kiev and Almaty on Aerosvit Ukrainian Airlines, but I wouldn't recommend them. The best route from to Ust-Kamenogorsk (sometimes written as Oskamen) is via Astana. Air Astana (airastana.com) fly London - Astana - Ust-Kamenogorsk from £375 return.
East Pole can arrange a transfer bus from Ust-Kamenogorsk to the lodge.
Accomodation & Guiding:
Depending on group numbers, a week full board inc. four cat days can cost as little as £265 per person.
A word on safety:
Zhenya is a very experienced mountain leader, a steady pair of hands and an excellent guide around his local hills. However he holds no official qualifications so it's worth checking that your insurance covers off-piste riding or skiing without a guide.
Most of the terrain is not hugely technical, and because it's below the treeline the risk of avalanche is reduced. However it's worth re-emphasising that backcountry experience is essential for this kind of riding. As is the right kit. Having an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe and knowing how to use it, is a must.
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