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.