"A secret spot."
This is the swift - and somewhat curt - reply from our enigmatic guide, Mathias Andrä, to a group of Italian ski tourers who ask our destination. We are in the train station of Saint Petersburg, ready to begin a “twenty-something-hour" train ride towards Murmansk, and this inquisitive group seems to annoy our guide. It's obvious that Mathias is not in the sharing industry.
Or perhaps his hangover explains it. Our arrival at Saint Petersburg’s train station follows a sightseeing tour of what must be one of the most beautiful cities in Russia, but also a night of heavy partying and a few too many shots of vodka. Either way, although the details are sketchy, our party is very excited about the destination Mathias has told us about. It lies far to the north, high above the Arctic Circle in Russia’s northwestern corner, near the anonymous little village of Apatity.
The Search for the Remote
A mutual friend had introduced me to Mathias and his SnowXplore company. I have been freeriding for years and developed a passion for unknown destinations worldwide. But where my idea of remote ends is where Mathias enters the game.
For years now he has been offering trips to off-the-beaten-track places like Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kamchatka. He says he might stop his Uzbekistan trip because it’s become too crowded there, and he’s rethinking his Kyrgyzstan offer for the same reason. Despite the perfect powder, he doesn’t even want to consider going to Japan. Too busy.
"I have been freeriding for years and developed a passion for unknown destinations worldwide. But where my idea of remote ends is where Mathias enters the game"
Climate change made Mathias move in the direction of the Arctic Circle. Almost ten years ago, a lucky coincidence saw him discover the small town of Kirovsk on Google Earth, and its nearby mountains.
For the longest time he was a local hero, the lone wolf of snowboarding, discovering runs at the backside of the two-lift resort. I was already sold on the regular program he offers there, but for this trip Mathias had other ideas. He wants me to join him on a search for new terrain and new lines, in a mountain range where he hopes no one has ventured before.
A Bunk in Wagon Eight
A long train journey means reading, sleeping, listening to music, sharing snow experiences, discussing life's problems and generally putting the world to rights. Mathias, born in the former East Germany and old enough to remember the old regime, is not convinced life has got better since Germany’s reunification. As a kid he always had everything he wanted.
"You cannot miss what you don't know," I suggest.
"Or what you don't need," is his sharp answer.
Our stopovers are small, Soviet-looking towns where you can buy food and beer or chat with your fellow travellers. That is, if you speak any Russian. I'd already noticed that even in Saint Petersburg, people’s knowledge of foreign languages was not what it is in the rest of Europe.
Once we get on the train, literally no-one speaks anything but Russian. Fortunately, Mathias is fluent - one of the advantages of growing up in the DDR. Outside, the landscape passes by the train window at a very slow 50 kilometres an hour. I keep on staring into the big white nothing.
Despite the efforts of the government, more and more people are leaving this cold part of Russia. It is all just trees and lakes, covered in pristine snow, for hours on end. Once we pass through Kovda and cross into 'Polyarnye Zori' (or as we would say, the Polar Circle), the environment changes. Hills start to rise out of the white, and rocks start to emerge between the ubiquitous trees. The snow blanket gets even thicker; small huts moan under the weight of it.
Arrival in Apatity
The people who jump off the train in Apatity are all carrying skis or snowboards.
"See what I mean? This place is becoming too busy," Mathias mutters. "Let's go and find new terrain."
Being familiar with both the big European resorts and some ‘secret spots’ in Europe, I have to disagree with him. Even in the “too popular" resort of Kirovsk, we will only meet a handful of freeriders.
This cold industrial town in the Murmansk Oblast will act as our base camp, from where we will travel even further into the unexplored wilderness of the surrounding lakes and mountains. Kirovsk was built to mine the natural resources of the area; it is now one of the world's largest producers of high-grade phosphate ore, and Russia's only producer of nepheline concentrate. In summer, the town is a very popular starting point for fishing tours on the lakes. In winter, there is the ski resort and some huge ice sculptures built to attract tourists – almost exclusively Russian.
For most European winter holidaymakers this place would probably seem too inhospitable. Snow starts falling in October, temperatures drop to minus 30, and daylight lasts for only a couple of hours. It is mid-March now, and the streets are covered in metres of freshies. You can only identify parked cars by the shapes beneath the snow.
A Secret & Deserted Spot
The next morning we pack only the minimum of gear required to snowboard. I must apologise for staying vague with further details – when Mathias said the spot was secret he wasn’t joking, and he desperately wants it to stay that way. He won’t even let me take an iPhone snapshot of the detailed map we are looking at.
We throw all our gear in a big van, drive for 45 minutes on deserted, snow-covered roads and end up in a military exercise area where armoured vehicles and tanks lie abandoned. The Russian army uses this place to practise air strikes. "No pictures allowed here," are the first words from the two snowmobile drivers who meet us, Sasha and Andrei.
"When Mathias said the spot was secret he wasn’t joking – he won’t even let me take an iPhone snapshot of the map"
Our gear goes into the sledges behind the snowmobiles. Two people will be seated, the two others will be towed behind on boards. For another 45 minutes we cross an infinite, frozen lake. From the middle of the lake we look at the astonishing surrounding mountains – and the never-ending presence of the mining company.
Fishermen are fishing through holes in the ice. And there, finally at the shore, is a beautiful and comfortable cabin waiting to accommodate us. In summer, the cabin is packed with fishermen, but in winter it is deserted save for the odd passing snowmobile driver or tourist on a dog sledge. Here in the middle of nowhere we basically get our own cottage, with a Russian landlord who takes care of breakfast and dinner and lights our private sauna and fireplace. It is delightful.
Steep & Terrifying
Our host, a local former skiing instructor who’s spent a big part of his life in this cabin, assures us no one has ever tried to ski these mountains before. Nevertheless, I can sense Mathias is worried about it as we leave for our first foray into this part of the Khibiny mountain range.
"If we arrive and I spot even one single line, we return back to Kirovsk," he says, deadly serious.
Being towed by snowmobile through a snow-covered forest is a great workout for your biceps, and once we get out of the woods we discover the untouched terrain Mathias was anticipating. The mountains are flat on top and their gentle slopes make them easily accessible from the backside using the sleds. The front face, on the other hand, is a different matter. The runs we are aiming for are terrifyingly steep and full of gullies, rocks and cliffs.
"If you don't like steep, you’ve come to the wrong place," laughs Mathias, before he disappears over a precipice.
If you don't like cold, you've also come to the wrong place. The wind blows mercilessly, and even at this rather low altitude, it is freezing cold. But if this Arctic climate is hostile, the sunset is magnificent.
The laps are short, but each time we get to the bottom there’s a snowmobile waiting. Since these machines are so fast you get to do as many runs as your legs can handle. You can take your time too, without worrying about others dropping into your line – the only person we see is a Sami herdsman on a skidoo chasing his reindeer.
Our days are filled with riding these perfect, fresh powder runs, against a backdrop of the most splendid panoramas I've ever seen. Nights are filled with celebratory saunas, beer and vodka.
Bad Weather Days
The weather is not always on our side. One day we awake to find that it is snowing. Under normal circumstances this would mean twice the fun. But out here on the edge of civilisation, where even small mistakes might cause big problems, it leads to nail-biting frustration.
"In this part of the Arctic Circle, the Russians don’t only build nuclear power plants, they also test nuclear bombs"
Knitting socks from reindeer fur is not really what I came here for, and there is only so much beer and vodka you can drink before that too becomes boring. We go racing and wake boarding behind the snowmobiles on the frozen lake, but after a couple of hours even that gets old.
We convince our drivers to go to one of the nuclear plants mining uranium in the area.
After sliding behind the sled for nearly an hour, they suddenly hit the brakes. They’ve decided the risk of radiation is too high and there will be soldiers guarding the area. In this part of the Arctic Circle, the Russians don’t only build nuclear power plants, they also test nuclear bombs. Since we neither want to end up in a Russian jail nor start glowing in the dark, there is no alternative but to turn back.
Tree runs, kicker builds and night sessions provide a less dodgy alternative to riding proper lines. Unfortunately, the Khibiny mountains stay hidden under a thick layer of clouds and fog, and we return to our base in Kirovsk, hoping the weather will change.
For one hour we get something of a clear window. From the middle of the mountain, we see a tangle of plants, pipes, mines and railways before the clouds close in again. We play around in a derelict building, but the storm forces us back towards shelter.
When a blizzard hits the Kola Peninsula, it seems as if the wind and snow blow from everywhere. It’s not clear what direction the weather is moving, or even what you’re walking on. Driving is especially problematic. When we get back to Kirovsk, we learn that the road to Murmansk – where we have a plane waiting to get us back home – is closed. We barely make it in time.
Despite being unlucky with the weather, our Russian Arctic Circle adventure has turned out to be one of the most memorable snow-sliding experiences ever.
Two weeks later, my Facebook messenger pings. A picture from Mathias. He’s just spent two days on a train and discovered another Arctic spot – this time in the wilderness of the Ural mountains. It’s even more remote than the area around Kirovsk.
Mathias couldn’t sound more happy. As far as he’s concerned, fewer people is always better. Nevertheless, he’s willing to extend an invitation to our group. And I for one know where I will be heading next winter.