I skied Sochi today.
Well, technically you can’t "ski" in Sochi. I actually skied Rosa Khutor in the Krasnaya Polyana region of Russia, which is where the 2014 Olympic Winter Games' outdoor events (ski, snowboard, bobsled, etc.) will be held in the coming weeks.
When NBC 5 photojournalist Noah Bullard, NBC Olympic Russian interpreter Alex Prudovskiy and I left our hotel for in the coastal cluster (this is the western, warm-climate portion of Sochi right on the coast of the Black Sea) for the mountains, we didn't know what to expect. We were taking a train that cost nearly $9 billion to build (we'll have an entire story just about the train on a later date) into a region of Russia that just six years prior was - literally - completely empty with amazing peaks and powder.
After about 45 minutes on the train and a slight misstep on our bus route, we were there. It was significantly cooler and the snow on the peaks was in sight.
That's when I saw them: tourists carrying rented skis in the village. That's the story, I thought. We'll profile these people who are actually getting to ski the same slopes Olympians will be carving as the world watches in a matter of days.
Alex had a better idea. "We should just do it," he said.
Impossible, I thought. These people have to be paying tens-of-thousands of rubles (28 rubles equals 1 U.S. dollar) to ride these slopes.
Alex asked the attendant behind the desk, and she informed him our media pass works as a ski lift pass. "The rentals, though," she said in Russian words I couldn't understand, "we would have to pay for."
"Great," I thought. "I'm getting ready to have to choose between skiing on an Olympic course, or sending my kid to college someday."
Alex asked the attendant how much for the rentals. "About 840 rubles," she said.
I was a communications major in college, so it took me a minute to do the math.
30 U.S. dollars? Really? That’s it?
Yes. We were in. I couldn't believe this was happening.
You have to understand – I love to ski. It's literally one of my favorite things to do. And since the skiing in North Texas is about as good as the surfing, I get excited every time I get the opportunity to hit the slopes.
So, we headed to the rental shop, grabbed our gear, attached a GoPro camera to Alex's helmet, and were ready to hop on a gondola up the mountain to ski in Olympic paradise. Only, Sochi officials had other ideas.
"The mountain is closed for at least the next two hours," said the rental agent. "Maybe closed for the rest of the day."
My heart sank. It was the same feeling I'd felt when I once lost my wallet, and then find my wallet, only to realize it, in fact, was not my wallet but one that looked very similar. A simple, "no," at the beginning of the process would have felt a bit less like a punishment from above.
At the mountain, guests do not pay for ski rentals up front. Instead, a member of the group gives their passport to the representative as collateral. We were told the office to retrieve passports back would close at 5:30 p.m. It was, at the moment, a little after 2 p.m.
After a short discussion among the three of us, the decision was made. We'd wait the two hours, but not any longer.
With time for a late lunch, we decided to pass on the long lines at the Russian McDonalds for instead, a local hut next door that served "pierogis" (think of a croissant filled with potato, cheese and meat) and "kotletis" (similar to a crab cake, but with pork or chicken instead of crab). The meal was phenomenal and the perfect distraction as we continued to wait. As the time was nearing, we looked back. The gondolas were beginning to run again.
Hope was alive.
We entered through another security checkpoint (there are many), loaded up on the gondola, and were on our way. This was actually happening.
The views were incredible. As we pulled away from the village, the scene was only obstructed by a bit of fog on the windows. The small mountain village along the Laura River was disappearing and our surroundings were quickly turning frosty. Peaks were everywhere covered with snow on a sunny day among giant white clouds. I felt like I was riding into a real-life TV commercial for a mountain resort.
As we stepped off the gondola and looked up at the slopes, a touch of anxiety hit me. I'm a decent skier, but I'm not Bode Miller. These slopes started at the very peak of the mountain, and looked to drop straight down (think the mountain in the cartoon, "The Grinch"). But we'd come too far. If I was going to tear my ACL and suffer a concussion, at least it was going to be an amazing story for my grandkids someday. On to the lift we went, unsure of if we'd be skiing or sliding on our backsides down the mountain.
Fortunately, as we approached about three-quarters of the way up the mountain, there was another option. The lift ended with another chair to the side that was heading to the very top. Or, we could just ski down from the point we were stepping off of, a course that looked to be the equivalent of a "blue" or medium difficulty run. With the clock now reading 4:47 p.m., we decided it was smarter for us to just take the sure thing. We were still skiing in Sochi.
The run was amazing. Inches of fresh powder sprayed everywhere as we cut back and forth on paths that ran along tall trees sprinkled with snow, occasionally hiding mountain peaks that looked to be out of an IMAX movie.
The reports you hear about lack of snow at the 2014 Sochi Games are written by people who need to take a ride down this slope.
As we approached the bottom (about a ten minute run), our biggest enemy was the clock. We had to go to make sure the representative at the rental shop wouldn't close with Alex's passport behind the glass. We had been told the shop closed at 5:30 p.m., and it was currently 5:02 p.m. With a 20-minute gondola ride standing between us and the village, time was tight.
The ride was, once again, full of beautiful sights that were slightly watered down due to our passport concerns, but our ride arrived at 5:26 p.m. We had made it, but barely.
After dropping off our gear, paying and successfully grabbing the passport, we took a minute and shared a laugh that reminded me of the scene at the end of the movie, "Ocean's Eleven," filmed at the fountain outside the
Bellagio in Las Vegas. We had, at least in our own minds, pulled off the impossible.
Yes, it was only one run, but I’ll never forget it.
I skied Sochi.
Follow Pat on Twitter @PatDoneyNBC5