Mamay: glacial ski touring heavens at the begining of winter



Почему, or Potchemu in latin alphabet is the Russian translation of WHY. Which is a question that came quite often when we told our relatives that we were going to ski in Siberia. The extreme cold, the flat and monotonous taiga, communist Gulag camps… are approximately everything we used to know about this huge Russian area, which in reality has amazing places. Maybe you have never heard of Mamay Valley in Buryatia but it is a compulsory spot for Siberian ski touring.

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Destination Bouriatie

December 2018, winter is not there yet on our mountains. The Pyrenees are green, the Alps are a little luckier but this beginning has nothing exceptional and no snow is expected. We keep on following the weather forecast but for now we are not worried. Indeed, with the help of our friend Yannick Besançon, we have decided to travel to Siberia before the beginning of winter in France. Which will later be seen as a good idea.

We are four skiers ready for adventure : Yannick, Enki Hediard, Julien Colonge and Rémy Maisonnave. We do not know each other very well, we have only seen each other a few months ago during a film festival. We even have never skied together. But our few exchanges before the trip show that we have the same vision about skiing. So we leave together towards the unknown, trusting the stories told by Yannick about powder snow in Siberia.

In Irkutsk, on the east shore of the Baïkal lake, Sasha, our camera operator and Stepan, our guide are expecting us. The temperature on the tarmac sets the tone of the trip : -12°c but with a strong wind therefore it felt really under that. Sasha says it is not cold. But why did we come here when it is 20°c in France??! Yannick is used to that and not even surprised. For the three others, the shock is severe. Julien also discovers with pleasure the linguistic shock due to the diverse calls with the airplane company to find his luggage, lost during a transfer…


To know the place better we drive to Listvianka. It is snowing, landscapes are black and white, and it is even a bit gloomy. Once on the shore ok Baïkal Lake, the wind freezes us until the bones. We walk towards a local market where we taste smoked omoul, an endemic salmon of the lake. The inhabitants are wearing fur beanies and coats, that makes no doubts, we really are in Siberia. Back to Irkutst, we go grocery shopping and enjoy our night in an over heated apartment to accumulate heat for the rest of our week. In the morning the temperature has gone down again, but the good new is : Julien's luggage has been delivered. We can continue the road around the south shore until Vidrino, where serious things will begin.

These few hours on the road will end up being the most stressful part of our trip because overloaded lorries drive very fast on the snowy road, passing without worrying about what is facing them. The metal carcass of one of them lies on the roadside. Finally we arrive, alive.

We are along the Snejnaïa, a river that separates Irkustk from Buryatia. We step outside the cars ready to be towed by snow scoots towards the valley. Unfortunately these are out of order. We will have to do the 16km until our hut by ski. The sun is setting down so it is night when we walk into that forest. We finally reach our palace, a simple wooden hut, with a good old fireplace and a table on the ground floor and our dorm on the first floor. But who decided to set this hut there?


A Human Adventure

Stepan tells us about the origins of the ski in Mamay. A few Russian freeride pioneers started skiing in this valley more than 25 years ago. They had noticed that the snowfalls were heavier on this side of the lake before it is frozen. Defying the extreme cold, the set their tents to enjoy these virgin areas. Then, the "kung", a simple container, still in place today, was installed at the end of the valley to be used as a first shelter. Nowadays, there are not less than forty huts and chalets scattered in the forest. Fortunately for us the living conditions have evolved, all along keeping this authentic and respectful attitude towards nature.

The next morning, we first look at the temperature : -25°C. That does not refresh our wish to discover this Japanese snow that Yannick told us about.

Our first day is a real learning about the cold : everything freezes almost instantly, even the steam of the "chaï" tea on our ski mask; a beginner's mistake that can quickly ruin one's day. We arrive at the top of the first run and we can't wait anymore. We let the first track to Yannick, our Diédouchka (grand-father). He is thrilled to do his first curves of the season within such conditions. We do the same an follow him : The snow is very light and goes up to our tights. It is absolutely amazing to begin the season this way, at the other end of the world, in a lost valley and with 60cm of fresh snow.

However, Stepan, Sasha and Yannick are not totally satisfied. They tell us that the snowfall is deceiving, there is half less than usually. We are not going to argue, we are more than happy to be there, with this quantity of snow and this new group of friends. Indeed, the living conditions are pushing us out of our comfort zones and are rapidly creating a real spirit of community : we must be supportive to go get water by the river, to light the fire, to cook… We have the luxury of having a power generator every other day to charge Sasha's camera. In these conditions each reveal its true nature, the one we did not know about and we quickly start to share good moments. This ski trip is also a real human adventure.


Japanese powder & Canadian forest: a ski touring eldorado

On the second day we leave for the other face of the valley, just above our shelter. It snows all along the way up. Once at the top, Russia offers us a short view on Baïkal Lake. We can also see the Eastern shore, more than 70 km away, beyond the deep blue water. We can spot evaporation zones by the lake : cold air charges with humidity above warmer water. This humidity comes back on earth as snow behind the mountain range a bit further away. Freezing cold after a few minutes, it is time to enjoy a new run. Julien had chosen the Bakan 116 with Plum Yak. Rémy however, had chosen Slap 122 and low-tech Telemark. Mountains allow us to enjoy this deep snow and to climb easily with only a few handling. We climb back up one time, two times, three times until night tells us to go back to the shelter.

Without running water the only solution to shower is to go to the bania: the Russian Sauna. After sweating around a chimney during 10 minutes, we go out in the cold night, under the light of the stars to throw ourselves in the snow : an invigorating moment that allows us to spend a quiet and warm night and to refill our batteries to face the cold tomorrow.

In the morning it is still too cold and a North West wind blows into the valley. Trees are swinging and it is inconceivable to climb the same summits as before as we would face terrible frostbites. Therefore we stay inside the forest, where a few pillows lines are waiting for us. Some have weird shapes and fall down when we come across : they are huge crawling cedars covered with snow, impermeable bushes, a nightmare for bears ! After two short runs, the cold really gets to us and we gather wood in order to warm ourselves around a fire. Trees are so dry that we only need to hit the branches to break them ! After a few minutes the fire starts, what a pleasure to warm our fingers near the flames. We also use this moment to dry our skins for a last climb before going back to the shelter.

This evening, Sasha and Stepan try to teach us the Durak, a well-known Russian cards game (durak means idiot). It is pointless. Is it the fatigue or the cold that is exhausting our brain ?! We understand absolutely nothing and we will need a second trip to Kamchatka village later in the winter to finally understand the rules. The misunderstandings induced great laughs and it is in a good mood that we go to bed.

In the morning, the wind has strengthened and it is still snowing small crystals despite the really low temperatures. We spend the morning inside, cleaning the shelter. The really cold temperatures have pushed us to do huge fires and we are almost running out of logs. We decide to go outside cut some wood. We find a huge dead tree that we cut with the axe. This at least keeps us warm. A few inhabitants come help us to cut the logs with a chainsaw. Nobody wants to spend too long outside. After cutting our wood, the need to ski is too strong despite the cold. Yannick decide to stay inside to eat Zephirs (a kind of meringues), when the others go for a run in the forest before it is night.


The Baïkal gift


Since the beginning of the week it is almost snowing non-stop. We had spotted a clear day in Irkutsk, for our last day. We go to bed early with the wish to enjoy each ray of sun that this last day will provide. In the morning we all watch by the window like kids waiting for Santa. He has brought us the present we had wished for : we can see the stars in the sky and the light of the sun. It is time for us to finally face these amazing landscapes. No one has been on the summit within the last few days so all the faces are immaculate. The trees covered with snow have funny and majestic shapes. One looks like a monster, the other like a reindeer, one sees a witch, the other one sees a pangolin ! Nature plays with our imagination and creativity today ! It is perfect because we still have to film a few sequences for our movie. Once at the top, Sasha can finally use his drone : the view is breath-taking. On one side we can see the whole valley, amazing slopes and forests, and on the other side : the huge Baïkal Lake that goes as far as one can see towards the North. Within the next weeks it will turn into a big ice rink, with many meters of ice on which lorries will circulate. The ice helps to open up some villages in which the economy re grows during a few months.


Sasha's technic to protect the batteries from the cold is well established : Installed in a whole, covered with a tarp and with a few candles to keep his fingers and the electronic warm, he drives the drone above our heads. For the four of us the runs are crazy. We even decide to wait for the sunset at the top, inside a snow trench to keep us warm and to protect us from the wind that is coming back. The light decreases and the mountains are covered with gold, which contrasts with the purple colour of Baïkal Lake. A perfect ending for a trip that was as unexpected as extraordinary.

We did not know each other very well before coming here. This stay in Mamay has been more that just a physical trip, but also a human adventure. The birth of a close-knit group around the same passion : Freerando, whether be it on skis or telemarks. Still preserved from mass tourism and modern infrastructures, Mamay is authentic. Everyone knows why he comes here and also knows that he can't come alone because nature is stronger than everything. These are the aspects that we tend to forget in modern ski resorts, where we change the outside depending on our requirements.

We address huge congratulations to our photograph and camera operator Stepan and Sasha, for their kindness, goodwill and good mood. Despite extreme conditions it is thanks to them that the movie POTCHEMU was born. Airing next fall, this movie shows why Russia is a country that you must visit by skiing, without thinking about the old political prejudices of this country.

And finally a huge Thank you to Yannick for gathering us, and allowing this ski trip to happen.