A trans-Siberian winter adventure: skiing the shores of Lake Baikal

The valley of Bolshoy Mamay, near the shores of Lake Baikal, is a remote Russian region that’s garnering a loyal following of backcountry skiers. Travel there by Trans-Siberian Railway and the adventure begins before you even clip in.

By Abigail Butcher
photographs by Timme Ellingjord
Published 6 Dec 2020, 08:00 GMT
Fresh, deep Siberian powder snow overs the slopes at Khamar-Daban.

Fresh, deep Siberian powder snow overs the slopes at Khamar-Daban.

Photograph by Timme Ellingjord

During the searing summer of 2019, my friend and IMFGA mountain guide Fred Buttard told me he was heading to Siberia that November on a recce trip for his company, Upguides, and was looking for intrepid, experienced skiers to join him. I didn’t need asking twice. Siberia has a romantic if complex reputation — a mysterious place of cold, bleak beauty; one whose tragic past is entwined with a now forgotten-about generation trying to find its way in the present.

A few months later, our group convenes at Moscow Kazansky station, cramming big ski bags and touring kit into our section of six bunks in a third-class coach of the Trans-Siberian Railway train bound for Vladivostok, 5,772 miles away. While smiles and direct eye contact are scarce, our fellow travellers survey our group with friendly amusement. Sharing no common language, communication is, as is often the case, nonetheless easy. 

For four days and nights we trundle east, ticking off stations and time zones, watching the landscape outside grow colder by the mile. Sometimes, stops provide enough time to inhale a lungful of ever-fresher air, while bigger stations offer the chance to grab a beer and some takeaway food. Seemingly oblivious to the temperatures, locals patrol the platforms peddling everything from ushanka (classic fur-lined hats with ear flaps) to salted fish and pirozhki (stuffed rolls). 

Temperatures outside drop as low as -40C, but inside the train is warm, comfy and clean. Travellers get on and off at different stops, each new arrival presented with bedding and towels for their journey. A dining car offers a simple menu, which we supplement with our own tea, coffee, pot noodles and instant porridge made with hot water from the samovar in our carriage.

We rattle past barren expanses of wasteland and the odd small town of broken-down wooden houses where dogs run freely. Our final stop, Vydrino, is more than halfway along the line, and by the time we stumble onto the snowy platform just before dawn, we’re more than eager to start the next stage of our adventure. Friendly taxi drivers arrive within minutes to take us to Hotel Belosnezhka (Hotel Snow White), our base to explore this section of the Khamar-Daban mountain range. 

Set on the southwestern shores of Lake Baikal, Vyrdrino has only a few hundred inhabitants — income streams dried up here after the closure of its timber mill in the 1990s, followed more recently by the demise of its prison, a traditional lynchpin of employment across Siberia. But a new light shines on its horizon: the Mamay Valley, a sweet spot for hardcore freeriders, is an area that’s fast growing in popularity. Hotel Belosnezhka opened two years ago by a forward-thinking couple from Moscow, complete with a social media profile that’s bringing in growing numbers of adventurous skiers from across Russia and beyond.

Thanks to the mountains and proximity to Lake Baikal the area has its own microclimate. Warmer than eastern Siberia, days here average -10C to -15C  in November and December, with heavy precipitation that brings metres of snow. While Mamay itself faces north, there are boundless skiing options on almost every type of terrain: trees, bowls, powder fields, steeper lines, ridges and mellow slopes.

After a breakfast of eggs and syrniki (a plump cream cheese-based pancake served with sour cream and jam), we put on cold-weather ski touring kit and pile into taxis to reach the base of the valley, 10 minutes away. From here, a couple of snowmobile drivers relay us along the five-mile track into the mountains. At about 1,640ft above sea level we hop out, apply touring skins to our skis and start to climb. Up through the forest we zigzag, following a ridge line to pop out, two hours later, at 4,593ft. 

Nothing could have prepared me for the views from that first peak. With the vast lake stretching out in the distance to the east, I try to find the horizon. The terrain and sky are colossal. It’s wild. It’s entirely uninhabited in every direction: a truly difficult concept to grasp until you see such immensity for yourself. 

Pulling on a few more layers from our backpacks (you get warm climbing up, but chillier skiing down), we pick our line; a gentle 35-degree pitch following the ridge down to an open bowl. Fred goes first, then I drop in. 

I’ve skied light, chest-deep powder once before, in Japan, but the vertical was so short (820ft or so), I managed about three turns. Here, in Siberia, the snow is still impossibly light, deep and soft, but the vertical is longer, and the pitch steeper. Toiling uphill suddenly seemed worth every minute. We ski down for about half an hour, a drop of 2,624ft, before checking the map and climbing to a new ridge. There isn’t another skier or track in sight. 

A meal aboard a Trans-Siberian Railway train.

Photograph by Timme Ellingjord

You’re on your own

The sun shines so brightly it could be March in the Alps, not November in Siberia. But by 2pm, the sky’s already glowing orange, a warning that nightfall is imminent: time to get off the mountain. Fred, a highly qualified guide with whom I’ve skied for years, has a satellite phone and knows our capabilities. We’re all strong skiers, but are mindful nonetheless of being in deep wilderness. If something goes wrong, there’s no mountain rescue: we’re on our own.

In the Siberian darkness, warmth from exertion quickly shifts to cool, then downright cold. But soon enough, there are hot showers and photos to share over simple but delicious Russian food: vast helpings of meat, potatoes and fish, all garnished heavily with dill.

While some skiers choose to bed down in basic mountain huts five miles up the track, staying in Mamay, at Hotel Belosnezhka, gives us more comfort, and the chance to explore other areas. On day three, we meet local guide Innokentiy Myznikov on the road between Vydrino and Baikal. Jumping out of a taxi, we clip into our skis and climb up from the roadside, following a secret track Innokentiy has been skiing for 20 years, to a little hut he built himself. As we sit warming up around a fire, Innokentiy explains that this is fur-trapping country and asks me quite edgily not to expose the location, because trappers out hunting sables have already burnt down his hut twice in fits of territorial rage. Because of its growing reputation among French, Austrian and Scandinavian travellers, Mamay now has 50 or so zimuha (mountain huts) where skiers can stay for their entire week, the nearest road accessible by five-mile cat track.

Neither the huts nor snowmobile drivers are operating formally, with permits or any kind of licence; it’s a Wild-West-meets-East charm that skiers can indulge in from the comfort of a hotel, led by experienced local guides.

As we finally wind our way back west, via a four-hour drive to Irkutsk, an eight-hour flight to Moscow and another six to the UK, I feel bewildered. A place that took four days to reach by rail has now vanished in hours. But it’s somewhere that leaves a serious
imprint. Had I realised how much the place would move me, I might have garnered more resilience against the Siberian cold. I would have fought for more time to stand on top of Khamar-Daban’s mighty peaks for a few moments longer, before dropping into the wilderness. 

How to do it

Upguides offers a November trip to Siberia from €1,900 (£1,772) per person for seven nights, with six days skiing. 
Transport on the Trans-Siberian Railway between Moscow and Vydrino costs €80 (£72) in third class. Get on in Moscow or a stop closer to Vydrino, spending one or four nights on the train. 
British Airways flies from Heathrow to Moscow from £176 return. 

Published in the Winter Sports guide, distributed with the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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