Affordable Alpine Skiing with a Caucasian Flare

Lori, Legion Media
Dombai is one of the most popular ski resorts in the Caucasus. The Dombai mountains are located in Karachay-Cherkessia, at the foot of the main Caucasus ridge in the Dombai meadows.

Dombai offers world-class alpine skiing. Here you can get a taste of real, natural mountains that are free from trendy cafes and boutique hotels. So what if the runs don't smell like chocolate and the restaurants don't offer wine aged in barrels, this is the real Caucasus -- hospitable, beautiful, and fiercely independent.

There are two roads that lead to the Dombai mountains from Mineralnye Vody airport: one is short and the other is long. The long one goes through Cherkessia and makes an extra 20-kilometer loop. The short road is more adventurous. It goes along a mountain serpentine road that hugs the cliffs, is subject to occasional landslides, and frequently icy. When going through the mountain passes cars are almost blown off the road, and on curves they skid. On one side is a steep drop-off without guardrails, and on the other is a majestic mountain ridge stretching right up to Dombai itself.

The Dombai resort offers a variety of ski runs for any skill level, with a total length of about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles). All of the runs are on the wide face of Mount Mussa-Achitara ("Lament of Moussa") at an altitude of 1,630-3,168 meters (5,347-10,393 ft). At the top of the slope the pitch is gentle, without steep drops. The lower part is steep with bumps.

The resort has been growing. Currently there are five aerial lifts at Dombai (including a six-seat Doppelmayr) going from 1,600 to 3,000 meters (5,249 to 9,842 ft.). The ski season in Dombai opens in December, with snow lasting until April. Not long ago the slopes opened in November, and sometimes closed in June, however, skiers had to jump over thawed and exposed rocks. Then the climate changed dramatically and snow-bearing clouds started to stall over neighboring peaks, leaving the slopes overly compacted and covered with bare rocks.

A couple of years ago, heavy snowfalls were so frequent for the Caucasus mountains that no one was surprised when ski lifts got stuck in snowdrifts. There were avalanches so large and powerful that houses and high-rise hotels were covered with snow, and people had to get out through windows in the roof.

Freestyle

Dombai has freestyle terrain, but it is open only when there is enough snow. Steep couloirs, wide virgin fields, and forest skiing are available from January to March. Most off-trail runs go along the northern slope of Mussa-Achitara and end in the Gonachkhir gorge or closer to the Teberda-Dombay highway.

Backcountry fans can descend from the top of Semenov-Bashi (3,602 meters/11,817 feet). The runs here are through a natural terrain area prone to avalanches. The length is about 3-4 kilometers (1.8-2.5 miles).

The freestyle terrain is extremely prone to avalanches, and the Caucasus Mountains are not safe for lone skiers, so everyone takes a guide to avoid getting lost, flying off into rocks, or getting stuck in an avalanche. Professional guides can be found at the first aid station located near the Austrian ski lift. There you can also find out about the ski conditions and any predicted snowfalls.

Heli-skiing is also available at Dombai, with runs starting from Alikbek glacier and from the slopes of Mount Semenov-Bashi.

Entertainment

The main competitor resort is Prielbrus, located in Kabardino-Balkaria. But the Dombai mountains offer a wider variety of after-ski activities.

At Dombai there is entertainment available day and night. They offer all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, and segways, and horseback riding in the mountains. In good weather you can paraglide with an instructor.

Not so long ago a new winter sport appeared in Dombai -- speed riding, which is a combination of paragliding and alpine skiing.

In addition, almost every hotel has a sauna, and many have indoor pools. There is an ice skating rink hear the Gorny Vershiny hotel. The most popular time for locals and tourists to skate is late in the evening when the sky is dotted with stars, music is played over the speakers, and everyone is offered mulled wine. But remember, this is not Europe; they do everything here in their own way. The stars in the Caucasus mountains look like nowhere else, the mulled wine is unique and invigoratingly strong, in a way that multiplies those stars, and the music is not the newest international hits, but a vigorous traditional Caucasian dance called the lezginka with the refrain: "Why do you have such a proud look? Because I am a Caucasian!"

On the second aerial lift, the Doppelmayr, right over the cliff there is a curious building housing the Tarelka (plate) Hotel. Although it is more like a hostel than a hotel inside, outside it looks like a flying saucer with small windows and a sunroof. It was built especially for the arrival of Leonid Brezhnev and designed so that in the advent of a powerful avalanche, Tarelka would slide down relatively safely, and the guests wouldn't get hurt.

It is impossible to miss the Dombai market, which gives the resort a special flavor. It is located near all of the ski lifts. Here they sell woolen sweaters, scarves, handmade hats, jam made from pinecones, walnuts, rose petals and of course, the fragrant Dombai honey.

There are many restaurants on the slopes where you can "thaw out", but unfortunately in Dombai there are only a few dishes to choose from. The resort serves only Caucasian cuisine -- tasty, filling, and very fatty.

And yet, the famous hychiny are a must, infused with the smells of the Caucasian mountains – flat bread with potatoes, meat or cheese! Every cook makes hychiny a little differently. Some fry them, some serve them with sour cream, and some with butter. Other must-try dishes are shurpa, which is a kind of "fried soup" with vegetables and pieces of mutton, and lagman, which is made with special noodles and aromatic spices.

Dombai tealeaves that are picked locally make for a tea that is considered very relaxing. The tea brews for a long time, which is why it is so thick. Then they add berberis, thyme, hawthorn, and of course, a lot of rhododendron, which helps people acclimatize in the mountains.

Trips to the famous Dombai glaciers are not possible in the winter. The glaciers can only be admired while ascending and descending.

Dombai resort adds more amenities all the time. New winter sports are being developed and more spacious ski lifts are being built. The resort is revered throughout Russia for its stunning views, challenging peaks that have given rise to many legends, and for its charm.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.