I live in Kars, a snowy, cold eastern Turkey town that author Orhan Pamuk describes as “the edge of the world.” Sometimes when I am staring off the dramatic dropping cliffs of the Anatolian plateaus, I couldn’t imagine a place that would better fit the description. Everywhere I look, it is white rolling mountains uninterrupted by trees or roads or houses—a wide-open backcountry heaven. Going on my third year of living here (one of two permanent, registered native English speakers for more than 200 kilometers) and the only resident backcountry skier in the region—I recently came to a realization that if I am going to live out here, I better go big or go home. I should take advantage of this amazing terrain or go live in a place with a few more daily comforts.
Other than a heliski operation on the Black Sea, out here there are thousands of kilometers of untouched backcountry terrain that has never been explored on a pair of AT skis. Coupled with daily fluffy snowfall and meters upon meters of annual snow accumulation with very few avalanche casualties a year, northeastern Turkey is a backcountry skier’s dream. However perhaps the casualty number is low because no one is going into the mountains–especially a young woman.
As a solo American woman living here on the Turkish/Georgian/Armenia/Azeri borders, I am used to spending my days getting funny looks and humored variations of “yapamazsın” a saying that means “you aren’t able to do this.” They are not accustomed to woman trekkers, let alone a young woman hiking through villages in full gear up mountainsides through snow and trees, over bear tracks and towering ridges, out doing it solo.
This is new for me, too. I was born and raised skiing all terrains in Colorado, but I am a backcountry novice. Out here in Kars, we have a quaint nine-slope ski resort (Sarıkamış Kayak Merkezi) where there are as many people barbequing and walking around with sleds as there skiers. Jokes aside, the snow is actually great, and it feels like pure skiing without all of the distracting bells and whistles of fancy resorts. Just you, the mountain, and a kebab.
But for a good challenge though, the backcountry calls. So while I had two weeks home in Colorado, I went big. I bought all of the gear I thought I could help me live large while staying alive. I get one chance a year to buy gear and because I reside in a remote village in Turkey, I have a zero return policy option. As such, I buy gear is as if my life depends on it, because, well, it does. And when you are a woman breaking snow ceilings in eastern Turkey, you want to know you have the best tools possible.
Here are some of the beginner backcountry and all-terrain purchases I made, why I made them, and how they are holding up after a month of backcountry skiing in the South Caucasus.
1. I started with my skis. I needed something light that I could spend 50 percent in country when I was skiing on the resort with friends, but something that could handle the powder and extremely varied terrain of the backcountry. I also hike long distances with skis on and off my feet, and my commute to and from my hills includes anything from a 5 km walk through a village to an hour-long bus-ride full of farmers. With these considerations, I went with the VOLKL NANUQ, and they are the perfect fit for me. They are great for flying and travel because of their weight, and I am stunned by how well they transition between groomed slopes and 1 meter backcountry powder. I have also learned that I spend a lot of time looking at my skis when I am climbing, and the icy bears on the Nanuq are a classy touch, especially in parallel to the bear tracks I am finding underfoot.
2. The next purchase was footwear. For boots, I wanted a light boot that could be stiff enough for the front country but flexible enough for a good 10 km hike. I went with the Scarpa Gea RS that has a 120 flex index, a respectable number for a regular downhill boot. I had the boots fitted and find them still a bit loose in the ankle, but they are comfortable, and the walk-on walk-off flip option is great.
3. Other than my ski boots, I get one pair of shoes to be my everything else – running shoes, walking through villages shoes, jumping into a meeting shoes. My criteria for this shoe is first and foremost not-white because none of the local roads are paved and are dominated by muddy runoff. This brings me to my second criteria,the shoe must also be waterproof yet breathable. And as with everything I own, the shoe has to be light. I have gone with the Women’s Hedgehog GTX XCR by The North Face. I am training for a marathon so I add inserts for support, and throw on a pair of yak tracks for ice training. They fit my wide foot well and so far they are keeping my feet dry, and they are small enough to throw in the ski pack.
4. Next for poles, I have gone with the Black Diamond Expedition Ski Pole that has so far been my biggest disappointment. The pole is light in weight and adjustable, but the basket engineering is off and I am constantly loosing them. They don’t stay on with my speed. Without the baskets, the pole feels nearly useless in deep powder when I am skinning up a mountain face. Because I can’t easily get replacements out here, the poles–even if light and collapsible–will stay home until I can get new baskets that don’t fall off during the first run.
5. Perhaps my favorite purchase has been the Dynafit TLT Radical FT Binding. From the outside, it looks like your boot is held down by two tiny pins at the toe. But in reality, this is a nice piece of engineering that keeps your boot locked-in for high downhill speeds and then free and elevated for the steep climbs. Shifting between the different settings took some arm-work at first, but when I learned how to hold down the instep piece of the binding, I noticed they clicked nicely to every setting I desired.
6. I went with the standard Black Diamond custom fit skins that have been fairly good except for super steep climbs, where to my surprise, I have caught myself sliding back down the hill. They also don’t fair well with wet snow.
7/8. I have started putting my iPhone into a bright pink Griffin Survivor Case while I ski due to its water proofing abilities and the fact that I am always trying to catch a good shot of tracks, or snow, or light. I am thrilled how well it protects my IPhone from moisture and elements so far. I am less happy that my new Olloclip iPhone lens doesn’t fit with it, or any iPhone cover for that matter, making it hard to bag some of the wide angle or fish eye shots that I must save for drop and moisture free scenarios.
While breaking the figurative snow ceilings of eastern Turkey, I want to know that I have gear that can keep up with my dreams and requirements. Gear is one of the pillars to keeping us safe in the backcountry, so we can both live big and go home.