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Intrigues on the Slopes: Unveiling Turkey's Covert Ski Realm

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Editor’s Unveiling Turkey’s Alpine Secret

In this CNN Travel series, we delve into a world shrouded in snow-laden mystique, a playground for thrill-seekers and a hidden gem along the southern edge of the Black Sea. Sponsored by the very country it illuminates, our exploration of Turkey's alpine wonders retains the authenticity and editorial integrity that define CNN's commitment to unbiased storytelling.

As the tale unfolds, envision a pivotal moment in 2001 when Swiss mountain guide Thierry Gasser, gazing through the aircraft window, laid eyes on what he would later christen as "white gold" – the majestic Kaçkar range in northeast Turkey. What began as a casual observation from the sky evolved into a transformative journey for Gasser, marking the genesis of a new frontier for heli-skiing.

The decision to explore Turkey's untapped slopes stemmed from meticulous planning and a vision for a pristine heli-skiing destination. Gasser's criteria were clear: proximity to Europe, a vast high-altitude mountain range, and the allure of a coastal locale for optimal snow conditions. The Kaçkar range, with its sprawling 75-mile expanse near the Georgian border, emerged as the perfect canvas for this daring endeavor.

Embarking on a ground-level exploration in the summer of 2002, Gasser navigated the valleys, scrutinized local amenities, and soared over the towering peaks, including the formidable Kaçkar Dagi, standing sentinel at over 13,000 feet. Gasser's eyes lit up with the realization that the shape of these mountains was tailor-made for heli-skiing enthusiasts – a treasure trove of over 50 potential runs, all within a five-minute flight from the base.

The focus narrowed on Ayder, a quaint haven nestled in the heart of the Kaçkar range. With its traditional yayla charm, wooden abodes, and a backdrop of pine-clad landscapes and cascading waterfalls, Ayder emerged as the idyllic gateway to Turkey's hidden skiing paradise.

Join us on this journey as we uncover the allure of Ayder and the untamed beauty of the Kaçkar range, where adventure meets tradition, and every snow-laden peak whispers tales of a mesmerizing winter escapade.

Discovering Ayder: Skiing's Best-Kept Secret

Nestled in a verdant, narrow valley sculpted by the Firtina River, the village of Ayder emerges as a summer haven for regional tourists and visitors from the Middle East. Brimming with hot springs, rafting adventures, and hiking trails, it beckons those seeking respite in its lush embrace. Yet, as winter descends, Ayder undergoes a transformative metamorphosis, drawing ski enthusiasts from around the globe.

Winter's alchemy begins as moist air from the Black Sea entwines with the crisp mountain breeze, weaving a tapestry of powdery snow that blankets the landscape from January to April. Oliver Evans, from Elemental Adventure in London, describes the skiing experience as nothing short of epic. Ayder unfolds as a European gateway to Canadian-style heli-skiing, a revelation that often catches enthusiasts off guard.

Tucked amid the snow-laden peaks are abandoned winter villages, their rooftops draped in deep snow, and the echoes of mosque calls piercing the frigid air. The juxtaposition of skiing against this exotic backdrop, coupled with the hauntingly beautiful call to prayer, creates an otherworldly experience. Evans reflects, "It's the last place you expect to be skiing."

Thierry Gasser, the visionary behind Ayder's heli-skiing resurgence, initiated his first trips in 2005 with a solitary helicopter borrowed from Air Zermatt in Switzerland. In those early days, the village stood secluded, with the road and a single hotel exclusively catering to the adventurous few. Over the years, Ayder has transformed into a winter wonderland attracting weekend crowds eager to revel in the snow, sled down its slopes, and savor the joy of barbecues in a serene, snowy setting.

Navigating bureaucratic hurdles, Gasser temporarily shuttered his operation, only to triumphantly return in 2018. Now, with exclusive access to an expansive 2,000-square-mile tenure – a domain rivaling the vastness of the French Alps and portions of Italy – Ayder welcomes around 20 skiers each week.

Fast forward to January 2023, a season where the European Alps struggled with meager snowfall. Oliver Evans, undeterred, orchestrated a trip for clients, journeying from Istanbul to the local Rize airport, a mere hour's drive from Ayder. As the first day unfolded, with snowflakes cascading, clients found themselves in a winter wonderland. Evans guided them through forest trails, engaging in avalanche rescue training, and then descending to the village for a cup of local Turkish tea.

Skiing through Ayder is more than a physical endeavor; it's a cultural immersion, a dance between untouched slopes and the curious gaze of locals. In the heart of this secluded Turkish gem, skiing transcends sport, becoming a shared experience that bridges worlds and defies expectations.

Skiing Nirvana in Ayder: Unveiling Turkey's Alpine Marvels

As dawn broke, banishing the remnants of the previous day's weather, Oliver Evans, a client, and guides Georg and Yann eagerly embarked on an adventure that promised unparalleled thrills. Awaiting them just outside the three-star Hasimoglu in Ayder was the portal to Turkey's clandestine alpine wonderland—a helicopter piloted by the skilled Swiss aviator, Dany.

Ascending above frosted trees and emerging from the valley, the helicopter unveiled a breathtaking panorama of untarnished peaks, with the Black Sea sparkling to the north. The trio was deposited at the pinnacle of a slope affectionately named "Home Run." Under a pristine blue sky, devoid of clouds, and with a substantial 70-80 centimeters (28-31 inches) of fresh snow beneath them, Evans marveled at the extraordinary conditions. The anticipation swelled as they waited for the helicopter's rhythmic departure, savoring a moment of silence before the guides unveiled the day's skiing plan.

Contrasting with the typical frenzy of resort powder days, the experience atop Ayder's slopes was serene and calculated. Evans reminisces, "My first turns of the winter, and it was thigh-to-waist, light, proper cold-smoke powder. The client and I were both giggling like school kids, unable to believe our luck on the first day of the season. Even the guides seemed to acknowledge that this was off the charts."

The thrill continued as they weaved through untouched powder, culminating in a midday interlude on a ridge. Against the backdrop of a deserted village, with snow-covered shepherd huts and the mosque's minaret as a poignant reminder of their Turkish locale, lunch unfolded. Sandwiches, hot soup, chocolate, fruit, nuts, and beverages from the helicopter cool box fueled them for an afternoon of adventure.

In Ayder, the average run spans about 900 vertical meters (nearly 3,000 feet), with clients relishing approximately 11-15 runs per day. Safety reigns supreme, with guides meticulously monitoring avalanche risks. Evans dispels the misconception that heli-skiing is an extreme sport, emphasizing the deliberate and cautious approach to exiting helicopters. Amidst the pristine peaks of Ayder, where slow is synonymous with fast, he envisions a future where more enthusiasts, regardless of gender, embrace this exhilarating experience.

For Evans, that day atop Ayder's slopes etched itself as the pinnacle of his skiing exploits—a perfect fusion of untouched powder, breathtaking landscapes, and the sheer joy of gliding down Turkey's hidden alpine gem.

Charm and Culinary Delights at Hasimoglu: Unwinding in Ayder's Alpine Retreat

Post-skiing revelry at the Hasimoglu, a refurbished haven since 2016, radiates a tranquil, low-key ambiance. Nestled in Ayder, guests indulge in a tapestry of activities, from immersing themselves in spring-fed hot baths to savoring Turkish coffee or handcrafted drinks from the bar. The scene unfolds with table tennis matches and rejuvenating massages, creating an atmosphere that seamlessly blends relaxation with the camaraderie of fellow adventurers.

Come evening, the Hasimoglu offers a delectable buffet-style dinner, featuring an array of culinary delights. The spread includes abundant salads, hummus, pita, falafel, kofte, aubergine, tomatoes, and succulent grilled meats. Local specialties like hamsi kusu, a dish spotlighting Black Sea anchovies, and muhlama, a savory mix of corn flour, butter, and cheese, tantalize the taste buds, offering a true essence of Turkish gastronomy.

Adding to the cosmopolitan flavor is Thierry Gasser's eclectic team of guides, hailing from Switzerland, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, and the USA. Their diverse backgrounds merge seamlessly with the local Turkish staff, fostering a welcoming and collaborative environment. Gasser attests to the warmth of the Turkish people, noting their openness and helpful nature as integral to the harmonious collaboration.

On days when the weather dictates a change in plans, alternative activities beckon. Guests can opt for skiing from a snowcat, engage in snowshoeing, or embark on invigorating ski tours. Explorations extend beyond the slopes, inviting visitors to tea plantations, honey-makers, and craft centers or providing opportunities to unwind in local restaurants.

Ayder's allure deepens with the revelation of a hidden snowboarding legacy. Locals proudly shared tales of riding wooden boards with rope handles and makeshift steering, a tradition dating back over 60 years. Thierry Gasser muses on the possibility that snowboarding might have found its roots in this quaint Kaçkar mountain village, challenging the conventional narrative of its American origins.

As Ayder undergoes transformation and progress, the Turkish government explores plans for a full-fledged resort with ski lifts. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, with roots in Rize, visited the region in 2020 to champion winter tourism. The Kaçkar mountains, once a haven for heli-skiing, are poised to carve a spot on the global ski map. Thierry Gasser expresses his hope for the future, envisioning Ayder as more than a heli-skiing haven but a destination boasting a full-fledged ski resort.

Ayder's Ascent to Alpine Eminence

In the serene embrace of Ayder, where snow-laden peaks meet the warmth of Turkish hospitality, the conclusion of each exhilarating day unfolds at the Hasimoglu—a haven of tranquility and camaraderie. The post-ski ambiance is a delicate interplay of relaxation and shared adventures, from rejuvenating in spring-fed hot baths to savoring Turkish coffee and indulging in delectable buffets featuring local specialties.

Thierry Gasser's international team of guides, in harmony with the local Turkish staff, encapsulates the cosmopolitan spirit of Ayder. The unique blend of cultures creates an atmosphere where the warmth and openness of the Turkish people seamlessly intertwine with the global perspectives brought by the guides.

As Ayder's ski legacy evolves, alternative activities on inclement weather days and tales of a hidden snowboarding heritage add layers to its allure. The possibility that snowboarding might have found its roots in this picturesque village challenges traditional narratives, enhancing Ayder's mystique as an unexpected birthplace of winter sports innovation.

The promise of progress echoes in the Turkish government's exploration of resort development with ski lifts, elevating Ayder from a heli-skiing haven to a potential destination on the world ski map. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's endorsement of winter tourism underscores the region's transformative journey.

Thierry Gasser's hope for Ayder's future encompasses more than heli-skiing; it envisions the emergence of a full-fledged ski resort. The dream is not just for Ayder but for the Kaçkar mountains to carve their place in the global skiing panorama. As Ayder ascends to alpine eminence, each turn down its slopes becomes a testament to its transformation—a journey from a hidden gem to a celebrated destination in the world of winter adventures.

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