20th May 2016
International team rider Neil Williman has just got back from his second trip of the season, to the middle east with Fabi Lensch and the Snowmads Crew. After what must have been a truely unforgettable trip that took him completely off the beaten track, we thought we would catch up with him to get a few tips for anyone else that might be interested in visiting these largely undiscovered mountains. So keep on scrolling to check out the videos of what Neil got up to and his list of the top 10 things to know before skiing the middle east...
1. There are some amazing mountains, but they often lack the infrastructure to ski them. Turkey and the nearby countries of Macedonia, Serbia/Kosovo, Greece, Iran, Georgia and Armenia all have amazing mountains, but the lack of reliable transport, accommodation and ski lifts can make shred trips very tough. One answer to this is to build your own accomodation on wheels - camper, RV, mobile home or whatever you want to call it. Something that will get you as close as possible to the hills and keep you warm, rested and well fed. The longer it's able to support you, the greater the adventures you can embark on.
2. Building a camper will cost twice as much as you think, and take four times as long. For this project, Fabi chose a 1985 Mercedes Benz fire truck and enlisted the help of experienced ski-camper builder Markus Ascher. While it was in his words 'the most stressful 8 months of his life', I got to witness him radiate with joy and pride as we drove the finished product out of Innsbruck to embark on our adventure. All the hardships that Fabi had been through to realise his dream only seemed to broaden his smile at every compliment on its magnificence.
Inside & out of Fabi's final masterpiece
3. Be prepared for difficult access, whether by road, foot or skis. Planning to go somewhere new may have felt like a challenge but getting there might be even tougher. Come as prepared as you can, whether it's a high clearance 4wd, chains, a tow rope, bolt cutters, an ice axe, crampons or a tent, this is one area where you shouldn't skrimp on supplies.
4. Things might not work out quite the way you planned. Although the mountains are amazing, they are also unpredictable and the road to your destination might be closed with no explanation, you may arrive to no snow or even break down on route and never actually make it to your chosen destination and you're just going to have to accept it. Our original plan was to ski the Balkan states on the way from Austria to Turkey, but they had so little snow it looked more like summer. A well timed 30cm 'instabase' in Serbia allowed us to ski a few turns in Brezovica, but Bulgaria, Monte-negro, Macedonia and Greece all just became highways portals to the apparently snow-drowned paradise of Turkey.
5. When you're 'self sufficient' you need to bring solutions to the table, not problems. When you're over a week into a ski trip and you've barely put your boots on and you arrive at your first real destination to find out that the terrain isn't quite what you were hoping for, what do you do? Make the most of the situation. In our case the snow was good, but quite unstable so we stayed on the low-angle terrain and made use of the 'no-boards' which are pretty much surfboards made for powder. It might not have been the rad skiing we had in mind for the trip but it was a much needed serotonin and endorphin release after the stress of getting the show on the road.
6. Don't be afraid to keep looking. Even if people tell you that a particular place or zone isn't worth going to, still check it out for yourself. Many people have absolutely no concept of 'freeride' or 'backcountry' skiing and will only point you in the direction of ski resorts. Trust your gut feeling and search for places on google earth or contour maps that look like they might work, there are still so many spots to be discovered.
Neil finally finding the goods in Yaylalar, Turkey Photo: Red Bull
7. If you're doing something that's not been done before, be ready for people to tell you you're crazy. Eastern Europe and Western Asia are often poorly understood and vilified by our media. It's not true of course and on our adventure we met some of the most open-hearted and kind people I've ever encountered, whose generosity I haven't seen matched in a western country for a long time. I can't guarantee that will be the same experience for everybody, but on numerous times we were obviously clueless tourists and I never once felt cheated, threatened or swindled. The best example of this was meeting Murat the mechanic in Turkey, who took us into his garage and home for two days, introduced us to his friends and family, fed us and did repair work on the truck.
8. Celebrate the locals. The people we met were unbelievably friendly and welcoming and appreciating that is important, because if you don't give good vibes back then maybe they won't be as friendly with the next group of foreigners. We were constantly invited into homes, given tea, treats, directions and warmth, and it was this generosity that made the trip so special, so pay it forward and keep on breaking down those walls of misunderstanding between East and West. For us that was one of the main goals.
Getting to know the locals in Yaylalar, Turkey
9. Make good decisions. It's pretty thrilling to be so far from home, but this also means that you're probably further away from medical attention than usual. Don't let fall-line fever or pillow-pow pandemonium pull you into making a wrong decision, no matter how rad the trip-defining shot you think you might get is.
10. If you find the goods, then make sure you appreciate them. Hopefully you're going to stumble across the zones and snow you were dreaming about at some point in your trip, but there's no guarantee it's going to stick around. So exhausted as you may be, it's best if you can drag yourself out of bed early and after enduring all the trials and tribulations you'll be sure to enjoy it that much more.For more information about the Snowmads trip and to watch all the episodes, head over the website.