tour de gondola.

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The last few days have been sort of “meh” in some ways. It was foggy at the venue, so the men’s biathlon mass start – which I had been really looking forward to – has been postponed again and again. Yesterday we spent most of the day sitting in the press center getting antsy and waiting for a race to happen. Finally, the women’s mass start went off. The race for gold was totally boring as Darya Domracheva decimated the field for the third competition in a row. But behind her things were still interesting with a good race for bronze. And, Susan Dunklee did it again with 12th place, the best finish ever for a U.S. woman at the Olympics. Go Suz!

In all of the downtime yesterday I worked on a story based on a long interview I did with the International Biathlon Union’s medical chief, Dr. Jim Carrabre. We talked doping and boy, did we ever talk doping. Only about half of the interview made it into the piece, so there’s still more to come, but I think the result (here) was pretty interesting.

However, despite all the outrage about doping, apparently nobody wants to read about the nitty-gritty of what goes on. They only want to read about the scandals that consume previously famous athletes. Because, even though my piece is covering ground that I don’t think other people have covered, nobody is reading it.

At the same time that I published that, my colleague Nat published a funny piece about how much the Norwegians have been sucking in skiing at this Olympics. In an hour, it garnered 1200 reads. My piece had 120.

To be fair, Nat’s piece was excellent. I love it. It’s delicious and gossipy but still built on the back of a lot of real reporting. Go give it a read, you won’t be disappointed.

But it does say a lot about what people want to read. Schadenfreude? Yes, please more! Substantive research on an issue they claim to care about? nah, never mind.

Anyway. There’s a fun story in here, I promise! Two mornings ago we met up with Rob Whitney at the base of our little gondola. Rob is a former excellent ski racer, now living in Anchorage and working as a firefighter. He is married to Holly Brooks, who is competing here in her second Olympics. Rob snagged a job working for NBC as the in-the-box researcher for Al Trautwig, who is announcing the cross country races. So we have someone else cool to hang out with.

Our goal for the morning was to go all the way to the top of the mountains that we can see every day. The mountains are sweet and epic and huge and snowy and white! We had heard a rumor that with our credential – which says “ALL” – we could ride the gondola to the top. Rob claimed to have done “research” about which of the dozen gondolas we would have to take. He said three. We walked up to the train station and tried to get on one.

It was not immediately obvious where it would take us, and the volunteer didn’t speak much English. Rob was trying to explain that we wanted to go to the “tippy top” of the mountain (I don’t think “tippy top” is a phrase they teach you in English 101) and that it would take three gondolas. The guy was getting more and more confused. Finally he handed Rob his smartphone and told him to type his question into google translate.

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That didn’t help much. We decided to just get on the damn gondola and see where it took us. It would be up, after all. So off we went. It took us to the Sanki sliding center! huh.

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Unfortunately, the gondola going up the mountain from there was closed. We could see it extending off up the hill, eventually ending at the “tippy top”, but we couldn’t get there. So instead we did a gondola traverse of the mountain to try to reach another gondola that would.

First, we had to walk and ride past some environmental yuck. Building everything on the side of these very steep mountains has been sort of a shitshow. Things will definitely slide down the mountain. The ski jumps basically already are. One problem is that they more or less raped the hillsides where they are building things, and there are no trees or vegetation left to stabilize the slopes. When it’s snow-covered you can’t really tell how bad it is. But it has been very warm (it rained this morning) and so the snow is melting and all of a sudden, some places look pretty darn ugly.

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But anyway… we eventually got to the bottom of that gondola (let’s keep a tally, it’s out third of the day: down from the hotel, then up to the sliding center, then down this one). We hopped on gondola #4, which took us up to one side of the alpine and freestyle venues. From there we saw another gondola heading up to the “tippy top” of another mountain! Yes! It was turning into a beautiful sunny day and our heads were swimming with what the views must be like from 7000 feet. Yes! We were almost there!

…. except that we were told that we couldn’t go. Only athletes, team staff, or skiers with tickets could go up this gondola. We had missed the boat on buying tickets.

To be clear, this dog got to go up to the top of the mountain, and I did not.

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However, some team staff have a colored “sleeve” that they slide over one arm as their accreditation. It so happens that photographers have the same sleeves, just in different colors. Nat, as a photographer, had one of these sleeves. So they let him on. I handed him my camera and Alex, Rob, and I hung out on the terrace of the ski lodge. The lodge was really nice and had a huge cafeteria, where they were not serving food. We couldn’t even get a coffee. Oh well. The terrace was nice and sunny. Photo from Alex’s instagram:

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The gondola also was the one that serves the “mountain village” athletes’ village, so we got a glimpse of that. It’s definitely, definitely not as nice as the “endurance village” where I visited Susan. Still has nice views though.

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We waited as Nat went up and then down gondola #5. He was definitely grinning when he came back. Later, when I downloaded my photos, I was able to take a little tour of what he had seen from 7000 feet in Russia. You can see into Georgia, which is pretty cool.

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Anyway. Nat came back, and we realized that we were pretty far up a mountain on the wrong side of the valley and that sometime soon we would have to be over at the cross country race, which started at 2 p.m. So we had better get skedaddling. We headed back down gondola #4 and into a little plaza in Rosa Khutor. Still smarting from not being able to get a coffee at that semi-closed ski lodge – if there is one thing that reporters really need a lot of, it’s coffee – we stopped at McDonalds where capuccinos were really quite affordable. The place was hopping. Since he has a real job, Rob treated us. Thanks Rob!

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From there it was up gondola #3 and down gondola #2 (we decided that though ridiculous, this was a better option than walkig back to the train station, since part of the walk has no sidewalks and you have to be on the side of the road with buses and trucks going past…). And in our biggest gamble of the day, we decided to take the giant high-speed gondola which traverses up the other side of the valley. Seriously, this thing is huge. Each car holds about 20 people, although they weren’t filling up. And it moves FAST. Scariest to me, the cable spanned some very long distances, very high in the air. It was absolutely incredible. We don’t have numbers, but we’re guessing that the longest span must be close to a kilometer. It’s insane.

Also insane? The views.

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Yeah, gondola #6 was pretty sweet. Eventually, though, the ride came to an end. We were spit out at a seemingly random mid-station – it was totally weird that such a huge gondola went to somewhere there wasn’t much infrastructure.

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We walked outside and around the wheelhouse, and then had a choice to take a chairlift to the cross country venue, or a gondola to the biathlon venue. Since the press center is in the biathlon venue, it was a no-brainer. Gondola #7!

It was pretty crazy to go back to work after our strange morning of traveling around Sochi by air. I’m interested to know why they built so many gondolas – there are at least three or four more that we haven’t even seen, and a few others that we have ridden to other things. It could be a good way to stay a little more environmentally clean, except that we saw firsthand what they did to the hillsides in order to put these things in. Is it still better than having a road which has to be constantly maintained? I think, maybe so. Not sure. The scary thing is that like the ski jumps, these may have been built on geologically unstable soil, so I wonder how long they will last. The idea of anything happening to that giant high-speed one gives me the willies.

After the race, we took our usual gondola down to the bottom of the venue (gondola #8 on the day) and then walked back to the village, where we took gondola #1 up to the hotel. What a day.

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