No peaks? No problem for Latvian downhill ski fans

Updated 22 December 2012
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No peaks? No problem for Latvian downhill ski fans

In the flat Baltic nation of Latvia, where hills are few and far between, wily alpine skiing fans have found ways to indulge their passion without flying south to hit the slopes.
“Every year we grow the hill a little. It’s now about 25 meters higher than it was,” says Vadims Kamenevs, marketing director of the Zagarkalns ski resort in Cesis, 90 kilometers (55 miles) northeast of the capital Riga.
Kamenevs’ team have spent recent off seasons piling an earth-mix onto a natural hill, and it now stands 112 meters (367 feet) above sea level.
It says a lot for Latvians’ love of downhill skiing that people in the Baltic nation of two million are prepared to grow their own mountains.
“If you want bigger slopes, there are only two ways you can go — either up or down, and we didn’t want to start digging,” Kamenevs laughs.
The tallest hill in the country, Gaizinkalns, rises just 312 meters above sea level and, predictably, it has three pistes on its flanks.
The Zagarkalns resort is not alone in using cosmetic surgery to enhance nature’s modest mounds.
In the western port of Ventspils, a ski hill was built from scratch in 2005. It too is growing each year, currently towering 52 meters over the nearby Baltic Sea beach and oil terminal.
Named “Lemberga Hute,” or “Lembergs’ Trilby,” its bizarre shape imitates the preferred headwear of colorful local mayor and political kingpin Aivars Lembergs.
Whereas cross-country skiing is a national obsession in neighboring Estonia, Latvians prefer the thrill of downhill skiing and snowboarding.
“Although Latvia is not a land of mountains, its steep slopes and snow-rich winters are just perfect for short runs with skis or on snowboard,” according to a recent report on 400 European ski resorts from the European Consumers Center Network.
“And while it may seem quite unusual, alpine skiing is one of the Latvians’ favorite winter-time activities. Ski runs are located in almost every municipality,” it adds. The report also gives a clue as to why Latvians have kept skiing even during an economic crisis that saw their country battered by the world’s deepest recession in 2008-09. The country offers the continent’s cheapest skiing, with one-day adult passes costing the equivalent of about four euros ($5) — albeit on a slope just 250 meters long at the Ramkalni ski center just outside Riga.
In contrast, the continent’s most expensive adult pass is found on the somewhat larger Matterhorn in Switzerland, at 62 euros ($81).
Latvia also has its own slope for well-heeled skiers, however, with the Zviedru Cepure resort charging 50 euros for a day’s skiing on a kilometer-long slope.
One of the benefits of small hills is that skiers can be confident they will not be stuck halfway up a mountain awaiting rescue before spending weeks on crutches.
According to the Latvian Ski Track Association, just 61 people were hurt during the 2011-12 season.
According to Kamenevs, the competition generated by dozens of small slopes is driving rapid improvements in facilities.
“Latvia is the capital of downhill as far as the Baltics are concerned. We get lots of visitors from Estonia, and Lithuanians tell us it’s cheaper for them to come here for a weekend than to visit their local facilities,” he says.
“The Russian market is also becoming very important. Russians can easily combine a weekend break in Riga with a couple of days’ skiing on different slopes.”
Since Latvia joined the European Union in 2004, its slopes have found an extra role — teaching a new generation of skiers skills that they can then take to the Alps, Pyrenees or further afield, which was impossible during 50 years of Soviet occupation. “A fair share of our winter passengers are skiers,” says Janis Vanags of national airline airBaltic, himself a fan of the slopes.
“Latvians are quite keen to explore less-known ski areas in Finland and Norway, plus new resorts in Georgia are generating a lot of interest. We are quite stubborn. We won’t let the fact that we just have a few small mounds stop us from skiing,” he adds.
With the arrival of the Baltic winter, Latvia’s 31 ski centers have just opened for business, and with luck they will stay open well into March.
At the top of Zagarkalns’ main run, 23-year-old Janis Bendiks says skiing is a way of life even in a small town such as Cesis.
“It’s simple. You finish work at five o’clock, then everyone heads to the slopes. This evening the run will be packed. It’s right on my doorstep, so why not make the most of it?” he asks before swerving expertly away in a cloud of powder.


Images of a father carrying his disabled son during graduation in Yemen tugs at the heart strings

Updated 1 min 16 sec ago
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Images of a father carrying his disabled son during graduation in Yemen tugs at the heart strings

  • Yemeni journalist and photographer Farouk Muqbel took footage of an elderly father in Sanaa

In video footage that will pull at the heart strings of even the most hardened, a proud father can be seen giving his disabled son a piggyback during his graduation ceremony in Yemen.  

The inspiring moment of the elderly man and his son was captured by Yemeni photojournalist Farouk Muqbel, who was filming the graduation ceremony of the Al-Noor Center for the Care and Rehabilitation of the Blind in Sanaa on Wednesday.

The father’s pride can be clearly seen as he carried his son who was graduating from secondary school.

The Al-Noor center was founded in 1967 and serves over 200 students, mostly children, who have visual disabilities.

The center’s manager told Human Rights Watch in 2016 that when the conflict started on March 26, 2015, the Houthis militia set up an office on the ground floor of the kindergarten building and placed guards at the compound’s entrance.