Saving Kyrgyzstan With Skis

How a team of pro skiers, filmmakers and humanitarians are bringing sustainable tourism to the last untouched backcountry

Saving Kyrgyzstan With Skis

On the first day of backcountry guide training in Arslanbob, Kyrgyzstan, no one showed up with an avalanche beacon.

All 16 local trainees told their instructor, ski guide Donny Roth, that they had seen many avalanches in the craggy Babash-Ata Mountains that loom over their village, but were unafraid. After all, Allah was watching over them. But Roth knew the reality of the terrain they were standing on: a small slide could create a gulley of snow with grave consequences.

"No matter if you are professionally guiding in the mountains or are just going out on the weekend recreationally, having a beacon is step one of being in the backcountry," he says. "But I wasn't going to yell at these guys or tell them why we weren't going out. I couldn't explain the science to them or argue against Allah. But I want to teach them what I know."

So while the group was having lunch, Roth dug a snow pit. He isolated a few slabs of snow to create a mini-avalanche. After everyone finished eating, he called them over to his handmade trap. He asked one of the younger, more boisterous men – a 21-year-old Arslanbob native named Max – to lie down in the pit.

"I really wanted to do something powerful," Roth says. "If you are a part of the skiing community, you have had friends die in avalanches – and you've probably been caught in them yourself. I had to make them realize the gravity of the situation."

As soon as Max was in the pit, the others realized what Roth was doing. They laughed as Roth hit a slab with his shovel and the snow slid downhill, trapping Max's legs. Another slab dropped over his torso. The next pinned his arms. More laughing. Finally, the last slab buried Max's face. There were only a few feet of snow covering Max, but the laughing stopped.

The next day – and everyday after that – everyone showed up with the avalanche beacons they had been given.

Lessons like these are small scenes in a larger story of developing a new sport in a remote corner of the world. It is the combination large-scale programs and everyday efforts that are bringing the sport of skiing, and the tourism business that goes with it, to a country that desperately needs an economic boost – and has the jaw-dropping terrain to provide it.

Ninety percent of Kyrgyzstan's land lies above 4,000 feet. Arslanbob sits at 5,250 feet at the base of the Babash-Ata Mountains – a portion of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too Range – that protrude like a spine along Kyrgyzstan's northern border. Just beyond are Jaz-Jaryn Mountain and the Tien Shan Range – a kingdom of untouched snow and unexplored landscape. There is little information on the topography, snow conditions or routes of the ranges. A skier could go out practically every day and bag a new first ascent and descent. Why hasn't the world noticed? Because of a lack of infrastructure and inadequate community-based businesses.

During the winter, 80 percent of Arslanbob's population is unemployed due to heavy reliance on agriculture. Poverty and lack of jobs have pushed many to go to Russia to work as laborers. Men and boys leave the villages of Kyrgyzstan to take seasonal jobs and more often than not, they don't come back. Russia's economic downturn has made ISIS recruitment efforts easier with people from Kyrgyzstan and other ex-Soviet Central Asian nations, where the majority of the population is conservatively Muslim. So to prevent seasonal work migration and the potential for recruitment, local tourism boards are building opportunities through winter business that could be profitable options for Arslanbob and other villages. That's where skiing and new community-based tourism efforts come in.

Hayat Tarikov is the director of community-based tourism in Arslanbob. CBT is a Swedish-organized initiative in which residents of rural and often economically marginalized regions invite tourists to visit their communities and provide accommodation, transport and meals. In exchange, residents earn income as land managers, service and produce providers and employees. CBT has been previously successful in Arslanbob due to the tourist draw of walnut harvests, waterfall treks, mountain biking, yurt camping and rock climbing during the warmer months.

It was always Tarikov's hope that skiing could provide sustainable winter relief for the community's tourism industry, so men would not have to leave Kyrgyzstan to find work. And in 2003, he brought the first pair of skis into the village and taught others to make their own kits using wood from the walnut forest as skis, wire and rope as bindings and sticks as poles.

Tarikov's work was the subject of the budding ski story that filmmaker Nayla Tawa was attempting to capture when she came to Kyrgyzstan for the first time in 2012. But she quickly found herself in the middle of a new plotline.

"Three days after landing in Kyrgyzstan, I was in a car accident with two members of my crew," she recounts. "We were going 60 mph in the middle of nowhere when we hit ice and flew off the road into a stand of trees. Everyone was knocked unconscious and when I woke up, I was the only one who even knew where we were."

With her back broken in three places, a shattered sternum and a blown out right knee, she somehow crawled to the road's edge and flagged down a passing truck. After being transported with three other accident survivors to a local hospital, aid didn't come quickly. With no running water, no backboards and no proper hygiene protocol, Tawa and her crew refused injectable painkillers and surgical treatment. "I spent two days duct-taped to a snowboard before we were evacuated," she says. Before it even began, Tawa's project was over.

In 2016, after four years of recovery, Tawa was ready to try again. But this time around, it was about more than just making a film. Tawa wanted to make a difference. She organized the Return to Kyrgyzstan project to provide snow gear to locals, give ski lessons to children and train budding native guides.

Along with a crew that included professional big mountain freeskier Lexi DuPont, Ryan Koupal – founder of 40 Tribes Backcountry Adventures ecotourism guiding services – and Donny Roth, her goal was to develop a new sport and a new way of life in a far away land.

"Every trip I had gone on up to this point of my life had been selfish," DuPont says. "As a pro skier, there is a huge focus on making ski films. So I would go to these amazing places and ski their powder – but I would never interact with the communities. I knew with Kyrgyzstan it was time to finally give back to the places that were giving so much to me."

The crew set off to Arslanbob in February with 1,500 pounds of donated skis, snowboards, poles, helmets and other gear in tow and traveled more than 7,000 miles from San Francisco to Kyrgyzstan.

"On the day I got back to Arslanbob, everyone at CBT kept calling me Nayla Han, which means 'Queen Nayla,'" Tawa says. "I became this symbol of what could be for women and the other people of the village. They looked at me as a leader, and I took note of that."

Tawa and her crew didn't waste time. From day one they were holding guide-training sessions, first-aid classes, ski lessons for kids and backcountry ski group tours. "Everyone just grabbed onto everything that we taught them," duPont says. "They want to learn and they want to ski. That's much more powerful and substantial than any one of us wanting it for them. Their drive is what is going to keep it going. That's the foundation of it all. We just build on that with the resources we have and the knowledge we can teach them."

"It was a hard month," Tawa admits. "We weren't having a lot of success at first. It didn't even snow the first few weeks. Locals wouldn't talk to us. We weren't allowed to speak with other women and ask them to come ski. I just had to accept that everything takes time and by the end everything opened up.

"It dumped snow. We had three 16-year-old girls skiing with us at the final ski lesson. Our host pulled Lexi and me aside on our last day and said that the whole village was talking about us now," she continues. "We were the two American girls who came in and melted the snow with warm hearts. I couldn't explain that it was global warming, so I took the compliment."

Tawa and the rest of the Return to Kyrgyzstan team understand that change is gradual, but they all acknowledge that things are beginning to turn in remote communities like Arslanbob.

"It didn't really hit me until that last lesson with the kids, when the three 16-year-old girls showed up in their skirts and asked to ski," DuPont says. "One of them could not figure out how to snow plow, so her friends held her hands on each side the whole way up the hill, forming this human snow plow train. They were biting their lips with effort – they were so determined to make it up. It was huge when they made it. There were high fives and tears. They were so excited to do something they never thought their fathers would permit them to do."

Now, it's about continuing to provide the training and knowledge needed to building on what Tarikov initially started in the Kyrgyz backcountry with that a single pair of skis in 2003.

"It's not outlandish to see sports and outdoor gear and tourism as humanitarian work," Tawa says. "These are the tools they need to start something sustainable for their community, and they understand that. If locals want to start a skiing business, and tourists want to ski Kyrgyzstan, why are we sending Western and European guides and sending the locals some books as charity? They don't need books. They need skis."