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.