Afghan backcountry skiers and snowboarders make their own equipment out of wood scraps and old truck tires—and they can crush you. Here’s how skiing has brought relief and joy to a nation wracked by four decades of war.
Late in the day, I stood about three fourths up on a summit in Afghanistan, watching the sun disappear behind miles and miles of tall, craggy mountains. Below me, I could see the few sprawling housing compounds that make up the upper village of Chapdara. The temperature plummeted and I shivered as I fiddled to get my boots into ski mode. AliShah Farhang, our local Afghan ski guide and an Olympic hopeful, gave me the thumbs up.
I bounced through some easy turns at the top of the run before a steep drop took me to powder paradise. One, two, three turns and I couldn’t see anything but snow spraying overhead. My whoop was loud and involuntary. I startled myself but couldn’t stop hollering with joy. I porpoised through a dozen more big turns before transitioning to a low-angle field where I straight-lined to the last steep pitch before the road. I got a few more turns in the Afghan white room before launching off a snowbank and onto the icy road.
I hit the brakes hard so I wouldn’t smash into our driver who was oblivious of any approaching danger. When I pulled up next to him, he wrapped me up in a big, giggling hug before breaking the embrace and giving me two thumbs up, asking me how it was.
I collapsed into the snowbank, returned his thumbs up and exhaled with joy, “So. Much. Powder!”
I came to ski Afghanistan for three weeks, most of the time filled with powder turns like these, with filmmakers Ben Sturgulewski and Jason Mannings to shoot a documentary focusing on the local ski community. Our hope was to find a story that might resonate with the world outside. Could we counter the predominant global narrative of Afghanistan as a frightening place where death and beheading lurks around every corner? We wanted to find out just how popular skiing really was in this corner of Afghanistan that’s best known as the place where the Taliban blew up the giant Buddhas of Bamyan statues in 2001.
For the past 12 years or so, the ski community in Bamyan Province, about two hours drive northwest of the capital of Kabul, has been growing. Local estimates run at about a thousand skiers or so—all this despite the fact that there are no permanent lifts in Afghanistan. Credit the rise of the sport to a few enterprising aid workers and journalists who brought skis in and introduced skinning for turns to the locals. In 2010, local skiers launched a randonee race called the Afghan Ski Challenge to support the growth of the local ski community and serve as a platform to welcome guests from around the world.
Skiing is not new to Afghanistan. The Afghan Ski Federation dates back to at least the 1970s, when rope tows ferried skiers into the mountains around Kabul prior to the Soviet Invasion. I can only wonder how the sport would have progressed—more so how the whole country could have progressed—without the ensuing 40 years of war. Still, skiing persists (and snowboarding is catching on as well).
Afghans use older skis and boots modified—or not—for backcountry travel. Skins aren’t widely available, leaving most to use ropes wrapped around their skis to provide traction. Kids make their own skis and snowboards out of wood scraps and old plastic oil containers. A few enterprising youths use tin cans for a more sturdy, but also potentially more harmful, binding. Little girls up to the age of maybe seven were often allowed to see us and interact with us at some small level, but we were not allowed to speak to, photograph, or video women when we were in the villages. It creates a one-sided understanding of the culture.
We spent one night out in a remote village, sleeping in an extra room of the local mayor’s house. Most of the village men and boys came to sit down and drink tea with us. A few had relatives who were serving, had served, or been killed or injured in service of the Afghan military against Taliban forces. Some spoke harshly of the young men who had returned and were not the same as they were before they left. Others shared with us why they had originally supported the Taliban or Al Qaeda—even if they didn’t always agree with the governance structure being put in place, it usually seemed better to them than the Taliban.
It was in this far village where we were also welcomed in to film during lessons being given at the local Madrassa, or religious school. The mullah, or head teacher, wanted us to better understand Islam and share his welcome to the world. “Bring others,” he said, “to ski and to sit down with us and eat.”
We came specifically for the Ski Challenge, which consists of two days of competition. On the first day, 10 women, almost all from the town of Bamyan, competed on a set downhill course. Next up was the wood skis and snowboard event. Boys and men aged about 5-35 all lined up at the bottom of the hill, with no liability release waivers in sight, before charging to the top in a melee of sticks, elbows, and legs and then strapped into homemade skis and boards.
I watched horrified as one skier tried to kneecap his little brother with a homemade pole at the start before he headed down past him. The younger fellow pointed his planks downhill and, with surprising balance and control, aimed straight at his brother. He came in like a rocket, blindsiding him in the back and creating a double epic yard sale. Several competitors made it across the finish line on skis but sans poles, while others careened across on backs, chests, and buttocks, no skis in sight. Somehow at the finish, everyone looked unharmed.
On the second day, the event shifted venues to AliSha’s home village deeper in the mountains. Clouds had settled in over much of the range, along with high winds and heavy snow. We were told this was an incredibly beautiful valley: “From the mountain tops you can see all of Afghanistan, but not today!” Despite the conditions, more than 50 Afghans, alongside a handful of international tourists and aid workers who had come to Bamyan for the race, set out on the course. Skiers from a few of the villages opted to walk over a few mountain passes to the race, compete, then tour back home.
Three groups, besides the international skiers—who all had the finest, expensive equipment—quickly emerged. First were the post-holers and ski-walkers. These men did not have skins and chose to either just run straight up the mountain or side-step to the top. Second, were those who did have skins. Third, were those who had some sort of makeshift skins—truck straps or ropes wrapped around their skis to give more purchase on the snow.
While Ben and Jason filmed, I did my best to compete. I was at the front of the international pack alongside two split boarders from Australia and Quebec. The race took us to the top of a small peak, down into a pass, and then up to a higher peak before shooting straight down a long 1,500-foot run that would rate as a solid black on any resort in the U.S. and into the finish area.
It wasn’t until we began the second climb toward the final peak that we were able to put any distance between us and the boot packers. I beat the split borders in the transition and was well ahead of them on the downhill until I felt my skis go over what must have been a rock. It shook me off balance. Then I hit a second rock and a third. My tips went straight up and flipped me hard onto my back. Luckily, I popped back up, but my lead was gone. In the end, I wasn’t even close to the top Afghan finishers.
The focus of our documentary will be on the competition and relationship between two skiers who were widely favored to win the race. One lives in the lower village of Chapdara, the other in the upper village. They are of different ethnic groups and come from families who have different interpretations of Islam. For many of the people we met, these two and their families included, it seems easier at times to welcome visitors than it is to welcome neighbors.
However, there is a deeply shared appreciation by all people here, of what skiing has brought to the youth. The father of the skier in the lower village is also the mullah, the religious leader. He showed us his home and even let us film his son in prayer. He explained the importance of the five daily prayers, as well as the importance of having a dutiful family. His son was good, he said, because he listened and did what he was told. He was also proud of his son’s athletic accomplishments—he had won the previous two ski challenges.
“Before skiing came,” he told me, “we loved the mountains in the summertime, but in the winter, they were oppressive. What is there to do for us, for our young people? It is too cold for regular school—so after chores we sit and were idle. Now with skiing, we all look forward to the winter, even old men like me, I can’t ski, but I love the stories.”
A veteran of the United States Army who served in Bosnia and Iraq, Stacy Bare is based in Salt Lake City, Utah. At the invitation of local skiers, Bare and a few friends launched silkroad-freeride.com in Kyrgyzstan this past January to support skill development, community, and competition in mountain sports along the historic Silk Road. More info on the Afghan Ski Challenge can be found at bamyanskiclub.com or through visiting Untamed Borders untamedborders.com the travel outfitter Bare used on the trip.