Tour of Duty
Business as usual in Afghanistan took a rewarding twist when Henry Collis included ski touring in his training manual
The boy in a checkered headscarf surprised me. As I kicked my way through the crust on the gentle summit, he stood against the rocks that constituted the peak and peered back at me through squinting eyes wrapped against the strong sun and cold wind.
I waved and said hello in Dari. He nodded reticently at what I thought must have been a bizarre sight for him: a strange foreigner clad in bright, shiny fabrics wearing unwieldy plastic ski boots on his feet—a stark comparison to his own tattered clothes and old sneakers worn thin before he’d ever received them. Then I noticed his feet were wrapped with rope and sliding nervously forwards and backwards on something; as the snow moved I finally realized he was on homemade skis.
I’d just spent the previous 90 minutes skinning up into the alpine from the tiny village of Khoshgak, a few miles south of the provincial capital of Bamiyan.
Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan. It was the first day of a training week—not a military training week, but one of basic skiing and skinning techniques for 10 local lads. As we neared the top, my new class stopped to enjoy their packed lunch of flat Afghan naan bread with boiled eggs, while I carried on the few extra metres to reach the nearby summit where I saw the boy.
A brief conversation informed me Mokhtar Ali was from Jawzari, in the next valley; he’d walked up on his wooden creations after hearing there was a group of skiers on the ridge. Although shy at first, he was soon showing us some nimble turns with the thick planks that were smoothed off with oil cans beaten flat onto their bases. It wasn’t the last I would see of him; he came out to watch us train most days and by the end of the week his dedication represented a lot that I had experienced in Afghanistan’s remote but inspiring mountains.
I’d first arrived in the country 18 months before to work in support of the international military forces based in Kabul, but soon heard about a small group of dedicated expatriate ski tourers keen to put in kick-turns and drop lines in the ample snowfall that graces the towering peaks of the Hindu Kush mountain range each winter. I sought them out in early winter and was soon awaiting notification that the snow was deep enough to move out. When the email came, it was brief—“We’re on for Friday” with directions and a time.
Emerging bleary-eyed for a truly alpine 5:00 a.m. start, I was soon hurtling out of Kabul in a rickety Toyota Surf, across the Shomali Plains and toward the jagged peaks to the north. Along the way my hosts explained our destination was the Salang Pass, a winding mountain road that has for centuries linked Central Asian Khanates and nations to the north of Afghanistan with the Indian sub-continent, across the southern plains.
The road became infamous during the 1980s when, as one of the invading Soviet’s main supply lines, it was fiercely contested and aggressively ambushed by Mujahedeen fighters under the leadership of the revered warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud.
The snow was falling in thick barrages of large sticky flakes as we began ascending the road that winds to almost 3,200 metres through dramatic canyons and around hair-raising blind bends with perilous falls through the freezing air beneath. At the wheel was Ken, a laid-back Scotsman with a passion for all things snow who also happened to have been working on development projects since arriving in Afghanistan three years prior. He peered into the rearview mirror after accelerating away from his third police checkpoint without stopping.
“What do you think he wanted?” asked Ian, another Brit who’d been visiting Afghanistan as a journalist since the late 1980s, referring to the angry Kalashnikov-wielding figure who had already disappeared into the dense weather that was closing in around us.
“He probably wanted us to put on snow chains like the others,” replied Ken, switching his focus back to scrutinizing the skiability of conditions either side of the road. All reminiscent of a road trip anywhere in ski country.
Three hours from Kabul we’d reached the entrance to the Salang Tunnel, the highest part of the road at just over 3,200 metres, and set out skinning. The snow was deep and delicious—had it not been for the howling gale, failing visibility and avalanche potential, we would have been embracing the valley’s ample pitch. After a few hours we headed back down the pass, stopping at a roadside teahouse for steaming hot green chai and freshly grilled lamb kebabs.
“Are you coming to Bamiyan next weekend?” asked Ken between mouthfuls of Afghanistan’s unofficial national dish. “We’re heading up there for a few days’ skiing.”
Bamiyan is home to one of Afghanistan’s most famous heritage sites, the victim of a world-famous tragedy in 2001 when the Taliban, then in power, destroyed 1,500-year-old giant Buddha statues, leaving the niches where they had stood as gaping, silent monuments to the excesses of fundamentalism.
Running across the southeastern edge of Bamiyan province are the Kuh-e-Baba mountains, a sub-range of the Hindu Kush that reaches almost 5,000 metres and is the source of all of Afghanistan’s three major river systems. What flows out as river, however, arrives there first as snow and has in recent years been the lure for Kabul’s skiers.
Less than a week later, having accepted their invitation, I found myself bracing for landing as I barrelled toward a gravel airstrip. From the windows of the Soviet-era Mi-8 helicopter that plies the route commercially across the mountains from Kabul year-round, I could see the deep gouges where the Buddhas had once watched peacefully over the ancient trade route below.
I was quickly swept up by my hosts and taken to a nearby guest house run by Gul Hussein Bayzadah, an Afghan tourism entrepreneur with a disarmingly infectious smile. Gul’s company, Rah-e-Abrisham Tourism, with support from the Agha Khan Foundation, an international development organization, has been at the forefront of Bamiyan’s mountain tourism scene.
Absurd as it may seem in a country that’s known more for 30 years of continuous war rather than tourism, peaceful regions of Afghanistan have been welcoming tourists since the early 2000s. As well as the many heritage sites that these adventurous souls visit, the country’s strong potential for mountain sports has driven a revival of the climbing and skiing culture that grew up in the 1970s. With support from international donors, the program in Bamiyan afforded the training of four local guides in skiing, client handling and basic safety techniques.
“At this stage it’s less about bringing in people from abroad and more about tapping into all the foreigners in Kabul who want to get a weekend away,” Ian explained as he described the program to me over a quick breakfast. We were headed to a valley near the town, and still planning to make the most of the rest of a powder day.
Skiing is not a new phenomenon in the country, Ian went on to say as we climbed in a nearby valley. Foreigners were skiing in the country since the 1960s and some Afghans who learned at that time are still active skiers. One such example is Yusuf Kargar, now coach of the national soccer team, who qualified for the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, but was sadly unable to attend due to the outbreak of civil war.
The first few days in Bamiyan with Ian and Ken saw us heading to various valleys on the north side of the Kuh-e-Baba range. Each village we started from that weekend was at the end of its own long dirt road—ribbons of mud and rock that rattled the old Toyota HiAce vans between snow-dusted fields toward the jagged peaks that called to each of us with the lure of unskied lines and 1,000-metre descents in fresh, dry powder. They didn’t disappoint.
Tapping into my new friends’ knowledge, and the local trainee guides’, we were soon topping-out on hikes above 4,000 metres and savouring every hard-earned metre of descent before returning to Gul’s bountiful hospitality. We devoured bowls of hearty lamb broth, known as Ab-Gusht (literally meat water), and plates of steaming rice served with fragrant chicken curry and unsweetened yoghurt before retiring to soft beds laden with thick blankets in rooms kept toasty by wood-burning stoves.
This first experience of Bamiyan was more than enough to keep me coming back several times that season, and when, still in Afghanistan a year later, Ian mentioned over drinks that the program needed a volunteer to work with trainees for a week before a full-time ski instructor arrived, I didn’t hesitate before signing up.
As well as the four trainee guides, there were an additional six from different villages around the province who were learning to ski in preparation for the 2012 Afghan Ski Challenge—a ski touring race organized by a dedicated Swiss journalist in co-operation with the tourism program.
Talking to the boy at the top on that first day of training, we discovered he had first seen skiers a few years ago when an American couple, Chad Dear and Laurie Ashley, had been staying in the area to put together a ski-touring guidebook, Ski Afghanistan. Like it works in much of the world, the local boys had seen other skiers since and wanted to emulate the trendsetting foreigners.
Community leaders in the boy’s village had, however, said skiing was not allowed because the children should be helping their families during the cold winter months; but they still snuck out into the hills, especially if they knew there were other skiers around.
The enthusiasm among these boys, and in every village we visited, was palpable. Shaping their wooden skis, based with flattened cans and devising new ways to bind their feet, they would hike for hours to reach us and then follow in our lines while watching in amazement at our modern gear.
This raw energy and excitement for skiing was also noticeable among the guys I was training. They reported every morning to load the vans clutching their skis and following me faithfully up the hill several times a day as I worked on their fitness, kick-turns and the mechanics of turning in deep snow.
They were a mixed bunch from different backgrounds and different villages, ranging from illiterate shepherds to undergraduates at the provincial university. Saeed Ali Shah, their tall confident leader, would be pushing them to don their kit as the van parked with all the impatience of a sergeant-major (or race coach), calling them out by name to get a move on.
Also on the hill with us most days was Kiwi Avalanche Patrolman Steve Parker, a soft-spoken split-boarder brought to Bamiyan for a couple of months to work on safety skills and client-handling with the trainee guides as part of the tourism development program run by the Agha Khan Foundation.
While there was a certain amount that could be communicated by us through demonstration, specific words could be problematic. My limited knowledge of the local dialect of Persian was tainted by learning it in neighbouring Iran, therefore having what they thought was a hilarious accent. Most things I said were parroted back to me in singsong voices amid good-natured giggling.
“It’s important your kick-turns are clean to save energy on the way up,” I urged them most days as they looked at me quizzically, before I asked, “You know the race will be uphill as well as down…right…guys?”
This exchange would take place several times a day and the lads always nodded vaguely and confusedly as if the question was somehow absurd—of course everyone knew one has to go up if one wants to ski down. A month later, the day before the 2012 Afghan Ski Challenge, one of them came to talk to me about the race going uphill, something that apparently took him completely by surprise—he was sure the plan was only to race downhill. Other than that, communication mostly went smoothly.
I trained with them every day, except one, when Steve and I took the chance to find some altitude of our own while the trainees rested their legs. The two of us hiked a long steady ridge behind a village called Sar-e-Ahangaran (the Blacksmith’s Head). Topping out at 4,500 metres, we were treated to an immense view across the Hajigak Pass, into Parwan Province, down toward Wardak Province and west across the sun-dappled expanse of Bamiyan Province.
This was the essence of the backcountry in its rawest form. A remote peak, not climbed by anyone else that winter, with a vista over an untamed landscape that occupies a scale so vast it seems to challenge human endeavour. There was that same rush of excitement and passion one feels when first getting hooked on skiing.
Savouring the last few gasps of thin air before embracing the long mellow line, weaving through picture-perfect powder snow, I reflected that this was what Mokhtar Ali, the boy I had encountered on the first day, felt as he pushed himself into each turn on his wooden skis—the tingling rush that keeps you coming back. The sense of seeing and doing something you love and will never forget.
It’s an energy that seems so abundant among the Afghans I encountered on skis, and one I hope will find its full expression as they ski the mountains they call home.
Hang on, Afghanistan tourism? Seriously?
Bamiyan, the province where the Agha Khan Foundation-supported tourism program runs, is one of the safest in the whole of Afghanistan. The people are ethnic Hazaras, who are opposed to the Taliban after fighting them for years and as a result there are few security concerns in the area. Accessing Bamiyan typically has to be done through Kabul, the capital, which can see some attacks. The onward journey can be made either in a privately chartered aircraft or by SUV—both of which can be facilitated by local tour companies such as Rah-e-Abrisham Tourism (email@example.com) and Untamed Borders (www.untamedborders.com). Bamiyan is a treasure trove of heritage sites and beauty spots, including the Buddha Niches, the ancient ruins of the City of Screams or the Red City, and the awe-inspiring Band-e-Amir lake system near Yakawlang—all of which can be visited on recovery days between ski expeditions. Before you go, check with Canada’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for some somber travel tips. Investigating suitable travel insurance might be worthwhile or, if anything, entertaining.
What’s in a name?
Despite the fact that Afghanistan’s second city lies on flat, dusty plains, Kandahar is, confusingly, also the name of more than one World Cup downhill ski course. The origin of this historical oddity lies in late-19th century British colonial history and the exploits of Field Marshall Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts, and one of Britain’s most renowned military leaders of the period.
One of his most notable victories came after he led 10,000 soldiers over 300 miles of tough terrain to lift the siege of Kandahar from Ayub Khan, then the Emir of Afghanistan. For his trouble, Roberts received one of the many titles and honorifics that he accumulated throughout his career, but his fame from this campaign meant he was known as Lord Roberts of Kandahar.
When not conducting colonial wars, however, Roberts was a keen sportsman, and after returning to Britain became vice-president of the Public Schools Alpine Sports Club and a significant patron of the emerging sport of downhill skiing. He gave his name to the “Roberts of Kandahar,” a 1911 race in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, a forerunner of the modern World Cup in which some of the most challenging races still bear his title.
Henry Collis is a Brit who blames Canada for his skiing addiction after learning at the tender age of three at Sunshine Village and Lake Louise. After working as a business consultant in the Middle East for seven years, he arrived in Afghanistan in 2010—and was glad to finally be somewhere he could drop lines.
Tags: Afghanastan, Bamiyan, Hindu Kush, Kandahar, Salang Pass