Backcountry Skiing in Afghanistan Part 1: Anticipation

As I have weighed the pros and cons of backcountry skiing in Afghanistan the above video has stuck in my mind.  “There’s always some percentage chance you’ll fall,” says Colin Haley.  Haley climbs without many of the safety measures that most alpinists employ.

Many in the outdoor sports world criticize the activities of alpinists like Haley or the free soloing stunts of some of the world’s most daring rock climbers. National Geographic’s cover story on Yosemite climbers pushing the limits in May 2011 met fierce opposition from those who said it glorified the foolhardy efforts of climbers who tackle intense routes with no rope to save them. The choice these athletes make to forego safety greatly increases that percentage Haley is talking about.  There’s no doubt that these guys are professionals who are experts at risk analysis.  Even though they are the fittest and most skilled alpinists, as Haley says “Climbing a route that big with that little equipment leaves you a small margin of error.”

I’ve performed my own risk analysis in considering participating in a backcountry ski race in central Afghanistan. The risk is highlighted by the fact that the U.S. Department of State issued a new travel warning for Afghanistan just three days ago…the day I was finalizing my travel plans out of Kabul. The warning states, “travel to all areas of Afghanistan remains unsafe due to ongoing military combat operations, landmines, banditry, armed rivalry between political and tribal groups, and the possibility of insurgent attacks, including attacks using vehicle-borne or other improvised explosive devices.”

This is of course nothing new as the wording is no different than any of the other travel warnings the Department of State posts about every six months. It is the first communication I have received from the U.S. in my five months in Afghanistan, despite numerous security incidents. Funnily enough this email is the only one in my gmail inbox not marked by Google as important. In a way their system is correct; its not an important message. If you don’t already know the dangers of being an American in Afghanistan you have no right to be here.

So, what I’ve had to think about is whether or not traveling to a remote province poses undue danger compared to remaining in Kabul. As a lifelong Vermonter away from the wooded slopes of the Green Mountains for the first time in my life I obviously place high value on any opportunity to ski this winter. The fact that Afghanistan sports some seriously huge mountains of absolutely untouched powder makes the opportunity even more alluring. When I say untouched I mean it, as far as the eye can see there is simply pure desolate snow capped wilderness. I estimate that no more than 200 people have skied these mountains and I think I am being extremely generous in that estimate. This is new frontier, its beautiful and thanks to an enterprising little ski tourism industry its actually accessible to me.

But back to the risk. Afghanistan is infamous for its hillsides speckled with land mines. Even in Kabul I have heard several mines go off. There has been a major de-mining effort though and the province I plan to ski in is one of the few that hardly had any to begin with. When it comes to ongoing violence this is widely touted as the safest province. Just to the south east is one of the most chaotic provinces in Afghanistan, but thanks to huge mountain ranges and snowed in passes the two areas are entirely cut off from each other.

So mines and violence aren’t likely to be huge risks where I’m going, but like Haley says, “There’s always some percentage chance you’ll fall.” I think I rolled the dice when I first arrived in Kabul and going to ski in the mountains isn’t going to increase that percentage.  If anything it may actually decrease them, after all I came so close to being in the Taverna du Liban when it was attacked leaving 21 people slaughtered in January.

Some may suggest that it is not a good idea to travel in this country without security. In my opinion traveling around with a bunch of guards only makes you a target. If you happen to be near a bomb blast or a gunfight, such as the one that hit Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah’s motorcade in Kabul last week, that’s just your luck. I think being selective in your movements and smart about the areas you travel to is much more important that being accompanied by muscle.

The race itself is by no means the world’s toughest backcountry race. The exact course varies between only 2 and 4 kilometers. What challenge there is comes from the 1200 meter elevation gain, topping out at 3800 meters.  I have been running daily at 1800 meters in Kabul for five months so I should have some acclimation to altitude, but it has been two and half years since I was last at 3800 meters or higher. Then I was trekking and spent a week between a altitude similar to Kabul and the high point of this race. As the title of the above video notes, ‘height doesn’t matter’ when you’re talking about hardest. So the race specifics don’t have me that concerned, but I do have a healthy respect for the potential for physical challenge.

In the end the decision to get out of Kabul for a few days to ski was easy. The area is relatively safe for Afghanistan and the destination like no other for skiing. I’m immensely lucky to be able to do something on skis that very few people ever have. I’m also truly excited to see the beginnings of what will hopefully become a thriving ski industry that can help rural Afghans build a better life for themselves.

Plus I hear the lodge has a sauna and who can say no once they hear that?

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