Backcountry Skiing in Afghanistan Part 3: Fulfillment

Well, its been a bit since I got back from spending a weekend skiing in Bamiyan.  I’ve been in overdrive trying to make sure everything I have been doing at SOLA the last 6 months is easily accessible to the next academic point person.  The skiing story is still worth telling though.  The Backcountry article was a decent overview of the event, but as with everything in Afghanistan there is far much more to say than 800 words can possibly represent.

The flight out of Kabul was delayed a few hours.  I found out later talking to a fellow that has worked with the airlines here that East Horizons (my carrier that weekend) has almost daily technical issues with its planes.  Ours that day was an old Russian twin propeller jet that could carry maybe 40 people (on a good day).  I was not deceived by its fairly fresh paint job, but was actually pretty impressed with the machine in the end.  The flight from Kabul to Bamiyan is just over a half hour, the first few minutes of which are spent spiraling upwards above Kabul to get high enough to pass over the mountains between here and there.  The ride is quite entertaining, as the desolate, snow speckled mountains rush past below.  My concerns about the fairly light snow coverage on the Hindu Kush out my window were alleviated when a fellow passenger pointed out the endless acres of powder blanketing the Koh-e-Baba range seen out the other side of the plane.

Drifting lower towards the airport the beauty of endless scraggly cliffs that would be great for climbing distracted me from the fact that we were actually pretty close to those features.  Touch down on the dirt tarmac was happily smoother than other landings I have had at bigger airports.

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Arrival at the Bamiyan Airport. © Ian Lynch.

When our bags arrived I followed some acquaintances I had made in the airport (pretty much everyone was here for the ski race) to the ski shop.  Finding decent gear proved difficult and I ended up with boots a half size big and skis 25 cm too short.  I found myself wishing I knew more about adjusting bindings as watching the local guide fit my boots to them was not so inspiring.  I’ve skied on worse though, so didn’t feel that concerned.

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Mad River Glen stickas. © Ian Lynch.

Wandering the skis I found two old straight skis sporting Mad River Glen stickers!  The real excitement of the place though was the roof.  In Kabul I avoid roofs and balconies both for security reasons and to respect the fact that neighbors don’t want people seeing their scarf-less women in their yards (an extension of the free space provided by the home).  In Bamiyan no roof was off limits.  Standing up there with the light falling, painting pastels on the mountains the bliss was overwhelming.  The monster Koh-e-Baba range rises not 20km to the south and the towering Buddha niches attacked by endless foreigner invaders over the centuries sit in the base of the Hindu Kush on the north edge of town.  To the east the Screaming City ruins sit on a fortified hill.  The city’s name has two popular origin stories.  This valley was on the Silk Road and it is said the city never slept, with partying traveling causing a ruckus every night.  The other is that when Genghis Khan swept through the Road he found the city impenetrable, but was content to lay siege and listen as the citizens died screaming during their starvation.

It is said the people of Bamiyan a descended of Genghis Khan.  They do truly has a fiercely Asian look to them and are perhaps closer in appearance to the Mongols than anything else.  They are Hazara; one of the world’s worst and longest persecuted ethnicities.  They suffered more than most under the harsh rule of the Taliban.  Several conquering warlords have tried to destroy the massive Buddha statues that once sat in the wall of the ancient cliff city, but the Taliban were the first to find success.  Their method: send the Hazara people rappelling off the cliff face to toss dynamite into the magnificent statues.  Many of these people were injured in the process, with permanent ear damage common.

The long suffering of Hazara in Bamiyan may help to explain their relatively progressive nature.  After more than a decade of freedom in Bamiyan the people I talked to are passionate about women’s education and attracting foreign tourists.  They are building infrastructure and the steadily rising numbers of tourists suggests their efforts are succeeding.  Indeed, a couple dozen of the foreigners I met hailing from New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, Norway, England, France, Spain and America were in Afghanistan just for the skiing!

In Kabul I have only once walked more than a few blocks on the street and never unaccompanied.  In Bamiyan I was able to walk around the bazaar on my own and hike up to explore the Buddhist cliff city with a few American friends.  It is perhaps the first place in the world I have been where I stuck out and yet I did not feel any greater attention on me for that fact.

That’s not to say Bamiyan is a perfect little oasis in the sinister, shifting sands of Afghan intrigue, but it is a province apart.  There are still issues of forced marriage and other instances of female marginalization, but not as bad as elsewhere.  While tourism is on the rise employment is low.  In the winter, the tiny ski tourism industry is essentially the only employment driver, keeping a few hotels and restaurants open in the lean months.

Medical services are also severely lacking.  A week before I arrived a local fellow broke his leg while being trained to ski for the race.  The local hospital can’t even make a cast, meaning the only option for decent medical treatment is Kabul.  A roundtrip flight to the capital is about $200 and the road is both rough and dangerous.  When I left Bamiyan this young man had still not been taken to Kabul.  If his leg does not heel that essentially ends his employment potential.  Jobs in Bamiyan are barely more diversified than: guide, driver or farmer.

That first night, the night before the race, we all went to an event about the race.  The Governor along with others talked about the event and the importance of tourism for Bamiyan.  Many professed their pride in local security and reminded all present that continued stability was necessary to grow a prosperous tourism industry.  Before the feast we watched this short video of last years race.

I was a bit bummed not to be staying at the ski shop with all the folks I had just met on the way, but my guest house was pretty nice.  It sat less than a mile from the Buddha niches and was aptly named Buddhist Camp.  Several businesses in the town are named after the famous Buddhas, but the population is solely Islamic today.  In the past, before the decades of war the area say tens of thousands of Chinese tourists drawn to the then still standing Buddha statues.  This is another market that the Bamiyan tourism industry can tap into.

At the guest house I met a few guys who had come to Afghanistan for the week just to ski.  They raved about the terrain and got me real excited about the race the next day.  Unfortunately the 4th annual Afghan Ski Challenge earned the right to call itself a challenge.

First off my bindings were not properly adjusted and no one seemed to know how to deal with them.  It turned out a screwdriver wasn’t actually needed, there was a simple plastic lock that could be moved around.  Once that was solved, I found one of my skins did not come with a tail clip and there wasn’t enough adhesive left on them for the thing to stick thanks to friction.  So, we taped the thing down with electric tape and I borrowed a skin trimmer to use at the top when I had to rip the tape off.

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Last minute jerry-rigging. © Ian Lynch.

Just as I had it together the race started.  In the glut of bodies a post hole dotted snow I struggled to get moving.  Once out I was fast and strong on the flat, but there were too many slowpokes ahead of me on the track and impossibly deep choppy snow around so I couldn’t pass.  Once we began climbing I had to re-lock the annoying bindings and then I struggled mightily to get the heel lifts up.  By the time I got going again I was way in the back.  Pushing to rush after the pack was gut busting as the course rose from around 3000 meters to more than 3500 meters  in the Chap Dara valley.  I was tempted to take a direct line up the climb, but used my brain and stuck to the switchbacks.  My choice was vindicated seeing several skiers slipping as they tried to tackle the incline head on as I passed them chugging along the switchbacks.  As I went I realized I didn’t have a shot at doing well in the race, so I stopped to help a local guy fix his binding.

At the top I noticed the electric tape had lasted long enough to adhere the skin, but had fallen off on the climb, meaning to struggle to get my skis ready for the descent.  I asked a few folks if they’d take my picture, but was understandably met with, “I want to get on with the race.”  When I then asked the pro photographer sitting up top if he’d take one I was met rudely by, “I have to work.”  Really, I thought, all the good skiers have come and gone, you’ve taken hundreds of photos by now and you can’t take two seconds to shoot me.  Luckily I nice woman from Boston took a quick one for me.

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At the high point of the Afghan Ski Challenge. © Ian Lynch.

The way down was BIG and STEEP and I went in confident as ever.  It turns out that horribly short skis on crusted snow covering deep powder does not make for easy skiing.  I have never felt so out of control in my life.  After the first crash I actually thought this was the first truly dangerous situation I’ve experienced on skis.  I couldn’t get low and aggressive because there was not enough ski in front of me to support my tall frame.  When I did I crashed.  I couldn’t brake backseat because there wasn’t enough ski behind me to hold my weight.  When I did I crashed.  My only option was standing tall, knees only slightly bent.  On intensely steep terrain with snow conditions unlike any I’ve ever been on that was just plain dangerous.

Nearing the bottom I had adapted a bit to the awkward stance, but was met by a pocket of strangely sticking snow at high speed.  Short skis or not I would have eaten it.  The way my forearm was pinned into the snow with force I was worried I had fractured the damn thing.  As I collected myself I heard the raucous laughter of the dozens of locals watching from the bottom.  For a moment I was angry, because the only reason I was so slow and crashing left and right was the equipment.  As I crossed the finish line I let myself crash again though to give the crowd some more amusement.  Oddly enough my trucker hat and sunglasses never fell of my face in any of the crashes.

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In the Chap Dara valley. © Ian Lynch.

Hanging out at the bottom we watched as the winners took the podium.  Local Afghans came in first and third, with a Swiss skier taking second.  The Swiss fellow is the first foreigner to make it to the podium in any Afghan Ski Challenge.  On the jump at the bottom of the course we apparently threw down a 360, which received cheers, but nowhere near as gleeful as the ones my whiteout garnered.  The prizes for the top three included nice Swiss watches and a potential trip to Switzerland for the local guides to get more training.

Around the time of the award ceremony I began to wonder about another young American that was in the race.  At one point I saw him lagging far behind on the climb.  Still, I had my own troubles and yet had been done already for an hour.  We scanned the slopes and I saw the lead guide coming down the mountain with the course flags in hand.  He said he didn’t see anyone else still at the top.  Just as folks were gearing up to go find him we saw his bright yellow pants coming down the top of the mountain.  When he neared the bottom he cleared didn’t see the jump and went hurtling off it at speed.  When he finally finished he immediately dropped onto his back surrounded by the few locals still hanging around.  Encouragingly he stood up with a smile.

He is a former snowboard instructor and came to the race with his own split-board, so I assumed he knew what he was doing.  It turned out he had never used the thing before nor done any backcountry.  He reported slipping with every step on the climb and ditched the board before even getting halfway up.  He strapped the thing to his back and then post holed up the mountain; no mean feat in restrictive snowboard boots.  I asked if he knew about the heel lifts on his board.  When he said no we discovered the root of all his troubles.

So day 1 on snow wasn’t the best for either of us.  Regardless, we had just competed in a backcountry race in the heart of Afghanistan.  Who knows if that will ever happen again.  Back in town we walked over to the Buddha niches.  The cliff face around the niches are filled with hand carved dwellings and balconies that the Buddhist people once lived in.  Inside the dwellings you can see the remnants of gorgeous, intricate images that once adorned the walls; images that would still dazzle from the walls if the Taliban hadn’t shot them to bits.  The views of the Koh-e-Baba from the balconies is  remarkable and makes one wish they could have lived in this small cliff city.

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First climb up Khush Gak. © Ian Lynch.

Day 2 turned out much better.  Most people were heading off to watch the women’s race, inaugurated the year before, so there were only two of us wanting to get out and really ski.  We went up to Khush Gak to do a few laps.  My new American friend learned to use his split-board and away we went.  Before taking our first run down we ate our lunch of kabobs and naan.  Far below one could see tiny dots in the base of the Hindu Kush mountains to the north that are the two big Buddha niches.  At 3500 meter we could look up at the 5000 meter high peaks of the Koh-e-Baba range we were exploring.

The night before I had switched skis.  All the good equipment had been allocated to locals for the race before I arrived, but it was all fair game now.  The nice big pair of 186cm skis with good bindings reassured me I’d have control, but the alien snow conditions still had me on guard.  As we dropped down onto the wide open swathes of mountainside below I found the snow much looser and the skis easy to wrangle.  All day I only fell once and felt that blissful joy good snow can transfer to one’s soul.

The next day we didn’t have a way to ski.  The guides had their first day off in 20 days and our flight was around noon.  We thought about checking out the Screaming City, but thought we were cutting it close with the flight time.  At the airport we found around 8 confirmed tickets were not available.  The owner of the ski tourism enterprise was working his ass off to square away the tickets, but it seemed there were not enough.  Oddly, some tickets on the confirmed sheet he had were issued and others were not.  Many of the people waiting for the plane were in Afghanistan just for this event and had connecting flights in Kabul.  With jobs to get back they couldn’t afford to be stuck in Bamiyan another four days (when the next flight would be).  A couple French guys actually starting ripping into the pour tour guide proprietor.  Their tickets had been booked 2 months prior.

Meanwhile the plane was nowhere to be seen.  It finally arrived an hour late and other delays kept anyone form boarding.  I was one of those without a ticket.  As time ticked on the situation required ever more patience.  It seemed the owner of the airline had called to say he and eight pals were taking seats to Kabul.  Booting confirmed passengers off a flight for you and your friends is pretty much the stupidest business move one can make, but hey this is Afghanistan.

East Horizons is the only commercial flight to Bamiyan and monopolies can often breed incompetent management.  It actually quite probable that the owner wasn’t even told by his lackeys at the airport that the flight was full out of fear for their jobs.  Perhaps the owner has done this before with no problems, for the flights from Bamiyan are never full.  To do so on this date though when the flight is full of foreigners you want to go home and rave about their experience skiing in Afghanistan so that next year more tourists will come is horribly shortsighted.  If more tourists come to Bamiyan the airline can run more flights and make more money.  Act this way though and that’s not happening.

As we hiked across the dirt field to the plane I was one of four still without a ticket.  The local ski guides who needed to get to Kabul for media interviews gave up their tickets to others, opting to take the dangerous and long road instead.  After all but us remaining four had boarded they made us wait to the side.  One Spanish woman came out and brought the Kiwi onto the plane.  He waved to us apologetically as he hefted his ski bag onto the plane.

Next, a fancy SUV came barreling over the dirt tarmac.  It pulled up to the plane and a pack of men, including police carrying automatic weapons pilled out of the car.  As they made their way to the plane they got an angry death stare from me like none other.  The tourism operator was practically in tears as he told me and the two other foreigners left he had done all he could to get us on the plane.  He would try to get us seat on a PACTEC flight ASAP, but I wasn’t going for that.  Such flights are few and far between and hard to get on if you don’t work for a major NGO.  He also offered to bring us by the road all night to Kabul.  No way was I taking the road through potential Taliban checkpoints just days after the U.S. State Department issued its latest travel warning for American citizens in Afghanistan.

As the other two guys, French I think, walked away from the plane dejectedly I went over to plane.  I sent my pack on the ground and tried to say I wanted to get on to talk to my friends onboard.  At this point I had 2 bucks left and they had offered to lend me a bit if I got stranded.  The flight attendant waved me on then motioned to my pack as I climbed up.  Turned out they had a seat after all and I was buckling in and the plane taking off.  The relief was great, but I still needed a few minutes to calm down.

Despite the irritating end to the trip and the bad equipment, the weekend was unforgettable.  I truly hope security remains stable in Bamiyan and skiing infrastructure can progress.  The Koh-e-Babas offer endless opportunity to explore and push any level skier to the limits.

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With Sajjad, last year’s ASC champion and this year’s 3rd place. © Ian Lynch.

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