Me: Good morning.
Kaitlyn: Good morning [looking at her phone]. I got another message from home asking if we are okay.Me: Have you looked at the news today?Kaitlyn: I have. It just keeps talking about the problem in Wuhan, and now most every New Year celebration in China has been cancelled.
The shared look of disbelief was not the first between Kaitlyn and I. As our trip progressed it became clearer by the day, sometimes by the hour, that something eerie was happening. Initially, we had been celebrating simply making it to Urumqi-a major metropolitan area of 3.5 million and the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the far northwest of China with good health and all of our gear. Our reason for being there was to film a story speaking to the historical and cultural roots of skiing, which many scholars and historical research point to origins emanating from Central Asia, and some more specifically to the Altai Range where we would be traveling to from Urumqi. From friends who had either lived in China, or spent significant time in the country, I thought I was mentally prepared for the general chaos of the country. Little did I know how close our group would actually get to Covid-19 ground zero, and that at one point we would potentially get stuck in a village in one of the most remote regions of the world.
I looked away from Kaitlyn and stared straight into the fat flakes that continued to fall from the sky. The snow hose had been on most every day since we arrived in the village of Khom, a small village in the heart of the Altai Range where China, Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan meet. This is where traditional ski making and ski practices continue as they have for thousands of years. Personally, it had already been an exciting ride the weeks prior to arriving in Khom, but this was truly an otherworldly predicament to be in. Were we about to get stuck in China? Rewind to the Winter Solstice.
It wasn’t even 2020 yet. Imagine that. What a different world. In the dry months prior to winter, plans had shaped for a multi-itinerary trip starting at home in Tahoe, heading east, and eventually coming back to Tahoe via a one-way route around the world in six weeks. The first leg was to Vermont and the New York City area for family holiday time and some classic East Coast skiing.
The ski character in Vermont is something else. It is a rooted, rugged, community-centric region with a strong sense of place. The ski touring can be great if it snows-like most places, but where else can you get snow, rain, and my favorite, the “wintery mix”, all within the matter of a few hours? It is a hearty bunch that call the Green Mountains home, and while the conditions last December were nothing spectacular, there was enough snow to skin up and slide down a few select locales making for an enjoyable way to ski off holiday meals and the incredible craft beer found in the region that is nothing short of world-class.
From Vermont to New York more family time led to an annual musical celebration for the New Year at the famous Madison Square Garden. Little did I know at the time that those four nights of live music would be my last for the foreseeable future. On January 2nd I hopped on a plane headed to Europe, stopping in Serbia for a few hours before arriving at my intended destination of Macedonia.
Freeriding the Balkans
The Balkan Mountains are located in southeastern Europe. Overshadowed by the understandably more famous Alps range to the west, the region is home to 12 nations of rich history, culture, and mountainous terrain. Always on the search for off-the-beaten-path alpine locales to experience, I connected with a collective called Shar Outdoors who have been leading the way in developing a multi-pronged operation to get skiers and riders out into the diversity of experiences that come with a trip to this special corner of the world.
The geopolitical landscape of the region has largely stabilized after the recent turmoil throughout the 90’s and into more recent times. With Macedonia (officially the Republic of North Macedonia) as a home base, accessed by a modern international airport in Skopje, the Balkans are a short ride away. The Shar Outdoors crew use the aptly named Shar Mountain as their basecamp where several accommodations exist for travelers. It’s clear spending sometime in the zone that people from all over the region come to visit Shar Outdoor for the mountainside amenities and easy access to snow. It’s a cool cultural hotspot to visit, and if it’s bluebird and there’s snow on the ground, expect some full-send sledding to be going down in close proximity to where you might start a ski tour.
The skiing, which is what brought me to the area, has a little bit of something for everyone, so long as the traveler holds an adventurous spirit. And as much as it’s the skiing that brought me here, and as an Ascent reader, what will likely pull at you too, you’re not traveling to the Balkans to try and score the snow and terrain you already know exists in places like Alaska. In fact, it makes me think about some of the other recent stories I’ve shared, places traveled to, mountain rages skied.
While there is undoubtedly still places to explore in this world, and really anything new to the visitor is exploratory in a sense, at this current juncture in the history of skiing we have a plethora of web-based resources, magazines, and ski movies that have shared with our greater community what’s out there. That’s why we know the European Alps, Alaska, and places like the Western US and Canada are home to some of the best skiing and riding on planet Earth. But there’s something else to the intrepid that pulls to visit new-to-them mountains, snow textures and cultures that make an adventure such as this one to Macedonia standout.
The formula that’s needed to make a trip like this work involves ingredients such as good food, an interesting place and people, and accommodating locals/guides to not only accentuate the experience, but help you experience the goods that you would otherwise not have the ability to access. I did plenty of this sort of travel in my formative years-no support that is, and that style certainly has its time and place, especially when there is a very low financial pool to pull from. That said, getting to see a new place through the support of local people who take pride in their country and greater communities has no substitute.
I’ve had ski clients from this part of the world (Bulgaria), and if ever given the chance to get back this way I would love to check out the terrain in Rila National Park and the rest of the country. That group left a great impression, and while getting to Bulgaria was not on the itinerary for this trip, it was cool to find out that the Shar Outdoors crew operate that way as well. In fact, they organize ski touring and cat skiing trips throughout the Balkans, so with a little planning and luck from Mother Nature, you might be able to make it this way and visit as well as ski in several countries during your stay.
Montenegro, Serbia, and Kosovo are just a few of the countries with relatively easy access from Macedonia. During my time in the country with Shar Outdoors we moved location each day, looking to the feasibility of future ski touring programs, and terrain suitable for the entry level tourer up to lines that seldom see tracks. On several tours I was looking into Greece, or Albania, from a Macedonian summit. With the right group, time, and logistics setup beforehand, dropping into another country and continuing a tour, stopping for lunch, or skinning back are all possibilities.
My time of visitation worked based on the itinerary I was following, but early January could be a hit-or-miss to visit the Balkans. In my opinion, ski travel can always be this way; it’s a gamble. The snowpack we worked with during this early season window was shallow, but it still provided plenty of carpet to skin and skin on, and get a feel for the options in the country and adjacent for the visiting ski tourer. Shar Outdoors also runs a solid cat skiing operation that works as both an adventure in itself, or a nice way to get a morning bump deep in to the mountains for a long day of touring. The crew that runs the operation are all locals who have grown up in the surrounding mountains, know the terrain well, and can put together just about any option for a standout experience in this unique part of the world.
The Korab area was one of my favorites places we visited, which also presented the terrain that offered the most diversity from a ski touring perspective. In fact, I’d say if this was where you ended up spending most of your time on skis while in the country it would be time well spent. And if you can request dinner at the nearby monetary before heading out of the area you’ll be treated to another highpoint of travel in the region, which is the culinary experience. Delicious wines, garlic sauce, and the various regional peppers never get old. Watch out for the Rakija as it can pack a punch, but you’re likely going share some toasts with this “natural medicine” and it is highly recommended to celebrate the moment, riding the wave brought on by this local brandy. The bread, potato stew, baked beans-I tried everything brought my way and only wanted more. The flavors brought out by the local cooking was nothing short of five-star. Hopefully a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage region of Ohrid Lake will also be on your itinerary as it’s one of the oldest human settlements in all of Europe. The lake itself is beautiful, the endemic local is a specialty, and if the snow gods provide, there is some incredible ski touring to be done on the peak that surround the lake.
After several days of repeating a practice seasoned ski travelers know well and hope for when traveling internationally with snow on the mind, it was time to move on. The routine of checking out a fun ski touring zone, enjoying the delicious everything in sight, and settling in with the Shar Outdoors crew- who come highly recommended for any adventure in the Balkans, was a joy. Led by Meto Chillimanov, along with Ivan, Mihail, Maja, Tomica, Domi, and Stefan- the Shar make the visit even more enjoyable than it already is, and I do hope to return as soon as the world allows. As is the case with most ski trips, the mountains and snow are a must, and believe it or not, Macedonia provides. The Balkans are definitely off-the-beaten-path and this crew will not only bring you to the goods, they are a stellar, fired-up, knowledgeable bunch that are just as fun to apres with as they are to shred on the daily. I would’ve been more than happy to have posted up in country with this crew for longer if it weren’t for the next stop on the itinerary.
The great Caucasus Range. A country covered in castles, with a fascinating history, and UNESCO World Heritage sites from end-to-end. I had been looking forward to leading this trip for some time due in large part to the massive mountain range that seemed to hold some sort of special alpine magic in a very unique part of the world. But I was also getting to work with a good friend in his first proper role as a tail guide. Keith and his wife Sabrina and I have ridden together in the Sierra Nevada, Alaska, and Siberia to name a few. Will, Liam, Kenzie and I had gotten to know each other ski touring in Kyrgyzstan the previous winter. The last member of our team you know as the editor of Ascent. Paul and I have shared turns in the Antarctic, at home in the US, and have even established new lines together in the Arctic (Greenland). Combined, we had a venerable crew to share in a Georgian odyssey, but I’ll let you hear more about that trip from Paul’s perspective as his story about our trip is found in this very issue of Ascent. What I will say is while we were forced to deal with a shallow snowpack overall on this trip, our crew was too good to be held back. We had and memorable adventure starting from the first day in Tbilisi, to celebrating the Old New Year in Sveneti. And we skied powder every day, which always helps on an international ski expedition.
Georgia was a blast. Such an incredible place to ski with such a great crew. Overall, stoke was high almost a month into my travels that started in Tahoe, and gradually moved east through Vermont and New York, Macedonia, and Georgia. At this point I had moved from family ski mode, to consulting role, then guide. Now it was time for another switch as miraculously there is a flight from Tiblisi, Georgia that happened to land right where I needed to be in Urumqi, China to meet up with the Snow Hunters film crew.
Back in the Fall I had linked up with Chris Winters who conceived the project, something akin to a dream I had been formulating over the years only he had actually put it all together into a cohesive plan. The plan involved a multi-stop itinerary visiting Eurasian locales where evidence pointed to the possible origins of skiing. Lapland, the Ural Mountains, and the Tian Shan Range were all on the list. Lapland features rock paintings depicting skiers dating back to 4000 BCE, while skis were found in the Russian Urals dating back to 6300 BCE. The Eurasian focus of this history is consistent with available research, and even though the birthplace of skiing, along with specific dates that can factualize the claim of its exact origins shifts, there is consistent cultural evidence that the roots of skiing are found in Central Asia. Our first stop for the documentary was thus the Altai Range. It’s where the horse is an animal of great significance, and it’s where some research suggests that the earliest record of skiing is found, with some proposing skiing going as far back as 10-12,000 BCE.
Our team was made up of Chris and stellar cinematographer Brian Hockenstein as the main production team, Olympic Gold medalist and five-star shredder Kaitlyn Farrington, myself, and our two translators. In Khom, our intended destination, most residents don’t speak the primary dialect of China, which is Mandarin. They speak Kazakh. That is why we had our local Chinese friend, Lina Serek, to translate for us in Kazakh, as well as our American friend, Jeff Oliviera, to translate for us in Chinese. Jeff hails from Boston, MA and has done several trips to the region. After some days in Urumqi with our team, including a memorable visit to the Silk Road ski area where we were able to get some night touring in along with a classic “hot pot” meal of epic proportions, we eventually caught a flight north to Altay, and jumped in a car for a five-hour ride to the village of Khom.
Shortly before arriving in Khom it started snowing, and although we did see some bouts of sun here-and-there during our stay, the snow hose never turned fully off for our whole trip. As excited as we were to finally make it to Khom, there had been a slow growth of uneasiness from the moment we collected in Urumqi. Whispers about some spreading virus of sorts. We really knew nothing, and did our best to jump right to filming the Chinese New Year festivities that were also a planned part of our trip.
Oddly enough, this was my third distinct New Year celebration in less than a month. It was supposed to be the one that lasted the longest. Unlike the one day/night celebration we’re accustomed to in the US, or what I celebrated just a few days prior in Georgia, this Chinese celebration lasts for 15 days. We awoke our first day in Khom to more falling snow, a delicious, massive bowl of noodles and vegetables, and walked over to a field adjacent to the village where festivities would be held. There were intricate snow sculptures, vibrant decorations made from beautiful textiles, and a long snow track for traditional horse racing. I watched the first races in awe with our crew. The skill level, intricacy, and energy espoused by those immediately taking part in the races were palpable. I was excited to see the next rounds of races, the archery event, and other traditional forms of revel as in Khom the festivities were all situated around celebration of their ancient, rooted culture. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
Later that afternoon, expecting and hoping for the next round of festivities to pick back up, we got word that they had been canceled for the day. The future was uncertain, but essentially the country had decided it was unsafe for people to continue to travel as they do by the millions in China for New Year celebrations, and all public gatherings would be stopped as well because of this mysterious virus. Without concentrating on the why as much as we likely should have as a group, we pivoted our plan, adapted, and lined out what we could do as a crew to honor what brought us to Khom in the first place. We met with Malqin, our main contact and host in Khom, and went for a tour.
Malqin took us out to his favorite local peak touring on his splitboard. We didn’t have time to summit, but it was clear he was stoked to share the skintrack, the unraveling sunset, and a few turns with us after a pretty crazy day. The following days need a book to expand on, but essentially each day more information came our way about a virus that was spreading across China like wildfire. Meanwhile, as a crew we did what we could to continue filming, unpacking the narrative around the roots of skiing. The feeling of unease was taken on by some members of the team more so than others, but there remained a general vibration to adapt to the situation and make the most of the experience. That latter of which holds highlights that from my perspective are about as unique as they come.
Even though the outdoor celebrations were canceled in Khom, before further restrictions were put in place, New Year’ celebrations were held in a low-key manner throughout the village. Our crew was invited over to Malqin’s and to one of his close neighbors to share food and celebrate. It was a very cool connection to make that as we dined on horse meat, outside local horses were sleeping, while a beautiful hand-stitched piece of art showing horses at pasture hung over the dinner table. The reverence for the animal was as strong as other cultures I have visited in Arctic lands were caribou or reindeer were also as respected. The connection was moving in a figurative sense, and in a literal sense too as later that week we found ourselves ski-jouring through town with the help of our local horse friends.
The ski-jouring was fun, but learning to ski and skin on Altai traditional skis was even more of a highlight. Malqin taught us the intricacies along with a few of his very stoked friends. The traction skinning is what stood out to me the most. I swear these are the stickiest skins I have ever used, which by the way, were made from horse hair. No surprise there. Skiing them was another thing as the necessary balance was a trip to figure out, while the friction from the skis on the descent was minimal. The more we practiced the more we got the hang of it, although no one got as pitted as Malqin and his buddies who flew past us getting face shots while the rest of us laughed after generally going super-fast to taking huge diggers in the matter of seconds. The other thing about the unique skis that made them so different was that the skins stay on 100% of the time. That means the user can be ultra-adaptable in uneven terrain, and it speaks to the actual roots of ski culture, which was creating a tool that could keep a person maneuverable in deep snow while traveling or hunting to feed their family.
While a few deep turns were had, the highlight of the trip came when Malqin showed us how to actually make a traditional pair of skis. While he went through a step-by-step process, he also reiterated that it’s people like us visiting and working on sharing his and his people’s story that help keep the culture alive. He is doing the work, and for the tradition to live on people need to know the narrative exists across the world. Otherwise, there is a chance this story could be lost. It’s all unmistakable in the way he makes a traditional pair of skis. From selecting a carefully harvested log in the forest, to scraping it down by hand, treating the wood with steam and hot water, and shaving away the rest all by hand. In only a few hours, Malqin performed these steps and had crafted a gorgeous pair of traditional Altai skis. It was an incredible process to experience in real time. It also made us all forget about the continuously intimidating position we were in at this point as we were definitely the only western travelers in the village, and generally among the only outsiders in the village at all.
Still not fully clear on what to do, the breaking point came when our Kazakh translator told us one morning that if we did not get out of the village soon we might be forced to stay for weeks, or even months. The thing is we couldn’t just leave. The drivers who brought us to the village were not allowed to leave Altay, which was still five hours away, and in the matter of a few hours people were told to quarantine in their respective homes. No one was allowed to travel, and Khom being as remote as it is, no one was going to be allowed into the village. We were at a loss.
Luckily, our Chinese translator Jeff, who had developed some strong ties to locals through his years of travel in the area was able to call in a diplomatic request from one of the main provincial representatives in the area. He would be the one to help us get out of Khom, but we still had a hazy outlook in terms of when that support might be available. We loosely packed our bags and went for some traditional ski touring around the village. The snow kept falling and we went to bed that evening hoping, but not knowing our ultimate fate.
The next morning it was snowing harder. We collectively did our best to stay upbeat, but the uncertainty was heavy. What if we did have to stay in Khom for several weeks or even months? Luckily, the speculative thoughts only lasted a few hours as seemingly out of nowhere a police escort showed up with our diplomatic friend and before any of us really knew what was going on we were packed up and through our first checkpoint leaving Khom.
It was all a bit surreal as is, but our situation got even more bizarre when less than an hour into the drive we were stopped by a huge avalanche covering the only road out of town. Getting out to check for how big it was ended up confirming that there were actually several avalanches crossing the road. It was another tense moment of uncertainty that lasted for several hours until the lights of a plow driver pierced through the evening sky.
Our diplomatic friend had called in the plow who cleared the road allowing us to meet our original drivers who were waiting for us at the top of the pass. The police escort dropped us off, we gave a huge and sincere thanks, and then began the next several hours of slow driving to get to Altay where we would board the first of several flights home in the morning to get back home.
Kaitlyn and I traveled together. Not knowing what it would be like when we arrived back in San Francisco, we were prepared for the worst. It turns out we had caught one of the last international flights out of China before the whole country went on a full lockdown.
Expecting to be greeted by people in hazmat suits or something like that upon arrival we were surprised to see nothing, and get nothing more than a question if we had been in Wuhan where the virus is believed to have originated. Since we had not traveled there we were free to go. Relieved, but still in a semi state of shock, Kaitlyn made her way back to Montana, and I eventually got myself back to Tahoe completing a one-way trip around the world in a fashion I could have never predicted prior to departure.
Honestly, it took most of February to come down from the experience. The month was almost a complete blur thinking about what people in China were going through, and feeling so much gratitude that our crew was able to get out and get home safely just in the nick of time. I was with a good friend at the start of March in the Tetons when our phones started blowing up asking us if we were following the news. I immediately went back to that morning exchange with Kaitlyn when we both gave each other looks like we knew shit was about to go down. This time Jeremy and I did the same, and whether it was in January or March, the world hasn’t been the same since, and might not be the same ever again.
For now, we have the Fall, which we all know leads to a time when the bikes and other toys get put away for the main event. As you get fired up reading Ascent and preparing for life in the skin track this winter consider that as much as we individually need to backcountry ski, we’re actually a pretty big community of highly stoked people. We also all need a little extra help from time to time and some folx might need a little extra help to keep that stoke firing this season as we keep adapting to life with Covid-19.
Here’s to many epic local powder days this season, and being as aware as you are in avalanche terrain to help another skiers, riders, and communities out when you can. Remember, we all love our time in the backcountry, and we’re all in this together.