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Skiing: A way of life

January 21, 2014

Nils Larson

When you think of skiing ,does it usually involve cutting down a spruce, covering the bottom of it with horsehide, then chasing down elk with ropes and spears?
Probably not.
But for the Toha and Kazakh people that live in the Altai Mountains of Northwest China, this is just another winter day, says Nils Larsen, a ski instructor from Curlew who visited the Colville Rotary Club last Wednesday.
In 2005 Nils Larsen and his colleagues, Dave Waag and Naheed Henderson, journeyed to the Altai Mountains to document the indigenous use of skis. This culminated in the documentary film Skiing in the Shadow of Genghis Khan. Captivated by the culture and resolve of the region’s inhabitants, Larsen followed this first trip with three additional trips to document and learn from the semi nomadic people that still build and use skis in ways that date back thousands of years.
“It’s (Altai Mountains) the farthest you can get from any ocean,” says Larsen, who owns Altai Skis in Curlew. “The highest peak is around 15,000 feet. “Generally, the snow doesn’t get very deep, but it’s 30 to 40 degrees below zero all the time during the winter. It’s very cold, but these people are pretty hardy. During hunting trips, they dig out the snow from under a spruce, build a big fire and sleep on their sleighs with a few wool blankets huddled together. I had my 30 below sleeping bag and heavy duty winter gear, and I still wasn’t sure if I was going to make it through the night!”
Actually, the most challenging aspect of Larsen’s journeys wasn’t the weather as much as it was politics. The Altai Mountains are a mountain range in East-Central Asia, where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together, and China severely restricts its northern borders.
“I had to ingratiate myself to local government officials,” Larsen says. “The bureaucracy of the Chinese government makes ours look like Mickey Mouse.”

Wood and fur

But even those obstacles paled in comparison to experiencing how the local peoples maintain a way of life that goes back thousands of years, particularly when it comes to skis. The occasional horse drawn sleigh is used to transport animals harvested in hunting and trapping, but people use skis to get around during the winter. Snowshoes are considered too slow and cumbersome. The Toha and Kazakh pursue elk, deer and wolves on skis, chasing the animals down, roping them, then killing them with the sharpened end of their ski poles or a knife (the Chinese government doesn’t allow its citizens to own firearms).
Hunting is also illegal in the area, so the natives live their lives off the grid, selling the furs and antlers of the animals they hunt and serving as hunting guides to top ranking Chinese generals that the law turns a blind eye to. They also raise horses as their primary source of meat, and the occasional goats and camels.
When it comes to making their skis, Larsen says the Toha and Kazakh cut down a spruce and split the tree in half, whittling the logs down until they form skis seven to eight feet long. The bottoms of the skis are lined with horse leg fur when the animal develops its winter coat. The fur enables the skiers to ski uphill by providing traction and also makes for greater speed when going downhill. A single pole is used to help with balance.
According to Larsen, using only one pole to ski with was common all over the world and throughout history up until the early 20th century.
“The people there are just like anywhere else,” says Larsen. “If you give them time to get to know you and respect them, you form friendships. I’ve been fortunate enough to become friends with a lot of the people there. I’ve cried at their funerals and celebrated the birth of their babies. It’s been unforgettable.”

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