In the heart of the Tien Shan Mountains lies deep snow for “Always Never Not Powder Shredding.”
The Tien Shan are mystical range of peaks found in Central Asia, whose name translates to Mountains of Heaven. Home to UNESCO World Heritage sites, with Kazakhstan and China on the periphery, a major part of Tien Shan runs through the land-locked country of Kyrgyzstan. With rooted history in the Silk Road, and land that is the furthest distance away from any ocean in the world, Kyrgyzstan has a diverse, authentic culture that has long been shaped prior to gaining its independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. From stories shared by adventurous mountain travelers over the years, apparently the skiing was pretty good too.
Last January I found myself in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek. I had come on assignment to work with 40 Tribes, a boutique guiding outfit that specializes in taking skiers and riders to some of the most far off places in the world to experience wild snow. At the airport I met the founder of the company, Ryan Koupal, along with his local friend Kas, and Canadian guide Xavier Bouchard. It was solid trip across many time zones to get to this far off location, but as we loaded Kas’s car and set off for the multi hour drive from the capital of the country to the small, snowy town of Karakol, I immediately felt a sense of the pull that must have inspired Ryan into spending so much time here over the past decade.
Ryan is well traveled, and has spent a solid portion of his life studying Chinese culture. Twenty years ago while in China, he found himself near the northwest border and the Tien Shan. The mountains were as raw and rugged as anything he had ever seen. He vowed to return with his splitboard one day, and four years later he did. Armed with a rich knowledge of the political-economic-geography of the region, Ryan slowly began exploring the mountains and building relationships with locals. The more time he spent getting to know the people and the zone, the more time he wanted to spend in Kyrgyzstan. By 2010 he’d done enough recon and visioning, and was ready to see what the rest of the world thought about visiting this unique corner of the world to ski and ride.
There are many different aspects to backcountry skiing, and so many little nuances that come along with the pursuit of the sport. Some folks still enjoy riding the lifts everyday and using ski resort gates to access the backcountry. Some prefer using their own two feet for daily ski tours from the ground up. Many enjoy hut life, and then there are those that prefer building their own version of hut life in the backcountry. Having helped run a basecamp ski touring operation in Alaska over the past several years, I have come to really enjoy the idea of setting up a temporary, comfortable home in the middle of the mountains. It’s not that I don’t enjoy all the other ways to experience backcountry skiing. It’s more when you have the ability to allocate the time, why not put yourself right in the heart of things with epic skiing literally right out your front door?
Beyond the pure interest of visiting the ancient mountains of the Tien Shan with skis, part of the allure I felt with 40 Tribes was to experience these mountains by living in a yurt camp. From past experiences, yurts in and of themselves were a more plush version of what my crew and I have employed in Alaska over the years using arctic ovens, which are a modified combination of a tent and yurt of sorts. There are several exceptional yurt operations in the lower 48, and where they seem to work well they seemingly thrive. In Kyrgyzstan the best part about the yurt living was not necessarily the structures themselves, but the fact that they had been utilized by local Kyrgyz people for thousands of years. This was the major commitment factor for me in wanting to visit this place and ski in the mountains with this particular crew-the fact that who I was going with had not only put their time in to develop a sense of place, the experience was framed by working with local people as well as local resources, and in respect of local cultural customs.
After a few hours in the car driving along the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border we stopped for lunch. Remnants of the Soviet era were noticeable set alongside more modern Kyrgyz trends in buildings, street signs, and vehicles passing through town. Our crew followed Ryan to what appeared to be a very closed restaurant. As a newcomer to the country, if I was on my own, there’s no way I would have even noticed this place, let alone find myself knocking on the door to see if anyone was there. But Ryan assured us it was one of his favorite places for a shawarma and worth the stop. I had no idea what that was, but at this point I was jet-lagged, hungry, and was intrigued by the semi-urban adventure that seemed to be unfolding ever since we left the airport. A smiling woman appeared shortly after Ryan stopped knocking on the door, and she welcomed us in to the empty, cold restaurant. We were served tea quickly, and not long after four fat shawarma’s appeared on the table. I’m still not sure if the restaurant was even open that day, or how anyone else would ever find this place unless they had been there before, but it was my first experience in learning that Kyrgyz people are some of the most hospitable humans you will ever meet.
Later that day we would find ourselves in Karakol, the largest settlement in proximity to our eventual destination, a place locals refer to as Jalpak Tash. A small village sits at the base of Jalpak Tash in the heart of the Issyk-Kul Valley. Here at a guesthouse is where traveling by planes, trains, and automobiles stop. The land above the village has been used by locals for centuries for harvesting wood and hunting, and while a renegade truck might makes its way into the valley from time to time, the only reliable way up is by horse and skinning. The horses carry the biggest load of supplies for the camp, along with excess expedition equipment, while we the skiers and riders get to feel the snow with a long, low angle skin up to the yurt camp.
Ryan has a saying informed by all of his time in the country, “always never not powder shredding.” I figured it was his way of saying we ski a lot of powder on these yurt trips. What I can safely say after spending a few weeks in the zone is, he’s right. While we did deal with some instabilities, winds, and storms during our time, there was not one day that went by where a powder turn was not found. On the flip side, and what I immediately found out after we left the village for Jalpak Tash the first time, this is some of most unique snow I have ever experienced. If you’re the type of skier or splitty that doesn’t enjoy trail-breaking at home, you’re going to want to experience this range with someone who does.
Breaking trail is one of my favorite activities, period. It’s also a super helpful thing to like if you’re into human powered backcountry skiing. It’s not always easy, and sometimes no matter how much you do it, it gets you in a frustrating, shaking your head, I’m totally gassed kind of way. I can say for certain that breaking trail in this corner of the Tien Shan is unlike anywhere else I have skinned or skied in the world. In the way you might be looking for an old track on a popular backcountry run that just got refreshed by a multi-foot storm overnight, here I found myself actually looking for old horse tracks to help set a skin track on several occasions. On that first trip up from the village we started with thin snow cover that gradually got deeper as we approached the yurt camp. Each step seemed to go deeper than expected in the snowpack, never really planing out. There was simply no resistance, and really no cohesion to the snow.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things from a snow science perspective, and of course to anyone wishing to ski in this special part of the world, is the snow itself. Think about what you were taught in your avalanche level one course. If you haven’t taken a course yet, and you’re reading this magazine, I hope it’s the first thing you do when you’re done reading! One of the many things taught in traditional courses in the US is the danger of weak layers in the snowpack. But what if the entire snowpack is a weak layer? What if you largely find a snowpack that is fully faceted, that is, there are no necessarily overly defined layers, just a whole load of snow that is airy, sugary, and lacks cohesion? The reason I found it so challenging on that first skin is what others tend to find when they first go ski in the Tien Shan; to be blunt, skinny skis are not your friend here.
I’ve now worked as guide for a host of operations around the world, but never have I been told by anyone that fat skis are mandatory. Sure, it’s been the way in Alaska since the beginning, and if you’re in a place like Japan and go off-piste during a normal January with race skis, you’re going to feel the difference immediately. But in Kyrgyzstan, Ryan has gone so far as to specify visitors are required to have at minimum 110-115mm underfoot skis. Of course split boards have no problem here. Sound crazy? It’s not. You can’t really tell following in a skin track, but you certainly can while trail breaking, and most certainly you will notice while skiing, without a wide surface area underfoot in these mountains you will simply sink.
It’s unique place, with unique people, and the skiing is like nothing else in Kyrgyzstan. For ski travelers it’s a must visit. It takes a little getting used to due the whole fully faceted snowpack thing, but the reality is when you do have the proper tools, and slightly adjust yourself to how the snow rides, you’re literally on a permanent powder day, choosing wide arcing turns over little squiggles at any given moment. Even if this isn’t your style-the tools or type of riding, it makes sense when you’re in the snowpack, and it feels fluid when you’re gliding down the mountain. And in terms of stability, while we did have a period last winter that was accompanied by some atypical winds and heavier-than-normal precipitation (the lake effect here is real thanks to the nearby second largest alpine lake in the world), generally slough management is a primary concern. Deep instabilities are not common, and with proper terrain management, you’re literally skiing powder from a comfortable yurt camp on the daily.
While my reason for being in Kyrgyzstan last winter was guiding from the yurts, Ryan works with his local partners to make the yurts available to private groups as well. Of course there are drainages upon drainages of stacked, skiable lines to explore, but when you’re in this part of the world working alongside local partners it’s just as important as getting to the snow. I’ve spoken to a group who went on their own, no local connections, not much beta other than they wanted to go deep into the Tien Shan and explore. It’s a cold venture in the heart of the season (January and February), and getting around can be rough. But then again most expeditions are. That group had fun, but one of their major takeaways from the experience was to come back and work with locals on the ground.
Removing the rough factor isn’t really an option in Kyrgyzstan. Then again, you can stack the deck in your favor knowing the locals are friendly, the mountains are large (average elevation of around 10k feet), and the snow is soft. That, and there are a handful of people dedicated to supporting the community based tourism that has greatly helped the country in the post-Soviet era. Ryan’s outfit isn’t the only one, but he happens to be the only one based in the US with such a strong connection to the region. I found it odd how many friends in the ski world had either heard stories of the Tien Shan and were themselves as interested as I to check them out, or on the other side people that had no idea about the country or phenomenal skiing instead falling victim to the ‘stans’ syndrome. That being any country that ends in –stanis dangerous. While I can’t speak for the other countries and really won’t for Kyrgyzstan either, what I can say is the latter is for the adventure seeking, off-the-beaten-path skier or rider who is looking for a wild ski experience with a deep hit of authentic culture. There are a few of us out there that continue to dream of visiting far-off places, skiing untouched lines, and doing it all in tune with the people and place one is visiting. If you’re someone who would check that box think about Kyrgyzstan. The adventure is worth the trip alone, and it turns out all those stories I had heard over the years are true too. The skiing is incredible.