From Tahoe to China: Competing in the prestigious Altai Mountain race | SierraSun.com

From Tahoe to China: Competing in the prestigious Altai Mountain race

Amelia Richmond | Special to the Sun

LAKE TAHOE — Over the holidays, a group of local skiers flew across the world to experience a culture unlike ours in nearly every way but one: the love of skiing.

Local residents Jesse Bushey, Allison Donovan, Glen Poulsen, Doug Read and Emily Turner traveled to the remote Altai Mountains in the northern corner of China's Xinjunag province to compete in a ski race with descendants of ancient skiers.

The year 2016 marked the first year the traditional ski race was open to foreign competitors, and the group from Lake Tahoe joined seven Norwegians to take part.

THE FIRST SKIERS

The birthplace of skiing is heavily debated, but it is believed that skis predate the wheel. Skiing was long considered to have originated in Scandinavia; however, archaeological finds may point to the sport's origin in central Asia – a claim China has bolstered in recent years.

The Altai Mountains intersect China, Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan. Though technically Chinese citizens, the renowned horsemen and expert skiers of the Altai claim they descend from the mounted Mongol warriors who once ruled the mountains.

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A STAFF AND TWO PLANKS

The people of the Altai hand make their wooden skis, which are about 100 millimeters underfoot, using the same methods their ancestors used thousands of years ago.

"They cut the log, saw down the pieces, and use a hand planer to plane out the ski – then steam them to make the tips bend up," said Read. "They drill holes for leather straps for bindings, and nail horse skins to the bottom of the skis for permanently placed skins."

Rather than modern poles, native skiers wield a single wooden staff, which they use like a rudder to steer the skis on the descent.

The locals made a traditional pair of skis for each member of the groups from Tahoe and Norway to use on race day.

BOW AND ARROW BIATHLON

The ski race, which saw about 70 competitors on January 1, involved three laps with a 400-foot climb, fairly steep descent, and an archery target at the end of each leg. Skiers who missed the target had to do a penalty loop, akin to a biathlon with a bow and arrow in lieu of a rifle.

Read and Poulsen say the equipment was a bit difficult to use, noting Donovan, Turner and Bushey fared better — with Bushey finishing ahead of many local skiers.

Not that winning was on anyone's mind.

"Tromping through the birch forest surrounded by tunic'd skiers in fur hats, dragging brick-filled goat skins slung on ropes over their shoulders — this was not a race in which you were thinking much about your heart rate," said Turner.

ANCIENT CULTURE AND MODERN SUSTAINABILITY

While the indigenous people of the Altai Mountains still live in the traditional ways that have sustained them for thousands of years, they now live with the benefits of electricity, heat and cellphones.

And many do so while living completely off the grid, offering an enviable combination of traditional culture and modern sustainability.

Every log house outside town is outfitted with solar panels and converters. Chinese-made wood burning stoves and serpentine water pipes heat each home.

"As with most of central Asia, they've made a quantum leap in development," said Poulsen. "They make our system look archaic."

Poulsen notes the region's traditional customs risk rapid change with increased exposure to Western influence. Events like the January ski race are designed to embrace and preserve the region's ancient ski customs.

SIMPLE JOYS

The group described their immersion in the region's traditional culture as the most rewarding part of the trip.

"Most memorable was living with people who are living the same way they have for 10,000 years," said Poulsen. "(Witnessing) the uncomplicated lives of these people and the pure enthusiasm they have for the sport. The pure enjoyment they have in sport for sport's sake."

Others in the group echoed his sentiments.

"It was thrilling to find ourselves on these skis, which have carried these people and their ancestors over land and enabled their lifestyles for thousands of years," said Turner. "It was impossible not to just be awed by the strength of skiing both as a tradition and as an essential part of their culture to this day."

SKIING: THE COMMON LANGUAGE

The group spent most of their two-week trip ski touring in the countryside near Khom, climbing nearby peaks and descending into neighboring valleys.

"It was great skiing there. Deep snow and very, very cold," said Read. "Probably about negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit."

"It was absolutely beautiful," he added, describing one valley as Shangri-La.

They were not the only ones enjoying the snow; the locals got after it too.

"They don't make a lot of turns. They just kind of go straight, yell and look for jumps," said Read, describing what could just as easily be a skier at Squaw.

Despite virtually no verbal connection to most of the Altai people, the group bonded over the sport they all love.

"We were reminded by the laughter, smiles and energy we shared, how lucky we were to be there, learning about, honoring and cherishing the history of this sport, which we are so thankful to have in our own lives," said Turner.

Amelia Richmond is a North Lake Tahoe-based freelancer writer. Email her at amelia.s.richmond@gmail.com.

A history of skis

A brief look at the evolution of skiing and skis around the world…

8000 B.C. – Altai Mountains: Some Chinese academics say the earliest Altai skis date back to 8000 B.C., though other scholars maintain skiing came to the region much later.

60000 B.C. – Vis, Russia: The oldest ski found to date featured an elk head carved on one end that may have functioned as a brake.

3200 B.C. – Kalvträsk, Sweden: Accompanying the skis was a long pole with a scoop carved into one end likely serving several purposes: steering downhill, shoveling, and as a club for hunting.

750 – Kinnula, Finland: Almost snowshoe-like in its shape, the intricately carved shorter and wider skis worked well on soft snow in forest terrain.

1600 – Norway: Skiers glided on one long smooth board coated with tar and pushed forward on a shorter, fur-bottomed board.

1800 – Telemark, Norway: Skis were adapted to be narrow in the middle and wider at the ends for improved control and turning.

1860s – Sierra Nevada, United States: Initially Sierra Nevada miners used 10-foot skis to travel in the mountains, and over time they began using longer skis known as longboards to race each other.

Source: National Geographic