China’s Secret Primal Powder Paradise Found
By Jaime Van Lanen
Years back when I first became interested in snowboarding in China various people passed on rumor to me that it was a no-go, that the harsh high-and-dry climate which dominates most of China’s windswept mountain ranges makes it non-appealing to the snow-surfing powder hounds among us (and then as I found out, where there is good snow in the east, you’ve got the corporatist, Maoist Orwellian police state to contend with). So are all the rumors correct?
Far north, on the Russian and Mongolian border is another, less iconic, mountain range than the Himalayas or the Tian Shan (see Parts 1 and 2) — the Altai. This is the place where, as several archaeologists have now concluded, backcountry powder skiing originated, perhaps 14,000 years ago. Rock paintings in caves showing skiers with bows and arrows drawn at deer and skiers appearing to be sliding downhill seem to prove it. Not only that, there are remote and largely inaccessible villages in these mountains where local indigenous Siberian peoples, roughly known as the Uriyangkhai, or “forest people,” whom have likely inhabited this mountain range for thousands of years, continue to ski all winter long on their own handmade skis; steam-bent, with rawhide bindings, and elk or horse leg skins, permanently attached. A Paleolithic tool-kit used for traveling in the deep winter snows of the region for trapping and for hunting moose and Mongolian elk. That’s right, deep winter snow and big-game — two things the Cold Smoke crew are decidedly spiritual about.
The Uriyangkhai have a long-standing tradition of “persistence hunting” elk on skis. Persistence hunting means chasing an animal down until it collapses from exhaustion. You see, animals might be fast sprinters, but no other animal has the long-range endurance of Homo sapiens. That’s why some say we were “Born to Run.” In fact, we probably first learned to hunt by persistence hunting on the African savannah, chasing down elands. The ancient Altai hunters applied this to the snow, an environment in which elk and moose easily expire, wallowing up to their chests in the deep white. Skis allowed them to float on the snow while the elk floundered and went down. The hunters then dispatched the elk with arrows. The hunters also figured out that moose or elk leg skins attached to the skis with the hairs pointing towards the tails gave their skis up-hill traction but also glided gracefully downhill. That’s right, downhill powder skiing originated in the Paleolithic with hunters chasing elk through the mountains. When the snow was deep, going downhill on skis a man was even faster than an elk. Not only did the people who invented skiing eat well, they also had some good times while catching their meat, ripping pow in the beautiful boreal forest of the Siberian Altai. And once all the food was put away I doubt they were finished skiing. Nope. I’m quite certain they were back on the skin-track heading up the mountain and sending lines back down whenever they were able too. If the Uriyangkhai skiers today are any indication, that’s a 100 percent certainty.
The particular Altai village where I stayed was, until 2015, unreachable by motorized vehicle in winter (snowmachines do not exist in this remote region of Xingjian and the isolated Altai villages certainly do not have airstrips or bush plane service). The only way to reach the village at the time was via a four-day journey by horse driven sleds called “Chanas,” overnighting in small outposts along the way. While a dirt summer road suitable for auto travel has existed for several years, the road was not plowed in winter. However, through the larger impetus of rapid development in China, driven both my military and commercial interests, the summer road is now being “maintained” and used for winter travel.
Depending on snow conditions, traveling this road in winter takes anywhere from 6-9 hours, if the entire road is passable, which may not be known before starting out. The road is thin, tortuous, and not necessarily plowed. Some sections are simply deep ruts maintained by consistent vehicle traffic. There are steep passes and steep drop offs which travelers must “slide” through, literally. And vehicles often get stuck or get blocked by avalanche debris, circumstances where travelers all work together as a team to dig-out and then resume travel in a caravan. Moreover, this all occurs in a sub-arctic boreal winter climate with temps that average -20. To say that committing to the journey with a Chinese driver who speaks zero English is somewhat nail-biting is an understatement. And, bear in mind, that first the Western traveler must also arrive at the remote location far into northern Xingjian where the winter road begins. For me that journey started in Shanghai, from where I then had to get to China’s furthest northwest urban center, Urumqi (think flying from NYC to Seattle in the USA). From Urumqi I had to take another airplane ride one one hour north to an oil field town called Karamay and from there take a five-hour public bus ride to a small town called Burqin and then hire a driver for the remaining journey on the winter road into the depths of the Altai Mountains.
On that day, after a few stops to help dig out cars and to dig out our own vehicle, which also took a slide off the road on a hairpin turn, we arrived in the village just after dark. I was set up with a homestay, living with an Altai family, who I could not effectively speak with but who would nonetheless feed me and basically keep me alive during my stay. In many respects, this experience is probably reminiscent to arriving in a remote Alaska Native village 100 years ago. The village does have intermittent electricity, but other than that it does not have running water and it does not rely on fossil fuel: homes are heated by wood that is cut and split by handsaw and axe.
Riding with Legends
On that first morning, scanning the mountains and feeling the solid base of snow under my feet, the reality became apparent: I had found it — China’s deep power paradise. Stellar terrain surrounded the entire village. Perfectly spaced trees of spruce, aspen, birch and larch filled with rock features and pillows. Above treeline featured endless and open powder slopes topped by cornices and steep, rocky couloirs. Some zones contained steep north-facing rock-tree chutes which dropped clean and sustained all the way to the valley floor. Total vertical drops averaged from 3,000-4,000 feet, but pow lines dropping over 5,000 feet were possible. For reference, my description of the Altai terrain is that it is perhaps akin to a mix of the Japanese Alps, the Wasatch Range and interior British Columbia. Yet there are no ski lifts, no lodges, no helis and no ego-driven ski scene. Rather, in the Altai there is simply an ability to set a skin-track anywhere you so desire and to spend weeks riding brilliant lines in glorious peace and solitude. However, ski tracks across the mountains are a salient part of the scenery and many of the lines you might want to ride in the Altai are not going to be first descents.
On that first morning I quickly noticed fresh ski tracks. Altai skiers! I headed out the door and began skinning toward the river and quickly encountered a skin-track, which I followed. Crossing the river and exiting the forest I saw two children on traditional Altai skis heading up the track. As I approached they looked at me like I was an alien, said something in Tuvan (the local language) and began giggling. It was two very young girls on skis, perhaps 8 or 10 years old. Their skin-track up the slope was steep with switchbacks that expert backcountry skiers would navigate carefully. And the girls were fast climbers, just as fast as the best backcountry skiers I know. To say I was impressed is an understatement. I couldn’t believe my eyes. But then I calmed down and remembered the context of what I was seeing. These girls were born into this, raised as members of a skiing culture and from their earliest years taught the skills which their ancestors had practiced for millennia. The slope was steep but short, perhaps 400 vertical feet. The girls would skin up, turn direction and ski down, giving my first true look at Altai skiers in action.
Altai skiers don’t ski downhill in the same fashion as do western skiers. They use their single pole as a rudder, placing it behind and between their two legs, applying pressure to both slowdown and assist turning. Altai skis are long and wide and don’t have sidecut or metal edges. Therefore Altai skiers don’t make short and tight turns like most modern downhill skiers do, their turns are very long and once they pick up momentum they ski very fast, and they also need a lot of room to stop. Nonetheless, they are expert tree skiers who navigate the powder-filled birch and spruce forests with stylish grace. They are also are experts at traveling above treeline on open slopes and steeps.
I followed the young Altai skiers’ skin-track and took a few runs up and down the small slope alongside them. But I had my sights set on bigger terrain further up the mountain. Just as I was about to continue on, a man on skis arrived. He was the girl’s father and his name was Mulchen. Despite the inability to speak to each other we shared some smiles and mutual understanding. I inspected his skis and he inspected my Cold Smoke Voodoo Splitboard in a manner of awe with which one might expect Native Americans might have inspected the very first firearms they had seen. Then I pointed to the big mountain above — attempting to tell Mulchen that I was going up there. He smiled, said something to the girls, and continued up the track on his fur-skinned wooden skis, motioning for me to follow.
As I followed Mulchen up the 4,500-foot ascent to the high ridge that day, I was blown-away by the level of skill and awareness with which he set the skin-track up the mountain. It became obvious that Mulchen was employing his own avalanche awareness-oriented route finding protocols. When we encountered a suspect wind-loaded area, Mulchen would jam his pole in the snow and inspect the layers, just like our own modern “hasty-pole-test,” and he carefully chose unexposed locations to stop and wait for me while following him. Obviously Mulchen had never been trained in a western avalanche education class. His ancestors had learned these skills and protocols over the thousands of years they had been skiing in these mountains. And they no doubt encountered avalanches and other hazards. In fact, it is known that some Altai skiers have historically been buried and killed in slides.
Avalanches are known to be frequent in the Altai’s cold interior snowpack, but during this visit the snow was stable and the villagers had been making descents down some of the biggest slopes in the vicinity for several days. But no one had yet put tracks on the peak we were climbing, the largest and steepest of all that were close to the village. As we traveled higher above treeline I was a bit nervous and was surprised to see Mulchen begin to put in a series of switchbacks going up steep, rocky terrain that would rival any of North America’s toughest ski ascent routes. I had studied Altai skiers prior to my trip, of course, but I had never been aware of any reference to them skiing high alpine “extreme” backcountry terrain. As we topped-out and reached the ridge ,the soft snow gave way to windblown hard pack and patches of ice, which is always tedious to traverse across while skinning. But Mulchen sped sideways across the icy traverses using a strange pressure technique with the heel of his foot in combination with his edgeless skis, another ancient technique of the Altai skiers.
As Mulchen and I skinned along the ridge in a cold wind-chill of perhaps -35 degrees, I noticed tracks ahead in the snow, not ours, some type of wild animal. Looking down as we crossed the tracks, my mind quickly registered — certainly a wolf. I looked at Mulchen as he let out a loud call — aaaaaahhwooooooo. I nodded back — wolf. Happy, we smiled at each other; there is nothing else to be said — a universal language of wild celebration that we both understood, even though neither one of us knows a single word of the other’s native tongue. Shortly after our encounter with the wolf tracks we reached the summit of the mountain and congratulated each other with smiles and laughs. On the summit, I can see mountains located in both Russia and Mongolia. In the valleys below there are small settlements, mostly winter horse grazing camps, and in the main basin is the decent sized village of 200 or so homes: small cabins heated by wood, made of spruce, and chinked with sphagnum moss.
I was living a dream; on the verge of riding down an Altai mountain in real-time alongside an authentic Altai skier. Mulchen began descending and I witnessed with my own eyes the ancient and highly skilled practice of primitive skiing. Controlled, calculated, high-speed glisse: without fancy ski-boots and only hiking shoes on his feet, held to the skis with rawhide straps in a free-heeled fashion. No metal edges, camber or sidecut. Yet, Mulchen can competently descend a large mountain on handmade skis and experience the same blissful enjoyment as can any modern western skier, all apparent in his obvious cheerfulness with showing me how it was done, guiding me down one of his favorite big-mountain powder skiing runs.
After our descent we returned to the village and Mulchen’s small cabin to celebrate with chunks of meat, fat and hot butter tea. On the mountain, using basic hand-signs (as wells as wolf-calls and smiles and laughs), our ability to communicate improved. Sitting by the fire sipping tea we tried to communicate by drawing pictures of skis, mountains and animals. Before I returned to my lodgings for the night, Mulchen drew a picture for me of what looked to be a deer with antlers, pointed to it and then pointed up toward the mountain. Then he pointed at me and back at himself and wiggled his index and middle finger together, depicting the movements of a skier followed by raising his hands to the top of his head and spreading his fingers, portraying antlers. Then he held his two hands together and tilted his head onto them, the universal sign for sleep, which I easily interpreted. Then he repeated all the previous signs. I understood. He was saying that first we should get some sleep and then in the morning we will go skiing again, this time in pursuit of elk.
What Skis Were Made For: Traveling Through Powder Snow for Food and Survival
The quest for an undisturbed splitboarding paradise was an important reason for my exploration of China, but it was mostly my knowledge of the historical roots of Altai backcountry skiing — elk hunting on primitive skis — which inspired me to make this journey to the Altai. I had never expected to actually encounter such legends as real Altai ski-hunters, nor did I expect that I might go hunting with them. So when the night before I received the impression that Mulchen might be inviting me to go elk hunting I was elated, and in the morning when we began the skin I could not believe that it might actually be happening. But I had no way to ask detailed questions or get answers, all I could do was follow Mulchen as he set a new skin-track across a valley and into the forest.
As we entered the aspens all of a sudden I felt as if I was in the Rocky Mountains: the trees, the terrain and even the air had an eerily similar ambiance to backcountry touring in Wyoming or Colorado: elk country. Further ahead Mulchen stopped. As I approached he waved me along and pointed into the snow: deer sign, tracks and a pile of pellets, distinctively elk. We continued and the sign became more prolific, more tracks and pellets. Entering a beautiful grove of aspens there were fresh beds everywhere in the snow. With the elegant expertise of such an indigenous hunter that one might read about in the stories of Old West explorers or in the ethnographies of African Bushman, Mulchen had silently led us on our skis directly to the realm of elk. My heart pounded, silence was a given between us: no language other than the mutual hunters’ understanding Mulchen and I shared, no sound other than the swoosh of our skis in the crystal dry boreal snow and the rustling of the remaining brown-yellow leaves which still clung to the branches of aspen. I started thinking about how quiet it is to stalk game on skis compared to attempting it on foot in a dry forest.
I was not sure what lay ahead, all I knew is that we were tracking elk and that I was witnessing the ancient Altai practice of pursuing elk on skis, I was ecstatic. There was no doubt Mulchen was right onto this group of elk, as we skied onwards I even began to pick up fresh elk scent from the barley-frozen pellets. As the slope steepened and the elk trail began a low-angle traverse Mulchen diverged in the opposite direction and began placing a high-angle skin-track directly up the fall-line of the mountainside. Even if it was possible for the two of us to speak to one and other, this move did not need to be discussed. I had a good idea of what he was doing. Although we had not caught any glimpse of the elk, we had tracked them to within very close range and rather than letting them wind us, sending them running, we headed in the opposite direction, making haste to gain elevation and intercept them from downwind and from above. It was classic hunting strategy, passed on to Mulchen through centuries of experience by his ancestors.
The steep and tight switchbacks put into the slope by Mulchen and his primitive skis were expert level ski-touring route navigation moves that any modern professional backcountry skier would be impressed by. Modern western backcountry skiers would also be impressed by the speed with which Mulchen moved up the mountain. He was like a Himalayan Sherpa, born for fast and effective mountain travel. As I found myself left behind for my lack of such skills and conditioning I wondered why he was moving so fast. What happened to the slow and silent stalk? Did he decide not to pursue the elk? No. He knew these elk, their habits, how they moved across these mountains. His haste was the movement of the hunter who has entered the moment of full commitment to the final stalk, which often times must be swift in order to have the best chance of intercepting game that is moving away before it disappears behind a ridge and down into a distant valley, making it impractical for the hunter to continue the pursuit.
Out of breath, I could not keep up with Mulchen. Time slowed down and it seemed like his trail was forever climbing higher and higher. As Mulchen’s skin-track began to rise above the treeline and into more open alpine snows it suddenly began to traverse, high-side along the edge of steep band of rocks. As I turned the corner I saw Mulchen, strapped to his skis, standing still, peering through binoculars down the mountain. I skinned cautiously upward to reach his position and he pointed down, handing me the glass. Two-hundred yards below, a bull Mongolian elk was standing in the snow next to a band of rocks. It was a glorious moment. I’d seen plenty of antlered deer at two-hundred yards before, but had never stalked them by traveling uphill on skis, never been led on the stalk by the primal essence of an ancient hunter traveling on skis he made himself with an axe, from spruce wood cut from the same forest we were standing in, with climbing skins from the legs of a local horse, fleshed, stretched, and dried by the skier himself.
We sat down and watched the elk for a few more minutes. Soon the bull was joined by a couple of cows. Then, unaware that someone was watching them from above; the trio began to move, traversing along the mountainside, slowly gaining elevation, disappearing again into the forest. I was not sure what would happen next. Mulchen smiled and handed me some dried meat, which was mostly all fat, and a cube of hardened butter tea to chew on. We drank some water and then Mulchen got up, put his binoculars in his pack, shouldered it and motioned me onward.
We stayed high, continuing along the same trajectory as the elk had travelled as they disappeared into the forest. Soon we reached a large ravine, a summer creek bed now blanketed in deep snow. I followed Mulchen as he descended into the drainage. Half-way down, on a small lateral ridge above the creek bed, he stopped. A line of elk tracks had just come into our view. The elk had moved up, ascending directly up the ravine, heading toward treeline. They must have passed this spot only minutes or seconds before we had arrived. As we scanned the trail leading up, the small herd of Mongolian elk appeared, rising out of the ravine and onto the snow slope above, heading toward a lone patch of spruce. A majestic bull appeared, larger than the one we had seen before. It stopped, turned and looked directly at us. We had been made. We watched the group disappear again. Mulchen looked at me, smiled, pointed downhill with his ski pole and, leaving the elk behind, we descended through perfect soft snow and spectacular groves of birch and aspen down to the main river valley.
Early on that day, I had a hunch that I might not be so lucky to actually witness an Altai skier kill an elk. Mulchen had no weapon and no other local skiers had joined us. And my understanding is that Altai persistence ski-hunting is normally done as a team effort, with multiple skiers driving the elk from different directions into a final cut-off point. More than this, I was also aware prior to this trip, that the Chinese government has effectively made hunting illegal in this region, and even though I was told it is almost certain that Altai skiers nonetheless continue to hunt strategically, it was very unlikely that they would let a foreigner who they had just met bear witness to it.
Mulchen obviously knew exactly what he was doing. He wanted to show me the elk and also show me that if the villagers wanted to harvest an elk they normally can easily find them, track them and stalk them to within close range, on their skis. It also is now obvious to me that, when Mulchen stopped on the rocks above the elk, he had reached the stage where, if a ski-hunter was committed to making a kill, he and his fellow hunters would begin their full-scale pursuit, descending on the elk and driving them down into the forest in an effort to exhaust at least one of them to the point of giving up and allowing itself to be taken by the ski-hunters. I felt extremely fortunate to have experienced the process up until that stage.
That evening, back in Mulchen’s cabin I tried to use hand-signals and sketches to ask him more about hunting. I was able to establish that the people maintain a great interest in hunting, and likely continue to do it, but that they are very afraid of being punished for it. At one point one of the other local men drinking tea with us held out his two hands with the inside of his wrists pressed together, simulating the hand cuffs which would be attached to him if he were to be arrested for hunting. This fear has likely been exasperated with the opening of the road and the presence of Chinese military police in the village.
The Real Reason Why We Ride
Traveling in snowy mountains during winter on splitboard has occupied countless hours of my life and is a core part of who I am. When one leaves behind the manufactured groomed ski trails and the hustle, bustle and commercial hype of downhill ski resorts, stepping off-piste to become a backcountry snowboarder and alpinist, new perspective is provided. The many hours of determined, and mostly silent, muscle-powered travel on snow cultivate lots of space for mental reflection.
Living in Alaska, particular to my reflection has been a lessening of a previous focus on splitboarding for recreation and adrenaline and a new focus on the practical role of split-skiing for winter transport and subsistence hunting. For, this is he practical things that skis and skins have been used for throughout most of their history; these are the reasons that humans began sliding on snow. Even more, like the indigenous Hawaiians whose invention of the surfboard is also rooted in a subsistence life way, the hard and meticulous work of living on the land (or the sea) has always been accompanied by a simultaneous human need for happiness, joy, human camaraderie and play.
Importantly, both the surfboard and skis (and later snowboards and splitboards) are prime examples of this cross-cultigen of the development of a cultural lifeway centered around a tool that is both highly practical and which also provides, not only a feeling of joyfulness to use, but, as many skiers and surfers would argue, an experience of pure, nearly unmediated, bliss. Here the ancient surfer would have paddled out on a plank of wood into the sea to hunt fish, turtles or seals, or gather mollusks from an outer reef, eventually catching a wave to come back in to shore. At some point the marine hunter-fisher-gatherer would decide to try standing up for the ride. We can easily imagine the result of his success in riding that first wave — enormous smiles and laughter from both the surfer and any on-lookers — sheer bliss. From there the daily practice of hunting, fishing, and gathering in the tropical sea became more enjoyable and desired than it ever was before. And once the community’s subsistence needs were accomplished the people kept paddling out so they could catch more waves. The practice became ritualized into sport and became a core part of Hawaiian culture.
This same process likely occurred in the Altai cultures that developed skiing. Perhaps they began with a snowshoe-type tool, but the very mountainous territory which they inhabited meant that when traveling in the snow they often found themselves needing to go downhill and thus the smaller snowshoe-type tool was modified into two longer, more slender planks of wood, which would glide downhill with more agility and more speed. That gliding instantly became enjoyable. Like the Hawaiians, one can imagine the smiles and laughs which occurred among the Altai bands as they tumbled through the snow learning to effectively utilize this new tool. The bliss of powder riding began at this stage and then advanced into sheer exhilaration as the hunters perfected their skills and became expert all-terrain skiers- quite likely the first expert downhill skiers in history, successfully navigating their way down steep mountain terrain several thousands of years ago.
The spirit in all of this continues on inside of us in the ascents and descents we make during our long winter days in the mountains with friends, and every fall when some of us hunt deer, moose and elk as the primary source of our winter food. This spirit also exists in the small-scale, grassroots, local ski and snowboard companies like Cold Smoke, who are dedicated to keeping the bliss alive and bolstering the spirit of local backcountry community in the Elk Range, across Colorado and beyond. During your splitboarding travels in the mountains this winter I hope you will take some time to reflect on these things and reflect on what can be learned from the Altai skiers. For backcountry solace, for powder, for community, for wildness.