For the hundreds of spectators who walk for hours to watch the annual in the remote Hindu Kush mountain range, the wrecks are the best part. It’s been only six years since the first ski mountaineering competition was held in Afghanistan, and the people of the nearby town of Bamyan aren’t as inured with skiing as the race’s founder, Christoph Zuercher, a journalist from Switzerland. But they do like to laugh, says Zuercher, even at bad crashes. The organizers have learned to build ski jumps at key points along the course, like the finish line, “so you have something for the spectators”.
While Afghans in the region have historically used long wooden planks as a sort of snow shoe, downhill skiing is alien to locals. Or it was until six years ago, when Zuercher found himself bored and stuck in Bamyan for a few days, dreaming of skiing the untracked peaks that rose up on all sides. That same year, he returned to launch the Afghan Ski Challenge, a ski mountaineering race open to locals and anyone able to get to the start.
The ski school he founded to drum up local experience for the race, Bamyan Ski Club, has brought last year’s Afghan Ski Challenge winner, Alishah Farhang, a sheep herder, and Sajjad Husaini, an electrician, to the Swiss alpine resort town of St Moritz for two months of professional training.
They’re now aiming for the , where they would be the first Afghans to ski in the Olympics. Three months ago, Afghanistan became a provisional member of the International Ski Federation (FIS).
The hard part won’t be the upcoming FIS qualifiers, says Zuercher. The hard part is to establish an Afghan Ski Federation. “In countries like this, it’s always quite a struggle because everybody expects some money to be involved in things like this,” says Zuercher. He’s worried that egotism and infighting will tarnish their chances of making the Olympic cutoff. “If it’s not happening, it’s because people couldn’t agree who should lead the ski federation and who should be the general secretary.”
In the meantime, Zuercher continues to organize his ski race in the Hindu Kush. Last week, 80 skiers – from Europe and the US as well as – donned race numbers to compete for glory and a Swiss watch. The two-mile course began at 9,000ft, from which competitors hiked to about 11,000ft before skiing down slopes that ranged from sun-crusted to slushy.
The provincial governor awarded trophies to Bamyan mechanic Abdulwahid in the men’s race, and Fatima Hedayat in the women’s.
The fastest foreigner took seventh in the men’s group, a solid showing. The Afghan skiers have always dominated, despite having only practiced the sport for a few seasons. With the hikes included as part of the race, fitness is the most important thing – and the locals are much quicker uphill.
The sport of ski mountaineering, in which skiers earn their turns with a good hike, is growing in popularity in the West, and Zuercher sees Afghanistan as a potential backcountry skiers’ paradise. Two-thirds of the country is covered in pristine mountain ranges that top out at 25,000ft. Last year, two days before the race, the mountains above Bamyan got three feet overnight. (The organizers had to pay 100 people to shovel the road so equipment vehicles could reach the course.) The snow is dry and plentiful, and there hasn’t been a ski lift in the country since the late 1970s, when a single chair briefly served a lone run outside of Kabul. Two years after its construction, it was abandoned to mines with the Soviet invasion.
Conflict remains a wrench for would-be skiers. The number of foreign participants in the Afghan Ski Challenge has dropped significantly this year, with the recent bankruptcy of the only airline that served the region.
This week, Zuercher flew in with the UN, as did the 10 other American, Swiss, English and French participants. The open road into the valley, which was passable when Zuercher first came to the region six years ago, has become too dangerous in the last 12 months.
Bamyan province is considered safe for foreign travelers, despite a sign along the race course that reads: “No guns at the start!” Zuercher says it’s a joke, taken from ubiquitous signs outside local restaurants, discouraging patrons from bringing in their kalashnikovs.
Guns aren’t the problem here, says Zuercher. The real problem is poverty. Despite a continued aid effort to Afghanistan, money is largely targeted at the provinces that are still in the grips of the Taliban.
“What I’ve learned traveling to Afghanistan is that you can live with quite a high level of danger. But if you don’t have any job prospective, then it gets really, really hard,” he says. Over years of working as a journalist, he witnessed the exodus of Afghans who had formerly worked as military contractors for foreign governments, describing the country’s current state as a “bad cycle.”
He continues to see strong skiing potential in the province, but he describes his initial high hopes for ski tourism as naive. Now he sees skiing as less an economic boon than a symbolic one – a positive, hopeful sport to unite the community.
The residents of Bamyan have fought hard for decades to keep the Taliban at bay. The Islamic fundamentalist group briefly took control of the province in the late 90s and early 00s, during which they dynamited the famous Buddhas of Bamyan, stone monoliths that had stood for 1,500 years.
“In the last 20 years, they have experienced everything there is to experience: war, terror, the bombing of the Buddhas,” says Swiss ski guide and race organizer Stei Steurer. “I believe they have witnessed other tragedies, too, of which we’re not aware. For them, learning to ski is peanuts.”
While turnout this year was better than ever, Zuercher says coordinating the race continues to be a bit anarchical. Four years ago, he came back to Bamyan to discover that the man whom he’d paid to store 15 pairs of high-end, all-mountain skis had decided to keep them. “He said, no, no, these skis, they now belong to me!” Zuercher laughs. “And then he resold them to us!” He says he lost a few thousand dollars in the deal.
“It’s the Wild West,” says Zuercher. “No law.”
Zuercher has stepped back this year and increasingly relied on former race participants to organize the competition. “It shouldn’t be a ski race organized by foreigners, but their own ski race,” says Zuercher.
The Bamyan Ski School now offers ski rentals and lessons two months a year, taught by the country’s two Olympic hopefuls, and attended this year by 23 men and women in their late teens and early 20s.
Next year, Zuercher hopes to bring the race to an area outside of Kabul, to open it up to more Afghan skiers.
“As a Swiss, yeah, you ski. It’s nothing special,” says Zuercher. “You would expect somebody doing this to be crazy into backcountry skiing, but I’m not. It just happened. I like the idea of people from different parts of Afghanistan coming together to do something peaceful.”