I was chewing the last of my chocolate bar when the avalanche happened. We had spent three hard hours climbing to reach a ridge and, as I rewarded myself with some food, my friend Tania Detomas hiked 10 metres more to a summit on our right. Standing on the summit, she raised her arm, pointed the tip of her snowboard downwards and disappeared behind a rocky outcrop. Almost immediately we heard her shrieking, “Oh, oh, oh!”
“It’s sliding, it’s sliding!” said Ryan Koupal, our American guide. “Keep eyes on her!” But the only thing visible below the rock where we expected her to emerge was a torrent of tumbling snow.
“Tania?” I yelled. Five agonising seconds passed.
“Yes, I ... I’m OK,” we heard her say, after what seemed like an age. “I managed to dig my board in and hold on to a rock.”
She was shaken but in one piece. As she worked her way across the avalanche debris back towards us, I began laughing out of sheer relief. We were three hours from our camp, which itself was three hours of energetic splitboarding above Ichke-Jergez, the tiny village of Kyrgyz herdsmen that was our closest point of contact with the outside world. Up here, an avalanche burial – or even the slightest injury – would be serious. As Koupal explained gravely at the start of the week, we were on our own.
It goes without saying that snowboarding in Kyrgyzstan is a far cry from the busy slopes of Val d’Isère or Vail. With two major mountain ranges and several peaks above 7,000m, this small central Asian country has plenty to attract wintersports enthusiasts, and its combination of alpine lakes, pine forests and powder fields have earned it the nickname “the central Asian Switzerland”. But though the scenery bears comparison with Switzerland, the infrastructure does not. Kyrgyzstan’s secession from the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in the loss of subsidies and markets for its products, and today it is the third poorest country in central Asia. The roads are potholed, the power lines crumbling and in rural areas it’s not uncommon to see people travel by horse-drawn cart. Two revolutions since independence have taken a further toll and, while it now has a stable, democratic, western-looking government, you won’t find Swiss-style heated gondolas or “ski-in, ski-out” chalets on the slopes here.
Luckily, our group isn’t relying on lifts or groomed pistes to explore the Tien Shan – which literally translates as “celestial mountains”. Our splitboards mean we can zigzag up steep hillsides as quickly as any ski tourer.
Koupal, from Boulder, Colorado, first came to Kyrgyzstan on a splitboarding expedition in 2008 and began working on plans to establish a ski and snowboard guiding company in the region. The resulting business, 40 Tribes Backcountry, ran its first full season last winter, based in the peaks close to Karakol, a mountain town in the east of the country that has served as a jumping-off point for explorers and mountaineers since the days of the tsars.
Like many of the tourism operations in Kyrgyzstan, the company prides itself on its links with the local community. Koupal forged a key relationship early on with the Karakol-based Issyk-Kul Guides and Porters Association. Its director, Kasadin Musaev, a bright young Kyrgyz man with excellent English, is now his partner, “fixer” and a big part of the company’s success.
Also key are the villagers of Ichke-Jergez, the starting point for our adventure. After flying via Moscow to Bishkek, the capital, we drove six hours to Karakol, then on for another 45 minutes to the village. Our first night was spent at a smallholding, where we were hosted by three generations of the same family. They didn’t have running water, let alone hot showers, but the warmth of the welcome in their cosy home more than made up for it. As we ate our simple but delicious dinner, the youngest of the three children entertained herself by jumping on our laps, giggling uncontrollably every time we gave her a high-five.
For the next five days, we would be based at Jalpak Tash, a yurt on the mountainside at 2,650m, reached by a three-hour march uphill on our splitboards from the village. These traditional tents, made of felt, have been used by the herdsmen of central Asia for generations, though no self-respecting Kyrgyz shepherd would ever set up his winter camp this high in the hills.
Nevertheless, with a few alterations, the yurt made a perfectly warm winter refuge. A central stove, on which Musaev and his friend Azamat cooked a variety of local dishes, meant our snowboard kit dried easily after each day’s riding. And while the temperature inside was usually below zero in the mornings, the yurt heated up quickly as we emerged from our down sleeping bags and started making tea. We spent the evenings reading by the light of our head torches while Azamat sung mournful Kyrgyz songs on the guitar, or occasionally playing Yahtzee – a dice game that we spiced up by introducing shots of Kyrgyz vodka as penalties.
Days were spent climbing neighbouring peaks of about 3,000m. The views from the tops were stunning, and most of the faces were pristine, covered in deep, untouched fresh powder. Splitboarding up a face before you ride down it makes any descent special – you get the feeling that you’ve “earned” your turns – but there’s something extra special about riding lines that few (if any) people have ever ridden before.
Of course the remoteness of the place adds to the risk, as Tania’s close shave reminded us. Thankfully none of the descents is too extreme, and our group was experienced. Koupal confided that he had guided skiers who were “barely better than your average weekend warrior”, and they still had fun. His enthusiasm for the future of 40 Tribes and snowboarding in Kyrgyzstan more generally, was infectious. “After a whole season here there are still lines I haven’t ridden, and that’s just in this one zone,” he said. “Eventually, the idea is to have a whole network of yurts so you can tour between them.”
The unspoilt, unridden Tien Shan range is already a gift for splitboarders and ski tourers but there are also signs that the government and the country at large are wising up to Kyrgyzstan’s potential as an adventure tourism destination. In July 2012, Kyrgyzstan removed its visa requirements for tourists from many western countries, including the US, UK and most EU members – a huge step forward in a region where stifling Soviet-style bureaucracy is still the norm. “The authorities intend to support the private sector’s efforts to make winter sports an even more prominent part of tourism here,” Kadyr Toktogulov, press secretary to the Kyrgyz president, told me.
The effects of the policy are already visible. Several of the country’s 18 Soviet-era ski resorts have been redeveloped recently, in part to cater for the growing middle classes in Bishkek and tourists from oil-enriched Kazakhstan, a short flight away. We met Sergey, a Kazakh snowboarder, at the Karakol ski area – one of Kyrgyzstan’s biggest. The resort boasts relatively modern European chairlifts, a conspicuously new piste-basher and lift passes that, according to Sergey, are cheap enough to make it worth the cost of his flight. Skiing is not quite a boom industry yet, but as Koupal said: “The potential is all here. The terrain, the snow, the culture, it’s all incredible.”
After spending a week here, it was hard to disagree. Kyrgyzstan’s “celestial mountains” may not be the most straightforward winter-sports destination but, for adventurous skiers prepared to make the trip, they offer a little slice of heaven.
The splitboard: access all areas
Snowboarders crave the same untouched powder-covered slopes as skiers but are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to reaching them. If there are no mechanical lifts available, skiers can attach sticky skins to the base of their skis, enabling them to walk up. Unable to do the same, snowboarders have traditionally turned to snowshoes but these are bulky, slower and use far more energy.
Increasingly, though, they are discovering an alternative: the “splitboard”. This is a snowboard that can be split in two, allowing skins to be fitted in the same way as skis, with bindings that can be moved to face forwards rather than sideways. At the top, the two halves are reattached and the bindings realigned. The first, homemade, splitboards appeared in the early 1990s but were slow to catch on, partly because of concerns about excessive flexibility and partly because snowboarders were more interested in doing freestyle tricks than exploring the backcountry. Recently, however, splitboarding has rapidly gained popularity – in the US, sales last winter were up more than 100 per cent on the previous year, according to Snowsports Industries America.
Tristan Kennedy was a guest of 40 Tribes (www.40tribesbackcountry.com). A five-night trip, with transfers from Bishkek and guiding, costs from $1,500