The First Skiers: Deep in Time, Deep in the Altai

Chaz Diamond | | Featured ArticleFeatured Article

NYC144513Getting some airtime. photo: Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

Skiing is claimed to have originated in Russia, Norway, and the Altai Mountains of Northern China simultaneously. While modern skiing may draw its roots from Scandinavia, the roots of skiing may originate in the Altai Mountains at the end of the last ice age. China claims to have invented skis in this region nearly 10,000 years ago, and the Tuvan people of the Altai Mountains have been skiing for at least the past 4,000 years. While petroglyphs have been found in the region, depicting skiers chasing ibex, they have proven difficult to date accurately.

Location of the Altai Range. China is South, Mongolia East, Russia North, and Kazakhstan West.

The simplicity and practicality of the tools used are testament to their ancient roots. The skis used by the Tuvan people have changed little over the millenia. Unlike modern skis intended  primarily for use in recreation or sport, the skis of the Tuvan people are integral to their survival. Surviving for millenia in the snowy Altai Mountains required the mastery of an efficient mode of transportation over the snowy landscape, and the skis enable the rugged mountain lifestyle the Tuvan live. Serving as a mode of efficient transportation over deep snow the skis historically enabled the Tuvan to continue hunting elk into the winter.

NYC144531Carrying firewood back to camp on a hunting expedition. photo: Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

NYC144556Attaching horse hide skins to the bottom of a new pair of skis. photo: Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

The skis are hand-made from freshly felled red spruce, which is bent into the desired shape before drying. Pieces of horse-hide leather are used as a binding and horsehair skins are then permanently attached to the base with tacks. Instead of using two poles one tall wooden staff, a taiyak, is used in a manner similar to a rudder.

NYC144523A Tuvan hunter, anchored in the snow, battles a bull elk. photo: Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

The Tuvan people have mastered what is possibly the most impressive method for capturing elk. Instead of using rifles or even a bow and arrow, the Tuvan people corral elk into areas with deep snow. There they take full advantage of their skis; while the elk try to swim through the deep snow, a rope is slipped around their antlers. The hunter then places his skis perpendicular to the rope and anchors himself in the snow. After hours of struggling the elk are exhausted and give up.

Nils Larsen has made numerous trips to the region to explore the history and culture. He went on to produce a film, Skiing in the Shadow of Genghis Khan – Timeless Skiers of the Altai and even starting Altai Skis, based in Washington State. Altai Skis isn’t seeking to re-define backcountry skiing, but allow people with a tool or a ski to explore their ‘back yard’. It seems more like a more entertaining alternative to snowshoeing than anything else

Related Articles

One thought on “The First Skiers: Deep in Time, Deep in the Altai

Got an opinion? Let us know...