Blasting through powder on wooden, horsehide-bottomed skis with a single pole for balance, an Altay skier shows off the skills and equipment his distant ancestors perfected.
Blasting through powder on wooden, horsehide-bottomed skis with a single pole for balance, an Altay skier shows off the skills and equipment his distant ancestors perfected.

On the Trail with the First Skiers

An ancient culture in the Chinese Altay Mountains offers a glimpse of how skiing evolved.

This story appears in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The hunting party slowly glides into the Altay Mountains in search of elk. It is dead calm, minus 38°F. Just as their ancestors have for millennia, the five men traverse deep, feathery snow buoyed on handmade skis hewed from spruce, with strips of horsehide attached to the bottoms. In lieu of poles each man carries a single wooden staff. Since boyhood, they have learned to master their deceptively crude equipment with exquisite efficiency and grace—the grain of the horsehair providing traction to move uphill and a slick surface for rapid descents, the staff aiding balance. I follow on state-of-the-art telemark skis, using modern poles, but at times still struggle to match their pace. Their lungs and legs seem impervious to the thin alpine air as they stride up even the steepest inclines, exhaling barely discernible wisps of steam that quickly evaporate in the frigid air. Falling into a satisfying rhythm, we slice through the drifts along a copse of birch, then veer left into the shadows of a spruce forest. They don’t speak, the muffled swish of their furry skis as quiet as snowfall.

Each man has a knife tucked into his belt, a lariat of horse mane looped over his shoulders, and is pulling a goatskin sled with provisions: a horsehair blanket, a surplus Chinese army overcoat, and fried bread. The rest of the gear—two axes, a billycan, five chipped china bowls, a tin kettle, and a slab of horseflesh—is divided evenly. They don’t know how long we will be out. It is common to track elk for several days deep into the mountains.

But as we set out from Aukoram, the hunters’ remote hamlet located on the northernmost fringe of western China, their leader, Tursen, is not thinking about elk. Squinting into the blinding glare of the sunrise, he reflects on the unpredictability of snow. It was once a certainty in the Altay that winter would bring blizzards that would cloak its ridges and swallow its forests. Yet this is the first winter in four years where enough snow has fallen to make such a trip worth the effort. Without deep snow, stalking elk becomes a much more arduous, less practical endeavor. Though the Chinese have severely restricted firearms—and hunting, for that matter—the truth is that the men of the Altay never needed guns to hunt elk in these mountains. Their secret weapon has always been snow, deep snow.

This winter the perfect choreography of winds and moisture has returned, producing a four-foot-deep mantle. Tursen revels in skiing and in the silence. Even if he won’t actually kill an elk, even if it’s just a journey to show a foreigner the ancient ways of carving life out of this harsh wilderness, it nourishes his spirit to venture back into this pristine white world of his ancestors.

Exactly who these ancestors were remains something of an enigma. The hunters come from seminomadic Tuvan-speaking clans who inhabited pockets of the Altay. Technically, they are Chinese citizens, but their log cabins stand within 20 miles of the converging borders of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia, and the roots of their language lie to the north in Siberia, where the majority of Tuvans now live.

Anthropologists say their lineage includes Turkic and Samoyed tribes who at various periods over the past several thousand years moved through these mountains. Nevertheless, each member of the hunting party will heartily attest that he descends from the mounted Mongol warriors who swept through the Altay in the 13th century. Each takes great pride in his expert horsemanship. Indeed, the horse remains the center of their culture, used to pull sleighs in winter and to herd cattle, goats, and sheep into upland summer pastures. Lest there be any doubt, it is Genghis Khan, not Mao, whose portrait hangs in each of their cabins. And it is in his honor that their sons are shaved bald but for a tuft of black hair.

I follow the men across a snow bridge spanning a buried creek. The burbling water beneath can be heard but not seen. Abruptly Tursen stops to examine some animal tracks.

Börü,” he says quietly in Tuvan. “Wolf.”

Serik, who is Tursen’s brother-in-law, stops to look. He nods. There is a pack of six blue-black wolves that also hunts these drainages, occasionally venturing close enough to the cabins to kill a horse. These tracks are old, but the wolves probably aren’t far away. The men squat on their skis and study the snow. The paw prints are the size of a mittened fist, and deep, the claws leaving marks in the snow.

“Big börü,” says Tursen, puffing himself up to mime the wolf’s size, his smooth cheeks curving into a grin.

Wolves remain plentiful enough here that no one skis alone. Local lore holds that a motorcyclist once got stuck in the snow and was surrounded by a wolf pack. Panicked, he called the police on his cell phone. The police told him to light his motorcycle on fire, because wolves are afraid of fire, and that they would be there as soon as possible. When the police arrived, they found a motorcycle burnt black, blood everywhere, and a helmet with a faceless head inside.

Soon the men find a place near the buried creek to take a break. They sit on their sleds, remove their mittens. Some pluck cigarettes from inside their quilted coats. Most, like Tursen, are in their 20s. Serik is the old man at 33. Beneath the layers of clothing, their physiques are lean as willows. They have spent the entirety of their young lives exploring these mountains and seem inured to the bitter cold, unhurried as they cup their rough hands to light their smokes. Tursen, who doesn’t smoke, is missing two fingers on his left hand. When he was three years old, he and his sister were sent into the woods with an ax to collect sap. Tursen reached up too soon and his sister accidentally chopped off his fingers.

The men resume their burdens, and after an hour they spot fresh tracks. Tursen leaves his sled and glides back and forth along the trough of tracks, probing at the snow with his staff.

Sygyn,” he says triumphantly. “Elk.”

From the confluence of several tracks, size of scat, and location of urination, Tursen and Serik determine that there are four elk nearby: two large bulls, a cow, and a male calf. Tursen points out the zigzag trenches where the bulls plowed up the steep north slope.

“We camp here,” he says.

Nightfall is about an hour away, and the men, using the tips of their skis as shovels, dig down to a layer of pine needles beneath the limbs of a conifer, creating a nest surrounded by four-foot walls of snow. Even in the severe cold, the work makes them sweat. They spread out the goatskins and the blankets. One man starts a fire using birch bark for tinder, another fills the billycan from a hole punched in the ice, the rest fell dead trees uphill from camp and ski them down to the campfire. Soon the flames are leaping above the walls of snow and tea is boiling. The men don their army coats and squat around the orange tower of fire, holding their hands out to the leaping flames. After a period of silence, they slowly begin to tell stories.

“I fell into a lake once,” says Tursen. He had been chasing an elk for three days. “The only thing that saved me was my taiyak.” His long staff caught on either side of the hole in the ice. The others nod in approval.

Serik offers that the fastest skier he ever saw was an 80-year-old herder he met when he was a boy. Instead of horsehide, the man used skin from an elk’s foreleg for the bottoms of his skis. “His skis flew along the snow like he had wings.”

Tursen’s smartphone rings, and he answers. It’s his wife. She asks when he will return. He tells her not to worry.

Serik describes a hunt when Tursen skied down on a bounding deer, leaped on its back, grabbed its antlers, and wrestled it down into the snow, the animal kicking and biting. It is a scene that has been repeated for thousands of years in these mountains. Within the Altay, a handful of petroglyphs have been discovered depicting archaic skiing scenes, including one of a human figure on skis chasing an ibex. Since petroglyphs are notoriously hard to date, it remains a controversial clue in the debate over where skiing was born. Chinese archaeologists contend it was carved 5,000 years ago. Others say it is probably only 3,000 years old. The oldest written record that alludes to skiing, a Chinese text, also points to the Altay but dates to the Western Han dynasty, which began in 206 B.C.

Norwegian archaeologists also have found ski petroglyphs, and in Russia, what appears to be a ski tip, carbon-dated to 8,000 years ago, was excavated from a peat bog. Each nation stakes its own claim to the first skiers. What is widely accepted, however, is that whoever first strapped on a pair of skis likely did so to hunt animals.

The men around this fire, now laughing at Serik’s story, seem to care little about the history. Fewer and fewer of their generation are learning the old ways of making skis and tracking animals.

I ask Tursen how he killed the deer, but he just stares into the fire. Nervous about running afoul of the authorities, the men never speak to me of killing animals, only of tracking them. “In the old days we hunted. Now we only chase,” says Serik. The others say nothing. I don’t press him because I’ve heard that the penalty for killing an elk, or any of a host of other wild animals, is jail, though rumors circulate that Communist officials take frequent hunting trips.

Changing the subject, Serik waves his hand over the frozen darkness. The grass here in the summer is so tall you can’t even see a deer. He lists animals that inhabit this verdant country: bear, wolverine, ermine, sable, fox, and lynx.

Tursen’s wife calls again, and the talk turns to women, a much safer topic. One of the men wires Tursen’s phone to a miniature set of speakers, and the hunters bob their heads and chant to a Tuvan rap song.

A hunk of the salty horsemeat is boiled, and the men eat hungrily in happy silence, then quickly drift into sleep under their blankets on the outer rim of the fire’s warmth. It’s difficult to find a comfortable spot in between the furnace-like heat and the brutal cold, and I lie awake, wondering how far into the mountains the elk will lead us, listening for the howl of the wolves.

The next morning the thermometer stands at minus 40°F and the blankets are white and frozen stiff. The men emerge from beneath them with the bloodless pallor of cadavers. The silence is so complete it is possible to hear the faint cracking of frozen tree limbs. A ring of melted snow around the fire has refrozen into silvery plates of ice. The ice is kicked away, the fire coaxed back to life, black tea is boiled. Speechlessly the men hold their steaming bowls in both hands. After slurping down several, they come back to life.

A few hours after sunrise the temperature has warmed to minus 20, and the men are skiing uphill. They never slip. The slope is so steep they use their taiyaks like paddles, drawing themselves forward. Cresting the ridgeline, as anticipated, they locate the prints of the two bulls winding through the trees. Tursen points out where the antlers of the elk have broken branches.

We follow the tracks to a cliff that drops off the back side of the mountain. Without hesitation, Tursen leaps off the ridge and the other men follow. They sit far back on their skis, legs wide apart, arms clasping their taiyaks like rudders. They maneuver through thick timber, crash through brush, and leap insanely off snow-covered boulders, flying 20 feet in the air before landing in an explosion of powder.

Tursen picks up the elk tracks and follows them down into the next valley and up along the opposite hillside, where he stops. “They can smell us,” he says. “That’s why they’re moving.”

He decides we must stay well above the elk, where the wind can sweep away our scent. Moving silently, we file across a lower saddle and curl out into a high bowl. Suddenly, out front, Serik and Tursen are hooting and pointing their taiyaks. They have spotted the bulls far below in a stand of birch. Instantly they are plunging down the mountain, deftly carving around the trees.

Within seconds they are upon the two bulls. The elk make a break for a thick stand of timber. But the five skiers, working as a team, circle and drive them back into the open. In the glade the snow is so deep the elk are practically swimming. The two bulls thrust off in different directions, hooves pawing at the snow.

Coiling his lariat, Serik skis in close to the larger bull, an enormous creature. Just as he throws his rope, the elk lowers its head, and the lasso slides off. Immediately, the elk charges Tursen, who is blocking its escape route into the trees. Tursen stumbles backward on his skis, stabbing at the beast with his taiyak.

As Serik recoils his lariat, the furious elk rears and stamps the snow, raking the air with its antlers, intent on either impaling Tursen or kicking him to death. Tursen, on his back, holds his taiyak like a spear to protect himself. Even as the spinning lasso is dropping over the antlers, Serik is heaving it tight. The elk’s head jerks as Serik falls backward and sets his skis perpendicular to the taut rope, anchoring himself in the sea of snow. It is the primeval picture of man against beast, a picture worthy of its own petroglyph.

The elk flexes its massive neck muscles and violently thrashes its antlers side to side, trying to throw off the lasso. When this fails, it heaves forward in a series of hopeless lunges, dragging Serik through the snow.

The other elk is subdued in the same manner. After two hours both animals are prostrate, legs splayed, lungs heaving, nostrils flaring with every sucking breath, the lassos around their antlers tied to trees. They have given up.

I never believed Serik and Tursen’s protests that they didn’t actually kill animals. The elk represents meat for their families, the hides and antlers, money. In the rush of the moment I expected them to default to instinct and heritage, unsheathe their knives, and cut the throats of the exhausted elk, closing the ancient circle—the sacrifice of one animal for the survival of another. But they don’t. The two hunters glance at each other, then at me, and slip the lassos off the antlers of both animals. The elk, with prodding, slowly realize their inexplicable good fortune and eventually stagger off into the trees.

A week later, as I am leaving Aukoram, word arrives from another group who had tracked the same elk herd. They had found the carcasses of the two bulls. The wolves had eaten them.

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