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.

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.

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