This article by Kade Krichko just came out (April 19th 2017) and is a fairly good discussion on what is going on these days in the Chinese Altai Mountains. I added a few pictures below from my trips to the Altai from the last 10 years.
In the summer of 2012, I initiated the Dukha Ethnoarchaeological Project. Ethnoarchaeology is the study of living people for the purpose of developing tools to aid in the interpretation of the archaeological record. I am an archaeologist at the University of Wyoming. I normally excavate sites of the first inhabitants of the New World, human occupations that are more than 10,000 years old. In those sites, we find hundreds or thousands of chipped stone artifacts and animal bones. Frustrated with my inability to make sense of spatial patterns in the archaeological record, I was inspired to study living people, people who still lived a traditional nomadic lifestyle, similar to those people I study archaeologically. I wanted to study how nomadic people use their living spaces and how the decisions that people make about how to use space relate to patterns in material residues left in the archaeological record. I turned to the Dukha, Mongolia’s reindeer herders who live in in the Sayan Mountains in Khövsgöl Province near the border of Russian Siberia.
A young Dukha and his deer.
The Sayan Mountains are a cold place, which is why reindeer are able to live there. The taiga where I work, called the “Right” or “West” Taiga, is at 51° north latitude, equivalent to southern Canada. In the winter, nighttime temperatures regularly drop to -40° C and in the summer, daily highs top out near 20° C. The Dukha are ethnically Tuvan and have a tradition of skiing. In fact, Tuvan peoples may have been the world’s first inventers of skiing. That said, in my four field seasons in the taiga, I have only seen one pair of traditional skis. I saw those in a spring camp earlier this year. It seems as if traditional skiing is slowly fading from the Dukha cultural repertoire.
My colleague, Matt O’Brien (California State University, Chico), and I purchased two pairs of Altai Hok skis for our fieldwork. We chose them for several reasons, but most importantly because they are short in length. They travel easily whether by plane, vehicle, horse, or reindeer. They are also wide, so they perform well in backcountry conditions.
My graduate student assistant, Spencer Pelton, and I spent the night of April 15, 2016 in a winter camp in the Harmai Valley, southwest of the small town of
Riding Out from Winter Camp
Tsagaannuur. We had arrived to camp two days before and planned to move with a Dukha family into their spring camp high in the taiga. We had a day of rest on account of weather; it snowed for 24 hours following our arrival. The morning of the move, everyone packed their belongings onto deer, and we began the long two day ride into the mountains on the backs of reindeer.
Sunlight glinted off of the snowy landscape as we rode into the mountains, and through our 500 m ascent, the snow grew deeper. In the valley bottom of winter camp, only 10 cm of snow had fallen. Where we camped that night in a place called Shamög, the snow was knee- to waist-deep. My Dukha friends made a roaring fire, and we drank tea, and ate bortsag (small pieces of fried dough) and boiled mutton ribs and back. An area was cleared of snow for sleeping. I had my -40° sleeping bag, but I was very happy when Khosbileg, my 18 year old Dukha little brother, put three layers beneath us (including a sheep skin blanket) and two more on top. I slept warm and comfortably under a million stars in a clear dark sky.
We knew the next day would be difficult, but we did not know how difficult. Mankhen Pass stood between us and our destination at 2,825 m in elevation. We had to climb another 650 m from our campsite, and conditions were not going to get any easier. At first, our deer handled the snow well, but on a steep climb, I watched Khosjargal’s deer get bogged down in deep snow. Khosjargal is 20 years old and probably weighs 65 kg, too much even for his artic-adapted mount. After prodding his deer to regain its footing and failing, he turned to me and said in Mongolian, “My snow machine is out of gas.” He dismounted and started trudging up hill in waist-deep snow, pulling his deer behind.
Adjusting packs on the way up the to the pass.
Our next two hours were like this. As we climbed upward, the deer struggled through deep powdery snow and Khosbileg and Khosjargal took turns breaking trail. The final climb to the pass was a challenge. It was very steep, and as we switchbacked up the slope, packs became unbalanced and fell off of exhausted deer. I pulled a train of three animals behind me as I walked up the last 50 m of ascent. There, struggling to regain my breath, I gave Spencer a high five, and said, “Let this officially be the end of winter.” I was so very wrong.
The author climbing to the top of the pass.
The back side of the pass was worse than the front. The snow was still deep and powdery, and the trail descended slowly. We stayed in the alpine zone for more than 10 km. Exhaustion was setting in from a vicious cycle of dismounting from tired deer, pulling the deer out of the snow, remounting from a base of powdery snow, riding 5 m or 10 m if you were lucky, and bogging down again.
After watching Khosjargal, his son, struggle downward this way for 45 minutes, Bayendalai rode up to me and said, “Can we use your skis?” “Of course!” I responded. Bayendalai is 59 years old. He was born and raised in the taiga. There is no one I would trust more in a difficult situation in the taiga than Bayendalai. I strapped on my Hok skis for the first time. Bayendalai tied two deer to my belt for me to pull behind, and I started skiing. I moved easily across the powdery snow, and the deer behind me, unburdened by my weight broke the trail for the long string of riders and pack animals behind. This is old taiga knowledge that Bayendalai’s sons, like me, were seeing for the first time. A person on skis can easily lead animals for breaking a trail. Khosbileg, Khosjargal, and I took turns breaking trail as we made our way down the mountain. At one point, Khosjargal turned to me and said, “My brother is an idiot”. I turned around to see 18 year old Khosbileg, the jokester, sitting on his deer’s saddle, straddling the animal with his skis. I laughed a much needed laugh on a hard day. Those skis saved us that day. If we did not have them, I think we would have spent a cold night in the snow without a fire in alpine tundra. With them, we made it to spring camp, and slept next to a hot wood stove in a warm dry ortz.
Our Altai skis were critical last spring. The taiga was snowy through June, and without them, our mobility would have been severely limited. They allowed us to explore and do research beyond the confines of spring camp. Bayendalai and Khosjargal went on a weeklong foray in search of lost reindeer. They asked if they could borrow a pair of skis. We were happy to oblige. It was the least we could do.
Bayendalai and Khosbileg packing Altai Hok skis onto a pack deer for an extended foray to search for lost reindeer.
Spencer Pelton, skiing through the forest to take measurements of larch trees
Skishoeing.com is the companion site to our Altai Skis.com site. We thought it would be good to have a informational site dedicated to using skishoes in the many ways people do.
You will find some posts on field work being done on Hoks, kids using them (the Hokstars!), schools, and some user posts as well.
We also will add instructional information over time, using skishoes in different terrain and conditions, as well as the pros and cons on different bindings, and, of course, using the Tiaks (single poles).
There will be lots of images (see the Gallery page) as well as some great new videos for this year.
We welcome comments, user feedback, requests, and contributions.
Rich Landers, longtime outdoor writer for the Spokesman Review in Spokane, WA joined us at the first Altai Skis Hok Festival at Sitzmark Ski Hill in the Okanogan Highlands of NE WA. Rich is a longtime nordic and backcountry skier and was curious about skishoeing. He picked it up quickly and wrote this great article on the sport in general. Just recently another appeared in the Seattle Times, you can see it here
Hok skiing on the North Country National Scenic Trail
I first heard of Hok skis several years ago from North Country Trail Association (NCTA) volunteers Jim & Jeri Rakness. They kept insisting that I really needed to try them out. At first, I couldn’t imagine what it was they were describing and, to be honest, I was a little skeptical. This is because I was quite happy snowshoeing, a favorite winter activity of mine. I’m lucky enough to snowshoe both for family fun and for my work for the NCTA. We usually scout and flag new sections of the North Country National Scenic Trail during the winter because we can actually see in the leafless woods and go more places when the ground is frozen.
NCTA volunteer Bruce Johnson using Hok skis on the North Country Trail in Minnesota’s Chippewa National Forest (Photo by Matthew Davis)
The last several winters here in northern Minnesota; however, have not delivered adequate snowfall for snowshoeing. So, last winter when I was invited to go out with some local NCTA volunteers on a backcountry ski outing I decided to finally try it. We went across a frozen lake and some connected wetlands/beaver ponds because there was only about 2” of snowcover on the ground. It was fantastic and love at first try with the Hok skis. This past fall, I purchased a pair of Hoks and anxiously waited for the first snowfall. I first tried them out at a January 2nd backcountry exploration hike in Itasca State Park (source of the Mississippi River’s headwaters). The conditions were perfect for the Hoks.
Skiers and hikers explore the Itasca State Park backcountry (Photo courtesy of Kevin Cederstrom / Park Rapids Enterprise)
Several other hikers asked to try out the Hok skis during the event. All enjoyed them and one person bought a pair that night.
Spreading the word at NCTA’s Winter Trails Day events
I also thought that backcountry XC skiing with the Hok skis would be a great addition to our Winter Trails Day events where we typically introduce people to snowshoeing. Last winter, I had only one attendee at a free Learn to Snowshoe Clinic because there just wasn’t enough snow for people to get excited about trying it. While this winter has delivered more snow than last year, it’s still not deep enough for me to need snowshoes – which are pure work to walk with when they’re not needed for flotation. I was hoping that the inclusion of the backcountry XC skiing component and having pairs of Hoks on hand for people to try out would attract more interest. That turned out to be the case.
On January 30th, we hosted a Winter Trails Day event at the MSUM Regional Science Center just east of Fargo, ND. While the crowd was small (there was a big winter festival going on in town), everyone there was excited to try out the Hok skis. We found a little patch of wind drifted snow in the prairie and people skied around and enjoyed themselves. Several participants commented that they were going to look at buying a pair. We hosted a Winter Trails Day event on February 6th at Detroit Mountain Recreation Area in Detroit Lakes, MN that drew a good crowd. While most admitted they were there to try snowshoeing, several did venture out on the Hok skis and had an enjoyable experience. A few inquired about where they could buy a pair. Later that afternoon, we had a new participant show up for our guided hike/ski on the North Country Trail and she really enjoyed it. After these experiences I’m convinced that if people interested in winter sports will try a pair of Hok skis they’ll love it. Many will want to purchase a pair. I can envision a time – maybe five or ten years from now –when local outdoors stores in northern Minnesota will carry Hok skis. At this same time, our guided winter events on the NCT will feature equal numbers of snowshoers and Hok skiers.
A new skier trying out the Hok skis at the Winter Trails Day clinic at Detroit Mountain Recreation Area (Photo by Matthew Davis)
Jim & Jeri Rakness and I enjoy the NCT on a Wildlife Tracking Trek (Photo by Matthew Davis)
Top 5 reasons why Altai Hok skis are perfect for the North Country Trail:
Because lately we haven’t received good enough snow for snowshoeing or XC skiing. While these are the more traditional winter silent sports activities here in MN & ND, they do require more snow than Hoks.
Because they are more efficient in covering ground than snowshoes and winter hiking. You have the ability to glide on each step and also to ski down the hills.
Because you can go just about anywhere with them on – across a frozen lake, up a frozen river, down a trail, etc.
My wife Lisa and I initiated a 3 year non-invasive moose population study in the Northern Range of Yellowstone National Park and adjacent Custer-Gallatin National Forest in 2013. The goal of the study was to use non-invasively collected DNA to estimate population size and parameters of the northern Yellowstone moose. Continue reading
Skishoes are playful by nature – letting you go where you want and explore where you will. Perfect for kids, they are easy to use, easy to adjust as kids grow, simple to put on and take off, and let kids take on any little hill they come across – repeatedly if they want. They are the, “go outside and play” ski…. Continue reading
Tiak [tīăk] means stick in the local languages in the Altai Mountains of North Central Asia. Tiak is also the name for the single pole used in all the traditional skiing in that region. Prior to 1900, the single pole was used by pretty much all skiers in the world! Continue reading
Last year we started getting requests from schools for Hoks so the kids could go skishoeing around their school grounds (yes, some people are lucky enough to live where they can do that from school). Continue reading
It was an almost impossible objective, even in a town north of the 50th parallel where the snow lasts until May: 100 Days of Hok skiing in one winter season. What the heck, if I didn’t make it to one hundred, at least I would keep count and try to beat that number the next year.
I ordered my Hok Skis online from Altai Skis in October, and in spite of living in a relatively remote region where even ordinary letters sometimes take a mysterious length of time to arrive, the trim box appeared at my door within a couple weeks. I learned about these short, wide skis when a friend at work lent me some to try. I liked the smooth movement, it was easier on the knees than snowshoes, and with a dog to be walked and endless forest riddled with paths just outside my backdoor, I was ready to strap my universal bindings over my Merrell snowshoe boots and go!
There is a groomed cross-country ski trail in our woods, but dogs are not welcomed, so I was happy to have the Hok skis because they made it easy to make my own path. Sometimes I followed the narrow trails where the snow had been packed down by snowshoes or snowmobiles. Sometimes I made my own path through the forest in deep powder until the dog got too exhausted from swimming in snow up to his chin; then we would return to follow the more solid snow paths.Continue reading