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Alaska Fish & Wildlife News
February 2017

Ski Hunters of Siberia:
Self-Reliance in Central Asia’s Altai Mountains

By James M. Van Lanen
caption follows
Ascending on traditional handmade skis, Altai skier Mulchen nears the summit of a high peak in the Altai Mountains. All photos by James Van Lanen

We ski along an alpine ridge, it is cold, the wind-chill perhaps -35f, but I have no way of knowing for certain. Far below is a frozen willow-lined river valley surrounded by expansive woodland of spruce and birch, which joins with great stands of aspen and larch as the boreal forest ascends 4,000 ft. up a mountain slope, eventually giving way to the treeless alpine zone we are travelling across now.

Ahead I see tracks in the snow, not ours, some type of wild animal. We cross the tracks and pause, looking down. My mind quickly registers – certainly a wolf. I look at the man I have been following on skis and he lets out a loud call – aaaaaahhwooooooo. I nod back - wolf. Happy, we smile at each other; there is nothing else to be said – a universal language of wild celebration that we both understand, even though neither one of us knows a single word of the other’s native tongue.

The man’s name is Mulchen. His language is a dialect of Tuvan spoken by a culture of indigenous Siberian peoples, roughly known as the Uriyangkhai, or “forest people”, whom have likely inhabited this mountain range for thousands of years. Mulchen, his father, and his father’s father, are hunters, trappers, fisherman, and horse herders. They are also skiers. Lifelong skiers. Serious skiers, born of culture forever rooted in skiing. ‘Subsistence skiing’ first and foremost, but intertwined with a sheer love for the daily enjoyment of sliding freely on snow.

The mountain range is the Altai, located in the heart of central Asia. It extends from southwestern Mongolia north and west to China’s westernmost, and wildest, province, Xingjian, into the far east of Kazakhstan, and eventually crossing the Russian border into southern Siberia’s Altai Republic.

The ridge we are skiing on is in China, but in the distance I can see mountains located in both Russia and Mongolia. In the valleys below there are small settlements, mostly winter horse grazing camps, and in the main basin is a decent sized village of 200 or so homes: small cabins heated by wood, made of spruce, and chinked with sphagnum moss.

The Origins of Skiing

A cadre of anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians, mostly Chinese, has gathered considerable evidence to support a theory that handmade skis evolved as a winter transport and hunting tool somewhere in the Altai Mountains at least 10,000 years ago. Particularly cited are several paleo-hunter aged rock-art depictions found in the Chinese Altai displaying what appear to be people traveling and hunting large game on skis[i].

If someone were to ask me what things I am most passionate about, the top items, in no particular order, would be hunting, skiing, wildlife, and anthropology. So when I began hearing about the skiers of the Altai mountains I developed a keen interest in seeing those mountains first-hand, and potentially also the skiers and their skis. If nothing else I wanted to ski through those mountains, to feel in the flesh the place where skis have quite possibly existed longer than anywhere else on earth.

I have been on skis since I could walk. Traveling in snowy mountains during winter on skis has occupied countless hours of my life and is a core part of who I am. When one leaves behind the manufactured groomed ski trails and the hustle, bustle, and commercial hype of downhill ski resorts, stepping off-piste to become a backcountry skier and a ski-alpinist, new perspective is provided. The many hours of determined, and mostly silent, muscle-powered travel on snow cultivate lots of space for mental reflection.

Particular to my reflection has been a lessening of a previous focus on skiing for recreation and adrenaline and a new focus on the practical role of skiing for winter transport and subsistence hunting, trapping, and even fishing. For, as we shall see, these are the practical things that skis have been used for throughout most of their history, these are reasons that our species invented skis. But, like the indigenous Hawaiians whose invention of the surfboard is also rooted in a subsistence lifeway, the hard and meticulous work of living on the land (or the sea) has always been accompanied by a simultaneous human need for happiness, joy, human comradery, and play.

Both the surfboard and skis are prime examples of this cross-cultigen of the development of a cultural lifeway centered around a tool that is highly practical and also provides a feeling of joy to use, and as many skiers and surfers would argue, an experience of pure, nearly unmediated, bliss. Here the ancient surfer would have paddled out on a plank of wood into the sea to hunt fish, turtles, or seals, or gather mollusks from an outer reef, eventually catching a wave to come back in to shore. At some point the marine hunter-fisher-gatherer would decide to try standing up for the ride. We can easily imagine the result of his success in riding that first wave – enormous smiles and laughter from both the surfer and any on-lookers – sheer bliss. From there the daily practice of hunting, fishing, and gathering in the tropical sea became more enjoyable and desired than it ever was before. And once the community’s subsistence needs were accomplished the people kept paddling out so they could catch more waves. The practice became ritualized into sport and became a core part of Hawaiian culture.

This same process likely occurred in the Altai cultures who developed skiing. Perhaps they began with a snowshoe-type tool, but the very mountainous territory which they inhabited meant that when traveling in the snow they often found themselves needing go downhill and thus the smaller snowshoe-type tool was modified into two longer, more slender planks of wood, which would glide downhill with more agility and more speed. That gliding instantly became enjoyable. Like the Hawaiians, one can imagine the smiles and laughs which occurred amongst the Altai bands as they tumbled through the snow learning to effectively utilize this new tool. The bliss of skiing began at this stage and then advanced into sheer exhilaration as the hunters perfected their skiing skills and became expert all-terrain skiers - quite likely the first expert downhill skiers in history, successfully navigating their way down steep mountain terrain several thousands of years ago.

The Altai tool kit consists first of skis made from spruce. A straight-grained tree is selected and cut with an axe and then split into planks using hardwood wedges (in the same traditional manner as spruce would have been split in Alaska[ii]). The planks are planed into the proper ski shape and then steam bent at the tips and held in a vice made from split-spruce and strips of rawhide. Holes are drilled into the base of the ski to insert rawhide, used for the bindings. Then, just like today’s recreational backcountry skis, skins are attached for uphill traction.

While the climbing skins used by modern skiers are made from synthetic materials, for most of ski-history climbing skins were made from real animal skins. In either the modern or traditional format, downward facing hairs create resistance that allows uphill traction when ascending on skis. Skins are fastened to skis so that the downhill direction goes with the hair and the uphill direction goes against it, allowing the skier to fluidly ascend and descend. Today Altai skiers primarily use skin from the legs of horse for their climbing skins. This is likely a very long tradition, but the legs skins of moose, elk, and caribou were most certainly used as climbing skins by ski-hunting people throughout Siberia and Scandinavia for as long as these people have had skis.

Today the skins used by downhill skiers are held onto skis with rubbery synthetic glue for ascending and then removed for descending, but skins are permanently attached to traditional skis. First the animal skin is moistened and then stretched tight over the bottom of the ski and allowed to dry solidly in place. Permanent attachment to the ski was formerly done by weaving long strips of rawhide (babiche) through holes in the edge of the skin, but contemporary Altai skiers use small finishing nails to attach the edges of the skin to the top of the ski. The final component of the kit is a single ski-pole, made from birch.

Traditional ski technology is highly effective in the mountains and neither it, nor the skill-level of Altai skiers, should be underestimated. Children start on these handmade skis at a very young age and throughout the winter months their lives are filled with skiing. My first ski experience in the village was witnessing children perform feats on skis which many adult Alaskan backcountry skiers sometimes struggle with. I’ll explain more about this shortly; first I must build up to the rest of my story.

No Bush Flights, No Snowmachines: This is not Alaska, this is China!

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Altai youth setting a skin-track up a slope in the birch forest.

The particular Altai village where I stayed was, until 2015, unreachable by motorized vehicle in winter (snowmachines do not exist in this remote region of Xingjian and the isolated Altai villages certainly do not have airstrips or bush plane service). The only way to reach the village at the time was via a four day journey by horse driven sleds called “Chanas,” overnighting in small outposts along the way. While a dirt summer road suitable for auto travel has existed for several years, the road was not plowed in winter. However, through the larger impetus of rapid development in China, driven both my military and commercial interests, the summer road is now being ‘maintained’ and used for winter travel.

Depending on snow conditions traveling this road in winter takes anywhere from 6-9 hours, if the entire road is passable, which may not be known before starting out. The road is thin, tortuous, and not necessarily plowed. Some sections are simply deep ruts maintained by consistent vehicle traffic. There are steep passes and steep drop offs which travelers must ‘slide’ through, literally. And vehicles often get stuck or get blocked by avalanche debris, circumstances where travelers all work together as a team to dig out and then resume travel in a caravan. Moreover, this all occurs in a sub-arctic boreal winter climate with temps that average -20f. To say that committing to the journey with a Chinese driver who speaks zero English is somewhat nail-biting is an understatement.

The Alaska equivalent to this road would be if perhaps a small winter road from Wiseman to Anaktuvuk Pass were built, but not maintained and regulated by DOT, combined with no possibility of an airplane or snowmachine rescue if trouble were encountered. Bear in mind that first the western traveler must also arrive at the remote location far into northern Xingjian where the winter road begins. For me that journey started in Anchorage. Arriving in Seattle, I transferred to a non-stop flight to Shanghai. Once in China I had to get to China’s furthest northwest urban center, Urumqi (think flying from NYC to Seattle in the USA). From Urumqi I had to take another airplane ride one hour north to an oil field town called Karamay and from there take a five hour public bus ride to a small town called Burqin and then hire a driver for the remaining journey on the winter road into the depths of the Altai Mountains.

On that day, after a few stops to help dig out cars and to dig out our own vehicle, which also took a slide off the road on a hairpin turn, we arrived in the village just after dark. I was set up with a homestay, living with an Altai family, who I could not effectively speak with but who would nonetheless feed me and basically keep me alive during my stay. In many respects, this experience is probably reminiscent to arriving in a remote Alaska Native village 100 years ago. The village does have intermittent electricity, but other than that it does not have running water and it does not rely on fossil fuel: homes are heated by wood that is cut and split by handsaw and axe. I’ve spent enough time in dry cabins and Alaska villages in the winter to easily adapt to all this. More than that, I was thrilled to be living under these conditions. It was like stepping back in time to experience how winter life in the sub-arctic boreal forest has always been, up until recent history that is.

After a cold but comfortable night I arose early to see perfectly clear skies. I didn’t waste a second getting my ski gear together, not only was I eager to search for any trace of traditional skiers, I was very excited to get out skiing – the weather was perfect, the snow was deep and dry and in every direction I could see perfect slopes for downhill powder skiing. For a hardcore backcountry skier, it was a pretty much like waking up in heaven.

Skiing with Legends

On that first morning, scanning the mountains I quickly noticed fresh ski tracks. Altai skiers! I headed out the door and began skiing towards the river and quickly encountered a skin-track, which I followed. Crossing the river and exiting the forest I saw two children on traditional Altai skis heading up the track. As I approached they looked at me like I was an alien, said something in Tuvan and began giggling. It was two very young girls on skis, perhaps 8 or 10 years old. Their skin-track up the slope was steep with switchbacks that expert backcountry skiers would navigate carefully. And the girls were fast climbers, just as fast as the best backcountry skiers I know in Alaska. To say I was impressed is an understatement. I couldn’t believe my eyes. But then I calmed down and remembered the context of what I was seeing. These girls were born into this, raised as members of a skiing culture and from their earliest years taught the skills which their ancestors had practiced for millennia. The slope was steep but short, perhaps 400 vertical feet. The girls would skin up, turn direction and ski down, giving my first true look at Altai skiers in action.

Altai skiers don’t ski downhill in the same fashion as western skiers. They use their single pole as a rudder, placing it behind and between their two legs, applying pressure to both slowdown and assist turning. Altai skis are long and wide and don’t have sidecut or metal edges. Therefore Altai skiers don’t make short and tight turns like most modern downhill skiers do, their turns are very long and once they pick up momentum they ski very fast, and they also need a lot of room to stop. Nonetheless, they are expert tree skiers who navigate the powder filled birch and spruce forests with stylish grace. They are also are experts at traveling above tree-line on open slopes and steeps.

Returning to my introductory story: as I followed Mulchen up the 4,500 ft. ascent to the high ridge that day, I was blown-away by the level of skill and awareness with which he set the skin-track up the mountain. It became obvious that Mulchen was employing his own avalanche awareness oriented route finding protocols. When we encountered a suspect wind-loaded area Mulchen would jam his pole in the snow and inspect the layers, just like our own modern ‘hasty-pole-test’, and he carefully chose unexposed locations to stop and wait for me while following him. Obviously Mulchen had never been trained in a western avalanche education class. His ancestors had learned these skills and protocols over the thousands of years they had been skiing in these mountains. And they no doubt encountered avalanches and other hazards. In fact it is known that some Altai skiers have historically been buried and killed in slides.

Avalanches are known to be frequent in the Altai’s cold interior snowpack, but during this visit the snow was stable and the villagers had been making descents down some of the biggest slopes in the vicinity for several days. But no one had yet put tracks on the peak we were climbing, the largest and steepest of all that were close to the village. As we traveled higher above tree-line I was a bit nervous and was surprised to see Mulchen begin to put in a series of switchbacks going up steep, rocky terrain that would rival any of Alaska’s toughest ski ascent routes. I had studied Altai skiers prior to my trip of course, but I had never been aware of any reference to them skiing high alpine ‘extreme’ backcountry terrain. As we reached the ridge the soft snow gave way to windblown hard pack and patches of ice, which is always tedious to traverse across while skinning. But Mulchen sped sideways across the icy traverses using a strange pressure technique with the heel of his foot in combination with his edgeless skis, another ancient technique of the Altai skiers.

Shortly after our encounter with the wolf tracks we reached the summit of the mountain and congratulated each other with smiles and laughs. I was living a dream; on the verge of skiing down an Altai mountain in real-time alongside an authentic Altai skier. Mulchen began descending and I witnessed with my own eyes the ancient and highly skilled practice of primitive skiing. Controlled, calculated, high-speed glisse: without fancy ski-boots and only hiking shoes on his feet, held to the skis with rawhide straps in a free-heeled fashion. No metal edges, camber, or sidecut. Yet, Mulchen can competently descend a large mountain on handmade skis and experience the same blissful enjoyment as can any modern western skier, all apparent in his obvious cheerfulness with showing me how it was done, guiding me down one of his favorite big-mountain powder skiing runs.

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An Altai youth descends through as aspen grove on handmade traditional Altai skis using a single pole made from birch.

After our descent we returned to the village and Mulchen’s small cabin to celebrate with chunks of meat, fat, and hot butter tea. On the mountain we learned to communicate with each other using basic hand-signs (as wells as wolf-calls and smiles and laughs). Sitting by the fire sipping tea we tried to communicate by drawing pictures of skis, mountains, and animals. Before I returned to my lodgings for the night, Mulchen drew a picture for me of what looked to be a deer with antlers, pointed to it and then pointed up towards the mountain. Then he pointed at me and back at himself and wiggled his index and middle finger together, depicting the movements of a skier followed by raising his hands to the top of his head and spreading his fingers, portraying antlers. Then he held his two hands together and tilted his head onto them, the universal sign for sleep, which I easily interpreted. Then he repeated all the previous signs. I understood. He was saying that first we should get some sleep and then in the morning we will go skiing again, this time in pursuit of elk.

Ski-Hunting, Past, Present, and Future

Paleolithic aged rock art in the Altai Mountains depicts what appear to be skiers pursuing antlered animals and sheep[iii]. In some of the depictions the skiers hold bow and arrow. Thus there is a strong likelihood that the origin of skiing is closely connected to big-game hunting, and it is well known that both historical and contemporary Altai skiers have used their skis primarily as hunting tools. Even to this day the Altai skiers do not own firearms and they continue to make their traditional longbows[iv]. Besides, it seems that their primary method of taking down big game is first-and-foremost the very ancient tactic of persistence hunting: running down animals to the point of exhaustion and then dispatching them at close range.

Animals might be fast sprinters, but no other animal has the long-range endurance of Homo sapiens. That’s why some researchers say we were ‘Born to Run’[v]. In fact, we probably first learned to hunt by persistence hunting on the African savannah, chasing down elands to the point of exhaustion, a practice which would have required multiple hours of persistent chase[vi]. The original Altai hunters applied this ancient exercise to the deep snow, an environment in which elk and moose will more easily expire, wallowing up to their chests in the deep white. Skis allowed the hunters to float on the snow while the elk floundered and went down. The hunters then dispatched the elk with arrows or, as has been recently documented, lassoed the neck or antlers of the wallowing animal with a thick rawhide rope and, while one or more ski-hunters held the animal down with the rope, another rushed in and dispatched the animal with a knife[vii].

By this evidence it seems very likely that downhill powder skiing originated in the Paleolithic with hunters chasing Mongolian elk, Siberian moose, Argali sheep, caribou, wild horses and cattle through the mountains. When the snow was deep, a man going downhill on skis was faster than an elk. Not only did the people who invented skiing eat well, they also skied powder while catching their meat. And, if the contemporary Altai people are representative of their ancestors, once all the food was put away, they were not finished enjoying their skiing.

It is my knowledge of this history which inspired me to make this journey to the Altai. I had never expected to actually encounter such legends as real Altai ski-hunters, nor did I expect that I might go hunting with them. So when the night before I received the impression that Mulchen might be inviting me to go elk hunting I was elated, and in the morning when we began the ski I could not believe that it might actually be happening. But I had no way to ask detailed questions or get answers, all I could do was follow Mulchen as he set a new skin-track across a valley and into a mixed forest of spruce, larch, birch, and aspen.

As we entered the aspens all of a sudden I felt I as if I was in the Rocky Mountains: the trees, the terrain, and even the air had an eerily similar ambiance to backcountry skiing in Wyoming or Colorado: elk country. Further ahead Mulchen stopped. As I approached he waved me along and pointed into the snow: deer sign, tracks and a pile of pellets, distinctively elk. We continued and the sign became more prolific, more tracks and pellets. Entering a beautiful grove of aspens there were fresh beds everywhere in the snow. With the elegant expertise of an indigenous hunter that one might read about in the stories of Old West explorers or in the ethnographies of African Bushman, Mulchen had silently led us on our skis directly to the realm of elk. My heart pounded, silence was a given between us: no language other than the mutual hunter’s understanding Mulchen and I shared, no sound other than the swoosh of our skis in the crystal dry boreal snow and the rustling of the remaining brown-yellow leaves which still clung to the branches of aspen. I started thinking about how quiet it is to stalk game on skis compared to attempting it on foot in a dry forest.

I was not sure what lay ahead, all I knew is that we were tracking elk and that I was witnessing the ancient Altai practice of pursuing elk on skis, I was ecstatic. There was no doubt Mulchen was right on to this group of elk, as we skied onwards I even began to pick up fresh elk scent from the barley-frozen pellets. As the slope steepened and the elk trail began a low-angle traverse Mulchen diverged in the opposite direction and began placing a high angle skin-track directly up the fall-line of the mountainside. Even if it was possible for the two of us to speak to one and other, this move did not need to be discussed. I had a good idea of what he was doing. Although we had not caught any glimpse of the elk, we had tracked them to within very close range and rather than letting them wind us, sending them running, we headed in the opposite direction, making haste to gain elevation and intercept them from downwind and from above. It was classic hunting strategy, passed on to Mulchen through centuries of experience by his ancestors.

The steep and tight switchbacks Mulchen and his primitive skis put in to the slope were expert level ski-touring route navigation moves that would impress any modern professional backcountry skier. Modern western backcountry skiers would also be impressed by the speed with which Mulchen moved up the mountain. He was like a Himalayan Sherpa, born for fast and effective mountain travel. As I found myself left behind for my lack of such skills and conditioning I wondered why he was moving so fast. What happened to the slow and silent stalk? Did he decide not to pursue the elk? No. He knew these elk, their habits, how they moved across these mountains. His haste was the movement of the hunter who has entered the moment of full commitment to the final stalk, which often times must be swift in order to have the best chance of intercepting game that is moving away before it disappears behind a ridge and down into a distant valley, making it impractical for the hunter to continue the pursuit.

Out of breath, I could not keep up with Mulchen. Time slowed down and it seemed like his trail was forever climbing higher and higher. As Mulchen’s skin-track began to rise above the tree-line and into more open alpine snows it suddenly began to traverse, high-side along the edge of steep band of rocks. As I turned the corner I saw Mulchen, strapped to his skis, standing still, peering through binoculars down the mountain. I skied cautiously upwards to reach his position and he pointed down, handing me the glass. Two-hundred yards below, a bull Mongolian elk was standing in the snow next to a band of rocks. It was a glorious moment. I’d seen plenty of antlered deer at two-hundred yards before, but had never stalked them by traveling uphill on skis, never been led on the stalk by the primal essence of an ancient hunter traveling on skis he made himself with an axe, from spruce wood cut from the same forest we were standing in, with climbing skins from the legs of a local horse, fleshed, stretched, and dried by the skier himself.

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A bull and two cow elk tracked by Mulchen on skis in the Altai Mountains.

We sat down and watched the elk for a few more minutes. Soon the bull was joined by a couple of cows. Then, unware that someone was watching them from above, the trio began to move, traversing along the mountainside, slowly gaining elevation, disappearing again into the forest. I was not sure what would happen next. Mulchen smiled and handed me some dried meat, which was mostly all fat, and a cube of hardened butter tea to chew on. We drank some water and then Mulchen got up, put his binoculars in his pack, shouldered it, and motioned me onwards.

We stayed high, continuing along the same trajectory as the elk had travelled as they disappeared into the forest. Soon we reached a large ravine, a summer creek bed now blanketed in deep snow. I followed Mulchen as he descended into the drainage. Half-way down, on a small lateral ridge above the creek bed, he stopped. A line of elk tracks had just come into our view. The elk had moved up, ascending directly up the ravine, heading towards tree-line. They must have passed this spot only minutes or seconds before we had arrived. As we scanned the trail leading up, the small herd of Mongolian elk appeared, rising out of the ravine and onto the snow slope above, heading towards a lone patch of spruce. A majestic bull appeared, larger than the one we had seen before. It stopped, turned, and looked directly at us. We had been made. We watched the group disappear again. Mulchen looked at me, smiled, pointed downhill with his ski pole and, leaving the elk behind, we descended through wonderful snow and spectacular groves of birch and aspen down to the main river valley.

Early-on that day I had a hunch that I might not be so lucky to actually witness an Altai skier kill an elk. Mulchen had no weapon (but perhaps he had a lassoing rope in his pack) and no other local skiers had joined us. And my understanding is that Altai persistence ski-hunting is normally done as team effort, with multiple skiers driving the elk from different directions into a final cut-off point. More than this, I was also aware prior to this trip, that the Chinese government has effectively made hunting illegal in this region, and even though I was told it is almost certain that Altai skiers nonetheless continue to hunt strategically, it was very unlikely that they would let a foreigner who they had just met bear witness to it.

Mulchen obviously knew exactly what he was doing. He wanted to show me the elk and also show me that if the villagers wanted to harvest an elk they normally can easily find them, track them, and stalk them to within close range, on their skis[viii]. It also is now obvious to me that, when Mulchen stopped on the rocks above the elk, he had reached the stage where, if a ski-hunter was committed to making a kill, he and his fellow hunters would begin their full-scale pursuit, descending on the elk and driving them down into the forest in an effort to exhaust at least one them to the point of giving up and allowing itself to be taken by the ski-hunters. I felt extremely fortunate to have experienced the process up until that stage.

That evening, back in Mulchen’s cabin I tried to use hand-signals and sketches to ask him more about hunting. I was able to establish that the people maintain a great interest in hunting, and likely continue to do it, but that they are very afraid of being punished for it. At one point one of the other local men drinking tea with us held out his two hands with the inside of his wrists pressed together, simulating the hand cuffs which would be attached to him if he were to be arrested for hunting. This fear has likely been exasperated with the opening of the road and the presence of Chinese military police in the village.

One of the few other Americans who has spent time in this village has relayed to me his great concern that, even though daily skiing is an important community activity simply for the purposes of enjoyment, not being allowed to hunt may very likely lead to the Altai people soon discontinuing their ancient practice of ski-making. As such it has been reasoned that preserving the millennia old skill would best be accomplished by lobbying the Chinese government to allow a limited annual elk hunt for the Altai villages. The various components of Alaska’s subsistence laws, including customary and traditional use (C&T) determinations, amounts necessary for subsistence (ANS) determinations, and ceremonial and educational harvest permit systems, may very be the world’s best existing frameworks to use as a model for potentially creating a legal means for Altai hunters in China to continue harvesting elk in a sustainable manner into the future[ix]. To that end I have supplied all of the necessary background information on Alaska subsistence law to the people I know who are now working on trying to solve this dilemma. Thus there is a possibility that the precedent set here in Alaska for the cultural preservation of indigenous hunting traditions through legal continuation of their on-the-ground praxis might make an important contribution to establishing and maintaining subsistence hunting rights in China. If this were to occur, Alaskans would have great cause for proud celebration. Furthermore, we as Alaskans can also take inspiration from the Altai skiers.

The Spirit of Siberian Skis at Last Cross the Bering Sea

Prior to snowmachines, winter transport in the boreal regions of North America was primarily accomplished by snowshoes and dog teams. While past Athabascans are certainly known as master snowshoe makers, there is no record of Alaska Natives, or any other Native Americans, using skis for winter travel prior to European arrival. If skis were invented in the Siberian Altai it seems as if the technology was not imported into North America by any of the people who crossed from Asia into North America. Instead ski technology was brought through Russia and into Scandinavia, eventually spreading from there south into the Alps region and beyond. In fact, the proposal that skis originated in the Altai is refuted by some who maintain that skis were invented in Scandinavia. Once while visiting Tromso in northern Norway I was able to view a pair of skis dug up from a peat bog dated to be over 6,000 years old. Thus, there is no doubt that skis have a long history in Scandinavia, Russia, and most all of Europe[x]. Of course, skis may have also originated independently. Regardless of point-of-origin, just as we know is true for the Altai skiers, that use has likely always been centered on both subsistence practicality and practical enjoyment.

Today skis are used for winter recreation prolifically by Alaskans. Whether skate-skiing, downhill, or traditional XC touring, once the snow hits each year many Alaskans are manic for skiing. Alaska is known around the world for its world class powder skiing, extreme skiing, and both champion downhill and Nordic athletes. And no doubt skis have been used historically by Alaskans for the purposes of practical winter transport and subsistence activities. For example, I know of several people who have used skis for winter hunting for Nelchina, Forty-Mile, and Central Arctic Caribou, with excellent results and I am positive other cases exist[xi]. So here’s to skiing Alaska!

And let us also take inspiration from our Siberian boreal forest neighbors who make most of what they need for skiing with their own hands, from local materials, and who continue to transport themselves across their landscape for subsistence activities without access to money, motors, or fuel. It was healthy and blissful self-reliance that our earliest skiing and hunting was all about, and now, whenever I step into skis or shoulder my hunting pack, this is something I cannot help but to ponder deeply.

James Van Lanen is a subsistence resource specialist wit the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. In the September 2016 issue of this magazine he authored a guide to tanning hides.


[i] Zhaojian S. and Bo W. eds. 2015. The Original Place of Skiing: Altay Prefecture of Xinjiang, China. People’s Sports Publishing House/Xinjiang People’s Publishing House, Urumqi. To order this extraordinary book, go to www.altaiskis.com. Modern skis modeled after Altai ski design concepts can also be purchased here.

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A village in the heart of the Altai Mountains.

[ii] For example see my previous article Subsistence on the Kuskokwim Whitefish, Fishtraps, and the Stony River Dena’ina in the July 2015 issue of Alaska Fish and Wildlife News http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=wildlifenews.view_article&articles_id=722

[iii] Zhaojian and Bo 2015.

[iv] Those who reside in China whom I have skied with do not own firearms, but it is likely that those living on the Russian side would have better access to rifles for hunting.

[v] See Lieberman D. 2013. The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease. Pantheon, and McDougall C. 2009. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. Knopf.

[vi] For example, see Thomas E.M. 2006. The Old Way: A Story of the First People. Picador.

[vii] The most high-profile documentation of this practice was published by National Geographic in 2013: Jenkins M. 2013. On the Trail With the First Skiers: An Ancient Culture in the Chinese Altay Mountains Offers a Glimpse of How Skiing Evolved. National Geographic, December 2013 http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/12/first-skiers/jenkins-text

Persistence-type winter hunting has also been documented in Alaska where it is known that many Athabascans used snowshoes to pursue moose and harvest them as they became exhausted in deep snow. For example see Simeone W.E. 2006. Some Ethnographic and Historical Information on the Use of Large Land Mammals in the Copper River Basin. United States Department of the Interior. National Park Service. Alaska Region.

[viii] While the National Geographic article cited above documented ski-hunting by Altai peoples, and featured photographs of an elk being held down in the snow by its antlers with a rope, I am told by people familiar with that documentation that the elk shown in the photos was subsequently released, specifically due to the intent of the hunters and the researching author to follow current hunting laws.

[ix] AS 16.05.258. Alaska Statutes. Subsistence Use and Allocation of Fish and Game. 5 AAC 92.019, 92.033, 92.034, and 99.025. Alaska Administrative Codes. Taking of Big Game for Certain Religious Ceremonies, Permit for Scientific, Educational, Propagative, or Public Safety Purposes, Permit to Take and Use Game for Cultural Purposes, and Customary and Traditional Uses of Game Populations.

[x] Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian Arctic explorer seems to have obtained information lending to the theory that skis did originate in the Altai Mountains and spread into Europe from there. In Nansen’s book The First Crossing of Greenland, published in 1890, there is a map showing the known historical distribution of skis. The map designates Central Asia as the geographic origin of ski technology and depicts the use of skis expanding into Europe and northern Siberia from a nexus near the Altai Mountains. Nansen F. 1890. The First Crossing of Greenland. Longmans, Green, and Company. London and New York.

[xi] For a story about my Alaska ski-hunting pursuits see my previous article Winter Caribou Hunt: Skiing off the Dalton Highway, Lessons, Offerings, and Rewards in the DHCMA in the January 2013 issue of Alaska Fish and Wildlife News http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=wildlifenews.view_article&articles_id=586

[1] Zhaojian S. and Bo W. eds. 2015. The Original Place of Skiing: Altay Prefecture of Xinjiang, China. People’s Sports Publishing House/Xinjiang People’s Publishing House, Urumqi. To order this extraordinary book, go to www.altaiskis.com. Modern skis modeled after Altai ski design concepts can also be purchased here.

[1] For example see my previous article Subsistence on the Kuskokwim Whitefish, Fishtraps, and the Stony River Dena’ina in the July 2015 issue of Alaska Fish and Wildlife News http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=wildlifenews.view_article&articles_id=722

[1] Zhaojian and Bo 2015.

[1] Those who reside in China whom I have skied with do not own firearms, but it is likely that those living on the Russian side would have better access to rifles for hunting.

[1] See Lieberman D. 2013. The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease. Pantheon, and McDougall C. 2009. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. Knopf.

[1] For example, see Thomas E.M. 2006. The Old Way: A Story of the First People. Picador.

[1] The most high-profile documentation of this practice was published by National Geographic in 2013: Jenkins M. 2013. On the Trail With the First Skiers: An Ancient Culture in the Chinese Altay Mountains Offers a Glimpse of How Skiing Evolved. National Geographic, December 2013 http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/12/first-skiers/jenkins-text

Persistence-type winter hunting has also been documented in Alaska where it is known that many Athabascans used snowshoes to pursue moose and harvest them as they became exhausted in deep snow. For example see Simeone W.E. 2006. Some Ethnographic and Historical Information on the Use of Large Land Mammals in the Copper River Basin. United States Department of the Interior. National Park Service. Alaska Region.

[1] While the National Geographic article cited above documented ski-hunting by Altai peoples, and featured photographs of an elk being held down in the snow by its antlers with a rope, I am told by people familiar with that documentation that the elk shown in the photos was subsequently released, specifically due to the intent of the hunters and the researching author to follow current hunting laws.

[1] AS 16.05.258. Alaska Statutes. Subsistence Use and Allocation of Fish and Game. 5 AAC 92.019, 92.033, 92.034, and 99.025. Alaska Administrative Codes. Taking of Big Game for Certain Religious Ceremonies, Permit for Scientific, Educational, Propagative, or Public Safety Purposes, Permit to Take and Use Game for Cultural Purposes, and Customary and Traditional Uses of Game Populations.

[1] Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian Arctic explorer seems to have obtained information lending to the theory that skis did originate in the Altai Mountains and spread into Europe from there. In Nansen’s book The First Crossing of Greenland, published in 1890, there is a map showing the known historical distribution of skis. The map designates Central Asia as the geographic origin of ski technology and depicts the use of skis expanding into Europe and northern Siberia from a nexus near the Altai Mountains. Nansen F. 1890. The First Crossing of Greenland. Longmans, Green, and Company. London and New York.

[1] For a story about my Alaska ski-hunting pursuits see my previous article Winter Caribou Hunt: Skiing off the Dalton Highway, Lessons, Offerings, and Rewards in the DHCMA in the January 2013 issue of Alaska Fish and Wildlife News http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=wildlifenews.view_article&articles_id=586


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