As we made our way uphill, kids trickled out of mud-brick houses and fell in behind us, scarves wound around their wind-burned cheeks, thick wool socks under their flimsy plastic shoes. Before long there were two dozen of them, ages 10 to 15: Afghan boys carrying homemade skis—wooden planks with rubber foot straps on top and scrap aluminum nailed to the underside. I kicked the toes of my boots into the frozen mud beneath the snow, making stairs on the slippery ridge. To my left rose a gently sloping alpine face called Kasa Dugh, or the Yogurt Bowl. Across the valley, I could make out a crevice flanked by two steep snowfields. Locals call this the Open Book, for its resemblance to a Koran on a reading stand. Towering above the ridge to our south was the 15,500-foot summit of Mir Shah Khoja.
It was a bluebird March day on a treeless 12,000-foot ridge just outside Jawzari, a farming village of a hundred or so families scratched out of a rocky valley in central Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Province. As we progressed up the slope, the boys kept coming: a rosy-cheeked kid with freckles and a threadbare army jacket; a teenager with a wisp of a beard carrying blocky wooden skis and poles made from whittled branches. Some bore wide wooden squares with two rubber foot straps—snowboards. Skiing was new here, introduced only in the past decade, but the social hierarchy of winter sports seemed already to have found its way to Afghanistan. The boarders strutted, lording their coolness over their two-planked brethren.
I was halfway into a three-week backcountry ski trip in Afghanistan’s Koh-e Baba range with a childhood friend, John Trousdale, 31, a Durango, Colorado, sports videographer who spends his summers skiing 10-foot-wide couloirs in the San Juan Mountains, and Mike Libecki, 39, a Utah-based climber who recently completed solo first ascents in Kyrgyzstan and Urumqi, China, and who signs email with phrases like “Why ration passion?” We were here for the powder. Bamiyan, an area the size of Connecticut that’s easily the safest region in Afghanistan, holds a series of finger valleys with untouched 12,000-to-15,000-foot peaks that are blanketed in snow six months a year. The plan was to explore the nascent alpine-sports culture, which has been growing since 2010, and score some first tracks in an extremely unlikely place.
But the snow was disastrous, Bamiyan’s worst in recent memory, thanks to a severe winter drought. Making matters worse, the springtime thaw-and-freeze cycle had turned the subsurface snow into dangerously unstable layers of frozen crust. On top of that, most of the terrain is above tree line, so there are no natural obstacles to slow avalanches—only man-made ones, many of them homes. In early March, a small slide buried two people on a road not far from Jawzari. Just three days after our arrival in Afghanistan, a monster slide in Badakhshan, near the northeast border with Tajikistan, knocked out an entire village, killing about 50 people.
But our new friends weren’t deterred by town-burying avalanches. As we made our way up the narrowing saddle toward the high point, the kids sprinted ahead and soon came whipping by on either side of us, crashing and giggling in heaps of secondhand clothes. A 15-year-old named Rajab with a fixed scowl came tearing down on a snowboard made from a tree he’d felled himself, throwing up a vicious rooster tail.
We summited the 12,000-foot ridge. Far to the north, we could see haze-blanketed Bamiyan town, a provincial capital of 60,000 people. On the cliffs beyond, we could make out two enormous black holes shaped like bowling pins—scars left in 2001 when the Taliban demolished two giant, 1,500-year-old Buddha statues. There was no horizon to be found on any side, only the jagged skyline of the Hindu Kush fading into the distance. Beyond those peaks, the war.
The skiers hiked back up to us. One by one, they dropped into the Yogurt Bowl, heading for smoke-filled homes and warm cups of tea. Rajab lingered while Trousdale and I took turns on his surprisingly nimble little snowboard. I’d heard rumors in town that some of the elders in the region were anti-skiing, because they saw it as another example of Western culture corrupting the youth. I asked Rajab about this.
“The only ones who don’t like it are the ones who can’t do it,” he scoffed. “Khuda hafiz,” he said, waving goodbye. A moment later, he was a black speck in the bowl beneath us.