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Why Ask Why? Finding a Skier’s Paradise in China
Text by Naheed Ahmed Henderson
Photography by Jimmy Chin

The ice is thicker in the middle, trust us. The edge is going to be thin.” This was our final attempt at convincing our Kazak horsemen not to travel on the edge of Lake Kanas. We said these words only moments before our lead horse and sleigh plunged through the ice.

Out of instinct, I had turned my head to protect myself from being prisoner to watching a horse drown in front of my eyes. After about three minutes of tugging and encouraging by both the Kazaks and my teammates, the horse miraculously stepped out of its icy death and back onto solid ground. I breathed a sigh of relief and again made note of how unbelievably burly these Mongolian furry beasts are.

Our team of skiers had arrived in northern China’s remote Altai mountains in April 2003 after traveling 18 hours by plane, 17 hours by vehicle and 3 days by horseback and sleigh. The weather was unseasonably warm, and we struggled to hide from the sun of a blistering spring day while attempting to figure out how we could safely cross 25-kilometer Lake Kanas. The success of our expedition depended on a safe crossing—the valley we were headed to lay far on the other side of icy Lake Kanas. We had heard the villagers warn our horsemen about the questionable strength of the ice. We tried to ignore the warnings in hopes that the horsemen’s local knowledge would somehow get us across safely. But then reality had hit. Our horsemen were scared and had even less of an idea of how to safely cross the thin ice than we did.

We were a team of skiers, accompanied by lots of ski gear. I was joined by my husband, Eric, who’s also a NOLS Instructor, and former NOLS Instructor Jimmy Chin, who has become one of the top alpine photographers in the world and is on the prestigious North Face climbing team. Also along for the ride were skiers Heather Paul (a two-time National Telemark Champion), Jimmy Hartman and John Featherman.

With lots of discussion—or perhaps what could be called light arguing in the face of three different languages, two almost-drowned horses, sun burnt faces, and anxious thoughts—we finally arrived on the north side of Lake Kanas. Our cultural experience so far on this journey had been a complete submersion in trust. Three days prior we had turned our safety, dietary needs and transportation desires over to the Kazak and Mongol people. They had led us through this unknown territory, following firm snow paths and stopping at small villages every 25 kilometers for food, rest and unquestionably warm hospitality. Black tea with butter, fried or rock-hard bread, cabbage fried in animal fat, and the baijou drink were always offered up. When it came time to sleep, we snuggled into small log structures decorated with rugs of every color that hung from ceiling to floor. A wooden platform kept us off the dirt and gave us a cozy place to rest our heads. The villagers would watch us prepare for bed and then would crawl into their own shelters, the family’s baby animals trailing close behind.

Despite the wonderful hospitality, we had grown tired of animal fat, butter tea and, most of all, the ceaseless staring eyes. On the other side of Lake Kanas, far away from the villages, we reached the magical spot. This was the place where our team could become self-sufficient. We clipped into our skis. We were 50 kilometers from the closest village and days from any open roads, and we were finally able to take a deep breath. Out here there was no foreign language barrier to worry about—we all spoke the mountain language. We were in a foreign land but knew how mountains everywhere work. We knew we needed to respect and listen to the terrain. The language of the mountains has no cultural barriers.

With our gear littered along the shore, we quickly packed up our sleds and packs and began the next leg of our journey. We had forecasted three long days of slogging with 60-pound packs and 100-pound sleds through dense river valley terrain to get to the alpine basin we were hoping to ski. This was our best guess since the Chinese government had just opened this corner of wilderness to the public, figuring the borders with Mongolia, Kazakstan and Russia were safe. We had an old Russian military map, but after four days pushing and pulling our loads through thigh-deep facets of rotten, sugar snow, squeezing through thick coniferous forests, crossing meandering alpine rivers, and traveling for 14 hours each day, it was time to re-evaluate. We had traveled only 20 kilometers and needed to go another 20 just to get to the base of our desired ski descents. Our time in the Chinese Altai mountains was limited and we were feeling the pressure.

Finally, we decided to take a left turn to Kazakstan and head into another alpine valley that offered the possibility of endless peaks and ski descents. The next day we arrived in a skiers’ and climbers’ paradise. After tiring days carrying heavy loads, a 3,500-foot couloir stared up at us, right outside camp. The “Chopstick” couloir became our prized descent over the next five days. It was a strikingly steep line directly down the center of a rocky face that topped out at about 14,000 feet. We were also able to ski another peak that we fondly called “Sunshine Daydream,” a beautiful snow cone that rose 4,000 feet from the valley floor.

Five days quickly passed and our pioneering new ski routes trailed to an end. We had completed what Skiing magazine called “one of the boldest and rarest” ski expeditions of 2003.

The Chinese government couldn’t understand what six crazy skiers had been doing in this remote area. I couldn’t let go of the desire to explain to them why we would travel so far, through such dangerous terrain, and reach near exhaustion, simply to ski virgin mountains. The inner calling that pulls me to explore the world’s unknown ski terrain is still coming to light for me. For now, I continue to follow this calling, knowing that with time my mind, heart and soul will meet with the perfect explanation.

Naheed Ahmed Henderson, a NOLS Instructor since 1999, has competed in the United States Telemark Ski Association Freeskiing circuit for two years running, with a top five finish in 2002. She spends much of her winter coaching ski camps around the U.S. and Canada, guiding backcountry skiing, teaching avalanche courses, and exploring mountains around the world.

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