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Playgrounds in Peril: The First All-Female Ski Expedition to Kyrgyzstan’s Remote Tien Shan Mountains

Horses always beat chairlifts when it comes to the best methods for ski transport. Gabby Degagne photo.

Three smiling, wind-burnt faces flash in and out of the frame as the video call connects. An intricate, red and gold wall-carpet forms the backdrop as three ladies–a Canadian, a Kiwi and a Kiwi-Canadian–take turns waving hello as the phone is passed around, the image skipping on the patchy cell signal. A baby cries in the background and muted Kyrgyz conversation rises above the light clang of cooking pots. Instantly, I’m transported to the small village at the base of the At-Bashi mountains, part of the massive Tien Shan mountains of central Kyrgyzstan which serves as base camp for the first all-lady ski trip to the region. I can almost smell the wood smoke, the light musk of livestock and the fresh mountain air.

AT-BASHI, KYRGYZSTAN

The mountains of the At-Bashi range form the boundaries between China and Kyrgyzstan with one of the most remote sections of the Old Silk Road winding through it. It was this remoteness, the peaks and the adventure ski touring opportunities that attracted Gabby Degagne (CAN), Nicole Mesman (NZ) and Marian Krogh (CAD/NZ). After over a year of planning, training, and raising funds the ladies arrived at the base of the mountains on January 19th. After 13 days of snow searching, exploration and four nights in the mountains I caught up with them on their last day in At-Bashi.


TGR: What was this trip about? Why did you choose Kyrgyzstan?

Gabby: We have been calling the trip a ski mountaineering expedition with an educational and environmental purpose.

When the local economy relies heavily on glacier runoff to support local agriculture, the effects of a poor winter can be seen firsthand. Gabby Degagne photo.

We came to raise awareness of how climate change is affecting mountain communities and complete a ski traverse of the At-Bashi Range, doing three first ascents on peaks above 4,500 meters. Kyrgyzstan is over 80 percent mountains and home to the area’s highest peaks and largest glaciers and therefore water supply. The At-Bashi range has been explored very little, especially in winter and it was these unexplored mountains, as well as the people living historically nomadic lifestyles that drew us here.

Describe walking through a traditional Kyrgyz village with skis over your shoulder? 

Nicole: Walking through town in our ski gear, we feel a bit like token tourists but the overall sense is a feeling of being welcomed. The village people are so generous and often invite us in for food and chai. We sit down for lunch that turns to dinner and then come home to food from our host family. Being full is a sensation we have had a lot here! Even though people here have so little, they are so grateful and so generous.

Despite looking very out-of-place with their modern-day ski equipment Mesman says the trio were welcomed with open arms by the locals. Gabby Degagne photo.

We aren’t professional athletes and as a team of women, we hope our trip will inspire everyday female adventurers to take on adventure travel together. Walking through town people smile and welcome us; at no point have we felt unsafe. Other than maybe in the mountains.

“We seek to explore new terrain, leaving no carbon footprint; to inspire other everyday female adventurers, to discover a new culture and to learn how changing climates, reduced snowpack and glacial retreat are affecting the culture.”

Tell us about the mountains. We heard the 2017 season was deep in Kyrgyzstan, what was it like this year?

Marian: We have been hoping for some really good skiing–to summit some big peaks with perfect untouched powder–and we didn’t really get that at all. Across the country the season wasn’t conducive to good skiing with so much less snow last year, so our choices were very limited. We were working with 20-70 centimeters of snow when a ‘normal’ snowpack in this region would be 1.5 meters. Most of the snow fell in October and November with December and January being really dry. Cold and dry. This ended up being the bigger problem creating an unstable snowpack. So we had to change plans, and faced a turning point while we were in the mountains on day three of our ski expedition, realizing that we were not going to be able to ski much.

During the multi-day we carried out test pits for two days on our approach and found that there was significant depth hoar–sometimes up to 20 centimers–at the base of the snowpack. While skiing to another slope to dig a snow profile, we remotely triggered a small avalanche, which propagated on the slope about 20 meters above us and spanned about 80 meters wide. It was really scary. A muffled roar and a white wave pulling the snow into it. Gabby and myself were carried down the slope slightly, leaving Gabby buried up to her shoulders. We dug her out and quickly moved to a safe area.

Conditions may not have been as optimal as the group wanted, but there were still plenty of smiles to go around. Gabby Degagne photo.

We were obviously very shaken and disappointed in ourselves. Our thoughts before the avalanche were split between the seriousness of the snow conditions and our desire to ski. The mountains told us the conditions were too dangerous to continue the search for turns. We have learned so much from the people here. They are happy with what they have; they aren’t looking for more. We were still itching to get some really good turns but we took a page out of their book being grateful for the exploratory part of this trip.

So you focused more on highlighting the changing winters and how the variable conditions effect rural populations.

Nicole: I thought the people here might not be very aware of climate change but after speaking with the villagers, we learned how climate change conscious and directly impacted they are. One farmer mentioned how it’s not only affecting people in At-Bashi but it’s a global problem. For a shepherd who spends 365 days a year outside, the changes are stark. Winter used to be winter, and summer was summer, one shepherd told us. Now it’s really unpredictable and hard to move sheep to the right place and anticipate water flow.

We talked to some climate change organizations during our time in the capital, Bishkek, who are being proactive in lowering the country’s carbon footprint. For a country that does so little to cause climate change they are so willing to act and take responsibility for it.

Has the experience of living with people so closely linked with the mountains changed your perspective on climate change?

Marian: Skiing is really important to us. It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning. It connects us to the mountains and it’s what makes us concerned about climate change.

The Tien Shan Range can seem like a million miles from nowhere. Gabby Degagne photo.

But for these guys mountains mean water for farming and livestock, which is their livelihood. When we live in the cities we are so detached from the environment. Here in Kyrgyzstan, even the school kids we met know their water comes from glaciers and that they need winter to have water. For us, no snow means no skiing. For the people of At-Bashi it means no water for livestock. No food. No income.

Mother Nature provided a season that proved the point of your trip–that winters are changing. Will you try to come again for a deeper winter?

Gabby: We may not have skied the lines we had hoped for, but we did experience firsthand how changing winters were affecting the local populations. When we leave here we have presentations lined up at alpine associations and schools in Hong Kong, the US and NZ. 

We have unfinished business here in Kyrgyzstan. We’ve learned so much and put in so much groundwork. We are going to come back and ski these lines in better conditions. But for now, we will enjoy the endless chai tea, shots of vodka and being surrounded by these commanding mountains.

From The Column: TGR Playgrounds

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