It’s no secret that backcountry skiers and snowboarders are all about hunting down the wildest, farthest-flung mountains in search of unexplored lines and fresh powder. Every year, it seems, new trips open up in Greenland, Kamchatka, Svalbard and even Antarctica, inspired by the off-grid adventures of Jeremy Jones and Jordan Manley. Now you can add the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan to that list. Set in the mountainous heart of Central Asia along the ancient Silk Road, Kyrgyzstan is sometimes called “the Switzerland of Central Asia”, and the amazing, virtually untapped skiing bears that out.
For the past five seasons, guide service 40 Tribes has offered backcountry ski and splitboard trips from its Jalpak Tash Yurts, high above the Issyk-Kul Valley in the northeast part of the country. Surrounded on three sides by 12,000-foot peaks, the yurts have direct access to the untracked powder and wild terrain of the Tien Shan. “The mountains surrounding our yurts are all ours”, says founder and Coloradan Ryan Koupal. “There’s never a rush to get first tracks on a line because, well, we know we’ll never run into another soul out there.”
“It’s the truest essence of skiing”, says Koupal. “No lifts, snowmobiles or helis: just human-powered travel through the mountains.”
But there’s more to these trips than just playing in a remote mountain range. Led by Koupal, the collective of professional mountain guides — which includes legendary ski mountaineer Ptor Spricenieks and Canadian splitboard guide Greg Johnson — partners with locals from the nearby village of Ichke-Jergez to offer clients a glimpse of the centuries-old yurt-based nomadic culture that’s still alive and well in rural Kyrgyzstan.
40 Tribes offers guided and self-guided backcountry ski and splitboard trips each winter from January through March. Four- to seven-day guided tours start from $1,499 per person. Flights are into and out of the capital city of Bishkek, where travelers are picked up for transfer to the mountains via Karakol. Participants should be advanced to expert-level skiers or boarders with ample backcountry experience. Required gear includes a winter-rated sleeping bag, down booties, fat powder skis (minimum 108mm underfoot) or a splitboard, touring kit and avalanche safety equipment.
While you skin four miles into your high-mountain base camp, provisions and gear are packed in on horseback by local hosts. Then, after long days of shredding in the backcountry with veteran guides, you gather around a wood-burning stove to eat regional foods — mutton, samsa, potatoes and dumplings are common — play Yahtzee and soak in the Kyrgyz lifestyle inside the traditional, hand-felted yurts. While the accommodations are, in some ways, more basic than the pampered jet set have come to expect — sleeping quarters are communal, spread out on the floor on traditional mattresses called tushuks — it only makes for a simpler, more authentic shared experience.
Outside the yurts, killer views open up to Lake Issyk-Kul, the world’s second-largest alpine lake and the source of all that beautiful powder. And, of course, above camp the Terskey Alatoo Mountains are all yours. Mornings start with a hearty breakfast before strapping on skis and skins for a full day of touring, anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 feet. The long climbs are rewarded with drop-ins on big lines of champagne powder and, occasionally, a first descent. This is backcountry skiing on a modest, human level; not the insane 20,000-foot daily verticals of a heli trip, but in an outsized landscape that’s rich in history and culture. “It’s the truest essence of skiing”, says Koupal. “No lifts, snowmobiles or helis: just human-powered travel through the mountains.”