by Debbie Vance
National Geographic’s December issue highlights an article entitled, “First Skiers” by Mark Jenkins, photographs by Jonas Bendiksen. The tagline reads: “The origin of the sport may lie in remote Chinese mountains, where skiing is still a way of life.”
Place: Altay Mountains in western China
Temperature: Negative 38 degrees Fahrenheit
Equipment: “Handmade skis hewed from spruce, with strips of horsehide attached to the bottoms. In lieu of poles each man carries a single wooden staff.”
Goal: To track elk: “To be a hunter is to be a skier” –Tuntukh, 77 (Legally, they’re not allowed to actually kill the animals anymore, so they merely track.)
Skiing style: “They sit far back on their skis, legs wide apart, arms clasping their aiyaks like rudders. They maneuver through thick timber, crash through brush, and leap insanely off snow-covered boulders, flying 20 feet in the air before landing in an explosion of powder.”
Fun fact: One man in the hunting party said that “the fastest skier he ever saw was an 80-year-old herder he met when he was a boy. Instead of horsehide, the man used skin from an elk’s foreleg for the bottoms of his skis.”
The article, in part, explores the history and origin of skiing, according to petroglyphs, archaeology, and early writings: “Within the Altay, a handful of petroglyphs have been discovered depicting archaic skiing scenes, including one of a human figure on skis chasing an ibex…The oldest written record that alludes to skiing, a Chinese text, also points to the Altay but dates to…206 B.C.” Though many nations claim similar artifacts as proof, so it is not certain that skiing originated in the Altay Mountains. But it is clear that skiing began as a means by which to hunt animals. For early cultures, and many still today, skiing was not just a sport, but an honest way of life–a way to provide food, clothing, and money.
In America, we say that skiing is a way of life and mean it very differently than do the Chinese elk trackers in the Altay Mountains. But I think there is some of the same impulse in both–to exist, to dwell, to live fully. Skiing has become embedded in our conception of mountain life, of a particular outdoor setting, just as it has for the Altay. With the government bans on killing the animals, the Altay can only track the animals; even though their livelihoods are no longer dependent on the meat and skins provided by ski hunts, they continue the tradition up to the very moment of the kill–it is part of their life.
Check out the December issue of National Geographic and David J Rothman’s collection of Essays: Living the Life: Tales from America’s Mountains & Ski Towns, and consider how skiing may be a way of life for you.
Tags: Altay Mountains, Living the Life, National Geographic, skiing