Interview by Nayla Tawa
Since I was 3 years old and my parents put me on my first set of skis, I have lived for the mountains. Oblivious to seasons, I chased winters across hemispheres in my constant search for powder. To me snowboarding is not just an obsession, it is an insatiable craving that has lead me to discover new cultures, speak new languages, and form irreplaceable friendships. But somehow I knew something was missing. I had yet to discover how to take this inherently selfish passion and use it as an outlet to do something positive for the world.
40 Tribes Backcountry Adventures LLC mastermind, Ryan Koupal, has done exactly that half way across the globe in the little known country of Kyrgyzstan. His search for undiscovered ranges landed Koupal in the Tien Shan Mountains. There he discovered an inexhaustible, captivating blanket of virtually unexplored peaks, where other than wild boars and hunters on horseback, few have dared to venture. In these vast, mesmerizing mountains where yurt-living originated, Koupal saw an opportunity to bring yurt-based ski touring to Central Asia. Through his efforts, 40 Tribes has helped to further blossom an existing community-based ecotourism industry in Kyrgyzstan. After learning about his developments, I found myself dreaming of this far off land I knew nothing about. So, I tracked Koupal down to hear firsthand how his project came to fruition:
The Ski Channel: So where exactly is Kyrgyzstan?
Ryan Koupal: Opposite side of the world from Colorado…and a bit further north. Central Kyrgyzstan’s latitude is actually 41 degrees N, same as the CO/WY border. Kyrgyzstan borders Uzbekistan to the west, Kazakhstan to the north, China to the southeast, and Tajikistan to the south. The region we know as Central Asia today is made up of many of the southernmost former Soviet Republics.
TSC: How did you first end up there?
RK: In 2006, two close friends and I set off, armed with tele skis and splitboards, to explore certain ranges in Historic Tibet’s Kham and Amdo Provinces. This was actually the same year that Charlie Fowler and Christine Boskoff were taken in an avalanche in the W. Sichuan Province, not far from where we were at the time of the accident. It was the “Tibetan Boarderlands Expedition.” Our intent was to complete two wintertime circumnavigations of holy mountain ranges – an act known as “Kora” in Tibetan, or pilgrimage. The journey was insanely inspiring. Not long after coming home from Tibet, I started looking at other options for this type of exploratory travel, and following one winter at home in CO, in 2008, it just seemed time to check out another one of those “gotta get there” places.
TSC: Tell us a little about the political situation in KGZ?
RK: Kyrgyzstan voted in Central Asia’s first parliamentary Democracy in October 2010! That’s a word not often associated with this part of the world. It’s a pretty big deal. No doubt corruption may always persist in Kyrgyzstan, but the popular vote last fall ushered in a wide representation of political parties, who have thus far been able to ensure a more representative government and keep events like that which occurred last summer, in which thousands of people died in inter-ethnic clashes in the south, from happening again.
TSC: What is 40 Tribes and the KGZ Plan?
RK: 40 Tribes is a collective of professional mountain and river guides working in partnership with local hosts/guides-in-training from Kyrgyzstan to promote a more innovative and adventurous edge to the country’s community-based ecotourism industry. In 2010 we established Kyrgyzstan’s first ski-specific backcountry yurt, run in partnership with locals from our partner village at the base of our chosen backcountry zone. We offer guided and self-guided tours from the yurt, with an incredible selection of ski descents right out the back door. Through our partnership with the village we are providing families with alternative income opportunities and a unique way to sustain their rural livelihoods. 40 Tribes is essentially the evolution of The Kyrgyzstan Plan project – the big brother, the real deal, the actualization/realization of everything that was TKP.
TSC: Other than backcountry skiing, are there any ski resorts in Kyrgyzstan?
RK: Definitely – more than you would ever imagine. There are at least a dozen resorts just outside of the capital, Bishkek, and more spotted across the country. The developing ski industry in Kyrgyzstan is actually more of a re-developing industry, as a lot of the infrastructure is left over from the Soviet Era. Soviet Olympic skiers used to train in Kirghizia actually, at Karakol, the country’s biggest modern-day ski resort, 35km or so from the 40 Tribes yurt.
TSC: Do the native people of KGZ ski or snowboard?
RK: “Native” is a tough word for Kyrgyzstan because the word today encompasses Kyrgyz, Russians, Ukranians, Tartars, Uzbeks, Dungans, Tajiks, Kazakhs, the list goes on…but no, most Kyrgyzstan nationals are not skiers or snowboarders. As is the case worldwide, the sport is really a privilege of the wealthier classes, or those who choose to bum it, as I guess is the case with some of the younger generations in Kyrgyzstan, especially Russians. Skiing and snowboarding is actually a much bigger deal in neighboring Kazakhstan.
TSC: I’ve heard people say that Kyrgyzstan is “the Switzerland of Central Asia”…in what way is this true, or not true?
RK: Sure, Kyrgyzstan is a relatively small country with mind-blowingly gorgeous mountains, more than 90% of its land covered in them, and it’s in Central Asia, so as a metaphor it definitely works. Imagine a Soviet gingerbread-style cabin backed by fields of grazing livestock and horsemen and awesome peaks in the distance – that’s Kyrgyzstan for you. Kind of sounds like what I would imagine Switzerland to be like. I’ve never been.
TSC: What kind of snow conditions/terrain can people expect in KGZ?
RK: Conditions can vary dramatically from region to region and month to month. The snowpack is characterized as a continental snowpack given the country’s extreme distance from any ocean – a lot like what you find in Colorado, just a bit more advanced. This means the snowpack can be relatively shallow and avalanche prone, especially in the early winter. The prime months for deep powder conditions and a more stable snowpack are late January-mid March. In parts of the country April and May present amazing conditions and opportunities to access deeper summits and zones that are otherwise too cold or too dangerous mid-winter.
TSC: Do you need to be an expert skier to participate in a 40 Tribes Tour?
RK: Depends. If you’ve got a crew interested in reserving the yurt for a self-guided tour, then yes, every participant needs to have expert knowledge and experience in the backcountry. For our guided tours each participant needs to be in good physical condition, a confident skier or rider (high-intermediate to advanced level), well-acquainted with his/her equipment (including avalanche safety equipment), and comfortable touring for long distances and carrying a backcountry pack. We do not require any formal avalanche safety certification to participate in a guided tour, nor do we require participants to have any previous experience with glacier travel and/or mountaineering (harness, ropes, etc).
TSC: Can you tell us a little about Community Based Tourism and your involvement with them?
RK: Community Based Tourism is a 20-year-old organized home-stay and ecotourism project originally sponsored by the Swiss development organization, Helvetas, to stimulate income-producing industries in rural areas after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, the CBT model is a lot like a bed & breakfast sort of scenario where foreign guests are invited into a villager’s home or mountainside yurt and can choose to participate in a variety of eco-activities during the stay, like horseback riding, trekking, mountaineering, falconry, etc, guided by local guides. We don’t have much of an active partnership with CBT at the moment, though we do take a lot of our inspiration from the CBT model.
TSC: How is 40 Tribes planning to help the local economy and people of KGZ?
RK: Baby steps. We’re a long way off from having any sort of impact on the local economy and the people of Kyrgyzstan. A big challenge for us is going to be “spreading the wealth” within our partner village – employing different families from year-to-year to work with us as hosts. We have developed a fund to support future community development projects in our partner village, and we hope that the direction of those projects will be led by our closest local contacts. 20% of all proceeds from our 40 Tribes t-shirts and hoodies goes directly into the fund…as will a certain percentage of our profits when we finally get there!
TSC: Are you worried that the political situation of KGZ will have an impact on your developments?
RK: No, not really. Bottom line is that there’s a certain type of of skier/traveler attracted to what we’ve got going on, and it’s just not the type who would worry much about this.
TSC: If someone where choosing a ski tour vacation, why should one choose KGZ?
RK: It’s the epically exotic ski destination that very few people are dreaming of. If you’re looking for something that is totally wild, this is it.
TSC: How many people are in a tour and what is included?
RK: The yurt can comfortably accommodate a group of 6 guided participants or 8-10 self-guided participants. All guided groups are accompanied by our Lead Guide and a Tail Guide, plus 2 of our local partners, who host, prepare meals, and keep the yurt…for a total of 10. We can sleep 8 self-guided participants if the group chooses to be joined by our local partners, or as many as 10 if the group wants to cook, clean and handle yurt chores on their own. We offer 2 different guided packages, with different inclusions: The “Independent Traveler” option is designed for seasoned travelers and assumes that you can handle getting to the tour start location, Karakol, on your own. The “40 Tribes Traveler” option includes airport pickup, drop-off, and all transport in between. Both options include transfers between the Karakol and the village, and accommodation and all meals in the village and at the yurt. And killer guided skiing!
TSC: Who are the guides…you?
RK: Our Lead Guide 2010-present is Ptor Spricenieks, one of the raddest, most accomplished, and most humble guides out there on the international scene. Check out his bio for the full scoop.
TSC: I’ve heard of some pretty gnarly stories of the types of things people eat in Kyrgyzstan…any thoughts?
RK: I actually often find myself comparing the food in Kyrgyzstan to food in the Midwest – over-cooked meats, potatoes and veggies, goulashes, pilafs, etc. Honestly, unless you are a vegetarian or can’t stomach mutton for the life of you, the food in Kyrgyzstan is pretty damn good…and easy to put down. Soviet influence at its finest.
TSC: What is the craziest thing you’ve eaten in KGZ?
RK: Horse? Not that crazy, but probably the craziest. Sheep’s eye is another local delicacy but I’ve never had the privilege of an eyeball popping in my mouth.
TSC: Living in a yurt in the mountains of Central Asia is not exactly a five star ski vacation…what kind of person do you have to be to enjoy a 40 Tribes Tour?
RK: Not someone who is looking for a 5-star ski vacation. Open to a wild adventure. Open to being cold. Open to exploring and experiencing local culture. Skiing, in a sense, is on the back-burner compared to the rest of the experience. That said, the drive to ski some out-there and aggressive lines (aggressive-aggressive, or aggressive just given the remoteness of the skiing) is also a must.
TSC: What is your most memorable experience in KGZ to date?
RK: First night in the yurt last winter. Alone at 2,700m in a somewhat random valley of an obscure range, but with a woodstove-warmed traditional Kyrgyz yurt to duck back into.
TSC: What is your worst experience in KGZ?
RK: Not sure I would use the word “worst.” How about “most interesting?” Revolution in Bishkek, April 2010.
TSC: Best day skiing in KGZ?
RK: Late March, Ala Bel Pass.
-End of Interview-
Check out the 40 Tribes short film, which was recently picked up by Backcountry Film Festival. If Tien Shan shredding seems up your alley, be sure to pay Koupal a visit in Kyrgyzstan. Rumor has it you’ll be welcomed to yurt-living, with some cognac-infused mountain tea and a mean game of Yahtzee!
Go to www.fortytribesbackcountry.com for more info.
Images courtesy of Ryan Koupal