National Geographic’s ‘First Skiers’ Ancient Skiing Culture

Posted By: The Ski Channel on November 27, 2013 11:11 am

National Geographic’s December 2013 issue introduces an ancient skiing culture that originated thousands of years ago known as Altay mountain skiers, ‘First Skiers’. This ancient skiing community, tucked up in China’s Altay mountains, might very well be the worlds first ever skiers. The Altay community lives on among the descendants of the semi nomadic Tuvan clans, possibly skiing as far back as 8,000 BC.

The Altay skiers hunt elk through deep snow on their handcrafted spruce skis. The skis are handmade with horsehide on the underside for better traction on steep uphills and provides a smooth surface for downhill skiing while hunting. They do not use two poles but rather have one long, oar-like pole called the taiyak. These Altay skiers have skied this way for thousands of years and we believe it is where skiing originated.

In National Geographic’s December 2013 issue, they sent photographer Jonas Bendiksen and writer Mark Jenkins to this region in the northernmost fringe of China to experience how the Altay culture has skied for thousands of years.


Photo: ©Jonas Bendiksen/National Geographic – National Geographic December 2013 Issue.

Blasting through powder on wooden, horsehide-bottomed skis with a single pole for balance, an Altay skier shows off the skills and equipment his distant ancestors perfected.

National Geographic created the short film ‘First Skiers’ from Bendiksen and Jenkins’ adventure to the ancient Altay skiing community. They experienced the full depths of the culture, from how they have manufactured skis for thousands of years and their specific Altay style of skiing.

Video: National Geographic – ‘First Skiers’ Video

First Skiers- Photo, National Geogrpahic

Photo: ©Jonas Bendiksen/National Geographic – National Geographic December 2013 Issue.

A lassoed elk struggles after Serik demonstrates the age-old technique of capturing game in deep snow. China bans elk hunting, so the animal was freed.


Here is a short exerpt from ‘First Skiers’ in National Geographic’s December 2013 Issue..

“The hunting party slowly glides into the Altay Mountains in search of elk. It is dead calm, minus 38°F. Just as their ancestors have for millennia, the five men traverse deep, feathery snow buoyed on handmade skis hewed from spruce, with strips of horsehide attached to the bottoms. In lieu of poles each man carries a single wooden staff. Since boyhood, they have learned to master their deceptively crude equipment with exquisite efficiency and grace—the grain of the horsehair providing traction to move uphill and a slick surface for rapid descents, the staff aiding balance. I follow on state-of-the-art telemark skis, using modern poles, but at times still struggle to match their pace. Their lungs and legs seem impervious to the thin alpine air as they stride up even the steepest inclines, exhaling barely discernible wisps of steam that quickly evaporate in the frigid air. Falling into a satisfying rhythm, we slice through the drifts along a copse of birch, then veer left into the shadows of a spruce forest. They don’t speak, the muffled swish of their furry skis as quiet as snowfall.

Each man has a knife tucked into his belt, a lariat of horse mane looped over his shoulders, and is pulling a goatskin sled with provisions: a horsehair blanket, a surplus Chinese army overcoat, and fried bread. The rest of the gear—two axes, a billycan, five chipped china bowls, a tin kettle, and a slab of horseflesh—is divided evenly. They don’t know how long we will be out. It is common to track elk for several days deep into the mountains.”… 

Read the full story here. 

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Photo: National Geographic December 2013 Issue.

Check out the full photo gallery here.

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Photo: ©Jonas Bendiksen/National Geographic – National Geographic December 2013 Issue.

Scientists say the Altay hunter’s lifestyle extends back millennia, as evidenced by an ancient rock engraving of a skier chasing an ibex.



Photo: ©Jonas Bendiksen/National Geographic – National Geographic December 2013 Issue.

Tutored as woodsmen from boyhood, Altay men skillfully wield axes for all manner of chores, from chopping firewood to hewing lumber to build their cabins.



Photo: ©Jonas Bendiksen/National Geographic – National Geographic December 2013 Issue.

Plans for building Western-style ski resorts in the Altay flitter among optimistic entrepreneurs. For now, at least in the high backcountry, skiing remains a way of mountain life.