When thinking about Afghanistan most people envision deserts, rocky hills and more than three decades of war. Christoph Zürcher thinks of untouched mountains, deep snow and Afghan farmers with a newly discovered passion for winter sports. The Swiss journalist and skier started the Afghan Ski Challenge in Bamyan, 180km west of Kabul, four years ago. His goal was to introduce skiing, sport and appreciation of the Alpine environment. He just came back from this year’s race and talked with Arc’Teryx about the event.
Arc’Teryx: Christoph, how did you get the idea to initiate a ski race in Afghanistan?
Christoph Zürcher: I visited the region of Bamyan four years ago and was overwhelmed by the beauty of the mountains with deep snow – a perfect area for skiing. Of course none of the local farmers thought about skiing or climbing the mountains at this time. After a few months I came back with 15 pairs of skis, started a ski school for the locals and a ski race. At the first Afghan Ski Challenge in 2011, ten local farm boys that have never skied before were competing. We continued and the list of participants grew.
Sounds like people got really enthusiastic about skiing and touring?
Yes. More and more Afghans are coming to participate and of course the locals are coming to watch and have fun. This year we had around 1000 spectators. A very nice development in addition: we are having an increasing number of people from all over the world like New Zealand, Germany, USA, UK, Switzerland and France. They are coming to check out the region and share their passion during a friendly, peaceful sports competition in a country that is known for riots and violence. This year we had 50 people in the main race: 30 locals, 20 guests.
And the race itself – how does that work?
The race is about 5 km long, goes up to an altitude of 3800m and down to around 2600m. Everyone starts at the same time, runs uphill with skis or snowshoes and goes down on skis or snowboard. The first one crossing the finish line wins. This year we had a local winner again! They are just so much faster uphill. With a 5 minute headstart on top you can easily take two falls and still be first by far!
And they all got skis?
There are some skis for the participants we brought from Europe. More and more young farm boys start to ski and we just do not have enough material. They started to craft their own skis – so this year we introduced the new category “wooden ski”.
The competition is evolving from year to year. Last year you introduced a women´s race, this year a new category. What’s planned for the future?
We will continue the Afghan Ski Challenge in the upcoming years and support the ski sport and the tourism of the region. We believe in an increasing number of participants. There is already an English tour operator that provides a tour package “Seven Days Bamyan” including the competition. One thing that is already in our minds: This year´s winner Sajeh Ali Schah Farhang is dreaming of participating in the Olympic games in 2018. Maybe with a lot of training and our support his dream will come true!