HIGH ART: A ski hunting heritage

By on January 21, 2014
The Last of the First Skiers
The Last of the First Skiers

The Last of the First Skiers

JACKSON, WYO – For thousands of years the people living in the Altay Mountains of East-Central Asia have built their own skis. They are designed for the champagne powder of the mountains and to allow the maneuvering needed to lasso an elk.
For an assignment for National Geographic, published in December, Wyoming writer Mark Jenkins glimpsed how humans used skis thousands of years ago, and how in this spot in the world skiing isn’t a recreational past time. It’s a way of survival.

Jenkins, a writer for National Geographic Magazine and a writer in residence with University of Wyoming, spent a month reporting on what is believed to be one of the last cultures in the world to still rely on skis for travel and hunting. The culture’s traditions are maintained due to the snow, terrain and remoteness of the community. Yet it is not immune to change, as modernity encroaches on a way of life long maintained for thousands of years.

Jenkins will talk about the history of skiing, the culture of the first skiers and its future Thursday at Center for the Arts. The event is presented by the Global and Area Studies program at the University of Wyoming, InterConnections21, UW Outreach School, Skinny Skis and the Russian Club of Jackson Hole.

People often think skiing originated in Scandinavia, but research shows people in Siberia and Asia started skiing thousands of years ago, Jenkins noted.

“These people still use skis to live on,” he said.

The snow is so light and powdery a person can’t walk on it without sinking all the way to the dirt, Jenkins said.
The skis are made in one day from red spruce trees. There are no cambers or side cuts or plastic. A basic leather strap attaches ski to foot. Horse hair nailed to the bottoms of the skis allows uphill travel and sliding back down. The skis don’t turn well. Instead of modern poles, skiers use one long pole they sit back upon like a rudder to steer.

On these skis the people hunt elk. Seemingly immune to cold and frostbite, they endure weather far below zero and capture elk from their skis using a lasso.

Jenkins spent a month last February reporting the story, and trying the skis. “Our skis are not better,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins learned about the people from Nils Larsen, a ski instructor and ski historian who completed seven expeditions in the region and invited Jenkins along on a return trip.

The story immediately resonated with Jenkins, who grew up on a Wyoming ranch. The people, like his family, raise cattle and horses. It also combines two of his favorite things: skiing and elk hunting. “This seemed a perfect sort of story for me,” he said.

It also is a perfect story for people in Jackson.

“(The talk) is about elk hunting and it’s about skiing … probably the two things closest to the hearts of people in Jackson Hole,” Jenkins said.

“The Last of the First Skiers,” a talk by Mark Jenkins, 6 p.m., Thursday, at the Center Theater. Free. jhcenterforthearts.org.

About Kelsey Dayton

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