Chinese Downhill

Never mind the prevailing wisdom that skiing was invented in Austria or Scandinavia. It was created in western China’s Altai Mountains. The film crew went to meet the living representatives of the oldest ski-bum lineage on earth.

WARREN MILLER CAMERAMAN CHRIS Patterson first heard of an ancient ski culture deep in China’s northwestern frontier on an NPR program while driving around his hometown of Bozeman, Montana, in August of 2008. Documentary filmmaker Nils Larsen of provided further evidence. Six months later, after discovering at the eleventh hour that visas and guides were available, a crew consisting of myself, Patterson, skiers Chris Anthony and Austin Ross, and cinematographer Colin Witherill found ourselves on the wrong end of horse-drawn sleds heading into the coldest of continental Asia’s winter nights. The notion of a “fun horsey ride” to go skiing somewhere in northwestern China had long evaporated into a somewhat serious case of “It’s dark and I’m freezing, and where the hell are we going?”

What we did know was that the basic geography of the Altai Mountains, a range that runs through Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia, and China, would at the very least offer some skiing. We hoped to meet some of the skiers Nils Larsen had filmed, but we weren’t convinced we’d be so lucky. That all became an afterthought once my long johns would hike no higher, my frozen breath iced and covered the back of my camera, and we became concerned for our digits—that’s how cold it was.

Two days later, after a brief stop in a village called Kanas, we came to a farmhouse, the inside of which was lit by a single bulb. A cranking fire kept it warm; a few of the lambs stayed inside and helped maintain the heat. Exhausted, we bunked down and awoke the next day to a fresh foot of the driest powder we’d ever seen.

At the Axiabulak ranch, when the chores are done, the skiing begins. We followed Munke Bayan, the patriarch of Axiabulak, right out the back and through the snow-covered pasture to the bowls behind the ranch. It’s not as if we had to convince him to ski—it’s what he does. The eldest of three brothers who climb and ski these pitches with the aggression of Genghis Khan, from whom they’re likely descended, shredded circles around us on pieces of felled spruce strapped to canvas sneakers with rawhide thongs.

Word of our visit spread through the valley. Within a few days, several of the area’s best rippers came to show off for the cameras with airs, face shots, and straightlines. Kodak courage is universal: It’s an impulse felt by the entire world.