Backcountry-Horse-Skiing in Kyrgyzstan

July 8 2017
<p>Can a new extreme sport preserve an ancient culture? That’s what a nomad from Kyrgyzstan named Emil Ibakov is trying to prove with his invention of “backcountry-horse-skiing.” Climate change and urbanization are fueling the extinction of a 2,000 year-old nomadic lifestyle in Kyrgyzstan. But Emil’s new sport, which uses unique steppe horses to climb mountains and ski the backcountry, collides a mastery of ancient steppe horsemanship with modern alpine ski touring. It brings nomadic culture into the modern world of adventure tourism, and Emil hopes it just might preserve and even popularize nomadic lifestyle.</p><br> <p>For this project I will make a short film documenting Emil’s innovative approach to cultural preservation. The project focuses on Emil’s perspective as an entrepreneur in his community, how he created this new adventure sport and how he hopes it will ensure nomadic steppe traditions are maintained in the modern age. Centering on the local perspective, I will document modern nomadism, cultural elements of backcountry-horse-skiing and firsthand accounts from community members.</p> <p>We will be hosted in Emil's guesthouse in his village of Jyrgalan, partnering with Mountain Cluster Association and Jyrgalan Destination Management Organization. I am also employing Katya Borisova, one of Emil's partners and a local mountain guide fluent in Russian. She will get us access to the region’s yurt camps and backcountry-horse-skiing areas. </p> <p>Our doc is sponsored by the National Geographic Society and Google Jump Start VR.</p> <p>Produced By: Noam Argov</p> <p>Directed By: Alex Pritz and Noam Argov</p> Read background

July 8 2017


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Mission Underway

Made it into Kyrgyzstan and making our way to the Kyrgyz Ala-Too Mountain Range (the Tian Shan). Day 1 was spent on the road to Karakol from the capital Bishkek, driving down the windy roads of the high desert and shooting footage of the unique Kyrgyz horse around lake Issyk-Kul. It’s rare to find purebreds these days but you can still tell these horses are smaller and furrier than the North American or European breads. You can also see them grazing on grass alone and roaming the steppe, outside of stables.

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Wow! Great shots. How long is the trip in total? Adding flight, car, etc.

3 weeks!

Preparation Stage

So how do you pack for a horse-skiing documentary in the remote regions of eastern Kyrgyzstan?

That's where the fun of expedition packing comes in, especially when you're an adventure filmmaker and photographer. We've got quite the kit going and this is just the half of it. Usually when you pack for an international expedition that involves some sort of adventure sport you already have an enormous kit full of clothes and equipment (puffys, base layers, hardshell layers, ice boots, ropes, skis etc). But with a crew of filmmakers and photographers we also have to pack all of our media gear. As a producer I spend months honing my excel spreadsheets for our packing list and budget, making sure every single piece of gear to the last AA battery is accounted for. No Clif Bar can be left behind! And then even when we do pack everything perfectly there's always the infamous TSA reshuffle as we try to get all of the bags in the right weight range and make sure everyone can carry on their most valuable equipment (especially some of those peskily flammable lithium batteries that can't go in checked baggage). Bags often arrive late or get lost so I always try to organize my crew's carry-ons based on what we absolutely need to complete the expedition at a minimum, both in terms of camera equipment and outdoor gear.

It sounds like a lot to think about but it quickly becomes second nature and most of us have developed our own weird little packing systems. Sometimes it's not so much what to bring as what to bring it in. Here are the 5 main bags I used for this trip (and almost any other trip):

  1. "Big Blue" - my Speed 50L Black Diamond backpack that can pack down to a carry-on one minute and be taken on a multi-pitch ice climb the next. Using it as a carry-on for my camera equipment, laptop, toiletries and extra clothes in case bags are lost.
  2. The North Face Base Camp Duffel - It's massive, turns into a backpack and is really easy for yaks to carry in the Himalaya or for horses to carry in the Tien Shan. For this trip I packed everyone's ski boots and helmets in here, along with med supplies, snacks, and layers.
  3. Rossignol Super Haul ski bag - I fit three Alpine Touring skis in here and poles, plus avalanche safety gear and miscellaneous other items. Shoutout to Tahoe Sports Hub for hooking us up.
  4. Pelican Cases - For our precious camera gear. Especially that Google VR camera in the bottom left corner. We're carrying that on for sure.
  5. Ziplocks - I never travel without them and I take all sizes. They can fit medical supplies, electronics or snacks. They can be used as makeshift gaiters so your feet don't get wet or as dry bags for your clothes. It's the gift that keeps on giving.

See below for a peak into some of our media gear!


T minus 2 days until we leave for our Kyrgyzstan expedition so I'm reviewing a bunch of the books I've been using to do research over the last year. One of my favorite pieces is this old article in a 1936 copy of Nat Geo Magazine, titled "With the Nomads of Central Asia" by Edward Murray. It has incredible illustrations and photos from Murray's time living on the steppe. Pretty surreal to be on the brink of adding to that legacy and taking a look at modern nomads. That 1936 copy of Nat Geo is definitely one of the oldest (and coolest) things I own.


Are you taking a book or kindle with you in your kit?

I’m old school so I always bring 1-2 paperback books on expeditions in 2 gallon ziplock bags. Apparently Alex Honnold also brings real books on his trips so that makes me feel better :p

We are about 10 days away from heading out on our National Geographic expedition to eastern Kyrgyzstan. The Tian Shan mountains are no joke this time of year and Kyrgyzstan is notorious for its continental snow pack. That means cold and dry conditions like Colorado in the US that are perfect for high avalanche danger. I spent the last two weeks in the backcountry of Lake Tahoe, CA training in avalanche safety with Adrian Ballinger’s company Alpenglow Expeditions. I want to make sure I have the tools to keep myself and my team safe in the field. Highly recommend Alpenglow for AIARE certification and any big mountain expedition training. Check out the photo below!


Awesome Noam! Would love to hear how your T-2 weeks packing is going. How do you prepare for that kind of trip? What are you bringing?

This is so awesome Noam! Can't wait to hear more

Yes packing has been insane! Always a shuffle between outdoor technical gear and our camera gear. Will definitely be posting about it.

I am honored to announce that we received grant funding from the National Geographic Society for our expedition.

Noam Argov - the expedition PI - received the Early Career Grant from NGS to see this project through. The official project start date is scheduled for Jan 27, 2018. We will be embarking to Kyrgyzstan on that date to document horse-backcountry-skiing and the preservation of nomadic culture through extreme sports. Stay tuned!


Wonderful news! Congrats Noam!

Welcome to the tribe of Young Explorers (Early Career Grantees)! I'll post a link in the Young Explorer group on Facebook. Everyone will be really excited to follow along!

That’s amazing thank you! I don’t think I’m in that group yet! Can you add me? Thank you!

Expedition Background

Across the steppes of eastern Kyrgyzstan, nomadic communities are seeing their traditional lifestyle disappear. Facing receding glaciers, declining precipitation and expansion of urban centers, nomadism often results in poverty. However, in a small village in Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul region, a nomad named Emil Ibakov is taking an innovative approach to preserving his traditional culture and lifestyle. Emil is attempting to keep nomadism alive by integrating it into a new adventure sport: “Backcountry-Horse-Skiing.” Rooted in 2,000 years of heritage, backcountry-horse-skiing fuses equestrian traditions of the Central Asian steppe with modern alpine ski-touring. Using yurt camps as bases, participants ride steppe horses up the mountains with skis strapped to the horses’ backs, and then riders backcountry ski the alpine terrain. It creates a hybrid outdoor experience that allows Emil to practice steppe culture, while attracting travelers to Kyrgyzstan and teaching them about his traditions.

Krygyz nomadic culture is disappearing because steppe lifestyle (yurts, mobility, horsemanship) is increasingly unlivable. Nomadism is a food producing economy, relying on climate patterns to move livestock. Droughts and land degradation mean modern nomads find it hard to move around, causing poverty and agricultural uncertainty that forces abandonment of steppe life for the city. Because the lifestyle core to nomadic culture is disappearing, nomads are looking for new ways to make a living while maintaining their culture. Recognizing adventure tourism as one of the fastest growing sectors in Kyrgyzstan’s economy (World Travel and Tourism Council 2016), Emil is attempting to preserve nomadic traditions by blending them into a new adventure sport he can share with local communities and travelers. He hopes backcountry-horse-skiing will help steppe culture survive and influence the modern world.

How can backcountry-horse-skiing preserve nomadic culture? The traditional steppe horse is unique from any other breed, making its mastery core to Kyrgyz nomadism. Unlike sedentary breeds, steppe horses survive on grass and have unique hooves that kick through ice and snow to climb alpine terrain (like crampons or ski-skins). Moreover, skiing and alpinism is recently integrating into Kyrgyz identity. With 80% of the country covered in mountains, the Soviet Era brought outdoor education, mountaineering, and ski resorts to Kyrgyzstan. In the post-Soviet period, there is now a knowledge transfer of alpine skills to today’s nomads. Combined with post-Soviet resurgence of nomadic nationalism, the dual legacy of horsemanship and alpinism creates a ripe environment for backcountry-horse-skiing.

This story uniquely highlights Kyrgyz nomadism and the invention of a never-before-seen hybrid sport. Most narratives about Central Asia focus on the Mongolian Empire or Silk Road, while countries like Kyrgyzstan are rarely shown. The few narratives about Kyrgyzstan focus on its terrain and outdoor sports, but lack social and cultural context. I want this story to humanize Kyrgyzstan, showing adventure sport and geotourism from the perspective of its inventors and specifically documenting the new invention of Backcountry-horse-skiing. Instead of painting Kyrgyz nomads as victims to modernity, this story focuses on the nomads innovating traditions to preserve them.

Aside from the impending disappearance of Kyrgyz steppe culture pressing the timeliness of this project, this story also comes at a time when the concept of “nomad” is pop-culturally relevant. With yurts touted as “glamping,” and “digital nomad” used to describe today’s remote tech worker, there is a unique opportunity to educate audiences about the history and people behind these trends. Finally, the Issyk-Kul Region in Kyrgyzstan is becoming a hub for adventure sports in Central Asia (World Travel and Tourism Council 2016). Its nomads are at an inflection point in the economic role they play in Kyrgyzstan’s tourism. Unfortunately, indigenous peoples’ roles in shaping their country’s tourism industry is often overlooked, allowing for later exploitation. An example, which I work on first-hand, is the Sherpa of Nepal’s Khumbu Region and the high but hidden price they pay on Everest expeditions from years of being downplayed in the Everest narrative. I worry a similar fate for Kyrgyz nomads if we fail to capture their influence on Kyrgyzstan’s adventure tourism.

This project’s goal is to highlight a disappearing nomadic culture and the invention of an adventure sport as a tool for that culture’s preservation. It also aims to tell the story from the perspective of an innovator within the community at risk. While I’ve researched adventure tourism for sustainable development over the last 5 years, there is a lack in field research about its effects on cultural preservation. I see this project as a crucial first step for enhancing this knowledge and for showing audiences some of the most innovative ways communities are using tourism to survive. I hope sharing this story of ingenuity inspires other communities reconciling their traditional livelihoods with modernity. I also hope this story is a call to action for consumers of adventure tourism. What may be an adrenaline-inducing travel experience for one person, is a fight for the cultural preservation and livelihood of a community. I want this project to make us more thoughtful travelers, looking beyond the mountains we climb and ski to understand the cultures and and histories behind our exploration. A final objective is to drive more traffic to community-based geotourism in Kyrgyzstan, as these initiatives are crucial for the cultural and economic survival of nomadic communities.

In terms of capacity building, the project’s beneficiaries are the communities of Issyk-Kul Region, specifically in Karakol and Jyrgalan and Ak-Suu valleys. These communities increasingly rely on tourism for their livelihood and will gain from exposure to global audiences. Kyrgyzstan was recently ranked in the top 10 countries for a tourism boom by 2025 , as its contribution of tourism to GDP is one of the fastest growing globally (World Travel and Tourism Council 2016). I hope this film will not only increase Kyrgyzstan’s tourism, but also enhance tourism infrastructure development, a current barrier to tourism growth. Moreover, the UN World Tourism Organization noted adventure tourism as a unique tool for enhancing cultural heritage and raising awareness about biodiversity and conservation (United Nations World Tourism Organization 2014). This project’s potential to increase adventure tourism in Kyrgyzstan can help combat environmental concerns threatening the preservation of nomadic culture. Lastly, this film could bring additional outdoor vocational resources to the region. Increased training can fuel geotourism ventures and increase the safety margin for guides and tourists. Kyrgyzstan’s Community Based Tourism Association (CBT), which employs and trains nomads, will especially benefit. I hope a film in which an indigenous population is innovating its country’s tourism will fuel capacity building at a grass-roots level and avoid future exploitation of nomadic communities.


This is a great expedition and story, Noam. Excited to follow along!

Wow, I didn't know that Horse-Skiing is a thing!

Yes! It's a new invention but it's really picking up! So far I know 3 adventure tour companies offering it.