February 04, 2017

Out of Asia, Always Something Old

Float like a snowshoe, glide like a ski

At 145cm, Altai's Hok backcountry ski
is about the same length as my old Army
surplus trail shoes — but they glide, some.

When it comes to outdoor sports, Americans tend to favor gear over technique. We want to ride or ski on what the racers use, or what the pros use. "I know that this $1,200 fly reel machined from unobtainium alloy will make me a better angler!"

I chuckle a little at the converts to tenkara fly-fishing with their newly learnt Japanese vocabulary, because I think it is just the 17th-century English fly-fishing that Izaak Walton would have recognized — but with contemporary high-tech materials.

Yet I appreciate and support the minimalism of tenkara. A rod, a line, a few flies —go do it! It really works.

Getting around in the snow.

I have owned snowshoes since my teens, then got cross-country skis in my twenties (I wish that I had started sooner). 

Both let you move through snowy landscapes (not too steep). Both have long historical pedigrees. We identify snowshoes with North American Indians, but they were also used in Stone Age Europe. They are what you make with stone tools. 

With metal tools, you can cut and shape boards, giving you skis. Archaeologists suggest that skis were invented in Central Asia, but maybe they were invented independently in Scandinavia.

In a century, ski touring bindings went from simple straps that you slip your toe under (why Finns wore boots with turned-up toes) to these (or fancier). Synthetics largely replaced wood.

Ski like a Mongol/Tuvan/Kazakh/Siberian

Even as tenkara gets rid of the reel and the long fly line, a new Asian-inspired approach to ski touring takes a middle road between snowshoing (slow, utilitarian) and Nordic skiing (faster but trickier on steep slopes).

Some skiers are even getting rid of ski poles and returning to a simple stick, like these guys:


Or, more appropriately, like these guys — contemporary skiers in the Altai Mountains.
Contemporary Altai Range skiers. OK, I do see some ski poles there. (Photo: Alta Skis)
Formed in 2011, with offices in the US and Canada, Altai Skis revived the Central Asian style of wide skis with skins permanently attached. Their first model, the Hok (from Tuvan for "ski"), comes in just two adult lengths, 125cm and 145cm (and a 99 cm kids' model). It has metal edges and a permanently installed nylon skin with waxable Ptex tips and tails.

If you're more of a snowshoer at heart, you can buy bindings that fit any winter boot. If you come from an x-c ski background, you can get regular or cable 75mm three-pin bindings or adaptors for other styles, like NNN.

And for forty bucks, they will sell you a Tiak ("stick") if you can't make your own.

The problem with skiing here in the southern Rockies is that good snow and gentle terrain does not happen often enough. To get good snow, you have to move into more rugged forested areas and break trail. Lots of people use snowshoes with ski poles, which seems silly on level ground but helps when you're in powder on a slope.

After decades of flipping between speed (x-c skis) and flotation (snowshoes), I learned about the Altai Skis and bought a pair of 145cm Hoks (They also have a slimmer, faster backcountry model called the Kom,with fishscale waxless bottoms.)

I put three-pin cable bindings on them, because I have the boots, and in a nod to old-school skiing, have been using some old bamboo poles. I always wanted to be the last guy in Colorado with bamboo poles. One day I will cut a pine stick though; skiers with sticks do have an archaic silhouette. The stick is for balance and braking, but does not give the diagonal-stride push of the ski pole.

I took them out for two short test runs along the Sangres and then yesterday for a two-hour trip along the base of the Sawatch Range. My first thought was "Comfortable! I can go right into the trees with these."

The first two trips were more for familiarization and adjusting bindings. Yesterday I alternated between following a marked trail and going into untracked snow, up to knee-deep with some wind crust in places.

The Hoks certain held me up better than my skinny skis as I moved from soft snow to crusted powder to packed powder-and-ice. But unlike with snowshoes, I could get a little bit of a glide. Breaking trail is always work no matter what you use.

I have not yet used the Hoks in fresh deep powder, but an opportunity will come.

• • •

About that headline: The Romans used to say, "Semper aliquid novi Africam adferre" (Out of Africa, always something new.) They in turn got it from the Greeks, but to them it had the connotation of "Out of Africa, always something weird."

Aristotle, (384 to 322 B.C.), referred to the proverb in two of his books, Historia Animalium and Generatione Animalium, to explain the wild mélange of animals in Africa. He wrote that many of the animals unique to Africa were strange hybrids, suggesting that the lack of water forced the animals to meet at watering holes where they mated indiscriminately with one another.

1 comment:

Woody Meristem said...

Interesting. If I remember correctly, Trek made a very wide, but short, cross-country ski about 30 years ago which would have been very similar to the Altai ski.

Glad to hear you like the old bamboo cane ski poles, I've got four pairs and may be the last person in Pennsylvania to use them. I especially like the large baskets that don't go through a crust and then get stuck like the newer poles.