In February, 2012, The North Face athletes Izzy Lynch, Leah Evans, and Mike Hopkins traveled to Kyrgyzstan to explore the Tien Shan Mountains and shoot the short film Jalpak Tash: A Kyrgyzstan Epic. They didn’t know what to expect, but they found untracked mountains, hot borscht, and a bus driver with two left feet.
What did you know about Kyrgyzstan before arriving?
Leah: When I got a call in early December from filmmaker Anthony Bonello asking me if I would like to go on a ski trip to Kyrgyzstan, I sheepishly asked if I could call him back, because I had no idea where this “Stan” was located. I then called one of my best friends who is fascinated with Central Asia and she told me about the location, culture, and political situation. I asked her if I should go and she said, without hesitation, “Yes.”
What was it like arriving in Bishkek?
Izzy: Frigid. The first day in Bishkek might have been one of the coldest days of my life. We were so excited to explore the markets and get a feel for the urban landscape and the history that surrounds Bishkek as a former Soviet city, but the cold made me wonder how we were going to survive a week in the yurt. By the second day, I had surrendered to wearing my down booties around the city and discovered that we were never more than a few steps away from a hot bowl of borscht… Things were looking up!
Who is Ryan Koupal?
Leah: Ryan is from Colorado and spent three seasons exploring Central Asia before creating 40 Tribes Backcountry as an initiative to help generate winter tourism in Kyrgyzstan that employs local people in rural areas—a man with vision who is willing to follow his dreams and help people along the way.
Mike: I have never seen someone so passionate about what he does and his area. He is like a kid out of Peter Pan with his “Lost Boys Club” at the yurt. He is definitely here for the soul of the area.
Who is this Schumacher character? What is his van all about?
Izzy: Schumacher! He is this hilarious Russian man with the dirtiest hands and raddest smile. He has this beat up old Soviet military vehicle that we crammed full of ski gear and people to get wherever we needed to go. There is no way it was road worthy… which is probably why he detoured through a farmer’s field and around back roads when he heard there were police on the road up ahead.
Leah: Schumacher is the only man I know who has two left ski boots. Upon meeting our group he immediately went to his van and pulled out a rear entry boot and said, “left, left” stating that he only had left footed ski boots.
You went there to explore new terrain and managed to ski a few first descents.
Mike: The Tien Shan mountains are unreal. Range after range of black jagged rock that only seemed to get bigger as the horizon faded. We definitely had a difficult time working our way into zones. The avalanche conditions were sketchy at best. In the beginning, the snow conditions were humbling to say the least, but through it all we managed to ski some super-fun terrain. Just being in those mountains was amazing, but having the chance to actually lay in a series of turns where no one else had put things on another level.
What does Jalpak Tash mean?
Mike: Jalpak Tash is the name of the spot where the yurt is. Apparently it is an old Kyrgyz name, and according to our local hosts, Kasidin and Anarbek, it means “flat balls.” That’s what they said.
What was it like skiing with Ptor Spricenieks?
Mike: I didn’t know too much about Ptor before I met him, but as the week went on, the stories grew. One time he was salmon fishing on British Columbia’s west coast and he was getting seasick. To medicate, he decided to catch a fish, cut it open, pull out its heart while it was still beating, and eat it. That pretty much sums up Ptor.
How did this trip change your perception of the “Stans”?
Leah: Unlike other ski trips, I valued our time in the cities as much as in the mountains, largely due to the fact that Kyrgyzstan only gained independence 10 years ago from the Soviets. There is little sign of Americanization, like popular restaurant chains or clothing brands, however, there is a strong presence of ‘Russianization.’
Check out some photos here, and come back tomorrow for the online premiere of the film, “Jalpak Tash; A Kyrgyzstan Epic”.