Marquee Image: James Robertson/Bamyan Ski Club
When the two men slid through the finish line in the World Alpine Ski Championships at St. Moritz last week, they didn’t have quite the same crowds that lined the racecourse at Corviglia, the slope where champions like France’s Tessa Worley and Switzerland’s Beat Feuz would clinch gold. Coming in 73rd and 74th out of 75 finishers, they didn’t qualify for the main event, the men’s giant slalom at Corviglia, which takes just the 50 top finishers from the qualifiers.
But what they did was still a historic first.
The two men—Sajjad Husaini, 25, and Alishah Farhang, 26—were the first skiers from Afghanistan ever to complete in the world championships. The hope is that this is just one step toward a national team for Afghanistan… and the Olympics next year.
The story of how the two skiers came from Afghanistan to St. Moritz—where they have spent the last three seasons training—involves, like the sport itself, both passion and teamwork.
"We are not aiming for a gold medal or a victory for my country," says Farhang. "We are trying to show a positive image of Afghanistan to the world. When people hear Afghanistan, they think war, violence, killing each other. I cannot ignore that. It is some of that. But it’s not as much as you hear in the media. And we can bring a positive change through sport."
Both Husaini and Farhang were living at Bamyan, at large town at 8,200 feet in the Hindu Kush of central Afghanistan. Winter there can last half a year, and the peak is snow-capped even in June. But neither of them had ever thought about skiing before.
"I had no idea what this ‘ski’ is. I didn’t watch it on the TV," says Farhang. Although some locals from the area do make wooden skis by hand, he says, until a few years ago, he wouldn’t have even understood what they were for. "I didn’t ski on these wooden skis. Never. Because I had no idea—what are these ‘skis’?"
And then, about six years ago, a Swiss reporter named Christoph Zürcher found himself stuck near Bamyan, trapped thanks to fighting on the roads.
"You sit there and you look at those mountains," Zürcher says. "As a Swiss, you can imagine it doesn’t take too long before you think about skiing. ‘Hey, guys, does anybody ski here?’ They said ‘Ski, what’s that?’ And then I said, ‘Oh, what a shame.’ And decided to go back to Switzerland and organize 30 pairs of skis and ski boots to bring back."
Soon after first bringing equipment to Bamyan, Zürcher helped organize a ski club along with others who saw the area’s potential, including Italian mountain guide Ferdinando Rollando, who was also passionate about skiing in Afghanistan; Rollando tragically died in an accident in the Alps in 2014. Based in Zurich, the Bamyan Ski Club is a nonprofit that’s introducing skiing to locals, as well as raising Bamyan’s profile as a ski resort for foreigners.
Getting locals to become interested in skiing wasn’t quite as easy as Zürcher had expected. At first, they were wary of strapping the equipment to their feet and sliding downhill.
"In the end we just dished out $10 bills," Zürcher says, laughing. But even then, it wasn’t easy. Most would try for a day or two, then—surprised at just how tricky it was—give it up.
So Zürcher and the others had an idea: They’d run an Afghan Ski Challenge, a ski race taking place over a two-mile course. The winner would receive a Swiss watch. Every year, the number of participants in the contest grew a bit more. This year, there were around 80.
Two of the winners—Farhang and Husaini—got more than a Swiss watch. They also have been given training with a professional coach for two months a year in St. Moritz, as well as food and lodging in the infamously pricy resort (courtesy of the town itself). And, of course, two slots in this week’s championships.
Even if they didn’t win the race, both Farhang and Husaini have come a long way since their first days on skis. Both were inspired to take up the sport when they saw the ski club’s members on snow. But even though they wanted to try the sport, it wasn’t always easy.
The first time Farhang tried skiing, he said, the guide he was with took him to a high, steep slope.
"That was a very difficult experience. I was just rolling over into the snow, and I did not like it at all that day. The next day, I took a day off because I was so tired," he says. "Then another day I said, 'OK—I’m going to try in a flatter part.' Then it was more fun."
Coming to St. Moritz for the first time, meanwhile, was another hurdle. There was culture shock and being away from family—but even the mountain and the conditions were different.
"Our mountain is higher. Even the Bamyan town is very high; it is 2,500 meters above the sea level," says Husaini. "The snow—here it is more wet, Bamyan is more dry." At Bamyan, he goes on to explain, the snow is so light, you feel like you’re floating. Here, he had to learn to carve.
On the other hand, infrastructure at St. Moritz—the world's first winter resort—affords much better access. Bamyan doesn’t have anything in the way of a rope tow; any skiing has to be earned the hard way.
"Every day, sometimes three hours, sometimes four hours, we have to walk up, and then it’s 10 or 15 minutes of skiing down. You are a really good skier if it’s just one and a half minutes," Husaini says.
One thing, though, has remained the same whether they’re skiing in St. Moritz or Bamyan: the fun of it.
"When I was a child, I would also do some sledding on the snow," Husaini says. "But when I saw [the skiers at Bamyan] I thought, ‘Oh, this is even more amazing than the sledding.’ And faster. And more joyful."