Skishoes make winter exploration; from simple backyard outings, to multi-day adventures in the winter wilderness, easy, accessible, and affordable. Our mission is where you chose to make it be free to ski whenever and wherever there's snow.
I found this video the other day on Atlantic ( a great website). Sami (they use to be called Laps) are believed by many ski historians to have introduced the more modern Scandinavians (Norwegians/Swedish) to skiing.
There are some ski researchers that have put forth the idea that traditional reindeer herding was only made possible with the use of skis. Reindeer herding is believed to have started in the far east – north of modern day Mongolia – and spread north and west from there. All traditional reindeer herding cultures are documented to have used skis for herding, and some continue to use skis to this day.
In mid January, my daughter and her husband to be came up for the Hoks Festival at Sitzmark, and on a free day after the festival they joined Lisa and I for a day of touring in the Kettle Range. The weather was cool and snowy the whole day, and the snow finally had a supportable base, often lacking in the early to mid winter skiing in the Kettles. We did a lot of bushwhacking and found some powder on the way down…. All in all a great day in our local mountains.
January 20th 2018 is the 3rd annual Altai Skis Hoks and ski festival at Sitzmark Ski Area in NE Washington, Okanogan Highlands.
Nils’ Map of the Highlands Area with some skier points of interest
The Okanogan Highlands are a high mountainous area in the far north central part of Washington State. The Highlands are remote and very rural, and in the winter, cold and snowy. Sitzmark, one of the smallest ski areas in the state, has one chair and one rope tow. Views are expansive, north into Canada (less then 20 miles north), west to the North Cascades, and east to the Kettle Range. Sitzmark rarely gets a big snowpack but with consistent cold temperatures it does not lose much snow either.
Altai Skis has had a festival there for the last two years, featuring free demos, lessons, and tours. Discount lift tickets are available for those who wish to ride the lifts. Altai Skis will have Hoks and Koms there for people to try, Bring your own Hoks if you have them
Lisa and I (Nils) went up yesterday ( January 15th) to check out the conditions and skiing was great – cold snow and a beautiful day up there.
This article by Kade Krichko just came out (April 19th 2017) and is a fairly good discussion on what is going on these days in the Chinese Altai Mountains. I added a few pictures below from my trips to the Altai from the last 10 years.
In the summer of 2012, I initiated the Dukha Ethnoarchaeological Project. Ethnoarchaeology is the study of living people for the purpose of developing tools to aid in the interpretation of the archaeological record. I am an archaeologist at the University of Wyoming. I normally excavate sites of the first inhabitants of the New World, human occupations that are more than 10,000 years old. In those sites, we find hundreds or thousands of chipped stone artifacts and animal bones. Frustrated with my inability to make sense of spatial patterns in the archaeological record, I was inspired to study living people, people who still lived a traditional nomadic lifestyle, similar to those people I study archaeologically. I wanted to study how nomadic people use their living spaces and how the decisions that people make about how to use space relate to patterns in material residues left in the archaeological record. I turned to the Dukha, Mongolia’s reindeer herders who live in in the Sayan Mountains in Khövsgöl Province near the border of Russian Siberia.
A young Dukha and his deer.
The Sayan Mountains are a cold place, which is why reindeer are able to live there. The taiga where I work, called the “Right” or “West” Taiga, is at 51° north latitude, equivalent to southern Canada. In the winter, nighttime temperatures regularly drop to -40° C and in the summer, daily highs top out near 20° C. The Dukha are ethnically Tuvan and have a tradition of skiing. In fact, Tuvan peoples may have been the world’s first inventers of skiing. That said, in my four field seasons in the taiga, I have only seen one pair of traditional skis. I saw those in a spring camp earlier this year. It seems as if traditional skiing is slowly fading from the Dukha cultural repertoire.
My colleague, Matt O’Brien (California State University, Chico), and I purchased two pairs of Altai Hok skis for our fieldwork. We chose them for several reasons, but most importantly because they are short in length. They travel easily whether by plane, vehicle, horse, or reindeer. They are also wide, so they perform well in backcountry conditions.
My graduate student assistant, Spencer Pelton, and I spent the night of April 15, 2016 in a winter camp in the Harmai Valley, southwest of the small town of
Riding Out from Winter Camp
Tsagaannuur. We had arrived to camp two days before and planned to move with a Dukha family into their spring camp high in the taiga. We had a day of rest on account of weather; it snowed for 24 hours following our arrival. The morning of the move, everyone packed their belongings onto deer, and we began the long two day ride into the mountains on the backs of reindeer.
Sunlight glinted off of the snowy landscape as we rode into the mountains, and through our 500 m ascent, the snow grew deeper. In the valley bottom of winter camp, only 10 cm of snow had fallen. Where we camped that night in a place called Shamög, the snow was knee- to waist-deep. My Dukha friends made a roaring fire, and we drank tea, and ate bortsag (small pieces of fried dough) and boiled mutton ribs and back. An area was cleared of snow for sleeping. I had my -40° sleeping bag, but I was very happy when Khosbileg, my 18 year old Dukha little brother, put three layers beneath us (including a sheep skin blanket) and two more on top. I slept warm and comfortably under a million stars in a clear dark sky.
We knew the next day would be difficult, but we did not know how difficult. Mankhen Pass stood between us and our destination at 2,825 m in elevation. We had to climb another 650 m from our campsite, and conditions were not going to get any easier. At first, our deer handled the snow well, but on a steep climb, I watched Khosjargal’s deer get bogged down in deep snow. Khosjargal is 20 years old and probably weighs 65 kg, too much even for his artic-adapted mount. After prodding his deer to regain its footing and failing, he turned to me and said in Mongolian, “My snow machine is out of gas.” He dismounted and started trudging up hill in waist-deep snow, pulling his deer behind.
Adjusting packs on the way up the to the pass.
Our next two hours were like this. As we climbed upward, the deer struggled through deep powdery snow and Khosbileg and Khosjargal took turns breaking trail. The final climb to the pass was a challenge. It was very steep, and as we switchbacked up the slope, packs became unbalanced and fell off of exhausted deer. I pulled a train of three animals behind me as I walked up the last 50 m of ascent. There, struggling to regain my breath, I gave Spencer a high five, and said, “Let this officially be the end of winter.” I was so very wrong.
The author climbing to the top of the pass.
The back side of the pass was worse than the front. The snow was still deep and powdery, and the trail descended slowly. We stayed in the alpine zone for more than 10 km. Exhaustion was setting in from a vicious cycle of dismounting from tired deer, pulling the deer out of the snow, remounting from a base of powdery snow, riding 5 m or 10 m if you were lucky, and bogging down again.
After watching Khosjargal, his son, struggle downward this way for 45 minutes, Bayendalai rode up to me and said, “Can we use your skis?” “Of course!” I responded. Bayendalai is 59 years old. He was born and raised in the taiga. There is no one I would trust more in a difficult situation in the taiga than Bayendalai. I strapped on my Hok skis for the first time. Bayendalai tied two deer to my belt for me to pull behind, and I started skiing. I moved easily across the powdery snow, and the deer behind me, unburdened by my weight broke the trail for the long string of riders and pack animals behind. This is old taiga knowledge that Bayendalai’s sons, like me, were seeing for the first time. A person on skis can easily lead animals for breaking a trail. Khosbileg, Khosjargal, and I took turns breaking trail as we made our way down the mountain. At one point, Khosjargal turned to me and said, “My brother is an idiot”. I turned around to see 18 year old Khosbileg, the jokester, sitting on his deer’s saddle, straddling the animal with his skis. I laughed a much needed laugh on a hard day. Those skis saved us that day. If we did not have them, I think we would have spent a cold night in the snow without a fire in alpine tundra. With them, we made it to spring camp, and slept next to a hot wood stove in a warm dry ortz.
Our Altai skis were critical last spring. The taiga was snowy through June, and without them, our mobility would have been severely limited. They allowed us to explore and do research beyond the confines of spring camp. Bayendalai and Khosjargal went on a weeklong foray in search of lost reindeer. They asked if they could borrow a pair of skis. We were happy to oblige. It was the least we could do.
Bayendalai and Khosbileg packing Altai Hok skis onto a pack deer for an extended foray to search for lost reindeer.
Spencer Pelton, skiing through the forest to take measurements of larch trees
Skishoeing.com is the companion site to our Altai Skis.com site. We thought it would be good to have a informational site dedicated to using skishoes in the many ways people do.
You will find some posts on field work being done on Hoks, kids using them (the Hokstars!), schools, and some user posts as well.
We also will add instructional information over time, using skishoes in different terrain and conditions, as well as the pros and cons on different bindings, and, of course, using the Tiaks (single poles).
There will be lots of images (see the Gallery page) as well as some great new videos for this year.
We welcome comments, user feedback, requests, and contributions.
Rich Landers, longtime outdoor writer for the Spokesman Review in Spokane, WA joined us at the first Altai Skis Hok Festival at Sitzmark Ski Hill in the Okanogan Highlands of NE WA. Rich is a longtime nordic and backcountry skier and was curious about skishoeing. He picked it up quickly and wrote this great article on the sport in general. Just recently another appeared in the Seattle Times, you can see it here
Hok skiing on the North Country National Scenic Trail
I first heard of Hok skis several years ago from North Country Trail Association (NCTA) volunteers Jim & Jeri Rakness. They kept insisting that I really needed to try them out. At first, I couldn’t imagine what it was they were describing and, to be honest, I was a little skeptical. This is because I was quite happy snowshoeing, a favorite winter activity of mine. I’m lucky enough to snowshoe both for family fun and for my work for the NCTA. We usually scout and flag new sections of the North Country National Scenic Trail during the winter because we can actually see in the leafless woods and go more places when the ground is frozen.
NCTA volunteer Bruce Johnson using Hok skis on the North Country Trail in Minnesota’s Chippewa National Forest (Photo by Matthew Davis)
The last several winters here in northern Minnesota; however, have not delivered adequate snowfall for snowshoeing. So, last winter when I was invited to go out with some local NCTA volunteers on a backcountry ski outing I decided to finally try it. We went across a frozen lake and some connected wetlands/beaver ponds because there was only about 2” of snowcover on the ground. It was fantastic and love at first try with the Hok skis. This past fall, I purchased a pair of Hoks and anxiously waited for the first snowfall. I first tried them out at a January 2nd backcountry exploration hike in Itasca State Park (source of the Mississippi River’s headwaters). The conditions were perfect for the Hoks.
Skiers and hikers explore the Itasca State Park backcountry (Photo courtesy of Kevin Cederstrom / Park Rapids Enterprise)
Several other hikers asked to try out the Hok skis during the event. All enjoyed them and one person bought a pair that night.
Spreading the word at NCTA’s Winter Trails Day events
I also thought that backcountry XC skiing with the Hok skis would be a great addition to our Winter Trails Day events where we typically introduce people to snowshoeing. Last winter, I had only one attendee at a free Learn to Snowshoe Clinic because there just wasn’t enough snow for people to get excited about trying it. While this winter has delivered more snow than last year, it’s still not deep enough for me to need snowshoes – which are pure work to walk with when they’re not needed for flotation. I was hoping that the inclusion of the backcountry XC skiing component and having pairs of Hoks on hand for people to try out would attract more interest. That turned out to be the case.
On January 30th, we hosted a Winter Trails Day event at the MSUM Regional Science Center just east of Fargo, ND. While the crowd was small (there was a big winter festival going on in town), everyone there was excited to try out the Hok skis. We found a little patch of wind drifted snow in the prairie and people skied around and enjoyed themselves. Several participants commented that they were going to look at buying a pair. We hosted a Winter Trails Day event on February 6th at Detroit Mountain Recreation Area in Detroit Lakes, MN that drew a good crowd. While most admitted they were there to try snowshoeing, several did venture out on the Hok skis and had an enjoyable experience. A few inquired about where they could buy a pair. Later that afternoon, we had a new participant show up for our guided hike/ski on the North Country Trail and she really enjoyed it. After these experiences I’m convinced that if people interested in winter sports will try a pair of Hok skis they’ll love it. Many will want to purchase a pair. I can envision a time – maybe five or ten years from now –when local outdoors stores in northern Minnesota will carry Hok skis. At this same time, our guided winter events on the NCT will feature equal numbers of snowshoers and Hok skiers.
A new skier trying out the Hok skis at the Winter Trails Day clinic at Detroit Mountain Recreation Area (Photo by Matthew Davis)
Jim & Jeri Rakness and I enjoy the NCT on a Wildlife Tracking Trek (Photo by Matthew Davis)
Top 5 reasons why Altai Hok skis are perfect for the North Country Trail:
Because lately we haven’t received good enough snow for snowshoeing or XC skiing. While these are the more traditional winter silent sports activities here in MN & ND, they do require more snow than Hoks.
Because they are more efficient in covering ground than snowshoes and winter hiking. You have the ability to glide on each step and also to ski down the hills.
Because you can go just about anywhere with them on – across a frozen lake, up a frozen river, down a trail, etc.
My wife Lisa and I initiated a 3 year non-invasive moose population study in the Northern Range of Yellowstone National Park and adjacent Custer-Gallatin National Forest in 2013. The goal of the study was to use non-invasively collected DNA to estimate population size and parameters of the northern Yellowstone moose. With advances in genetic technology, our collaborating geneticists at the University of Minnesota Duluth are able to extract DNA from epithelial cells on the surface of moose pellets (feces) and determine an individual’s genetic identity and gender. Technicians at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia analyze the concentration of pregnancy hormones form those pellets that we know are from female moose and can tell us if the moose is pregnant. Based on pellet volume we are also able to differentiate between 3 age classes of moose (calf, yearling and adult). We plug all this information into computerized capture/recapture models and we can generate fairly accurate estimates of population size and rates of population increase and survival.
Because DNA can quickly denature on the surface of moose pellets, the best time to collect them is the winter when they are frozen and remain so until lab analysis. Lisa and I, with the help of some volunteers, constitute the field crew that systematically surveys every stream drainage in northern Yellowstone National Park that are known to hold wintering moose or winter moose habitat for pellet samples. Since we need to cover almost 1,000 miles between the two of us each winter we need to use the most efficient mode of snow travel that is permitted in the Park – Skis! For two months each winter (December 15-January 15 and the month of April) we scour drainages that contain both willow and adjacent mature conifer forest (the most important wintering habitat for northern Yellowstone moose) for fresh moose tracks. Tracks are followed until we find pellets, pellets are collected, and then we move onto the next track.
The gear we choose needs to be light but durable as we are in the field for at least 25 days of each month. We prefer Garmont Excursion boots (Now Scott Excursions), Black Diamond Traverse ski poles, Madshus Annum and Epoch skis, and Altai Hok skis. All skis are mounted with Voile 3-pin bindings. The Madshus skis are used primarily when the days are long, the snow is deep, and we are carrying heavy loads for multi-day trips. The Hoks are our secret weapon for when snow conditions are variable and some hiking is required or when the vegetation is so thick that navigating with long skis is impossible. The Hoks have been especially useful when we have conducted field work on Isle Royale, MI where much of the moose habitat is a tangle of balsam fir and white cedar……… More on our research in posts to come!