Thanks to ancestors of Mongolian horsemen and warriors who trace their lineage to Genghis Kahn, winter hikers do not have to choose between either cross country skiing or snow shoeing. Rather, they can benefit from the centuries of experience of the Altai people, the indigenous Chinese citizens of the Altai mountain range, bordering China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Russia, who have mastered a hybrid form of winter snow travel, best described as “ski-shoeing”. This technique uses short and wide skis designed to enable walking up snowy hills as with snowshoes, but allows skiing downhill like with cross country skis yet enables sliding across level snow covered ground. And, ski-shoes, which are about 70-75% the length of traditional skis and weigh about 5-6 lbs. per pair, can break trail too.
The ski shoes, called Hoks, which means “skis” in the native Tuwa language of the Altai people, includes a fabric climbing ‘skin’ built in to the undersurface of the skis, as well as metal edges, commonly found on backcountry skis. The Altai Hok skis were designed to be more efficient than snow shoeing yet easy to learn even for non-skiers, Nils Larsen, president of Altai Skis, interviewed by phone from Curlew, WA, said. In fact, hikers can use their existing hiking or backpacking boot with the ski’s universal binding, or, use a cross-country ski boot with a different binding for increased control.
The Altai people have been using similar type skis for centuries or longer. They use horsehide, however, as the climbing skin, with the stiff hairs facing downhill to provide traction when climbing. The Hok skis use a similarly stiff but synthetic fabric. Unlike traditional cross country and down hill skis, the Altai people use only one pole, made of larch or birch wood, not two poles. Called a ‘tiak’ this one pole is held by both hands and dragged behind the skier to provide balance when skiing downhill. Larsen explained that using the one pole in this manner really improves stability. The pole is not used to propel the skier forward.
The Hoks could be used on as little as several inches of snow, Mr. Larsen said, and can be used to climb most hiking trails with the exception of thinly covered icy trails. They excel, though, in deeper snow. The Hoks can traverse exposed rocks but the skier has to walk over them like with snow-shoes. Compared to cross country skis, the Hoks are slower both on flat terrain and downhill, and they do not fit into groomed cross country tracks, Mr. Larsen said. But, he maintained, they are more efficient than snow shoes since the user can slide his foot forward each step instead of lifting it up. And, the shorter ski length makes the Hoks more maneuverable than longer skis when navigating around trees in wooded areas, he added.
The Altai people use their ski shoes for daily travel around their villages as well as tracking of Elk in their nearby forests. An Altai Elk hunt on ski shoes was well documented by National Geographic in their December 2013 issue (including some video footage of the Altai skiers nationalgeographic.com). Researchers suggest that short, wide skis lined with animal hair could date back thousands of years and may represent some of the earliest skis ever. Winter hikers may find that this simple design could enhance their winter adventures by making snow travel on the trail more efficient than with snow shoes and more versatile than with cross country skis.
Howard E. Friedman