Malam Jabba, Pakistan’s only ski area, was utterly destroyed by the Taliban in 2008. However, an enterprising group of locals rigged a makeshift ski lift on the Malam Jabba ski hill and this week are celebrating skiing with a week-long festival of competitions and fun called Skiing for Peace.
Malam Jabba lies in an area renowned for natural beauty, tucked into the scenic Swat region between the mighty Hindu Kush and Karakoram ranges. Skiing, like dancing, is considered illegal by the Taliban. To ensure no sinful schussing, the Taliban destroyed the base area and the ski lift to the point that no sign of the lift remained; the base area is a hulking ruin.
But skiing has survived. With the Taliban ousted from Swat the skiers are trying again. Someone rigged a ski lift with a recycled motor, and some ski gear is homemade with skis made from wooden boards with old shoes nailed to them and sticks of wood for poles. Lucky skiers get their hands on real skis. Even 1960s ski technology is cutting edge in Malam Jabba.
Matee Ullah Khan runs the country’s only ski school, using it’s 15 pairs of battered skis to teach people to ski. In an article in the BBC, Khan explains that he sees skiing as an important part of the health of mountain people. In the BBC article he's quoted as saying:
"It keeps you alive - especially the spring skiing when the temperature starts to warm, and the snow starts melting, but at night the temperature falls and frozen ice crystals form on the top layer of the snow. When you start sliding down it in the early morning, breaking that ice, it produces a very good sound and you can feel it down your skis. We say that having one run on this spring snow makes you young for a year."
Kahn's may be the best words ever spoken about skiing...
For now, skiing in Malam Jabba will remain a ramshackle endeavor. The cost of rebuilding the resort has been determined by the government to be not worth the small volume of tourism it would bring to the area. Perhaps visionaries like Matee Ullah Khan will keep skiing alive in Pakistan long enough to see the area once again become a ski destination.
I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more moving story about skiing, nor have I ever felt luckier to live where I do. I’ve skied enough spring snow to make me feel young for several lifetimes, and am free to dance and ski to my heart’s content. Kahn should be inducted into Skiing's Halls of Fame, and somehow we should send hundreds of pairs of used skis, boots and poles to Malam Jabba.
"The children of the area are very happy that we are skiing again. It's a good message that peace has been restored or is being restored in Malam Jabba," says Kahn in the BBC article.
That says it all. I think my next dream ski trip will be in honor of the skiers of Malam Jabba.
How lucky are we? Photo of Heli-Skiing in Canada at CMH Bobbie Burns by Topher Donahue.