Calgary

Calgary man brings donated skis to remote Himalayan village

Waist-deep snow makes winter travel very difficult in the Zanskar region of the Indian Himalayas — unless you're on skis. That's why a Calgary man is hauling old gear to the area and teaching locals how to use it.

Ben Stephenson says skiing has become means of transportation for villagers during long winter

'Villagers would come wading through the snow to give letters to me to give to their relatives and friends in the next village,' says Ben Stephenson. (Zanskar Ski School/Facebook)

This story was originally published Sept. 6.


Waist-deep snow makes winter travel very difficult in the Zanskar region of the Indian Himalayas.

Calgary's Ben Stephenson discovered that first-hand while backcountry skiing through the area more than 20 years ago. 

"Villagers would come wading through the snow to give letters to me to give to their relatives and friends in the next village just a few kilometres away."

He also learned that most Zanskar kids don't go to school because it's too hard for them to get there, and those that do tackle the deep powder often fall ill because their clothes get wet.

"So at that point, the penny dropped, and I thought, 'Wow these guys could actually use skis to enhance their quality of life,'" Stephenson said.

A girl gives cross-country skiing a try at the Zanskar Ski School in the Zanskar region of the Indian Himalayas. (Thomas Zwahlen)

Hundreds of skis collected 

In 1997, Stephenson opened the Zanskar Ski School with Amin Zanskari, the first mountain guide in the region.

Since then, he's brought "several hundred" backcountry, cross-country and downhill skis to Zanskar. 

"The downhill aspect to the skiing is what's really taken off to my surprise because there's no lifts out there. So the kids will ski downhill, take their skis off walk back up the hill and have another go," he told the Calgary Eyeopener on Tuesday.

All the gear is donated, with much of it coming from guest ski instructors from around the world.

Ben Stephenson started bringing ski gear to Zanskar in 1997 after he realized that locals had no way to travel between villages in winter when the snow was waist-deep. (Ben Stephenson/Facebook)

Building mountain tourism

On Sept. 11, Stephenson will return to Zanskar with anchors, ropes, belays and harnesses to teach a week-long course in rock climbing. 

"We'll probably get 30 kids attending that course and the idea there is to slowly build the skill level through the community."

Stephenson is also planning to set up a rock climbing crag where locals can practice their skills and eventually, a "quality multi-pitch" route that will lure travellers to Zanskar.

The hope is that local youth will eventually be able to guide tourists in both summer and winter — bringing economic stimulus to the area.

A documentary film, called Shangku Shelter, about the Zanskar Ski School is in the works. It's scheduled to be released in 2017.


With files from the Calgary Eyeopener