Last of the First Skiers • Jonas Bendiksen • Magnum Photos

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Arts & Culture

Last of the First Skiers

Jonas Bendiksen documents one of the oldest skiing cultures in the world

Jonas Bendiksen

Jonas Bendiksen Serik using his skis as an anchor while an elk battles him. They use only their traditional skis and leather hide ropes. This is the traditional way of hunting in the Altai, practiced for thousands (...)
Jonas Bendiksen Ashatu helping Tursin make holes in the skis for the horsehide bindings. To make a new pair of skis, Tursin fells a Red Spruce tree in the woods and immediately uses an axe to plane the logs into b (...)
Jonas Bendiksen Tursin (24), his wife Wurla (25), and son Eneral in their self-built house. Tursin is an expert skier and skimaker. Hamlet of Akorum, Altai Mountains, Xinjiang, China, 2013. © Jonas Bendiksen | Magnum Photos
Jonas Bendiksen The traditional skiers heat water over the campfire, while on a mutli-day excursion. Altai Mountains, Xinjiang, China. 2013. © Jonas Bendiksen | Magnum Photos
Jonas Bendiksen Pathnasa, Tashken and Patan stop for a smoking break during a trek up the mountain side. Hamlet of Kathenghar, Altai Mountains, Xinjiang, China. 2013. © Jonas Bendiksen | Magnum Photos
Jonas Bendiksen Ashatu readies a piece of horse hide that Serik nails unto the bottom of Tursin's new ski. To make a new pair of skis, Tursin fells a Red Spruce tree in the woods and immediately uses an axe to pla (...)
Jonas Bendiksen Kanas, a small village in the upper Altai, where a few hundred Kazakhs and Tuwans live. In local tradition the three days after the Chinese new year are continuous festivities, where the men have (...)
Jonas Bendiksen Pathnasan using his axe to open up a cow's bone for marrow. The Tuwa celebrate with dancing, meat-eating, visting neighbors and a 'breaking of the bone' ritual. Hamlet of Kathenghar, Altai Mountai (...)
Jonas Bendiksen A man trying to get his horse to stand by dragging his tail. Altai mountains, Xinjiang, China. 2013. © Jonas Bendiksen | Magnum Photos
Jonas Bendiksen Ashatu carrying a heavy log for firewood, which they use to keep warm in the forest camp. Altai Mountains, Xinjiang, China. 2013. © Jonas Bendiksen | Magnum Photos
Jonas Bendiksen Outside the vilalge of Hkom, a horseman tries to free his animal that is stuck in the deep powder snow. When the snow is too loose and deep, horses cannot move beyond prepared paths - thus the trad (...)
Jonas Bendiksen Traditional skier charging down a mountain side. Skiers in the area use a single wooden staff, as opposed to the modern two-pole technique, and the base of their handcrafted skis have horse-hides p (...)
Jonas Bendiksen Batwulza chopping firewood while on his skis. Skiers in the area use a single wooden staff, as opposed to the modern two-pole technique, and the base of their handcrafted skis have horse-hides perm (...)
Jonas Bendiksen Tursin and his friends chasing down an elk, using only their traditional skis and leather hide ropes. Altai Mountains, Xinjiang, China, 2013. © Jonas Bendiksen | Magnum Photos

In January 2013, photographer Jonas Bendiksen went to document the last remnants of an ancient culture that exists high up in the Altai Mountains in the far corner of the Xinjiang province, China.

The population comprises a mixture of ethnic Kazakhs, Mongolians, and Tuwas, who handmake their wooden skis in the same way as their forefathers did thousands of years ago. Archeological findings show this region may be the birthplace of skiing, surpassing that of northern European countries. Bendiksen had the rare privilege to join their skiing and hunting trips, and to follow the making of these traditional skis.

For thousands of years, the skis have been used to hunt elk, bear, and other animals, and only a few skiers still know these ancient winter hunting skills. The skis, with horse-hair skins underneath to give traction on the uphill, shows what skis might have looked like in centuries past. As modernity approaches via new winter roads, the internet and access to cities, the ancient skills are in danger of dying out.