Wake up, drink coffee, eat breakfast, climb outside to ski—it’s a classic yurt-trip experience. But instead of emerging into Colorado’s snow-covered aspens or British Columbia’s blanketed conifers, you awake in a high-mountain pasture where 12,000-foot peaks surround the yurt’s traditional woolen-felt cover. It is the farthest out, most exotic yurt-based ski setting imaginable—and that is exactly what Ryan Koupal set out to create in Kyrgyzstan seven years ago.
Koupal—who lives outside of Boulder, Colorado—first visited Central Asia in 1999, staying along the Karakoram Highway near the China-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border. The wild, untouched region immediately intrigued him, but it wasn’t until 2004 that he began guiding high school and college students in that part of the world for the cultural education program Where There Be Dragons. As he led trips in China and Laos and later organized tours as a program director, Koupal became hooked on Central Asia.
By the time he visited Kyrgyzstan in 2008, he had decided to build his own operation. So he mixed his previous work at Where There Be Dragons with his long-time passion of splitboarding and founded 40 Tribes in 2010.
That name comes from a Kyrgyz epic poem that recounts the story of Manas, a national hero who united the area’s original 40 tribes to defend the land against invading Chinese. Eventually, those tribes became the Kyrgyz people who now offer great influence on 40 Tribes guests. “From the beginning it has been a goal of ours to highlight Kyrgyz culture and the hospitality that is associated with it,” Koupal says. “One thing I’ve learned about the Kyrgyz people—in particular, the guys that we’re working with—is that they will never give up. If something needs to get done, they will figure out a way to do it.”
That mindset helped Koupal through his first year in business, as he dealt with issues like political protests and hauling a yurt into the Kyrgyz Mountains using Soviet-era trucks, horses, sledges and manpower.
It’s not just the mountain yurts that are remote, the whole experience is. Clients fly Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, and drive six and a half hours to the village of Ichke-Jergez, located in northeastern Kyrgyzstan. There, they stay with a village family before skinning four miles to the yurts. “We have a lot of clients who say that they have never felt so off the map,” Koupal says. “You have Kazakhstan to your north and huge, 20,000-plus-foot peaks to your east. You feel like you’re at the edge of the Earth.”
Being the world’s farthest country from an ocean, Kyrgyzstan has an extreme continental snowpack. Luckily for Koupal, the 40 Tribes base camp sits above Lake Issyk Kul, the world’s second largest alpine lake, which offers plentiful lake-effect snowfall. “It’s very interesting to ski, that’s part of the lure of skiing there,” explains Ptor Spricenieks, a lead ski guide with 40 Tribes. “I’ve skied everywhere, but this is the closest you can get to skiing on liquid, because it’s so bottomless.”
Koupal employs two families during the season, including their primary local partner, Kasidin Munaev, who currently works at the yurt camp. Koupal plans to someday promote Munaev to tail guide. “He’s a super strong skier and…comes out touring with us every day,” Koupal says. “We are hoping he will be able to fill tail guide [and] through further education, a lead guide role. He has the potential to become Kyrgyzstan’s best backcountry ski guide.”
Koupal is also looking to help the village on a larger level. “We’re potentially working with a U.S. development agency… to get a snow culture center established,” Koupal says. “It would provide avalanche and mountain weather-related forecasting in our zone to benefit the different operations that are over there.”
In addition to weather forecasting, Koupal is busy growing 40 Tribes beyond Kyrgyzstan. He began taking clients to Svalbard, Norway two years ago and, last winter, to Georgia on the Europe-Asia border. This upcoming season, he’ll expand into Kamchatka in far-eastern Russia.
But even as Koupal develops 40 Tribes in new areas, Kyrgyzstan has left its mark since his first trip to the region. And between the bottomless powder and wild, untrammeled peaks, he plans to continue returning to the Kyrgyz highlands.