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text and images by Kate Harris

Cold Windy Day
Alison Criscitiello muscles across the Pamir Plateau during the Borderski expedition.

Kate Harris is a writer and adventurer who lives off-grid in Atlin, British Columbia. Named one of Canada’s top modern-day explorers, her journeys edging the limits of nations, endurance, and sanity have taken her to all seven continents, often by bike or ski. Her first book, Lands of Lost Borders, is forthcoming from Knopf Canada. The Borderski expedition was made possible by a Scott Pearlman Field Award for Science and Exploration, provided through The Explorers Club. For more information:

We hesitate on the edge of nowhere. Huge distances of sky, a stubble of rock laced with snow. Mountains notched by ice, as though counting down the days until freedom. This high pass in February is bleached of color except for our ski jackets and a lichen so orange it looks like spilled paint. I keep catching glimpses of those garish splotches and confusing them for warning signs, the kind that usually say: NO TRESPASSING.

“Are we there yet?” asks Rebecca, but the roar of the wind steals away her question. Cold burrows beneath my shoulder blades. At 4,875 meters in the Pamir Mountains, the air feels thin and bitter in my lungs, just this side of breathable. Alison hunkers over the GPS, trying to get a reading. “Maybe three more meters?” she guesses. 

Three meters on, the world looks undifferentiated, dreamlike, which doesn’t explain why my stomach is churning simultaneously with both dread and the giddiness of getting away with something. Namely, crossing the invisible line that separates tourists from fugitives in these parts, and in the case of women, people from property. And wandering without visas or permission into what is lawfully another nation.

But that’s just one way of looking at Afghanistan. We see the same spill of rock and ice, the same sky spanning everything. What makes more rational sense of this scene: a political wall, or a continuous planet? The three of us have come here to refuse fences and their smug realities. To study changes of state from snow to bare dirt, one country to the next. To push ourselves to the point of geographic apostasy. And, in the process, hopefully avoid landing in prison.

In the states that once comprised the former Soviet Union, “ski” appended to a noun colloquially means “of the.” Pamirski, for example, is an expression of identity for people living in the Pamir. These mountains form the nexus of the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Kunlun ranges, as well as the frontiers of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, and western China. According to local syntax, then, the name of our expedition, Borderski, is both a description of what we’re trying to do, namely ski the borders, but also an allusion to the larger political order we’re all enmeshed in.

I’m carrying my passport on the Tajik-Afghan frontier, more out of a nagging superstition than diplomatic necessity. This tactically useless border lacks any deterrent beyond a stubborn remoteness. No guards, no fences, no checkpoints, no bribes. Just yak dung pearled with frost on a high pass, sheep wool burred to boulders, vague tracks stenciled into the talus.

Whether wildlife or people etched these paths, we can’t tell. Either way, Alison, Rebecca, and I are hardly the first to trespass this border. The Pamirs are terra incognita, sure, but only to us, just as the Silk Road was foreign to Marco Polo, but familiar to everyone he met along it. Just as the wild species of sheep eventually named for the so-called explorer, Ovis ammon polii, was novel to Europeans, but old news to Pamirski.

We haven’t come here to blaze new trails, but to chase Marco Polo sheep along the oldest ones, grooves worn into the earth by wandering herds who for millennia have remained blissfully ignorant of the political borders placed in their way. The kinds of fences that, for the longest time, had to be believed to be seen. But they’re steadily transmuting into barbed wire, particularly on the partially “secured” Chinese frontier. Given the world’s ratcheting trend toward militarization, the Pamir Mountains, like wild fringes everywhere, risk being subdivided into fenced parcels, with devastating consequences for migratory species, who require vast tracts of connected land to live.

Whether our expedition is a paean or elegy for unfenced country, then, is a matter of perspective, as is the purpose of a wall: to keep things in, or block them out?

Snow is a thin white shim holding the sky apart from the earth, just barely, and in some parts of the Pamir not at all. After a week of skiing the Zorkul valley—tracking the glittering Afghan border, occasionally tiptoeing across it, searching for Marco Polo sheep along the way—an oasis of bare dirt stops us dead. 

Warm temperatures aren’t the problem; nights regularly plunge below -35ºC, prompting even Alison, who studies ice cores for a living, to admit to feeling a little chilled. The issue isn’t low precipitation either. Elsewhere in Tajikistan, avalanches are swallowing cars, burying roads, and generating headlines that panic our families back home. But they needn’t worry; we are aridly, frustratingly safe. In our corner of the Pamir, snow falls any way but down.

We blame the wind. It comes at us and at us, endless, iterative, with wind nested in wind. It renders our bare cheeks into chapped pink suede. It throws the snow sideways in a kind of airy glacier, a cold mist, and there’s no predicting what contours will catch those drifts. Certain valleys are wiped clean of snow, others heaped to heaven with it. This erratic architecture is a boon for sheep, who expend less energy pawing through snow for fodder, but a bust for us skiers, who burn considerably more calories lugging the food and gear we planned to pull on sleds, including the sleds themselves. When it comes to limits, we learn the hard way, the slow and ponderous way, that nature draws the final line.

Then Rebecca—a geologist by profession, an alpinist in the off-hours, and obsessed with rock either way—figures out how to circumvent this cold desert. “To attain the impossible,” counseled the philosopher and writer Miguel de Cervantes, “one must attempt the absurd.” When you run out of snow, ski the rivers.

The water looks turquoise from a distance, vodka-clear up close. We pole along the ice gracelessly, skittering in all directions, trying to stay upright despite the toppling wind, the seismic texture, the sudden slushy puddles of overflow, our destabilizing laughter. At one point we see a Marco Polo sheep skull frozen into the river, its huge white horns peeled up like parings of ice. We pass a herdsman watching yaks in a valley, only to abandon his herd and watch us instead. For a while the wind blows directly at our backs and we glide effortlessly downstream, the world more absurd and beautiful by the kilometer. Beneath my skis, in the river’s cold aquarium, I watch schools of fish swarm and flicker like ice come alive.

Sheep are shy. Sheep are missing from the Pamir, from what we can tell, possibly extinct. Sheep are innocuous drifts of snow that suddenly avalanche up a mountain.

“Every separation is a link,” observed the French philosopher Simone Weil, and watching the animals I understand why. The herd moves like a sum of parts and something more. Sparks fly from fleece to fleece, or are those stones kicked high by hooves, backlit gold in the low-angled winter light? The spaces between each sheep seem to shimmer with a kind of consciousness, the divides between one body and the next blurred, dissolved, bridged.

Meanwhile, I am at one with winter, having lost my fingers and toes to the cold hours ago. This is hardly as sublime as belonging to a wild collective of sheep, but I’ll take whatever transcendence I can get. After being squashed in a tent together for weeks on end, Alison, Rebecca, and I form a feral herd ourselves, and one, like the sheep, entirely unsuited for civilization, loyal strictly to higher nations of rock and ice.

“World record!” exclaims a beefy Tajik man when he sees the three of us skiing by. He insists on taking a photo with us and his friends, though we hardly belong in the Guinness book. If nobody has previously attempted a ski traverse of the eastern Pamir mountains—a region otherwise known, to our herd of three, as Absurdistan—then it was probably for one of several good reasons. The frustrating local bureaucracy. The extreme logistics of this landscape. The region’s thin political stability, not to mention snowpack.

In the weeks that follow—as we search for more sheep, ski whatever snow we can find, and bash up against all manner of walls—I find myself wondering if the Tajik man is right. Maybe our expedition is a world record, at least in a strictly literal sense. A living documentary on fences and other limits, the borders that divide and sometimes, when we least expect it, unite us. If so, what we have written onto the world is this: some ski tracks swerving through the Pamir Mountains, neat as a map, until the wind turns them over to a clean page of snow.  

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