In the remote Altai Mountains of Northwest China the word for ski is “Hok”.
For me, in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington, the word for fun is Hok! Ever since Nils Larsen introduced me to these short, fat skis I’ve had more fun than ever on snow days. Full disclosure here; I’m a professional. I ran a Nordic ski school in the Methow Valley, spent time as a Heli ski guide and have toured all over North America and Europe. I have experienced lots of fun on skis—but nothing compares to Hoks.
A little history: the Tuvan people of the Altai Mountains (where China, Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan come together) have been skiing for thousands of years and there is some evidence that this might be the birthplace of skiing. Skis were primarily used for hunting in the deep cold snow of the region. Travel and winter fun were, of course, part of the ski culture too. The Hoks, as they called them, were hand hued of local Siberian spruce with the tips steamed and turned up before attaching horse hair permanently to the base. In the cold snow of the Altai Mountains, the horse hide allowed for the hoks to climb well and glide smoothly. To this day the Tuvan skis are long, the bindings are leather straps and the boots resemble mukluks. Balance and control are aided by a single pole or Tiak.
In 2005 Nils Larsen, Dave Waag and Naheed Henderson traveled to the Altai in search of the roots of skiing and a chance to video and photograph the indigenous skiers there. Equipped with modern telemark gear, the travelers were unable to keep up with the Altai skiers. The combination of insufficient float and constantly taking off and putting on climbing skins became a huge disadvantage.
Nils had been a telemark ski tester and consultant for Karhu Ski Company for many years. At one time Karhu built what was meant to be a sliding snowshoe called the Sweeper. It never really caught on nor performed well. But by using some of the modern technology of the Sweeper and the inspiration of the Altai skiers, Nils, along with François Sylvain developed the Altai Hok of today that performs so well.
Hoks come in two lengths, 125 cm for smaller people and 145 cm for bigger people. Balla Hoks are available for kids at just 99 cm. Adult Hoks are short enough to make them super easy to maneuver and turn. The width (124 mm shovel, 110 mm waist and 122 mm tail) provides plenty of float in soft snow. The integrated climbing skin grips well on the uphill and glides smoothly on the down. But they are not snowshoes and they are not traditional skis.
The skier’s mindset is important with Hoks. Don’t expect to climb straight up like a snowshoe or AT skis with full-length skins and don’t expect to zoom downhill with the speed of a well-waxed alpine ski. Pick a shallower line on the uphill. You’ll get to the top almost as fast and, as an added bonus, your heartrate will be lower. Once on top, there is no transition. The climbing skin stays on so you’re ready to go. Because of the skin, the slightly slower speed of the descent adds tons of confidence. Steeper slopes that may have given you pause in the past become an exercise in exhilaration.
Two options are available for bindings: a standard 75 mm three-pin telemark binding or a highly- adjustable universal binding that will fit any snow boot or hiking boot. Hoks love soft snow. The universal binding works well in powder, wet snow, corn snow and even some breakable crust conditions. Many Hoksters prefer a well-made leather touring boot and a 75 mm three-pin binding for comfort and control. However, if you plan to encounter very firm snow or ice, a plastic telemark boot and a telemark binding is the way to go. The extra power of the plastic boot really helps hold an edge on a ski that wide.
Hoks are simple and versatile, allowing for travel in a variety of conditions. If you have gentle terrain, use two ski poles and enjoy the freedom of a sliding snowshoe to explore your snowy wonderland. If your winter world is comprised of hills or mountains, then use a single pole (Tiak), an incredible balance aid. With a single pole and a Hok on each foot you achieve an extremely stable three-point stance. If you feel like you are losing it, put a little more pressure on the Tiak to regain your composure.
Hoks are serendipitous. They are so convenient and easy to use that I often grab a quick 15-minute tour right behind my house. Longer tours that happily encompass a variety of terrain features are a snap to prepare for, including extended multi-day excursions.
People quickly learn to love Hoks. Take Cliff, a life-long snowboarder, and Debbie, a life-long Alpine skier, who often come to skate ski on the huge Methow Valley groomed trail system. Their first Hok experience was a little tour near Sun Mountain Lodge. It was a perfect day with bright sunshine and a few inches of fresh powder snow. They traveled on flats, up and down small hills, across open meadows and through tight aspen groves. Sure, it took a little while to get used to the Hoks and especially the Tiak. But as confidence grew, so did their smiles. Now Cliff and Debbie have toured many of the hills surrounding the Methow Valley even on not-so-perfect days with not-so-perfect snow. They love it. They have become dedicated Hoksters and they proclaim Hokking as their favorite winter adventure. They even have the tee shirts to prove it.
Although Hoks are easy to use and quick to love, a lesson will help put you in the right mindset and show you some useful tricks to help traveling up and down hill.
Lessons are available at the ski shop at Sun Mountain Lodge near Winthrop and at Methow Valley Ski School and Rentals in Mazama Washington. The instructors at both places are avid Hoksters. They will give you a great lesson and can direct you to the best places to go. Rentals are available at Sun Mountain Lodge, Methow Valley Ski School and Rentals, Methow Cycle and Sport in Winthrop and Cascades Outdoor Store in downtown Winthrop. Cascade Outdoor Store owner Brian Sweet is a super enthusiastic Hokster and is thrilled to help you find the best places to use Hoks for your level.
A great way to get introduced to Hoks is the annual Hok Fest held in late January or early February. Enjoy free demos and lessons and get to meet Master Hokster Nils. The event is held at Sitzmark Ski Area near Havillah Washington. Sitzmark is a small, old-fashioned ski area with a base elevation of 4300 feet in the beautiful Okanogan Highlands of north-central Washington. It’s a fun, laid-back kind of place just as Hok skiing is a fun, laid-back kind of winter sport.
Hoks can be purchased directly from Altai Skis, L.L. Bean, Mountain Gear in Spokane or any of the Methow Valley Ski Shops.
Don Portman owned and operated a ski school and ski-rental business in the Methow Valley for more than 40 years and was a founder of the trail system there. A former equipment editor for SkiTrax magazine, Portman has skied hundreds of kilometers testing ski gear.
Nils Larsen is a backcountry skier, instructor, ski shop owner, filmmaker and photographer. In 2005 he traveled to the Altai Mountains in Northwestern China, documenting the traditional ski culture still practiced there. This experience was the inspiration for Nils and Francois Sylvain to start Altai Skis in 2011.