For pretty much everyone, 2020 has been a rough year for travel. But imagine if your whole business rested on running trips to far flung mountain destinations. Such is the case for 40 Tribes, a collective of mountain guides who offer “next-level shredventures in the world’s raddest places.”
Founded in 2010, 40 Tribes started with a winter yurt camp in the “little known and hugely misunderstood” Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan where the crew had discovered what looked like it could be the next ski touring frontier. This ethos of seeking out and opening up less-known locales has become 40 Tribes defining vibe. They now offer trips in Svalbard, the Republic of Georgia, two locations in Russia (Kamchatka and Siberia), Chile, La Grave, Golden BC, and this summer they’ll run their first expedition to Greenland (Covid pending, of course. More below).
Feeling bummed about my own international ski travel plans gone awry this year, I reached out to Ryan Koupal, 40 Tribes founder and director to chat about running trips in remote zones, adapting to Covid and his outlook on the season.
WS: What is the most interesting element of running trips in off-the-path destinations?
RK: For me, epically complicated international logistics. I love a good challenge though. For clients, a riding experience that is truly spiritual — oftentimes because there’s so much more to it than the riding, but sometimes just by virtue of the amazing, obscure corner of the world they are in. I mean, for everyone involved, these are mindblowing experiences and are incredibly unique from destination to destination because of the in-your-face cultural component. These ain’t yo’ momma’s ski trips!
WS: How do you navigate avalanche danger and other safety concerns when guiding in far out zones like Kamchatka and the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia?
RK: On sight guiding is something that the best ski and splitboard guides do incredibly well: show up in a new zone, assess the scene, deliver the best possible riding experience for clients given current conditions. But that doesn’t mean we don’t tap into as many available resources as possible. Most of our trips are run collaboratively with local guides or contacts with experience in the mountains, providing plenty of insight in places where they don’t have avalanche forecasting or other resources available.
Honestly, Kyrgyzstan is one of the few places where we — literally us and only us — scouted the zone and developed 100% of our programming, and after +10 years we understand the place and snowpack/safety concerns like the back of our hands. We even remind certain “rowdy” client groups not to party too hard, make too much of a scene, and get punched in the face in Bishkek, but sometimes they do anyway. (Check out this 40 Tribes Kyrgyzstan trip report)
WS: You’ve expanded your trips a lot over the past decade. In addition to worldwide destinations, you also launched Mystery Trips and Backyard Expeditions. What are they about?
RK: In our “Mystery Trips,” the only information disclosed to clients ahead of time is where to be, when and what to pack. Last winter, our first-ever Mystery Trip filled quickly and created quite the buzz.
After meeting up in Geneva, Switzerland, we crossed into France, and clients were only turned on to our destination once the road signs began reading “La Grave.” But from there the mystery continued to reveal itself. Where clients would have been psyched on a week riding the famed Téléphérique, we had next-level plans and had booked out a private, staffed and catered refuge across the valley, in our long-time lead guide, Ptor Spriceniek’s, backyard. Between us and the hut staff, the zone was all ours, and we even surprised clients with beer and wine dropped by heli with other hut supplies in the fall.
Another direction we’ve been heading is our “Backyard Expeditions,” inspired by the places our guides call home. In addition to the La Grave trip, a heli-access touring camp expedition deep in the Selkirks near Golden, British Columbia is also on our list of offerings for 2021. Golden, after all, is home to another veteran 40 Tribes guide, Ty Mills. At first glance, the backyard concept might not sound as exotic or unique as the trips that we have become known for, but the knowledge and experience that comes with living life at the foot of these mountains is deeper and more intimate than in any of the far-flung places we visit to guide. With the impact of Covid on international travel, we’re also excited to offer these trips as close-to-home options for Europeans and Canadians.
WS: Speaking of, it’s no doubt been a rough year for you guys. How has Covid impacted upcoming 40 Tribes trips?
RK: Without really doing the math (smiles), I’d say we’re at 65-70% of our normal bookings for this time of year. So not exactly crushing it, and not seeing more inquiries than we normally would. Thankfully, with our history in the industry, we’re starting to book out some trips years in advance, so a lot of our 2021 Kyrgyzstan bookings, for example, were confirmed prior to Covid.
Unfortunately, with those and other confirmed bookings, we’re stuck in a bit of a holding pattern — no option but to wait and see how things play out globally with travel restrictions, quarantine measures, etc. Our approach right now is just to keep things moving with clients like we normally would at this time of year so we’re ready to rock if the universe permits.
WS: I recall seeing a post from you on the social channels that you had Covid. How was your recovery? Has it impacted the way you or your guides are approaching 40 Tribes trips this season?
RK: I was diagnosed with “presumed Covid” back in March/April. Climbing a single flight of stairs in my house felt like climbing Everest, with HAPE. I had blood oxygen saturation levels that would have normally suggested my vital organs and tissues were dying from O2 depletion (which they may have been). I’ve detailed the horrific experience as it played out for me and my family here, for anyone interested. Recovery was long, lasting well into June/July. There was some serious damage done to my lungs, and honestly the long-term effects of that are still unclear.
As for how we’re approaching Covid on trips this year, we’re taking it seriously. We’re following science and government recommendations/restrictions in deciding how and if we can safely operate. Fortunately for us, we run small-group adventures and spend most of our time outside. But as far as detailing specific protocol outside of the basic recommendations put forth by the CDC and global health organizations, we just haven’t gotten there yet as so many of our trips are still in such limbo due to travel restrictions and quarantine measures.
WS: You’ve been in the industry for a while. What do you make of the upcoming season and widespread concerns about increased people in the backcountry?
RK: Prior to having kids (I now have a 3 and 1.5-year-old), I hadn’t skied at a resort in about 10 years. Strictly backcountry. Now I have a pass to Eldora, close to home in Colorado, so I can teach my kiddos. Not being a resort skier, and spending most of my time on the magic carpet, I haven’t been super concerned about Covid impacting resort skiing. But then I just heard about Eldora’s planned parking reservation system and I, too, am starting to sense a huge disaster/pain in the ass that will undoubtedly drive people into the backcountry. Increased numbers in the backcountry would normally be a good metric for 40 Tribes, but unfortunately, because our programming is so travel-reliant, little bonus is expected for us there.
I honestly think a lot of places will fare just fine this winter — especially the places we ride! It’s places like Colorado, Utah, etc — which are feeling the impacts of overpopulation and overcrowding anyway — that need to be bracing for impact. I’m not only selfishly concerned that our tracks will be followed more this winter than ever before, but I’m definitely worried for Colorado’s avalanche incident numbers and all of the bummer things that stem from overuse of our forest and wilderness lands.
WS: Any particular zones you’re excited to explore this season?
RK: If the season is a bust (meaning we are forced to pull the plug on trips with clients), one of my guides, Ty Mills, and I are going to Turkey. Don’t want to disclose too much, so let’s just say “birthplace of snowboarding.”
Manasseh Franklin is a writer, editor and big fan of walking uphill. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction and environment and natural resources from the University of Wyoming and especially enjoys writing about glaciers. Find her other work in Alpinist, Adventure Journal, Rock and Ice, Aspen Sojourner, AFAR, Trail Runner and Western Confluence.