Zom Connection - Julien Herry and friends inspire winter sports in Pakistan

Trip Report

August 18, 2021
Photo: Arthur Ghilini

Jones rider Julien ‘Pica’ Herry has been exploring the mountains of Northern Pakistan for over a decade.

Fascinated by the complex terrain and delighted by the warm hospitality of the local people, he’s returned to this Himalayan region every winter he could since visiting for the first time in 2007.

Pica’s connection with Pakistan took an eventful turn in 2019 when he nearly died in an avalanche accident in the Hunza Valley. The local community showed him tremendous love in the immediate aftermath of the accident, earning his deep respect and stoking his fire to give back to them anyway he could.

Photo: Arthur Ghilini

In the winter of 2020, Pica found his path to give back by arranging to send 60  snowboard kits to the region. The donated snowboarding equipment immediately helped create shredders of all ages in multiple mountain communities through the help of a couple local winter sports clubs.

Fired up by the success of this first gear donation, Pica dove back into the project last summer and founded an organization called Zom Connection that’s dedicated to helping develop winter sports in Pakistan. He recruited friends from around the Alps to join the organization, and they began collecting donations to deliver another round of ski, snowboard and splitboard gear to these inspired, but gear challenged communities the next winter.

Photo: Arthur Ghilini

In January 2021, Pica and eight other Zom Connection volunteers travelled to Pakistan to hand deliver the boards and spread the shred stoke face-to-face. Arriving with a couple tons of equipment at the start of a local winter festival, the trip was a mind blower for everyone involved. The equipment and instruction they passed along on the trip no doubt transformed lives.

We are honored to support Pica’s work with Zom Connection and thrilled to share his story from this recent outreach trip. Read on for his full report on the trip and their efforts to share their love for winter sports to these remote Himalayan mountain communities.

Photo: Arthur Ghilini

Malam Jabba - Wednesday, 20th of January, 5pm...

We are enjoying our first sunset in Pakistan from the top of the hill in Malam Jabba. Everything makes sense right now and we are ready to start one of the most intense journeys of our life!

Our Zom Connection team is made up of nine people with varied skills: Jean Remi Ceron (cameraman), Arthur Ghilini (photographer and ski instructor), Victor Lanel (economist), Paul Millet (ski instructor), Gilles Herry (ski instructor) ), Mathieu Maynadier (Himalayist and mountain guide), Helias Millerioux (Himalayist and mountain guide), Victor Daviet (pro snowboarder), and myself.

Connecting all the green lights to make this trip happen has been a whirlwind even before the 40 hours of non-stop travelling it took to get here. Standing here, watching some of the highest mountains on earth light on fire with an incredible sunset, feels like a very proper reward.

Malam Jabba is a small village that happens to have a small chairlift on the slope above town. The Pakisatani government built the chair 25 years ago, but the Taliban occupied the valley for several years after 9/11 and temporarily shut it down. The Taliban got cleared out a decade ago and the chairlift is spinning again so local winter tourism has grown in recent years with visitors from big cities coming to see the snow and breathe some fresh air.

Photo: Arthur Ghilini

This is our first stop of the trip because the Malam Jabba ski resort invited us to take part in their 2nd annual snowboard festival. Over 50 snowboarders from Afghanistan, Chitral, Gilgit Baltistan and Lahore area are here and eager to learn from us. The first day of the festival we try our best to teach every rider, from those attempting their first run, to the riders who want to ride the icy red slope.

To our surprise, the festival organizer asks us to build a Giant Slalom race course the next day! They want to finish the festival with community races. None of us have ever built a race course before, but we readily agree, knowing the competition won't happen without our help.

Photo: Arthur Ghilini

Racing the light with the locals

The next morning we ride up the hill on the back of a groomer billowing smoke, and line out a race course that we hope will be suitable for all abilities. We end up racing against the locals and win the first rounds before ducking out and letting them compete head-to-head in a parallel slalom course that we quickly build for afternoon races.

The final race, with just a sliver of light left in the sky, is amazing. A young local snowboarder inches out another rider at the finish line and wins the race! And then what happens next is just surreal. Local kids and Afghani racers embrace and sing together. The celebration is a heartfelt reward for our team after a long day of work.

Photo: Arthur Ghilini

Before leaving France, Malam Jabba was just a chairlift to us. We saw it as a great resource for aspiring local riders to improve their skills. But we were definitely not expecting that this resort would host such a thriving young snowboarder community.

They ride the chairlift with us from the first day, and they always want to follow us in the backcountry, or play UNO with Victor. There is a ton of garbage on the sides of the slopes so we organize a trash pick up that all the local riders are eager to help with. After the clean up, we bring them with us for a short backcountry run above the lift. We enjoy another stunning sunset together before racing down to the village at last light.

Photo: Arthur Ghilini

On our last day in Malam Jabba our crew goes for a longer tour above town. After a few hours of ridge hiking and riding some nice couloirs and pillow lines, we climb the highest peak in the area that has an amazing 360° view. The potential here is huge in a good winter.

Photo: Arthur Ghilini

Hangin' with the Hindu Kush Snow Sports Club

After five days in Malam Jabba it’s time to move on to our primary destination of the trip - the Madaklasht Valley in the Hindu Kush range. After some touching goodbyes from the kids, we jump in the minivan for an eight hour drive to the town of Drosh in the Chitral valley. Drosh is the home of our host for the next stage of the trip, a generous man named Hasham, who is the president of the Hindu Kush Snow Sports Club.

Hasham is also one of the princes of the Chitral region. He owns a lot of land in the area and is dedicated to the development of winter sports in the Hindu Kush range. Hasham and his people give us an amazing welcome the first night, and we stay up drinking with them until nearly dawn.

Photo: Arthur Ghilini

After touring Hasham’s gardens the next morning, we load up in jeeps to start driving to the Madaklasht Valley. Madaklasht is a unique place in Pakistan because of the amount of local skiers and riders already established there. About 3500 people live in the valley and 1000 of them are officially registered as skiers or snowboarders!

Skiing was introduced to the area in the 1920’s by the British army, and the community maintained it as a local tradition by building hand made wooden skis. In recent times, local riders have had their eyes opened to the international freeride scene thanks to their smartphones. They are now eager to get their hands on more modern equipment to be able to explore the hidden corners of their magnificent backyard playground. Which is exactly where we come in.

Photo: Arthur Ghilini

Back in November, we packed and shipped a couple tons of winter sports equipment from Chamonix to Pakistan. A large portion of that equipment was then sent to Madaklasht. Now we are here to unload the shipment and put together all the gear that we’ll donate. Following the advice of many local people, and to avoid problems with jealousy, all the equipment will remain Zom Connection property that’s controlled by the local council and the Hindu Kush Winter Sports Club. The goal is to give everyone equal access to the equipment.

After a long day spent unpacking and organizing all the equipment we begin distributing the dozens of snowboards, skis, splitboards, cross country skis and ice skates to the locals for daily use. The Hindu Kush Snow Sports festival starts the next day which brings an amazing energy to  the valley.

Photo: Arthur Ghilini

Three days of laughing and learning

The festival is a real celebration for the local community. Most adults attend and all the kids take part in the competitions. A lot of Pakistani tourists also come to the festival for an opportunity to try winter sports. In addition to the competitions, there are small conferences scheduled where people can learn about different topics related to winter sports. I take part and get to talk about global warming and gender equity in sports. Outside of the conferences, our team spends three action packed days teaching snowboarding, skiing, ice skating, hockey and cross country skiing during the day, and learning the local dance moves in the evening.

Photo: Arthur Ghilini

The day after the festival ends we reserve all of our equipment for only the women and young girls of the valley. We weren’t sure how many would participate, but the turn out is actually quite good. The young girls are shy at first, but soon they are smiling, laughing and excited to try a new activity. Seeing the girls playing around in the snow and improving their winter sports skills is super rewarding to our team, and personally teaching cross country skiing to a group of smiling girls is one of my highlights of the trip.

Photo: Arthur Ghilini

Along with all the boards and skis, we included 30 avalanche safety kits including a transceiver, shovel and probe in the shipment to Madkalasht. Victor leads a safety shred day and teaches an avalanche and risk management class to the most experienced riders from the village. We reinforce these avy safety skills with them over the next few days as we go touring with them. All the locals are just as eager to learn about avalanche safety as they are about splitboarding and ski touring which is really great to see.

Photo: Arthur Ghilini

Heaping slopes of sugar

In between teaching and the festivities, we find a bit of time to go touring with just our team. Snow conditions have been quite strange in Madaklasht this winter as they got an unusually big storm in November, but no snow since then. What slopes still hold snow are covered by a single layer of the most sugary snow any of us have ever seen. Without any layer on top, the sugar snow is actually pretty stable which allows us to find some fun things to ride. Just like Malam Jabba, the potential here is huge. Everything from steep couloirs to pillow lines hang right above the valley, but the approaches are deceivingly long, and it quickly gets really cold once the sun leaves a face. Between the steep pitches and the avy danger, most of the terrain is only suitable for advanced skiers. We do find some old bootpacks on lower technical terrain which is cool to see and understand how much the locals have already been exploring.

Before we leave Madaklasht we take some time to reorganize the gear so it is ready to be left under the control of the Hindu Kush Snow Sports Club and the supervision of the local council. It’s tough to leave this magical valley, but we have one more stop on the trip. We’re off to visit a Karimabad village in the Chitral area that Hasham feels would be an ideal spot to develop winter sports.

Photo: Arthur Ghilini

After a four hour drive from Drosh on exposed roads with amazing open views of snowy slopes and  glacial moraines, we finally reach the village. Perched at nearly 3000 meters, the village is really beautiful and authentic to the region. The slopes above town are very gentle though and even better for learning to ski than Madaklasht, but surprisingly, no locals in this village know how to ski.

We do not have the equipment to teach lessons in this village, so we take note of the potential for development, and go for a couple tours to explore the surrounding peaks. As soon as we climb above the village we are once again swimming in sugar snow, and climbing higher we find a small compact layer on top of the sugar. After a couple sudden collapses in the snow pack we decided to take it easy and avoid shady slopes. For our last day of riding in Pakistan we discover a cool line on a mellow sun affected spur that takes us almost to a summit at around 4400m. The top 50 meters of the line is guarded by a sugary unstable slope which denies us the view over the other side, but it feels amazing to ride some stable spring snow down to the village for our last line of the trip.

Photo: Arthur Ghilini

Gratitude abounds

The next day we head back to Drosh, and then on to Islamabad for a COVID test before the plane ride home. We also take some time with my friend Hamza who shows us the remainder of the equipment we sent over that’s getting ready to be sent to a couple other valleys in Northern Pakistan. So hard to leave this peaceful country and return to the COVID chaos of Europe, but we all hope to return here soon, Inshallah!

It’s amazing how many partners and friends we made on this trip through a mutual passion for the mountains. And beyond our team, we cherished seeing so many motivated riders from all over Northern Pakistan come together and help build their own future of winter sports in the region.

Photo: Arthur Ghilini

On behalf of all of us at Zom Connection, we want to send a huge thanks to Shamyl for his essential help organizing the project, to Shahid Mahmud for his help on logistics and transportation, to Hasham and the Hindu Kush Snow Sports Club for hosting us, and to all the locals we met for the unbelievable kindness and happiness that they shared with us.

The Zom Connection would also not be possible without our gracious sponsors in Europe and North America who donated the equipment. Thanks so much to everyone that has supported us. We’re honored to be able to make this contribution to our world with your help!

Learn more about Zom Connection

Photo: Arthur Ghilini

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