‘For those who want to just ski a nice piste, have a beer, then go to a disco, it’s probably not so appealing.” James Willcox, co-founder of adventure travel company Untamed Borders, is talking about who might – and would definitely not – be interested in its latest offering: a ski tour of Iraq.
In January, Untamed Borders ran what was “probably the first ever commercial ski trip” to the country, taking a group of six intrepid travellers to the region around Mount Halgurd in the north-east of Iraq, three hours’ drive from Mosul and 500km north of Baghdad. Flying in to the city of Ebril (via Istanbul) they spent two weeks ski-touring this part of Iraqi Kurdistan, through landscapes rarely seen by western travellers.
The ski season might be coming to a close, but if you’re looking for a trip for 2018 that’s got a little more edge to it than a week in a chalet in Chamonix, then this could be for you.
Willcox and his team have years of experience organising tours to less-travelled countries such as Uzbekistan and Somalia, and this tour was led by a guide who has previously led skiers in Afghanistan. The tour cost $2,400 for 10 days, excluding flights.
The tour group skied Choman and Mount Halgurd in January, while boarding with a local family. It also visited Penjwen, near the city of Sulaymaniyah, which has a nordic ski club, and the Korek Mountain, a “tiny” ski resort with a gondola, which was celebrating its annual Snow Festival.
Still, as one would expect, skiing in Iraq comes with its own unique challenges. The Foreign Office advises against all travel to much of the country, and all but essential travel to the rest. As a result, many insurance policies are void, but Untamed Borders is able to recommend companies that still offer cover.
“You have all the usual issues of skiing, but also need to avoid landmines, and unexploded ordnance from the 1980s near the Iraq-Iran border,” says Willcox. “You can’t get too close. But we work with local partners, guides in the area who know this, who know the areas you can’t ski for various reasons. We also use GPS, so if there’s a whiteout you don’t stray from where you’re meant to go.”
Not surprisingly, Mike Hinckley, 56, one of the skiers who joined January’s tour, had his reservations. Among them he listed “Islamic State, ongoing aspects of war and the perception that I, as a US citizen, might not be exactly welcome.” But he was drawn in by the opportunity to ski in a place where “virtually no one, if anyone, has ever skied before”. He admits it was frustrating at times, having to work around the “logistical, social or administrative limitations” of skiing in a country with a completely different set of safety concerns to a regular mountain zone, but it was about more than just the skiing.
“When we attended the Korek Snow Festival, we interacted with so many people (and TV personalities), and they seemed so happy to meet us, talk and take selfies with us – that was wild,” says Hinckley. “At that moment, the skiing almost became secondary.”
• untamedborders.com, details of the 2018 trip will be on the website in April