Ski School
Cross country skiing allows travel between villages in the winter. Photo: Ben Stephenson

Ben Stephenson has a home in mind for your gently used skis and mountaineering gear. Just don’t expect visitation rights, because that home is thousands of kilometres away, in Zanskar, a remote part of the Himalayas, where Stephenson plans to transform one of the most unlikely ski schools into career training of the unlikeliest kind.

Stephenson is the Calgary-based, British-born geologist behind the Zanskar Ski School, which he launched in the late 1990s during PhD research.

Zanskar is in the Kashmir region of the Himalayas — the Switzerland of India — but remote enough to be away from the region’s conflict zone.

Ski School
[/media-credit] Cross country skiing allows travel between villages in the winter.
Photo: Ben Stephenson

“Basically, you’re in a valley with a lot of villages scattered along it,” Stephenson says, “and there are 10,000 people in the valley itself, but they’re all (living) in a collection of about 30 or 40 villages.” In winter, the villages are cut off from each other until the spring melt, so much so that villagers discovering Stephenson cross country skiing to do his research, would ask him to take mail to the next village.

That’s when Stephenson hit upon the idea of launching a ski school, which he ran to teach locals to cross country ski from village to village so they could deliver their own mail.

Over the years, Stephenson has asked Canadians to donate hundreds of pairs of skis that he has passed along to residents of the Zanskar region to create their own uniquely Himalayan transportation network.

Now, the school is branching off, teaching mountaineering and guiding, in addition to skiing. Stephenson hopes to train young people to become guides, so they can earn a living in tourism.

“Part of the reason why we’re trying to promote a culture of mountain sports,” he says, “is to stop young people from moving away and getting jobs in the city.”

While he’s funding the school himself, Stephenson also recently launched a GoFundMe campaign to shoot a documentary film called Shangku Shelter about the ski school and the way it has transformed Zanskar.

Ben Stephenson
[/media-credit] Ben Stephenson loads donated ski gear into his vehicle in Calgary.
Photo: Ben Stephenson

“What we need the money for,” he says, “is basically to hire Calgary artists and filmmakers, to help us put out a good, high quality product … and we’ll use that as the vehicle to attract attention to potential guest instructors, or foreign visitors or sponsors in the future.”

Stephenson has changed a lot of lives through his ski school.

“You get in these poor mountain towns and they really need each other to survive.”

They’ve also changed him.

“I’ve learned a lot about the community spirit,” he says. “You get in these poor mountain towns and they really need each other to survive.”

Himalayan Girl
[/media-credit] A young Himalayan girl learns to ski at the Zanskar Ski School.
Photo: Ben Stephenson

What’s more, the ski school’s origin story is a refreshing antidote to the area’s longstanding reputation as a hotspot for religious conflict.

“The ski school,” he says, “was basically founded by a Buddhist guy, a Muslim guy and a Christian guy. We work together as a completely areligious organization.

“Despite some potential points of tension between different groups,” he adds, “we are striving to build that community — through sport.”

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