Judith Hamblyn gets a taste for the ups and downs of ski touring on the border of Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran.
"Did you hear that?" I asked my companion, James. The crack of the high-powered rifle was unmistakable as it echoed up the valley high in the Zagros Mountains on the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran. "Yeah," he said, "but I only worry when it's automatic gunfire."
I was on the slopes of Mt Halgurd — at 3607m, the highest peak in Iraq — feeling extremely visible in bright-green pants and a candy-pink helmet. I started to think the warnings I'd got about going to Iraq might be true. My brother-in-law told me darkly that I would be kidnapped, and the Canadian mine-disposal expert I had sat next to on the midnight flight from Istanbul a few days earlier said the area is still littered with mines from the Iran-Iraq war 20 years ago.
As we edged our way down the mountainside, James and I agreed that whoever was firing the rifle was probably just out hunting. After about 40 minutes, we came across a small group of men close to where the snow petered out on a rough four-wheel-drive access track. At their feet was a campfire with a steaming pot of tea and, to one side, a Kalashnikov assault rifle and what looked like a shotgun. After exchanging pleasantries — James in pidgin Kurdish and me via nervous blinks — they offered us both tea. James was also given a skinny Turkish cigarette; for me, a sticky bun. After about 15 minutes of friendly chatting, we went on our way, none the wiser about what they could possibly be doing out here, roaming about the mountainside with a Kalashnikov.
I'd arrived in the nearby town of Choman the day before with five other skiers as part of a reconnaissance trip with UK adventure travel company Untamed Borders. We were accompanied by James, the company co-founder, an international ski guide and several local guides and drivers.
My journey to Iraqi Kurdistan began several years ago. I love ski touring and I love travelling, so combining the two seemed like a good way to have a holiday and a bit of adventure at the same time.
Ski touring turns any hill with snow on it into your very own skifield without relying on ski lifts or helicopters to get you uphill. "Skins" attach to regular skis with special bindings that release at the heel. The skins grip the snow allowing you to go uphill on your skis.
We had wound our way to Choman from Erbil, the capital of the autonomous region of Kurdistan, along the famous Hamilton Road, built in the late 1920s by New Zealand-born engineer Archibald Hamilton. The road was the first through the rugged mountains and deep ravines of Iraqi Kurdistan to the Iranian border and opened the area — which had been barely accessible for animal caravans — to motorised transport.
Though the road has been improved over the years, traces of the original, carved into the near-vertical cliff faces of the canyons of Rawandiz, can still be seen.
Food and drink is never far from a skier's mind. We were delighted when one of our guides, Karwen, took us to a cake shop in the border town of Haji Omaran. The owner looked bemused as we crowded into his shop to ooh and aah over his chocolate-dipped biscuits, squishy sponge rolls and pillowy eclairs.
Lunches and breakfasts were a more simple affair of lavash or naan bread with salty white cheeses, eggs, plump fresh dates and sweet rose-scented black tea. Dinners at our homestay in Choman were a more lavish spread of hearty soups and tagines flavoured with earthy Middle-Eastern spices, served with pickled vegetables, olives, salad greens, rice or couscous, and bread.
We were invited to the annual snow festival at the Korek Mountain Resort near Soran on the Hamilton Road. Opened in 2014, Korek is a small resort serviced by a 4km Doppelmayr access gondola to a top station at 1690m. With only two carpet lifts for skiing, Korek is more about relaxing, enjoying the spectacular views, and scaring yourself silly on the zipline that sends you plummeting head first down the mountain.
The festival drew families from as far away as Baghdad and we were surprised to find the foreign skiers — us — were one of the headline acts. I'm not sure if our impromptu attempt at synchronised skiing wowed the crowds but we had fun doing it and being the centre of attention.
Our time in Iraqi Kurdistan was rounded off with a visit to the Penjwen Ski Club further south, near Sulaymaniyah. We had met some of the club members at Korek and joined them for a morning of cross-country skiing. Cross-country uses a different technique to alpine or downhill skiing and there were plenty of laughs as we floundered around on the long toothpick skis.
Security in Kurdistan was tight but not overbearing, despite the hot spots of Mosul and Kirkuk being only a few hours' drive to the west. Military checkpoints increased the closer we got to those towns and the border areas. At one stage, we could see Iranian watch towers on the opposite ridge.
Though Kurdistan is less risky than the rest of Iraq, New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs still rates it as "extreme risk" and advises against all travel to the region. Most New Zealand insurance companies don't cover travel to extreme risk destinations; throw backcountry ski touring into the mix and it gets even harder. But there are insurers out there and I ended up with three insurers for different parts of the trip.
I never did find out what those guys were doing on high on Mt Halgurd with guns that day. I suspect it really was just drinking tea, making snowmen and shooting the breeze. Oh, and teaching a foreign lady skier how to fire a Kalashnikov.
Getting there: Untamed Borders offers bespoke and group tours to Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, former Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as other off-the-beaten track places.