Erick received his award in 2019. He has been preparing for his trip to Kyrgyzstan on the 22nd of January. He will be working with Ryan Koupal the founder of 40 Tribes a ski guiding and community development initiative. The work will be a combination of three of his passions community development, travel, and outdoor exploration. He will be catching back up with us throughout his journey. As of February 5th Erick was helping as a jack of all trades for nearly two months in the Central Asian country Kyrgyzstan. Now here is an update from that trip. Please scroll down to the bottom for a gallery of amazing pictures he took while he was there.

“We remember a place not just for its beauty, but for the way that beauty made us feel; those feelings are woven into the emotional tapestry we call self. The most special places are the ones that give texture to our dreams, that ground us, make us whole, remind us of what is real.” 

– Jill Fredston, Rowing the Latitude

We landed several hours before sunrise at Manas International Airport, a dozen or so miles northwest of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s largest city and capital. As we deplaned, our senses slowly recalibrating, our anticipation for the season ahead was quickly consumed by a brand of disarray unique to unfamiliar place. We arrived at baggage claim to a soundtrack of shouts. The team included Ryan Koupal, our guide company’s founder, with nearly two decades of experience working across Asia, and Jules Hanna, a veteran mountain guide who splits his time between the St. Elias in Alaska and California’s Sierra Nevada. I joined the team as the jack-of-all-trades volunteer junior guide and photographer. As the pile of baggage grew upwards on the carousel, travelers glanced confusedly at each other while none were claimed. A voice from the corner yelled something in Kyrgyz – the local language described to me as “Turkic with vowel tones resembling Dutch” – ending in the only thing comprehensible to me, “everyone to the third floor!”

And thus our trip began, in cacophonous chaos, barely awake, stacked snout to tail in a cattle-shoot style stampede waiving our tiny baggage tickets above ahead as hundreds of locals did the same. The wrong bags had been loaded onto our flight from Istanbul. Our gear wouldn’t arrive for four days, though It would turn out to be a good omen for the season ahead.

Kyrgyzstan is a land defined by multiplicity. Ancestral roots trace back to north-central Mongolia, where independent tribes migrated south around the 13th century as a consequence of the forceful expansion of the Mongol Empire. As the story goes, the warrior and now national hero, Manas, united the original forty nomadic tribes who settled in this new region to defend themselves against the Mongol and later Chinese invasion. The present day borders weren’t carved until the early 1930s during the Stalin regime. Then known as Soviet Kirghizia, the country wouldn’t come into its own until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, when Kyrgyzia became the independent Republic of Kyrgyzstan. While the Kyrgyz are the predominant population, due in part to the forced relocation of many ethnic groups, the country is a composed of a collage of ethnicities, including Russians, Uzbeks, Dungans, Uyghurs, Tajiks, Tatars, and even a population of Koreans known as the Koryo saram. The country is landlocked, bordering Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and China, and is the farthest country on earth from an ocean. it is also one of the most mountainous, known by some as the ‘Switzerland of Central Asia’. The landscape is one of a Tolkien story, composed of alpine lakes, vast rivers, desert steppes, glacial peaks, unfurling prairies, rolling pastures, and dense forests. The country has the world’s largest natural walnut grove, the second largest alpine lake, and more snow leopards than anywhere on earth (trust me, we saw tracks!). As Ryan writes, with an average elevation of 3,000m (9,840 ft), over 90% of its landmass covered by mountains and 30% buried under permanent ice and snow, the country’s landscape and people are defined by a ruggedness utterly unique to the highlands of Central Asia.

40 Tribes, named after the original tribes of the Manas epic, was founded in 2010 by Ryan Koupal. Ryan first encountered the Tien Shan Mountains in 1999, living with nomadic families in yurts near the China/Kyrgyzstan border as a student on an intercultural studies course with Where There Be Dragons. After graduating with a degree in Mandarin Chinese from Vermont’s Middlebury College in 2003, he went on to lead courses for Dragons in China and Tibet. Inspired to combine his passion for splitboarding with his passion for travel, Ryan designed and carried out two separate winter expeditions with friends – first to Tibet in the winter of 2006-07 and then to Kyrgyzstan in the winter of 2008-09. In Kyrgyzstan, Ryan found the perfect mixture of local enthusiasm for tourism development, native resources, and endless backcountry potential, thus inspiring him to found 40 Tribes in 2010.

With the support of the Flying Ryan Foundation, I joined the team for two months as a junior snowboard guide and photographer for the Winter 2020 season, commemorating ten seasons of operation. Knowing a photo is worth a thousand words, I hope this collection provides a snapshot of the experience, one of the most incredible of my life.

Erick Crockenberg

Winter 2020


Ryan Koupal, 40 Tribes

Laurence Mitchell, Bradt Travel Guides