WORDS • KARINA SCHWARTZNAU | PHOTOS • DANIEL RÖNNBÄCK
When I close my eyes and allow my mind to wander, I find myself standing on top of a snowcapped peak surrounded by the sun, the shimmer of snow crystals under my boots and a soft wind that blows through my helmet and between each fiber of my hair. This moment atop any mountain gives me a sense of home, a sense of love, a sense of adventure. But this time, eyes closed and wind through my hair, I feel a small tickle to the exposed part of my skin that gently exfoliates my face and sneaks into my mouth: sand. Sand in my boots, under my skis and in my skin. This moment, atop the mountain of sand in the Sahara Desert, with an untouched line waiting to be skied below me, I found myself in a desert love affair.
The sun shone deep red through the cloud of sand in the air. There were no trees, no motorbikes humming through the streets and no shops assembling for nightlife like in the town of Marrakesh. The flat city, full of life and merchants, turned to quiet hills and the hills turned to mountains. From cherry blossoms to pine trees, and snow to sand, we had traveled nine hours southwest across the country of Morocco and through the Atlas Mountains to the village of Merzouga, sitting on the edge of the Erg Chebbi region of the Sahara Desert.
Beside me were pro skiers Chad Sayers and Tof Henry and photographer Daniel Rönnbäck, sipping on a hot cup of desert tea and snacking on biscuits from the local gas station. We had traveled to Morocco searching for skiing where most people would not. Chad yearned for the perfect turn in soft pockets of high-desert snow, Tof searched for new couloirs that he could compare to his home in Chamonix and Daniel desired to capture the exotic landscape and ski culture through his lens as we traveled across the country. I embraced the adventure, new journey and diverse ski experience as the fourth nomad.
Later, we sat under a clouded sky as the sand was still settling from the second day of a sandstorm. Across from us was Muhammad, our caretaker, guide and new friend. The full moon shone bright through the cloud of sand and illuminated the silhouettes of Muhammad’s camels, Mali and Jimmy. We would leave the comfort of Muhammad’s home to ride out to our desert camp and begin our ascent of the sand dunes the following day.
Sand had dissipated from the air and left a sharp contrast between endless orange and blue sky. Clouds danced overhead and created a layer of protection between the sun’s harsh rays; our turbans rested on our heads and our scalps underneath. At 8:00 in the morning, the sun had warmed the earth to 22 degrees Celsius (72 Fahrenheit) and our exposed skin began to burn. Skis strapped to our backs and bags condensed to the minimum, we journeyed our way by camel from Muhammad’s home into the infinite stretch of sand.
The tracks in the sand told a story of the nomads before us. With waves brushed from wind blowing south to north, left are faint prints from camels before ours, sand fish who run from sand mice and small beetle tracks that illuminate a path of travel. Small and plump, black all over with small dots defining their shells, the beetles were grooming the altered sand to once again appear untouched. The Sahara had made herself beautiful for us after days of sandstorms. The desert wind had brushed the particles from the previous days’ sandstorms across the dunes, and the scene resembled the bluebird powder mornings I always dreamt about.
It was not long after reaching our desert camp when Tof, the 33-year-old Chamonix native, was itching for a first ski descent. The sand dunes towered beyond our camp and teased with fresh spines, couloirs and cirques to ski. The southern wind had deposited soft sand particles on the north facing slopes and had left traces of small sand avalanches on 40-degree aspects. Quick to assemble skis on packs and boots on our feet, we had prepared ourselves for a trek across the Sahara to the highest “mountain” in sight. Crows swayed in the wind high above as Chad climbed on Jimmy’s back, the human’s blonde hair twirling in the wind as a smile encapsulated his face with love and appreciation of the desert’s beauty.
Jimmy and Mali powered through the sand with hooves twice the size of a man’s hand. Elegant in nature and strong in pursuit, the camels led us towards the dunes with Tof and Chad in command. Our path took us across the lower valleys of sand and wind-blown ridges. The camels’ height provided us a high vantage point to look across the desert and towards our ski pursuit. When the dunes gained elevation and the slope turned steep, we were forced to leave our camels and strap skis on our feet for our final approach. The coarse particles beneath our skis provided enough friction to eliminate the need for skins as we powered straight up 350 vertical meters of sand.
As I looked left and right, dunes were reshaped within seconds as a strong gust of wind came from the Algerian border just 17 kilometers east. The range of dunes was different than I had expected. They stretched only five kilometers wide but traveled 50 kilometers north to south. The largest dunes were in the very center of the region and had towering spines that cast dark shadows on the sand below. My skis were triumphant on the high-friction sand; every step up the dune was made with quick ease, and before I knew it, we could see the entire desert surrounding us. We had made it to the top of the Sahara.
Tof stripped to his t-shirt and opened the ventilation on his ski pants, while Chad locked down his bindings and buckled his boots. With a yelp of excitement, we took off.
I was in a fantasy watching Tof push towards the first ski descent down the 200-meter, north-facing spine. Arms stretched out of his t-shirt like wings, and sand floating behind his skis as would fresh snow, Tof began his descent in joy with skis pointed straight down the slope. Chad quickly pushed his poles through the deep sand to gain momentum down the abrasive hill. The sand created a layer of friction that slowed us as though we were skiing spring corn snow. The trick to sand skiing was finding the most compact layer of sand, where our skis would glide over effortlessly rather than dive into layers of dirt that would quickly bring our skis to a halt. With Chad becoming one with the hard sand, he was able to form his perfect C-turns and slice into a gentle layer of sand with nothing but faint lines left in the mountain behind. In snow, you expect to look back on your tracks at the bottom of the line and reminisce in joy. In sand, there was only a moment to look back before the wind swept my tracks away. I had left a story in the sand but only had the mound of sand left in my boots as evidence.
Lap after lap, climb after climb, Tof and Chad laughed and smiled, skiing spines and open faces until the sun began to set on the desert dunes. Crisp light faded to orange, and the southern wind finally delivered a cool breeze. At the top of the dune, eyes closed and taken over by the sun on my face, wind through my skin and soft sand under my feet; I was at home as much as I would be at the top of any snowy peak.
Tof led us to one final ski descent towards camp as tourists and villagers journeyed to the highest dune to watch the sunset. We glided down the dunes and across the lowlands back to a fire of burning tamarisk with desert pizza, filled with meat and vegetables, baking under the hot embers. Muhammad treated us to a true desert tribe tradition. With African drums in hand, Muhammad and his porters sang us songs of the African love of traveling.
Muhammad is one of us. To get to Morocco, he had traveled 52 days by camelback from Timbuktu, where his family resides, in search of hash, new opportunities and desert wine. Muhammad’s stories of desert life and lessons learned from foreign travelers left us with lasting impressions of his continuous journeys and undertakings in the sand-stretched Sahara. Like a ski bum seeks exotic ski destinations, deep snow and companionship, Muhammad, too, searches for fresh experiences.
Morocco is the creation of the nomad. The culture, religion and customs resulted from the wandering of Berbers, Arabs and other travelers as they crossed the largest desert on Earth, climbed through the year-round snowcapped Atlas Mountains and trekked toward the Mediterranean in search of trade, livestock and love. Sand trapped in my Marker Kingpin bindings and pink turban tied to my pack, the country of nomads has left its mark on me. My tracks had disappeared from the sand, and the dunes had transformed in the wind, and yet, I had found a sense of home.
As skiers, we are nomads; each mountain is a new adventure waiting to be conquered. We travel the world in search of un-skied lines, big mountains and new snow—or even sand. We are a tribe of enthusiasts, adventurers and wanderers. There are no set ways of life as a nomad, only continuous adventure and welcoming arms for new people who enter our lives and new ski descents in our path.