The road to this year's competition site was 15 kilometres of potholes and mud, winding through snow-sprinkled valleys. The untouched slopes do not have lifts to the mountain peaks nor a restaurant to fortify those weary from the day.
But even the melting snow of an unusually mild March could do little to deter competitors from across the province descending on Bamiyan this weekend for the 11th annual Afghan Ski Challenge in the remote village of Chap Qulak.
Wedged between the Hindu Kush and Koh-i-Baba mountains, Bamiyan might be most famous internationally for the giant Buddha statues carved into the town's cliffs that the Taliban blew up in 2001.
But since the US-led invasion, Bamiyan has been a peaceful region and remains one of the few places that has managed to thwart Taliban control.
A weekend of skiing and a chance to laugh in the snow was a welcome reprieve from the surge in violence amid the war with the Taliban and attacks throughout the country, in addition to the Covid-19 pandemic, spectators and competitors said.
A motorbike-operated rope tow pulled competitors to the top of the slope for the Women’s Slalom, won by Nazira Khairzad, 17, who beat her sister Nazima for the first time after completing her two runs with a time of one minute 27 seconds.
“I just kept telling myself: ‘You can do it, you can do it.' I borrowed my mum’s hairband for luck and my dad gave me a little pep talk – he told me he believed in me,” she said after winning the prize pot of 10,000 afghanis ($129).
The sport is relatively new to the country, but it is growing in popularity in Bamiyan, despite a lack of access to equipment. To overcome this issue, many of the younger skiers have taken to creating their own wooden skis and there is a race specifically for them.
Competitor Nasrullah, 16, was among those who signed up to the Wooden Skis category.
“I made the skis myself. I’ve been skiing for two years after seeing the Ski Challenge. Wooden skis are much more difficult to use, but we don’t have the money to buy plastic ones. It’s also not possible to buy them in Afghanistan,” he said.
“I go skiing every other day. The speed is the thing I like most about the sport.”
It might not be Olympic regulation, but those competing in this heat had to run up the slope before skiing – or in many cases sliding, running and gambolling – back down, proving great entertainment for the crowd watching from the sidelines.
Also on wooden skis was Baz Mohammad, 16. He said this year’s lack of snow made training difficult.
“I ski because I love to climb up high and then speed down the mountain,” he said.
An attempt by skiers Sajjad Husaini and Alishah Farhang to represent Afghanistan at the 2018 Winter Olympics definitely bolstered interest in the sport in the country – there are now seven ski clubs operating in Bamiyan. The two men are the main organisers of the competition.
The lack of lifts means the Afghan skiing competitions are more of an endurance feat than the composed downhill speed runs of the Alps.
The men’s amateurs on Friday climbed to 500 metres before descending through a marked course on the side of the mountain.
The “professional” category – or more advanced skiing ability – had the additional challenge of having to ski down to a neighbouring slope, make a second scramble to the top of a mountain ridge before skiing down the main course in a second run.
The 50 or so skiers, aged from 6 to 85, took their places on the start line, some wearing their skis, others choosing to carry them, all eager to get going, but also nervous about the ascent in front of them.
The national anthem was blasted out on loudspeakers before Bamiyan’s Governor Sayed Rahmati signalled the start of the race.
As the skiers leapt off their marks, they descended into chaos as they battled to get ahead amid an initial burst of adrenalin, almost trampling the organisers on the start gate.
But they soon started to spread out as they began their climb.
Four-time champion Mushtaba Husaini, 20, was the man to beat in the professional category.
“Before the competition, I usually intensively train for one month, although this year I struggled to find time,” he said.
The lack of training showed on the day, with Mushtaba coming in third.
Six-time competitor Mohammad Taheri, 19, crossed the finish line first to high fives and shoulder rubs.
“I’ve placed second and third before in the Afghan Ski Challenge, but never first. I also competed in Pakistan last year. I haven’t been able to practise so much this year, so I was hoping to place in the top five, but to win the competition is amazing,” he said.
“I was quicker than I was expecting. My mother will be so proud. The ski club will have a party tonight to celebrate.”
He too skied away with 10,000 Afghanis prize money.
Also in the professionals’ category was Bamiyan English teacher Khan Ali Ahmadi, 24, who was on his fifth entry to the challenge.
“It was extremely difficult. At times I considered giving up, but I just kept telling myself ‘hurry up, hurry, come on, you can do it’,” he said.
It was Mr Rahmati's first time watching the challenge.
“It has been a great day and I’m very pleased to see the community coming together to enjoy this competition and that so many people have taken part in it, especially at such a difficult time both here in Afghanistan and across the world,” he said.
“As a community, we are proud of the girls who are taking up skiing and we fully support them, across all sports, not just skiing.”
Having been busy learning himself, he said he was considering entering next year’s competition.
“God willing,” Mr Rahmati said with a laugh.
Organiser Sajjad Husaini said he is pleased to see people starting to make the most of Afghanistan’s outdoors.
“We have lots of beautiful mountains and plenty of snow during the winter months. We are now utilising these amazing resources and the competition is a good way to bring the community together – we even had people come up from Kabul.
“It has been a great couple of days.”