Bamiyan, Afghanistan, the place where Khalil Reza is a champion. His mother calls him a hero. He calls himself a skier.

On donated skis, he climbed up a quarter-mile slope and skied down an ungroomed mountain well before the handful of experienced Europeans and Americans who traveled here specifically for the Afghan Ski Challenge, held on Friday by the Aga Khan Foundation and two Swiss journalists. Also defeated were nine other Afghan competitors, most reared in small snow-covered villages tucked in the valleys of the Koh-i-Baba mountains.

The day after the race, Mr. Reza sat in his family’s one-room, thatched-roof farmhouse. His grand prize was in front of him – a box bearing a Swiss watch donated by Tissot. Though the timepiece is worth $600, he may never be able to sell or even use it. A plastic gold-colored trophy was the only other adornment in the room.

The fact is, $600 could buy him a good motorcycle, which he could use on the complicated mountain roads in his remote village.

Regardless, now he defines himself as a skier, he says. This is what he wants to do. His mother hopes that being a ski guide will bring him closer to an education. But Mr. Reza, who says he’s never been to school and doesn’t know how to read, will also farm during the summer. And no one knows if the hordes of ski tourists he is hoping for will really come.

From above, Afghanistan’s surreal peaks look endless and untraveled. Skiers and snowboarders from abroad drool over its undiscovered “bowls” and “chutes.” And the danger that haunts Afghanistan keeps the peaks relatively pure. But in the summits surrounding Bamiyan’s famous Taliban-bombed Buddhas, the security hazards are said to be less.

And so, the foreigners who brought the sport to the region have left a trail of teenaged Afghans making homemade skis – and, hopefully, a better future.

[February 2012]