Ryan Koupal: The Innovation Interview

Ryan Koupal, Founder & Director of 40 Tribes Backcountry Adventures, which offers guided and self-guided ski and snowboard tours, avalanche courses, and ski/snowboard mountaineering courses, all based from a traditional yurt in a remote corner of Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia shares his thoughts and insights on innovation, technology and Kyrgyzstan.

Ryan graduated with a BA in Mandarin Chinese from Middlebury College, and was formerly the Executive Program Director for a cross-cultural education company called Where There Be Dragons. Both contributed to his appreciation for immersion in radically different cultures in the most far-flung corners of the globe.

A Colorado native, and thus a lover of mountains and winter, he convinced a few close friends to join him on an exploratory mission in 2006 to make first snowboard descents in remote parts of Historic Tibet, in China’s Sichuan and Qinghai Provinces. That trip inspired intense excitement for exploring additional mountainous countries and mountain cultures “via” backcountry snowboarding.

He first visited Kyrgyzstan in 2008 and was immediately inspired to embark on a project that would end up blending his greatest passions and would provide much needed winter income opportunities for villagers who live at the foot of some of the most beautiful mountains in the world.

How do you define innovation and what does it mean to you?

Innovation begins at the idea level: an idea, no matter how wild it may seem, may just have the potential to change what was previously thought possible, or rather give life to something that no one had, or possibly would have, ever thought of before. Beyond that, even borrowing an existing idea but giving it new potential by applying it differently embodies innovation. Such is the story of 40 Tribes. The yurt originated as the home of nomads who roamed the vast steppe of the Asian continent. It was easily assembled and disassembled and transported as needed due to changing seasons, or if families needed to move to a new pastureland for their animals to graze.

Over the past decade or two, yurts have actually become commonplace in National Forest areas throughout the US and Canada, where they are used as backcountry ski huts. In a lot of cases, the yurt is permitted during the winter season only and needs to be taken down for the summer.

Skiers were the innovators here, borrowing a centuries-old idea from a far-off part of the world and finding an alternate, perfect, application for it. One of the most interesting aspects of 40 Tribes has been “reintroducing” the yurt to its endemic environment with this new potential.

What industry needs to embrace innovation and take more risks?

In Kyrgyzstan, it’s the tourism industry. A good majority of Westerners (North Americans in particular) have no clue that Kyrgyzstan as a country even exists. Even fewer have any clue that it is a world-class destination for summer and winter mountain tourism.

Innovation in Kyrgyzstan’s tourism industry happened almost immediately after the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, when the Swiss development company, Helvetas, introduced the concept of community-based tourism.

The program trains and employs locals from villages and small towns across the country to host tourists in their homes and summer yurts, and provide eco-tours – trekking, horse trekking, etc – in their backyard mountains. It’s a well-established and successful model, but the problem is an oversaturation of tour companies all offering the exact same product.

What is the best piece of advice that you have been given and received?

Never work in an office again…unless it’s a home office…or a yurt office at 2650m.

What is your greatest achievement and why?

I’d say our greatest achievement was getting the yurt set up for our very first season hosting clients (winter 2010-11). Today’s nomads in Kyrgyzstan are actually semi-nomadic; they take their yurts, families, and animals into the mountain pastures for the summers, but retreat to their village homes for the winters.

As such, the concept of setting up a yurt at 2650m elevation, in the mountains, mid-winter was not just crazy, but for all I knew, maybe even impossible. As it turns out, Kyrgyz people don’t give up, and neither do their horses.

Newspapers and Books: Digital or Physical?

Physical. Otherwise how would we start our fires in the yurt?

How large is the potential market for winter tourism in Central Asia and how will you position 40 Tribes to ensure continued growth in the region?

There is definitely a potential market, but it’s not huge, and it’s only truly among the European and Russian client base. North America, being on the direct opposite side of the world, won’t ever contribute the numbers of tourists that countries on the Eurasian continent can.

One thing Central Asia does have going for itself is the “exotic” factor, which is without question driving the ski and snowboard industry today, especially the media side of the industry. Professional skiers and riders are constantly innovating with new styles, bigger tricks, and by taking greater risks in the mountains, but increasingly it’s only really impressive if all that is happening in some far-out part of the world – someplace new, that hasn’t yet been exposed or become mainstream. At first it was Alaska, Japan and Kashmir; currently it’s Iceland, Svalbard, Kamchatka, Antarctica.

Central Asia is starting to get some exposure, but the honest truth is that the continental nature of the snowpack (comparatively shallow, avalanche prone, etc), combined with the stigma that surrounds the ‘Stans, will keep the region from becoming “the” next spot. 40 Tribes has, however, helped to put Kyrgyzstan on the map for a good number of skiers and riders, and now we are starting to see some copycatting of our program.

Just this year a Russian operator based in Bishkek launched his own winter yurt camp, not all that far from where we operate. He had a single group of clients, exactly how we started out in 2010-11.

What new technologies will change the way we ski today?

Technological improvements are changing WHERE we ski as much as the way we ski. Ski/splitboard touring technology in particular allows you to access mountaintops without using a chairlift or helicopter. So inherently anywhere there are mountains, just about anything is possible.

Technologies increase the chance of surviving an avalanche- airbags, Avalungs, transceivers, and shovel systems – are also advancing rapidly, which, although a debated topic, is redefining acceptable risks for a lot of backcountry skiers and riders.

Would you consider using Google Glass? If so, will you live broadcast photos and videos in real-time of your expeditions in Kyrgyzstan?

I had to Google “Google Glass” to find out what it is. If Google decides to gift me a pair, sure, I’d give it a shot. In the end I’m a bit afraid of anything that makes me think even more about “sharing” and communicating to the world what is happening vs just being in the moment and enjoying it without giving a crap about if other people “like” it or not.

What gadgets do you pack in your bag when lead an expedition?

Nothing too special: Avalanche safety gear, satellite phone, emergency rescue sled, 2-way radios. Those are the only true gadgets.

What would you want an individual who is passionate about skiing, yet who has never been on a ski adventure to Central Asia to know about Kyrgyzstan and 40 Tribes?

Lots to say here but I’ll start with a bit of a disclaimer as this has been proven year after year. It’s a continental climate, meaning cold temperatures, high elevations, inconsistent snowstorms, lots of sun, and overall a snowpack that can be challenging to ski because of its variable and unconsolidated characteristics. (Colorado is a good example of a continental climate in the US.) If you don’t bring fat skis or a snowboard, and can’t or aren’t comfortable skiing/riding fast, you’ll sink to your thighs and ultimately put yourself at greater risk of not getting down the slope safely.

If you arrive with the right equipment, are comfortable living in a single yurt with all of your trip mates and guides, can do without showers, love playing Yahtzee, and are up for a mighty adventure that is as much about exploring another country and culture as it is the skiing/riding, then it will be the trip of a lifetime!