There was a clatter of skis and poles as around 30 Afghan and international competitors jumped off the line and dashed uphill, across nearly 1,000 feet (300 meters) of snowfield. The Afghan racers, most of them farm boys from nearby villages with only a few weeks of skiing experience, quickly outpaced the foreigners—who were huffing at the 10,500-foot (3,200-meter) elevation.

Earl and around 14 others flew in from Kabul, the U.S., the U.K., Australia, France, Slovenia, Spain, New Zealand, and Finland for the race, part of an effort to promote tourism in Bamyan—a remote mountain valley in Afghanistan’s Central Highlands that was renowned for the giant Buddhas carved into a cliff face, before Taliban forces blew them up in 2001.

“Experience-wise this place is untraveled. You’re coming to an area that doesn’t have a huge amount of tourism. So when you come here it’s an adventure, you’re not just checking the checklist off the Lonely Planet book,” said Shelton.

Photo Credit: Goat-herder turned ski guide Sayed Ali Shah, 17, prepares to load a donkey with an assortment of cross-country skis and poles, so tourists can trek above the snow-line in Afghanistan's central highlands. Jerome Starkey / Flickr