Vail, ski association program sends gear to impoverished cold weather countries
VAIL — Never has SWAG done so much good.
SWAG stands for Sharing Warmth Around the Globe, a National Ski Areas Association program that sends gently used ski-area uniforms and cold-weather gear to remote areas of developing countries.
SWAG started in Vail, and its reach is now global:
• 265,000 pieces of gear, mostly coats and pants.
• 27 countries.
• 135 ski resorts.
The gear is delivered by all of the methods you’d expect — trucks and planes — and several you wouldn’t.
Coats are delivered to Himalayan villages in Nepal on foot. Mules and horses have packed them in. Llamas also have lent a hoof or two to help get the warm gear where it needs to go.
The gear goes to orphanages, schools and homes in remote villages in North Korea, Afghanistan and Eastern Europe. The coats turn up during treks and climbs in Nepal, on Kilimanjaro and other far-flung places.
Among other places, this time around, the gear found its way to Nuristan, one of 34 provinces in Afghanistan, and one of the most remote, rough and war-torn places on Earth.
“Children in particular are in a very bad situation; they need special focus. They have been deprived of their basic needs, with no clothes for such cool weather. They are really vulnerable and in need of help,” Rafiullah Nuristani wrote in his distribution report.
Where in the world?
A quick walk through Encyclopedia Britannica tells us that Nuristan, also spelled Nurestan or Nooristan, is located in eastern Afghanistan. It is divided into seven districts. About 140,900 people live there. Parun, where some of these coats landed, is the provincial capital.
Until 1895, it was known as Kafiristan, “land of the infidels.” Residents observed a form of ancient Hinduism, but were forced to convert to Islam. The region was renamed Nuristan, “land of illumination.”
Geography remains a challenge. Parun is disconnected from six of Nuristan’s seven districts, despite more than $100 million in American military road projects in the province from 2004 to 2007.
Winter will make several serious attempts to kill you if you’re in a developing country without a warm coat.
Sharing Warmth Around the Globe started in Vail with Bill and Cheryl Jensen. Cheryl was collecting gently used winter gear — ski patrol and instructor uniforms — to send to some of the world’s poorest and most far-flung places.
Bill was president of Vail Mountain at the time and decided to throw the company’s used gear on that growing pile. Ski resorts use the gear for an average of four years and then cycle through to new ones.
Cheryl said she’d take them. She figured other resorts would face the same dilemma, so she put the word out. Before you could say “warm and toasty,” she was driving around Colorado in a U-Haul truck, picking up retired ski mountain staff uniforms.
That kind of time helps a person see things in a big way, so Jensen figured if that’s true in Colorado ski resorts, then it must also be true in the other ski resorts across the United States.
In 2002, Jensen signed on with the National Ski Areas Association as a SWAG partner. The association’s Jennifer Larson rides herd on the program, along with all of her other responsibilities.
You’ll find SWAG gear in places such as Tajikistan and even North Korea. It’s at the International Porter Protection Project. Porters, it turns out, were dying of exposure because they didn’t have cold-weather gear. For $5 they can rent the gear they need. When they’re done, they return it and get their $5 back.
from here to there
Military transport planes carry loads of coats and tons of humanitarian supplies to developing countries. Because there’s a Department of Defense affiliation, U.S. military personnel on the ground would help non-government organizations such as Eurasia Ministry and HELP International to distribute the coats. Some arrived in trucks, but most have to be packed in by porters or pack animals.
These people have nothing, so a quality warm jacket can go a long way, physically and metaphorically, Cheryl Jensen said.
“The beauty of the whole project is that it’s the one thing that the entire ski industry works together,” Jensen said. “They’re not competing. They’re just doing it.”
Staying warm, saving lives
In the Wama and Nurgram district of Nuristan province, some people had been forced from their homes by the war. The coats saved some lives.
“At first, we managed to provide winter supplies to the internally displaced people who were displaced from Kunar province Dangam and Nari districts, due to the firing across the border from Pakistan,” Nuristani wrote. “They were in urgent need of winter clothes because they left their houses in emergency and had nothing to cover against the extreme cool weather.”
Nuristani writes that they’re thankful for the program, and would appreciate more of it.
“Considering the poor conditions and needs of people, it is suggested that such programs should be extended and expanded to other villages, with special focus on women and children,” he wrote. “They are more vulnerable and are deprived of the very basic needs of life.
“We have worked hard and extensively on finding out the real vulnerable people. We have tried to reach every villager, every street of every village for this purpose,” Nuristani wrote.
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International visitors have traditionally accounted for 10 to 20 percent of Aspen Skiing Co.’s skier visits in recent past seasons. Travel fears and restrictions tied to the coronavirus are expected to wipe out most of that market for 2020-21.