By Mark Sneddon as appeared in ski and snow 2019
We’re driving down the snow covered road leaving Gulmarg after three fantastic weeks ski and snowboard touring. As we come around a corner there’s a big bus jack-knifed across the narrow road, it’s front wheels wedged into a 2m high snow drift. We stop behind a couple of other jeeps, then a few more back up behind us, then they come down the wrong side of the road next to us and back up, the same’s happened on the other side of the bus. Gridlock, Indian Style…… We laugh, it’s another reminder that we’re in the Himalayas, skiing and experiencing Indian, or more accurately, Kashmiri culture…….
I’m a climbing and ski guide, a ski bum who’s forgotten to grow up, with around 30 winters experience skiing around the world, from Utah to Antarctica, Japan to Austria and all over New Zealand. I recently explored India’s northern provence of Kashmir at Gulmarg Ski Resort and was completely blown away by the quality of the skiing and amazed by the ease in which a good off piste skier can explore 1500m descents, mellow bowls of untracked powder, exquisite tree skiing and classic Himalayan culture.
It’s pretty easy to get there, but even easier to get into trouble with big avalanche paths just a few metres outside of the ski area’s small boundary. But with a qualified guide, some fat skis and an adventurous attitude, the skiing can be some of the best lift accessed backcountry touring on the planet. Any skier or boarder of an intermediate or better level, who can ski off the groomed trails, will have a blast in Gulmarg.
The resort is situated in the Pir Panjal mountain range, a one hour flight north of Delhi, followed by a 56km (about an hour) taxi ride from Srinagar, the capital city of Kashmir. The town sits at an elevation of 2700m (8850ft) with hotels scattered around the summer golf course. The gondola starts from the edge of town and travels in two stages to just short of Mt Apharwat’s 4124m (13526ft) summit. Gulmarg is on the western tip of the Himalaya so it’s the first mountain range to get hit by the prevailing westerly storms that commonly bring one to two metres of snow at town level. It’s not unusual to get around 15 meters of snow in a season and with the massive vertical drop it’s a bit like taking Utah skiing and adding Red Bull.
Visitors were rightfully scared away from Kashmir in the early 90‘s when Indian – Pakistan relations soured and a war broke out. Skiers and snowboarders are now returning to Kashmir due to a complete decline in violence in the region since both sides started a peace process in 2004. There’s still a large army presence near the summit of the resort’s gondola in a very inhospitable permanent tent camp on Mt Apharwat and also around the town of Gulmarg, but they are friendly and non-threatening to visitors.
The people of Kashmir are popularly known as Kashmiris. Most of the Kashmiris are Muslims, followed by Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians. The amalgamation of these philosophies has added colour and fragrance to the Kashmiri culture. The British discovered Gulmarg (meaning ‘Meadow of Flowers’) in 1927 during their colonial rule in India. Originally called ‘Gaurimarg’ by shepherds, its present name was given in the 16th century by Sultan Yusuf Shah, who was inspired by the sight of its grassy slopes decorated with wild flowers. Gulmarg does not have many permanent residents except hotel employees and guests. Everyone else is required to leave the village by sunset, as per a curfew set by the army in 1990. The first phase of the gondola was built in 1998 and the second stage was completed is 2005 which lies within a few kilometres of the ‘Line of Control’ between India and Pakistan.
One day skiing the Khilanmarg Bowl from the top of the gondola we took a wrong turn and ended up at the entrance to a large Army camp. We poked our heads through the gate, between the barbed wire fence and looked behind the gun stations. No one was there, so we slowly and tentatively skied down the road through the camp, expecting to be yelled at. When we eventually passed armed military they simply waved and smiled as we skied right through the middle of the camp and out onto the road back to town. Without exception, everyone we met in Gulmarg, either Indian or Kashmiri were exceptionally friendly and pleased to see us.
It’s important to remember that you are not skiing in a resort like in Europe or North America so there are several benefits to taking a qualified guide. Safety is the main one, everyone in the group uses and is taught how to use an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe. Those already familiar with this equipment still run through a refresher session. Other benefits include learning the art of avalanche forecasting during evening lectures, practicing ski and snowboard touring techniques as well as choosing runs to suit the snow stability, the weather and the groups abilities. Adventure Consultant’s trips also use local Kashmir guides as assistants to their guides, which is a great way to meet and get to know the locals. Many of whom are fantastic, well trained guides with an intimate knowledge of the terrain. A few of which are moonlighters, who only have their street shoes in their packs and no avalanche training.
To tour on a snowboard there are two options, snow shoes and telescopic walking poles, or a split board, skins and telescopic walking poles. A split board quite simply is a snowboard cut in half with bindings which allow the boarder to walk uphill (aided by the skins stuck to the base). Once at the top of the run, the board is clamped back together, the skins removed and the poles put away for riding down.
The skiing in Gulmarg is all off piste with no groomed runs. It has the world’s second highest gondola and accesses some of the most amazing terrain in the world. The gondola takes you to a mountain top with a 5 km ridgeline giving access to over 30 named bowls and ridges. The gondola is true Indian style, with baskets not quite big enough for skis or boards, so we simply poke them out through the door and allow it to close onto them for the ride up. The gondola opens on ‘Indian time’, with long delays after storms which frustrate the non-prepared. The best thing to do after a storm is to select one of the many options for tours down from the mid-station through the trees. There are numerous options like a shortened version of the region’s longest run.
This run is ideally started from the Gondola top at 4000m (or the mid-station when the top is closed), and heads down for over 20kms through the Drang Bowls and into the Drang Valley to the isolated Drang Village, and finally to the town of Tangmarg at 2400m. Drang Village has no cars or roads and as we ski through the village kids run out and ride on the backs of our skis. They’ve gotten used to skiers giving them sweets and aren’t shy of asking for some.
Another fantastic storm skiing area is the Baba Rishi Trees. We clip into our skis outside the hotel door, skate and sometimes get tows by the local taxis across town to the edge of the trees. After booking a taxi driver to pick us up at the bottom we check our transceivers and then duck off the road down into the trees. The visibility is awesome even in heavy snow as we ski down a few hundred metres through towering trees, hitting pillows of soft powder and laughing in the deep dry snow until we pop out on the road for our taxi to take us back to the top for another run. After three runs we stop at a restaurant on the edge of town for some lunch and to dry out our goggles and gloves by the hot fire before heading out for a few more runs.
Monkey Hill is another great storm skiing location, right on the edge of town this 250m high hill is covered in trees and we had several amazing days, in heavy snow storms, thunder and lightening sometimes booming around us while we safely skied the short runs either down through the trees and eventually hotels, or a longer run down to the town access road and sneakily grabbing onto the back of a taxi for a drag back up to town.
Once the gondola top stage opens it’s all on. From the top you can climb up for 30 minutes to the summit of Mt Apharwat, or traverse directly south to the Sheenmai, Hapat Khued, Trajan, Saffron or Drang Bowls with numerous ridges, gullies and Paper Tree runs where you could ski for a week and take a new line each time. The bowls are all about 35-40 degrees steep which makes for perfect powder skiing. On a big day we’d do two or three runs, skinning back to the gondola mid-station in less than an hour from the bottom of the runs.
Heading north from the top of the gondola, after hiking up to near Mt Apharwat you can ski west towards Pakistan down mellow bowls and valleys, then a short skin brings you back to the ridge above Gulmarg and to runs like Chooti Bowl, Lily Wide, the four huge Khilanmag Bowls and several other options.
Accommodation in Gulmarg ranges from inexpensive hotels with no hot water (unless a smokey fire is lit in your room), rarely have power, soggy damp beds, and no modern comforts for just a few dollars/Euros a night to comfortable modern hotels with hot showers, room service, internet and clean dry rooms.
Kashmiris are traditionally heavy meat eaters and the most notable ingredient in their cuisine is mutton, of which there are over 30 varieties. Also popular are Balti curries which have spread from the Baltistan region of Pakistani administered Kashmir. It’s not as hot as traditional Indian food, but you can also get that if you wish. Meals include dishes like Rogan Josh and Chamani Qaliyan but be sure to also try some of the Kashmiri curries prepared with dried fruits.
Back to our taxi ride down from Gulmarg. After an hour, now with over 50-60 Kashmiris and Indians yelling and shouting, they manage to dig and push the bus back onto the road, but with the traffic jam no one can move. But eventually, after lots of horn tooting and yelling things start moving and somehow all the traffic manages to squeeze past each other and before we know it we are in Srinagar being paddled across Dal Lake in a water taxi to our luxurious house boat hotel for the night before our flight home.