Skiing in Gulmarg – India

It’s not every day you get the chance to ski in one of the most unusual yet exciting places in the world – James Mitchell did just that. Have a read of his latest trip and experience skiing over in Gulmarg, India.

Tell people you’re going skiing in India, and it’s safe to say you’ll get more than a few raised eyebrows. It might play host to part of the highest mountain range in the world, but from a tourist perspective the country is still better known for its cultural heritage, its beaches, and its history as part of the British Empire, rather than for its snowfall. Yet leave the beaten track of Delhi and Agra’s mausoleums and mosques, forget the palm-fringed beaches of Kerala, and with an average annual reported snowfall of fourteen metres, the slopes of the Pir Panjal range in the western Himalayas are a snow sports enthusiast’s paradise.

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Or so we’d heard. After nearly 21 hours, 3 flights and some very odd looks in Delhi when we told people our oversized bags were for ski equipment, we touched down in Srinagar.  Then, leaving the largest city in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir behind us, we embarked on the 50km drive to the mountain resort of Gulmarg.

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No one can argue that skiing in, or even getting to, Gulmarg is convenient. Situated near the military Line of Control between India and Pakistan, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the UK currently advises against all travel to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and a military presence was evident almost as soon as our plane touched the ground. But if we’d wanted convenience we would have taken advantage of any of Europe’s resorts right on our doorstep and with a several seasons between us, as well as weeks on holiday with family and friends, myself and my partner for the trip, wanted something different.

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As skiing and snowboarding grows in popularity and manufacturers continue to bring backcountry skiing into the mainstream, we are amongst a growing number of skiers searching out the next undiscovered destination or off the beaten track adventure in the quest for empty slopes to lay down those long, deep turns we see in ski films.

Catching the tail end of a warm weather storm system as we arrived into Gulmarg, being soaked to the skin by rain and, as a result of our transport being unable to go any further, we dragged our bags the final 100m uphill to our hotel. Once we had unpacked we headed to the Global Hotel to meet our guide for the week.

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Gulmarg has a completely new infrastructure to the commercial, tourist destination resorts most skiers experience. With only one gondola, split into two phases and one four man chairlift, one might question why anyone would travel half way around the world to ski here. Rather than offering skiers miles of pisted runs, the mountain is separated into two areas; the avalanche controlled “Green Zone”, and beyond that, the unpatrolled backcountry “Red Zone”. Neither zone is pisted, and collectively, both offer unlimited possibilities for those in search of untouched powder runs.

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Inevitably, therefore, a good guide is highly recommended.  Ours for the week was Billa Bakshi, owner and lead guide of Kashmir Heliski and one of the most well-known and popular men in Gulmarg. Billa was born in Gulmarg, and skiing since he was 4 years old became the first qualified ski guide in India.  As with any other backcountry or off piste skiing, another must is avalanche equipment; without it, you will be sent back down the Goldola by ski patrol.  Not that this was a concern for us on our first day. With the mountain not playing ball and the second phase of the gondola having been closed for the previous five days due to the weather and some lingering low cloud, it remained so.  In spite of some heavy avalanche blasting from ski patrol, we spent time brushing up on our avalanche rescue skills and skied some laps of the chair lift in low visibility.

It was our first lesson in Indian skiing; that an open mind and sense of adventure will probably get you as far as the chairlift, but that patience (not an attribute myself or my ski partner are often blessed with) will not get you up the mountain and clicking into your skis in the imposing shadow of the 4,300m Mt Aphawat.  In our case, that patience was challenged when we woke the next day to clear skies, no new snow overnight, and approached with a heightened optimism, waiting in line at 9am when we were told the 2nd phase of the gondola would be open shortly as controlled avalanche blasts rang out in the distance. As the minutes turned into hours and a thick cloud of fog rolled through the valley, we were told that we would be forced to wait another day to experience Gulmarg at its full potential.

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Fortunately however, it wasn’t a completely wasted morning. In the queue, we met a number of Western- Australians, Brits, and numerous Russians, proving that snow sports tourism to the area is gaining momentum. Some, like us, were visiting the resort either for the first time, but many were back, taking their place among a group of die hards who have been returning to these hallowed mountains for years. Olya, a Russian who first worked in one of the hotel bars 9 years ago, has been coming back on holiday ever since, telling us tales of getting lost in the backcountry. Will and Mitch, Australians here for the past two months as part of a film crew making a documentary on the local skiers and guides of Gulmarg, greet everyone in the queue as if old friends.

Our determination to get up the mountain established, we took our place among the tight knit community, and joined them that evening for the weekly avalanche awareness talk by the head of ski Patrol, Luke Smithwick, at a nearby hotel. Seated among local workers, returning veterans and other fresh-faced newbies, we listened attentively as he explained the relative dangers of the spectacular Gulmarg terrain and the current snowpack conditions.

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The next morning the mountain delivered what we’d travelled all this way for. Raring to go without the hangovers that so often come with a night out in the Alps (Gulmarg is largely a Muslim population so alcohol is limited apart from a few hotels), we clambered into the 2nd phase of the gondola at 8:30am and started our ascent to 3,979m in one of the highest gondolas of the world. This was the moment we’d been waiting for. A simple traverse either left or right takes you along the top of the mountain ridge, above its impressive powder-filled bowls. The moment before the drop in, with the Himalayas at your feet, 1,000 vertical metres of fresh, deep turns present themselves to you, a view even skiers used to the best of Europe’s backcountry can only fantasise about. We skied along ridge lines, ploughed through deep powder bowls, navigated widely spaced paper trees, popped off wind lips and traversed across open meadows, each time returning to the mid-station more breathless than the last.

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However, even skiers in paradise can’t run on empty and, miles from the après ski bars, fast-food venues and haute cuisine of Europe, each day we stopped at the local Dhabas for sweet Kashmiri tea and freshly cooked paratha to fuel our bodies for the afternoon.

Although skiing in Kashmir is relatively unheard of to the majority of Westerners, the Poma lifts servicing the nursery slopes in the village fill up with the hustle and bustle of local Kashmiri’s riding wooden sleds and wealthy Indian tourists, who have been coming here to take in the fantastic views every weekend for years.

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It is well known that the region has a turbulent history but in spite of recent stability, Billa informed us that last summer’s protests had had a major impact on Gulmarg’s tourism. With visitor numbers down on last year, he has been unable to run his Heliski operation for the first time since 2010.

However, we enjoyed a warmer welcome than one would get in any European resort, and certainly than one would expect from a region that has been plunged into political turbulence within most locals’ living memory. Billa is far from the only local businessman to have been affected, not that you’d realise from the smiling faces that greeted us on our walk to the village market, with army personnel and citizens alike keen to know where we were from, how we were enjoying Kashmir, the names of our favourite players on the England cricket team and, most importantly, asking us to tell all of our friends back home to visit Gulmarg too.

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After 9 days, our final morning saw us wake up to more clear skies, and with no significant snowfall over the past 4 days, we put on our skins and flicked into touring mode to make the 300m ascent to the summit of Mt Apharwat, in order to access some untracked terrain around the back of the peak. After an hour or so of breathless hiking, with our lungs and legs burning, we reached a wide, untouched, north facing aspect that allowed us to carve, slash and slarve our way through 20-30cm of fresh snow all day. From there we skied down through wide open powder fields, farming villages used in the summer and perfectly spaced tree lined slopes, to the skin track out that lead to one of the several army bases that scatter the area. After a brief exchange with a few of the Army patrol officers, who decided to take issue with our presence, despite it being the pick-up location for a popular backcountry route, Billa had arranged for a taxi to take our bodies, exhausted and aching, on the short drive back to the village.

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Leaving Gulmarg the next day, we left behind a resort that is still yet to offer the perks and benefits of the resorts many of us are used to, although this is slowly changing with high end developments like the Kyber Resort & Spa and The Vintage Hotel emerging over the past few years. Instead, far from the crowds in Europe and North America, Gulmarg offers the unique risks and rewards of the wild, and it’s tempting to ignore the requests of the villagers, and fervently advise any and every avid skier I know from visiting.

But Gulmarg is unique in more ways than one.  It doesn’t offer something for everyone, its skiing isn’t forgiving, or easy, and if you’re one of the growing number of skiers and snowboarders looking for that next adventure to escape the routine of winter trips to the Alps, then it would be impossible not to pay heed to the requests of the locals and highly recommend you go visit.

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Words – Written by James Mitchell and edited by Morwenna Jones
Images – James Mitchell

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