By popular demand, you can now pick up your CPG and EpicQuest gear in our new online store! Sarah Saarloos and her team have been spending more time than ever generating great designs and stocking the shelves with a wide variety of goods you’ll love. Check it out! Just browse, pick your items and place your order. We’ll have it on your doorstep in no time!
When skiing in Kashmir, one can find themselves in some unique situations. In search of powder snow, we have shared tea with the Indian Army’s High Altitude Warfare Batallion, swapped hand gestured stories with local villagers, traversed ancient sheepherding trails and boarded helicopters. With a high pressure system that has failed to produce any significant snowfall that is typical of Gulmarg, we have still have had good luck finding incredible powder skiing and amazing terrain.
Last week, we chose to take a few days off to explore the Kashmir’s summer capital of Srinigar. Situated in a valley surrounded by the Pir Punjab range of Kashmir and the Himalayan foothills of Ladahk, all river drainages flow into a lake system that supplies most of the valleys farmers with water. One of the largest is Dal Lake, the main tourist attraction to Srinigar. One can think of Srinigar as an Indian Venice. Before the turbulent war-torn conflict in the 80′s, Srinigar was a haven and retreat for many travelers and ex-patriots. In lieu of purchasing land, British ex-pats built intricate houseboats that were permanently docked in Dal Lake. In its heyday, hundreds of these houseboats created a community employing floating market vendors, Shikara (boat) drivers, housekeepers and more. By cruising these waterways, it is clear that it was the bustling and lively epicenter of Kashmir tourism. Presently, there is still an air of tourism, but nothing compared to the pre-war times. In the 60′s and 70′s yearly houseboat registers added up to the thousands compared to the 100′s presently. Still the kindness and hospitality shown by the proprietors of this area make this experience magical.
Before retreating to the freshly snowed mountains, we spent a day exploring the open air markets, historical mosques and taking in all the sights and sounds of a typical Indian city. Next was picking up our guests to ski with for the coming weeks. Driving back up to Gulmarg, we were frothing at the tracks laid in deep powder off the road. Ski travelers with bright colored clothing and high tech gear looked out of place as we pass roadside army bunkers and soldiers. The new 3 foot storm boded well for the upcoming week.
The next day we took advantage of the lower elevation snow by skiing road runs to the village of Babareshi. Just like Teton pass, just a bit shorter in vertical and more challenging to arrange a ride up. The following days, we used the mid elevation chairlift to access perfectly spaced birch trees with bottomless powder which ended in the village of Drung. Upon reaching the apple and walnut farming village, we were greeted by curious children wanting to take rides on the back of our skis. While our crew shared tea with a local family, I pulled off my ski boot shells and let the kids have a try at my modern equipment. Children were laughing and playing tug-of-war with the gear as they were all eager to give it a try. Such excitement knowing that skiing could be a future profession.
One challenge that every ski traveler is experiencing in Gulmarg is the operation of the upper gondola. As the main attraction for skiers, the operational difficulties are becoming more complex. Weather challenges asides, Kashmir constantly struggles with a steady power supply and now Gulmarg Snow Safety is having difficulty securing explosives to keep the Gondola bowl safe for skiers. Beaucracy and political debates shroud this endeavor as one can imagine the challenges in obtaining civilian owned, weapon grade explosives on the Line of Control between Pakistan and India. However, each day that the gondola hasn’t opened, we have climbed to some incredible skiing in the surrounding area.
Two days ago, we used my favorite mode of travel. A B-3 Helicopter. We contracted Kashmir Heli Ski Guides to drop our group deep into the high backcountry where we had an amazing 5000 ft descent through previously slid avalanche paths and knee deep powder trees. Toward the end of the day we followed a tributtary river for 4 miles back to the village of Drung. Along the way we skied by a remote Indian Army post, where the sergent offered our group Chai tea. We happily obliged and shared stories about Gulmarg, cricket and skiing. A very unique experience indeed.
Yesterday, we finally got the call from ski patrol that explosives had arrived and they were going through with opening the upper gondola for skiing. First thing in the morning, a queue formed at the gondola entrance and two hours later, 300 powder hungry skiers were assembled and eagerly awaiting the opening. Once we got clearance our group were the first guests on the mountain, shredding the knee deep wind buffed powder. Each guest carving their own signature in to the mountain…some short controlled turns, other fast and long arcs. An incredible first run. Throughout the day we chose fresh lines just outside the ski area boundary, picking our way through perfectly spaced birch trees and open bowls. Although, we were skiing with a very large crowd of tourists, we felt isolation and a true backcountry experience just off the gondola ski area. This is why we are here.
Day 10, Gulmarg
After 10 days of continuous powder seeking and skiing, a welcomed rest day. With a combination of long resort runs, and extended back bowls coupled with amazing cultural experiences, its nice to take a rest and soak it all in. We have had clear beautiful days with views of the distant Himalaya. Nanga Parbat (the 8th highest mountain) oversees our travels and provides an beautiful landscape where ever we go. For the past 10 days we’ve had a couple of snow showers but not the typical dumps that Gulmarg is known for. That is all about to change tomorrow. 2 meters of snow are expected for the next three days. The snowpack remains unstable but hopefully enough load will refresh the entire area with deep stable snow.
We have been taking advantage of the clear long days by taking extended tours. Each morning we are given box lunches that sustain us for the entire day. We venture just off the beaten path to seldom traveled areas. Each day, my guest and I see terrain that many of the ski tourists will never see. Long bowls of fresh powder in all directions. Yesterday, we ski toured down to the local village of Drang. We are greeted by curious children and hardened women who keep the Kashmir valley in line. While the men congregate in Gulmarg in search of the tourist dollar, the women care for the home, feed the kids and take care of the livestock. It is a somewhat rare sight to share stories with the women of Kashmir.
Again, I am reminded of the incredible opportunity that skiing has provided for the people of this valley. It has transformed this otherwise quiet and uneventful winter into a mecca for traveling powder seekers, which in turn brings more money and opportunity to the people.
To many people of India and the developing world, skiing is a foreign thought or luxurious lifestyle. While to the people of Kashmir it is a life sustaining necessity.
Settling into the Kashmir valley of Gulmarg, I anticipate the powder frenzy ahead. With a large group of Ex-pat ski bums coming from all over the world, the fresh tracks are harder and harder to find. Brian Newman and Gulmarg Ski Patrol have installed an instrumental avalanche control program to keep the slopes of Gulmarg safe. However, one can imagine the difficulties of obtaining explosives and being able to implement this program one 4 miles from the Line of Control between the highly politically fragile area between India and Pakistan.
While the Ski Patrol waits for explosives thus the upper phase of the gondola opening, me and my co-guides explore the lower elevation trees and some touring options below town. We find pillow lines of fresh snow atop downed trees and rock bands. Excellent skiing quality given the refresh of snow each evening. Despite the top ups every evening, we still feel very skeptical of the stability in the alpine regions but given the terrain we have plenty of options. Each night, we return to our cozy rooms heated with the wood fired bukari’s and dinners that please the palette.
On my fourth day of skiing at altitude, me and my crew decide to take a rest day. As I settle into a good book and a mellow afternoon, I am startled by shaking windows and a bellowing that rocks the Gulmarg valley. I tune into the Ski Patrol radio and quickly they are through most of the their bomb routes and quickly anticipate opening the upper phase of the Gondola. A 3000 ft pitch of open bowls and keep deep powder. I instantly dress up, run out the door and get up the mountain to join the other powder frothers. The energy is at a fever with a stoked international group of riders. Game on in Gulmarg.
Two days later, we still find fresh tracks in the controlled bowls of the ski area, but decide to tour to the summit of Mt. Apharwat to take in the views of the Himalayas with Nanga Parbat towering over the Kashmir valley (8th highest mountain in the world). We find an isolated bowl with fresh tracks in all direction. We are humbled by the tower mountains all around us and find solace in the silence that they provide us.
A large storm is on the horizon which is what we all look forward to. All in all, a perfect experience thus far……
Field Report from David Marchi
Returning to Kashmir is, again, a thrilling experience. With the prospects of high-altitude snow covered mountains and the Gulmarg ski resort, my anticipation in seeing old friends and meeting new travelers has my nerves on edge. While this privileged traveler has been here before, I know that my senses will be challenged and expanded. I leave behind a loving family and the comforts of home, to experience a whole other familiar experience from 2006. As a founding member of the Gulmarg Gondola Corporations ski patrol, I return to old friends who have had their lived changed by foreign powder seekers.
Gulmarg is situated on the Line of Control on the border of Pakistan and the occupied territory of Kashmir (India). The village is littered by Kashmiri men donning the tradition Pheran dress, keeping warm with a coal filled Kongri made of wicker and terracotta. The smoke in the air indicates cold nights and the typical challenges of living in the mountains. In the near distance, though obscured by the smoky air, is Mt. Apharwat, the highest point of a jagged ridgeline, holding incredible ski terrain.
I am here as a guide. While I look forward to the challenges and rewards of showing foreigners my old playground, I fear the incredibly touchy snowpack not to dissimilar to the what the Rockies are experiencing at the present moment. As I settle into the Highland Parks Hotel, I take a walk to work off the dead legs presented in a 31 hour travel day. A necessary stopping point in the stroll is to visit with Yassin Khan. A true Kashmiri mountain man, he endured the turmoil and strife in the 80-90′s when Pakistan and India exchanged bombing throwing rituals daily. He saw family and friends leave their homes in exile or to take arms and join the Liberation Army. All the while, he held onto his dream of being a mountain and ski guide in the area. He lights up his hooka and we remember old times and share in memory of our mutual friend, Kip Garre. In the evening, the familiar sounds of crows filled the night sky. Tomorrow we ski, the most familiar component of this entire experience.
In the morning, I am woken by room attendants filling our Bukari wood stove and quietly lighting it. I am reminded of the unique experience that Kashmir is. A contrast of hardship and kindness among the locals, delivering travelers seeking powder a truly unique experience.
I feel gratitude for my time here.
The Board of Directors of EpicQuest joins the staff and management team in welcoming Walter Bruns as President of the company.
Walter has been a leader in the heli-skiing world for decades, joining EpicQuest after 25 years with Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) – the
world’s largest heli-skiing and heli-hiking operator. Starting in the industry as a van-driver and being promoted through the ranks under the tutelage of legendary heli-skiing pioneer Hans Gmoser, Walter would eventually become President of CMH. Walter brings a lifetime of guide and management expertise in heli-skiing and the luxury-adventure travel industry to EpicQuest, joining its own world-class team of guides and ski professionals.
As President of EpicQuest, Walter will assume management responsibility for all skiing operations, overseeing the daily operations of the company’s teams based in Girdwood, Alaska and Sun Valley, Idaho. He will also oversee the development and management of new ski programs elsewhere around the world as EpicQuest expands its offering of premium ski destinations. Walter will also be involved in Epicquest’s portfolio of adventures in other sports, including its new mountain biking facility in Sun Valley (“The Bike Ranch”) as well as programs in Europe and Africa.
“Walter is well known and highly respected in the industry,” said EpicQuest Board Member Craig Pattee. “We’re very proud of what we have built at Chugach Powder Guides in Alaska, and with Sun Valley Heli Ski Guides in Idaho; we are lucky to have an incredible team of people. Walter brings a wealth of experience in customer service to the teams and will fit right in with our company’s strong culture of excellence and commitment to the client.” Bruns added: “Skiing, mountains, guiding, and the heli-ski business have been my passions in life. That is exactly what EpicQuest is all about, and much more. It is my privilege and an honor to join this wonderful team. It is a tremendously exciting and new opportunity to build the dream into reality.”
Walter joins a seasoned team of skiing and world-class adventure professionals and athletes. Mike Overcast will continue to oversee the programs at the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge. Chris Owens will continue to oversee EpicQuest’s public relations and strategic partnerships. Dave Hamre remains a Senior Advisor and Consultant to the company. EpicQuest’s experienced staff and team of guides in Sun Valley and Girdwood will continue to provide outstanding service to our guests.
Walter Bruns joins the team as President beginning June 1st. He will split his time between EpicQuest’s operations in Alaska and Sun Valley.
January 23, 2011
Swell at Buoy 46026: 9 feet @ 17 seconds from the NorthWest
Winds: NNE 5
Surf: 10-15 foot faces
While the mountains up north have gotten hammered with good snowfall, Northern California has been enjoying an incredible run of large, powerful, high quality surf for most of January. Sunday was the best day of big waves I can remember at our beach. Sunny skies, a slight breeze blowing out of the east and a smooth ocean. The swell had formed from a massive storm that covered the entire western Pacific a week earlier and waves locally were solid double overhead hitting triple overhead on the sets. The paddle was somewhat brutal on the requisite big gun, and conditions dictated “serious takers only”. Wave shape was incredible with big bowling peaks breaking top to bottom with a long wall in each direction.
The paddle was tiring, the beatings were severe, but the half dozen waves I surfed that day were epic – I remember each one in detail. To borrow a phrase from our friend Martin Daly, “Surf is where you find it!” Great adventures sometimes show up right in your own back yard.
Driving up over the hill on the Kam Highway, flanked by muddy pineapple fields and Hawaiian pine trees, you wonder: How big is it… is it clean… how crowded is it? Will I nab the wave of a lifetime? Am I due for a big-wave beat-down?
Butterflys float in the gut as you crest the hill and then, BAM! – there’s the North Shore of Oahu doing it’s thing – whitewater on the reefs, south east wind blowing plumes of spray off the back of the waves…. its ON.
Our annual winter trip to the “seven mile miracle” looks to be well-timed this year. Light south-east winds blow dead offshore and consistent swell is lined up in the western Pacific. Scramble to the house, unpack the coffin, wax boards, slather sunscreen on my “haole” body, and jump in the car for the first of many surf checks in the coming week.
Sunset is firing – double to triple overhead and flawless. Medium crowd, looks doable. Grab the 7’10” and jump in the rip. 15 minutes later, floating in the lineup, dodging the west bowl sets and trying to find my strategy. It’s big, and I’m under-gunned. Sit inside and take a few bombs on the head? Sit on the West and wait for the peaky ones? The pro’s are on it; Ross Clark Jones, Makua Rothman, Maya Gabiera, all taking off deep behind the peak. Maya sits deeper than the guys and grabs one of the biggest set waves of the day – when an old guy threatens to drop in on her, she roars like a lion and scares him off. My inside strategy works… and after some patience I’m racing the right hander towards the hollow inside section. The wave is long, fast, and has that magic Sunset power that makes the beatings, long paddle, and contentious crowd all well worth the trouble. Japanese tourists pull up in limos and take photos.
Back to cruising the highway, what’s looking good? Pipe is a zoo. Chambers and Logs are way too heavy. Waimea’s not breaking. The shorebreak is packed with people trying to break their necks. Ahh, what’s this? Super clean, overhead, and 2 guys out… we pick our way down to the beach and navigate the hellacious paddle out to Alligator’s. A maze of reef, with bulbs and death spikes sticking out, the timing is critical. Sketchy, but worth it. No damage to the board this time. Now we’re bobbing out in the lineup. The water is warmer than usual, the waves are fun, and the vibe is pure Aloha. Swell marches through, bowling into a nice peak, a few beautiful turns, and the wave peters out into the channel. North Shore, warm, sunny, 4 guys out during the “busiest time of the year.” Love the North Shore!
The days blur together – eat, surf, eat, surf, eat, sleep. Repeat.
Swell is bigger – much bigger. We park at Ehukai, and Pipe is macking. The lineup is packed with pro’s and the beach is packed with pro-ho’s. And photogs, hecklers, regular guys, surf industry wanks, crackheads, stray dogs, kids, hot girls, and fat people from Ohio. Sets cap on cloudbreak reefs and second reef is on. Guys scratch for bombs, getting in early and pumping towards cavernous barrels. We sit and watch – it never gets old, it’s a gladiator pit and it’s right there. Everything you hear is true, its heavy.
Where to surf? Sunset is giant and out of control. Pipe’s too heavy. Waimea? Let’s cruise and look at the wierdo spots. Closed out. “Pull over. Thats the spot – Himalaya’s.”
Big wave spot, wayyyy off shore. The butterfly’s come bubbling back. But it’s holding – bomber sets break out the back, off in the distance. We jog up the beach with our guns and enter the rip, which would be considered Class III water if it was a river. But it’s not, it’s the ocean, and it’s sucking us offshore – fast. Whoa! It’s big out here. A few guys bob quietly out the back on giant guns. The trades are putting a big sideshore chop on the wave face, but also providing a little ramp you can use to get into the beasts. I’ll sit on the shoulder to get situated. Creep into the takeoff zone. Line up the big tree with the white farm house. There it is – a swing set, the big left-hander walls and bends on the reef and I take off, deep and vertical drop, nice wall… long long wall. And then kick out and back into the rip for a quick return to the lineup, feeling good. A few sets later, I’m in the same spot and an even bigger bomb rumbles through. A late drop, but should be ok… ugh, ahh, stuck in the lip, the offshore wind stings the eyes and I’m cooked. Worst case scenario. Hung up in the lip of a breaking wave, I leap off my board and free-fall all the way to the trough. Here we go.. penetrate the water, and that sickening feeling as I rise back up in the face, and then it’s tumbling around inside the wave followed by a smashing and a hold down that goes on and on. When I finally pop up, dazed, the old guy in the channel smiles and says, “cartwheels in the barrel – nice!”
Time to head back to the Mountains.
I am halfway through the season skiing on my new favorite skis the Salomon El Dictator. The El Dictator was the brainchild of skiers Cody Townsend and Kaj Zackrisson designed to ski big lines aggressively and compete on the world free ski tour. I’ve had a lot of favorite skis over the years, but with each I always thought something could be changed to improve them. I’ve often thought about having the opportunity to build my perfect ski and the El Dictator is exactly what I have been envisioning. First of all the El Dictator is not a powder ski. With 114 mm waist and an early rise tip it skis powder really well, but that’s not its only mission. What separates a big mountain ski apart from a powder ski is when skiing in the big mountain arena a skier will encounter all types of snow conditions. This ski is designed to be versatile and charge in all conditions aggressively. Aggressive is the key word here. This ski wants to go fast and stomp big airs. It’s stiff and stable at high speeds while ripping GS turns through the choppiest of snow. One improvement over previous big mountain skis is that it has less camber which allows the skier to smear a turn when needed to quickly dump speed or just adding a fun surfing feel to your turn. The rocker on the tip is just enough to keep the tip from diving in the snow, but not too much that it feels like a hinge slapping around while skiing fast. The El Dictator is not for everyone. The only length it comes in is 194, but if you like to open up your turns and ski aggressive check out this ski. In my opinion it is the best ski in the big mountain class on the market.
People who follow the progression of expedition kayaking will all know the name of British Columbia’s Grand Canyon of the Stikine. Since the first attempts at kayaking through the canyon in the 1980’s, the river has never failed to get the attention or the respect of the world’s most accomplished kayakers, although the three day class V masterpiece was attempted by no more than one or two groups in a season for many years. In the last few years, though, a new generation of paddlers has flocked to the river, making one of the most sought after descents in kayaking also one of the most completed. Part of the reason why? One of the world’s most challenging rivers just got a little easier.
Every year, a few Stikine rapids change a little. But for kayakers, the real change has been the addition of real-time flow gauge near the end of the canyon at Telegraph Creek. For the first time in nearly thirty years of attempts on the Stikine, paddlers can know what they are getting into, before a long drive to a serious canyon. The Stikine is a big water run—powerful, huge waves in a narrow canyon—and it has to be run at a fraction of its possible volume, which means it’s big already, and heat or rain quickly makes it too big.
My first trip to the Stikine was in 2005. Then, there was no real-time gauge on the upper Stikine. So we drove 1700 miles or so from Ketchum, ID, to Dease Lake, BC in two days racing toward a weather window that we hoped would keep the river low enough to run. We checked weather forecasts a few times on the way. At the river we guessed the river level by its height on a bridge pylon, and decided to go for it. Without knowing, we ran the river at one of the higher levels to date, although with the weather holding, the river dropped a little every day. A few days later, another group, this one also solid and experienced, put on when the river had jumped and was rising. Two paddlers of eight swam, which is a major incident in big water, and were rescued owing to the skill and strength of the team. I guess you could call it a mistake for them to have put on that day, but the kind of mistake you can only realize after the fact.
Last year I drove down from Girdwood to catch up with a team of friends from all over the lower 48. Between the 8 of us, we had 20 runs down the Stikine. When I saw all of them get out of the car, after their two-day drive, my hearty friends were a little pale. Two days of Stikine stories, as it happened, will turn you queasy. The hardest part of the Stikine is the lore—of carnage at must-run rapids, of harrowing escapes and near misses. On my way down for that trip, I thought I might feel a little guilty calling the gauge before putting on. No, I thought, it’s hard enough as it is…