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.