Saturday, 20 March 2010

Gulmarg Kashmir - Guns and Powder - First Published Sunday Herald 2007

Guns and Powder

The Canadian ski patroller looked as though he had seen a ghost. Pale and visibly shaken he said; “after the second slide I just wanted a chopper to take me off the hill and take me home. The hill is lethal today”. Once he recovered his composure, he refined his initial reaction; “Sorry every one, the hill has unpredictable isolated pockets of instability (a freakin understatement)… Its not a public day. We are not going to run the uplift today. Go ski the trees”.

Neil Baxter (an ex world champ kayaker) and I, two snow boarders, are with 6 other telemark skiers in Kashmir’s only ski “resort” Gulmarg (The meadow of flowers). Gulmarg is 50km from Srinagar. We have just witnessed two Canadian volunteer ski patrollers being avalanched whilst “cutting the slopes” in an effort to open the mountain. Having just addressed the 28 skiers and boarders patiently waiting for the word on mountain, the patrollers retire for a well-deserved cup of sweet masala chai. The tempting knee deep powder looks pure and virgin, a boarders dream, however it is the hidden danger under the surface that makes the mountain dangerous today. 4cm of wind blown and sun affected crust under the new snow, waiting for the unsuspecting powder hound to turn their perfect arcs into a raging tumbling mass of white death.

When I picked up my visa from the Indian consulate in Edinburgh 4 weeks before, the Indian official looked very concerned, “that’s not such a good idea….have you checked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advisories?”

This is the “offical” advise, If travel to Srinagar is essential, it should be by air. There continues to be a high level of conflict and terrorist violence in Kashmir, including car bombs, grenade attacks, bombs on roads and shootings. There have been a number of car bombings in Srinagar….. “

Very comforting, however, after some quick email correspondence with our local fixers and a short telephone call with John Falkiner our mountain guide and not withstanding the fact that we had already parted with the readies, it was time to sh.. or get off the potty.

The Accession of Kashmir and Jammu to British /Indian rule in late October 1947 signed by the Maharaja of the State of Jammu & Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh's and Lord Mountbatten Governor General of India, has sealed Kashmir’s fate to this day. The Maharaja’s choice was simple; be overrun by Pakistan or nuzzle up closer to India for protection. The festering legacy of this complex situation is continuing violence and insurgency. At the height of the tourism boom before the main period of insurgency between 1989 and 1996 it is estimated that close to 5,000,000 per annum visited Kashmir, at the moment figures suggest less than 300,000 visit annually. Kashmir, India’s only majority Muslim state is desperate for a lasting solution. The worst of the violence at the moment seems over, but with estimates of between 20,000 and 60,000 dead, only a trickle of brave tourists ignore the travel advisories.

Within the ski intelligentsia though, Gulmarg has been an open secret. The French installed Gondola took six years longer to complete than planned because of the violence. Its first stuttering season of winter uplift was only in 2004/5, so our trip was very much an exploratory early foray.

La Grave in France is Europe’s serious off-piste Mecca; un-pisted, steep, and uncompromising in its rawness. You don’t see ski suits and fur in La Grave. The skiing is the preserve of those who wear mountaineering clothing, carry steel bladed avalanche shovels and avalanche transceivers. If you don’t know the mountain, you hire Mountain guides. Compassions with Gulmarg are hard to resist.

Our arrival typified the trip. The 50km journey from the heavily fortified Srinagar Airport via Indian TATA jeep took 2 1/2 hours. Checkpoints, machine gun posts and stray dogs formed the back drop to a staccato bald tyred weave through a mass of humanity and animals. Car horns in Indian normally get a beating but in Kashmir the punishment is exceptional. The recent heavy snowfall exacerbated the issue. Everyone and everything was moving on the road, pavement and paths were impassable. Roadside refreshments were soon called for, but Bashir our driver declined to stop in the next obvious town, “bad people here we’ll stop in Tangmarg”.

30 mins later, huddled around a steel bellied wood-burning stove, friendly hands thrust pots of steaming Masala Chai and coconut biscuits from the “Snow Bakery” towards us. Snow chains were tied onto the trucks with ropes and the last 7km were negotiated in the oncoming darkness. We had opted to stay in the Hilltop Hotel as it had the reputation for being the most reliable. Many slightly bemused but willing helpers off-loaded our bags and boards. Mid way up to the second floor one of the nightly power failures occurred. Plunged into complete darkness a hand grasped mine and led me into my room. Bags were deposited and tea ordered, all in the tip hunting hovering gloom.

“Is there hot water?” “Oh yes sir” the bag carrier said wanting to please. The tap spluttered forth its fridged contents. In India you must learn how to ask questions. I should have asked “is the water hot, now?”

It dumped 30cm of fresh light white powder that night. It was still snowing at breakfast. In a Euro alpine resort a charge to the lift would ensue, however this raw mountain is not opened unless the weather clears and settles. One group last year spent 7 days cooped up in hotels whilst 4m of snow dropped in one storm.

However we were no ordinary ski group. We were prepared to hike for our turns. Dawning synthetic seal skins on the base of skis, we set off in search of the POW.

In Alaska and Canada the trend is to heli-ski if you want virgin territory. In Gulmarg, Jeep Skiing is the way forward. We skinned for 30mins to above a local Mosque. The path drops off into incredible north facing trees; steep and deep.

The skiing here has some of the best wooded terrain I have ever boarded in; perfectly spaced 60-foot pine trees. We whopped and whistled to keep in touch with the group. Floating through the over the head powder in this magical forest, we popped over huge buried tree stumps and slid over massive snow-covered logs. All too soon we reached the ice covered road below and patiently waited for the jeeps.

Until we got the system sorted, we wasted many hours waiting for the trucks on the road. On a good day, without too many hold-ups we squeeze in 4 runs of Jeep uplift, skinning into fresh lines each time, our worst day, a frustrating 1. Only the most placid or stoned could cope with the Jeeps for more than 3 days in a row. The bone jarring road was often completely blocked for hours with military trucks, over laden busses and taxis all trying to fight their switchback way up or down the mountain.

The heavens cleared on day three to reveal a dream sight. A huge even topped 4km mountain ridge rising from 3800m to 4200m with a lift running slap dab in the middle to about 600m below the summit cornice. With no history of established runs, no mountain maps and no avalanche control beyond the main bowl, caution was required. This day was declared the best they had ever had. Neil and I, on snowboards, managed 6000m vertical, all powder fresh tracks whilst the telemarkers between 4000m and 5000m, exceptional figures. The days slid on. We skinned and walked further along the ridgeline left and right, one-hour, then two hours, dropping into uncharted territory. 1st descents, naming lines on the hill and runs up to 20km long. We had 6 days of stable weather; sun and powder.

One of my prerequisites for this trip, was to try and keep away from anything that could conceivably be a terrorist target; police, check points and army installations. In this we failed dismally, almost laughably. At every turn, camouflaged soldiers guns and generals popped up. On one of the Jeeps skiing days we were stuck in a massive snow bound traffic jam beside the head of the Jammu and Kashmir police. During the wait, Neil and I chatted to his Special Forces bodyguard, well spoken, friendly but armed to the teeth we passed the time whilst the melee of busses, army trucks and armoured cars inched past each other.

Getting slightly weary of travelling in a large group Neil and I (the boarders} opted to go it alone. Standing above an unnamed 100m wide 1000m long couloir of untracked powder is a humbling experience. Its pristine beauty, inviting & tempting, when out in the boonies like this you never jump-off into what you can not see. Never fire down rollers that dip away from the skier. Never cut across the convexities, as these are points of weakness. I send Neil off first, he is slightly spooked by the feeling of vastness and exposure

“Why am I going first” retorts Neil through apprehensive dry lips, “Because I can find you, if this (slope) goes you wont be able to find me”. He is also avalanche transceiver virgin. A couple of hidden beepers found by the road side is all well and good but not when this thing is so big, and anyway, he is heavier than me.

Rampant snowboard wildness suppressed by the sight of the 8000m Nanga Parbat in the distance. A powder trail flicks up behind him. Long lazy turns ebb on for 400m. I cannot wait.

I find my rhythm after two turns, the tail of my massive powder board submerges into the powder. The prow sits out and away from the steep slope. After a deep breath and exhale to release the tension, I am totally “in the moment”. I can hear virtually nothing. On every toe side turn the snow punches up and laps onto my trailing hand. On the heel side turns, for a moment the down slope view is obscured by the rising powder. Gentle cold powder flows over my face, the sharp coldness of the “face shots” adding an extra-heightened sense to the descent..

Two days later that the ski patrollers got caught. Luckily they both managed to swim out of the avalanches. That was a good day to eat, drink tea, and read.

The following day however was a whole new story. A 15,000-foot powder hound day.

It hard to describe great powder days. They are rare and to be savoured. If they are rushed, you can get caught in a frenzy of movement and you end up thinking about the next turn, the next run and next lift to catch. Then it becomes about “doing” and “telling” and not about “being” (there in the moment).

After all if you do not travel with your eyes and mind open what’s the bloody point.

The Kashmiries have had a hard time if it. Their beautiful land has become a no-go area and their biggest cash earning opportunity, tourism, has dropped off to a thin trickle. However everyone we met and talked to welcomed us in with warmth and humour. The people were genuinely pleased to see us.

Gulmarg is best enjoyed with ski-touring equipment, at the moment. During the snowy and cloudy days the lift does not work. St Moritiz it is not, however, if your idea of fun is hunting for powder and hiking in the big hills, enjoy. Après Ski is your own and you mates company. Gulmarg has big ambitions with two new low level lifts and Cat skiing planned for the coming seasons (Inshallah). Verbier it aint and I hope it never will be, an Asian La Grave well…maybe.

Getting There

Flights- Any London -Delhi flights, then to Srinagar with Jet or Sahara Airways.

Jeep Pick up from Srinagar can be organised by

When it storms it can dump many meters of snow in one go. Travel even in the village and to the tree runs is difficult. Getting out of the village to flights can be difficult in a storm. It has been known for flights to be delayed for some days. Buy flexible tickets with a good carrier.

Ski Season – Its short, Mid Jan to Mid March

Top Tip - Try and Stay for three weeks, otherwise you might not see the hill.

Recommend Hotels

Hill Tops Hotel – Dry

Pine Palace – Dry

Highland Park – has a bar.

Forget the star system. Food in all three is local, ethnic and pretty good. The Hilltop is slightly more modern, the other two have wood stoves in the rooms, so getting out of bed and drying kit can be a challenge.

Gulmarg is predominately Muslim and therefore dry (no beer) however if you are lucky the bar in the Highland Park will have alcohol. Drink indoors only. There are chai shops in the tiny Gulmarg Village where you can buy very basic supplies. The Khan Cloth House is the only spot for “shopping” and he (Mr Khan) makes great Phiran’s, the traditional tweed over dress. There is one ski shop, well it’s a shop selling peanuts where you can get skis waxed. There is ski hire (but you would not want to) and no ski clothing or spares in all Kashmir. So if you need it, bring it.

People and Culture

Before the insurgency Kashmir was a big tourist destination. Expect a friendly welcome (in English) and enjoy the open hospitality. Kashmir is 85% Muslim so respect the obvious codes and customs, after all you are guests. Travelling in these places you are ambassadors, don’t screw it up.

Take only pictures, leave only footprints - the Dali Lama

Mountain Guides with Gulmarg experience

John Falkiner - Organised our trip.

Dave Green -

Paulo Tassi –

Mountain Conditions

It can vary from +5oc to -25oc in a short time, in the sun at altitude you will burn easily so grease up often, especially after a hike when sweat removes any creams and lip protection. It extreme cold, skin will burn in the wind. We had every snow condition from Powder to Corn, crust to wind slab. When it snows or is cloudy the lift (there is only one) does not run, if the snow pack is dangerous even on blue sky days it remains closed

Top tip- take a big fat book, and learn how to ski tour


On my Body

Wear high quality breathable fabrics that are wind and snow proof, (rain is rare)

Full mountain shell clothing e.g. Gore-Tex XCR shell or Patagonia Regulator Softshell

Mid Layer of high quality pile fleece and soft shell or ultra fleece pants. Avalanche Transceiver (Ortavox or BCA). Base layers of merino or “Smart” wool, merino wool socks. Leather palmed gloves

In My Pack

Spare warm layer, head torch, emergency hill food, Bivi-bag or emergency shelter, Freeze proof water/fluid container, Spare Hat & Gloves, Goggles and Glacier Type Glasses, Spares for your bindings, Avalanche kit, i.e. Steel Shovel, Probe, (and know how to use it).

Mountain Tips

Skinning and Skiing at altitude is very dehydrating so drink a lot, avoid to much caffeine as it promotes water loss, ski and walk at an output so you don,t sweat, when you stop moving any sweat will immediately chill you down, stay dry. Eat a little and often. Wear good glasses and goggles. If the slope does not feel right avoid it. Don,t ski directly above others. Skiing off-piste with headphones/music is a mugs game; you need to hear the mountain and those around you. Only go with people you can rely on.

Be in the moment.

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