When you’re on a long trip, skiing in the Rockies would not be my first pick. One of the most economical options for good skiing worldwide is Gulmarg in Kashmir. The skiing can be absolutely worldclass but unfortunately it still comes with a price…
After traveling for two months in the heat I was looking forward to visit a cooler climate. No more mosquitos, better sleeping and of course some nice exercise in the form of skiing made a good prospect. Being a tourist is a strange thing and I was done with that too. Going from sight to sight in poor countries amongst many other tourists who are constantly complaining about relevant things in life such as too expensive beer, buses that run late, a bit of dirt alongside the road, spicy food etc. while the locals struggle to survive, is a weird phenomenon. A very striking complaint is the lack of money and everything being expensive (which is weird enough being from Western countries) but somehow always have enough money for an extra beer or two. But, to what extend do I really enjoy Vietnam, Cambodia and India? Most likely it’s the fact you can live like a Royal that makes it enjoyable. Eating out everyday and observe the local culture knowing you go back every night to the comforts of a nice hotel. As Red says to Andy Dufresne in the Shawshank Redemption: “You’ve become institutionalized”. Skiing in the Himalayas came at the right time!
I took all my gear to the airport in Bangalore to fly North. On the airport they had no idea what was inside this big bag. How do you explain skiing? I tried to show the position used with skiing in front of at least 100 people waiting in the line. It didn’t help. All the staff gathered and started discussing the content of the bag. In the end they stil had no clue but I did have to pay for the extra luggage, of course. A couple of hours later I arrived on the airport in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir. Not much later Dalip, a tourist from Delhi, approached me with the question if I wanted to share a taxi to Gulmarg with him and a friend. That was exactly what I was looking for!
I arrived in Gulmarg during the beginning of a big snowstorm. The weather in Gulmarg tends to follow a certain pattern; two or three days of snow followed by a period of sun. It seemed I arrived at a great time as the storm turned out to deliver just over 2 feet of fresh…
Together with the weather there is also a pattern in the skiing. To make this more clear I have to describe the ski area. Gulmarg is located at 2600 meters from where a gondola takes you to 3000 meters. This is called “Phase 1”. From there you can either take a chairlift to 3600 meters or a gondola to roughly 4000 meters which is called “Phase 2”. From the top of Phase 2 you have access to multiple bowls. Skiers’ right (everything on the right side when you look down the mountain) you’ll have access to around 10 bowls by simply traversing. Skiers’ left you have access to another 10 bowls but in order to get there you have to hike some 30 to 45 minutes. On the backside of the mountain there are endless more bowls to be skied but for all them you’ll have to hike more. Next to Phase 1 there is Monkey Hill. A thirty minutes hike can be rewarded with a 1 minute powder run when the snow is good. At lower elevation you can find the famous treeruns towards either Tangmarg or Baba Reshi. There are no lifts there but taxis are frequent.
During a heavy storm Phase 2 and the chairlift will normally be closed. Phase I doesn’t offer any good skiing so most people ski towards Baba Reshi as that’s the best skiing to be had. Monkey Hill might be better but it’s short and requires a relatively big effort. It’s a matter of personal taste or state of mind I guess which one to choose. The next day it tends to snow less heavily and the chairlift will open. Day three Phase 2 finally opens and the madness begins. After one day the bowls skiers’ right will be tracked out. The same happens to the bowls skiers’ left on day four. On day five piece will return; people have a later start and there is no more rush at the gondola. Time has come to explore the backbowls.
On my first day I met Ben and Kate from Vermont at the base of the gondola and we decided to check out the trees at Baba Reshi. We found some nice lines in good conditions, especially for a first day. At the bottom of the run you’ll arrive on the road from the town of Baba Reshi to Tangmarg and eventually to Gulmarg. We had not arranged a taxi but we were lucky and found empty spots in pre-arranged taxi’s of other groups every time we were at the bottom of our run…
After skiing some laps on the chairlift, day three offered the first real powderday in Gulmarg. In order to enjoy the snow one must first buy a ticket for the gondola. As easy as this may sound to people who skied in the West, in Gulmarg this takes a lot of time. For some crazy reason they want your name at the ticket booth. Gulmarg is taken over by Russians and they like to give their full name. To make things easy you could just say your name is Bob or Mike but no, Russians our proud of their names. “Gello, my name is Mikhail Boris Trebelovsky”. After five attempts the spelling is correct and the ticket can be sold. But, in Kashmir salesmen like to say they don’t have change. Not because they really don’t, no, because they hope you buy more. A ticket for Phase 1 costs 150 rupees, so there is always a nice exchange about money because most people only have notes of 100 or 500 rupees. When there are 50 people lined up, buying a ticket can easily take one hour. This is referred to as the Kashmiri efficiency!
Around 10.30 to 11.00 one finally enjoys the scenery from the gondola before arriving at the mid station where you join the queue again. Hopefully the Russians in Gulmarg are not a representative sample of their population because they show some bad habits. Almost all of them tend to skip the line and they are shouting through their radios. A radio can be very useful for traveling safely in avalanche prone terrain but at the same time can be very annoying when used for regular jibberjabber in lift lines or inside restaurants. After an hour you arrive at the ticket booth for Phase 2 and you’re faced with some Kashmiri efficiency again. A ticket for Phase 2 costs 250 rupees and of course they never have change hoping you buy two tickets (tickets are only valid on the day you bought them). In the rare case that they admit to have change, another staff member starts yelling at you that you have to enter the gondola while you’re waiting for your change. Yes, they do know how to fuck up a great ski area!
Around noon we finally made it to the top of Phase 2. It took some time but the reward is huge. An easy traverse to the right gives access to multiple untracked bowls. The bowls are all similar; a 35 degrees pitch will mellow down to 25 to 30 degrees with some trees at the bottom from where you traverse back to the lift. Luckily the liftline tends to decrease after lunch so with some luck you can enjoy three laps of untracked currypowder!
In between the great skiing and the Kashmiri efficiency I tried to relax in my hotel. This was easier said than done. The first day the only window in my room broke resulting in glass and snow in my bed. The second day the toilet didn’t flush. The third day I didn’t have water at all and the fourth day my heater made a terrible noise which made sleeping impossible. After switching rooms for five times, I ended up in a room next to the lounge area. Finally everything in the room worked but now I had to cope with the Russian rave parties helt every night in the lounge. With the greetings from Russia!
In my hotel I also met some nice people. There was a group of very nice Swedes. Most of them left early but Kurt stayed around. Together with a nice couple from Delhi we tried some of the nearby restaurants. The restaurants of Pine Spring and Heevan Retreat were our favourites and we enjoyed many great dishes over there. Kurt was also a great skipartner and a nice exception to the Gulmarg skicrowd. Most of them are in a hurry all day because of the powder to be skied and they want to show off how ‘incredible’ skiers they are. Quality is more important to me than quantity and self-reflection is something I really admire in people. Kurt is a great skier but is not too fond of himself to admit he fell during a great run and most important he is great company. A joke here and there and a nice genuine conversation instead of bragging about faceshots on 60 degrees slopes that doesn’t exist at all in Gulmarg, were very refreshing. The majority of the people in Gulmarg were just drinking and smoking hashish all day, so talking to a mature guy alone made a difference. I truely love skiing but the crowd in Gulmarg is simply not mine.The first day I skied with Kurt, Will and Carla also joined the group. They were both from London and loved both skiing and mountaineering. Will is a level II certified instructor in Canada and showed his perfect technique in the fluffy conditions. They both used a GoPro camera to record the powderturns and had great fun doing so. Together we really enjoyed the terrain in the Himalayas. Unfortunately I skipped one day because I was not feeling so well. That day they skied Great White which is a huge bowl with steep lines that was high on my bucketlist of skiing runs. Another run on both my and their list was the Banana couloir in Shark’s Fin bowl. With names like Shark’s Fin and Great White you can easily tell this area was discovered by Australians before the Russians took over. The last day of Will and Carla, after Kurt left unfortunately, we decided to ski the couloir. A two hour bootpack took us to the peak of Shark’s Fin from where we had to walk on an interesting ridge to get to the entrance of the couloir. The couloir was interrupted by a big rock in the middle which made the skiing not really worthwhile. The total adventure of getting there and eventually making our way down however was great!
On my last day it was easy to determine the itinerary; Great White. My touring bindings were broken so bootpacking was on the agenda. From Phase 2 it was a 30 to 45 minutes hike to the top of Mount Apharwat. From there it was another 30 minutes hike to the saddle of Shark’s Fin. Another 20 minutes were required to get me to the peak of Great White. It was only two days after a snowstorm so there were no tracks at all. Well, no tracks from humans I have to say because I saw quite a few tracks. There are many stories about the elusive leopard and even the snowleopard but I have no evidence here but who knows… From the peak I had an impressive view on the huge bowl with steep lines all over the place, all of them untouched. I decided to ski almost from the peak down on a pitch of around 45 to 50 degrees. Skiing down I was accompanied by a decent amount of sluff, something I hadn’t experienced before. Sluff can best be described like a mini avalanche. It is not dangerous but it does influence the skiing. It was the best line I skied in Gulmarg. I completed my bucketlist of skiruns in Gulmarg so I could pack my skibag with a positive feeling. I finished the day with a great dinner at the Vintage Inn hotel. The local dish called Murgh Methi Malay could easily compete with the best meals I enjoyed earlier at the Pine Spring and the Heevan Retreat!
All in all Gulmarg is a place I have mixed feelings about. There are not many ski areas where you can ski so much fresh powder almost every day. It is truly unique in that regard. During my visit of just over three weeks I witnessed three big snowstorms and the fourth one was on its way when I left. I skied powdersnow almost every single day I went skiing although the quality varied a bit of course depending on the time between the actual skiing and the snowfall but even one week after a storm soft untracked snow could be found on some secret stashes. The terrain however is a bit boring. All the bowls on the frontside of the mountain are more or less similar. The only terrain that offers some variety can be found in the backbowls like Shark’s Fin and Great White. It is almost determined in advance where you’re going to ski. During the storm Baba Reshi and Monkey Hill are the places to be and when the weather has cleared you ski the frontside from skiers’ right to left. In other ski areas the people spread out over the mountain and it feels you have more and most importantly different options. The Kashmiri efficiency is something that annoys most people. It unnecessarily adds stress to an otherwise relaxing place. Then there is the crowd. The Russians, the backpackers and the hippies in Gulmarg are people I can hardly associate with. A 50 year old man traveling alone to Gulmarg smoking hashish all day took a wrong turn somewhere in life in my humble opinion. With the age of 34 I guess I’m getting too old to hang out with backpackers in their early twenties drinking all day…
Keep the memories of skiing currypowder and enjoying a steep line in Great White and forget about the Kashmiri efficiency and the crowd and Gulmarg is one of the best ski areas in the world!
Click here to see more pictures of my trip to Gulmarg!
…or check out this video to have an impression of what skiing in Gulmarg is about (thanks Will!):