Splitboard adventures in the Himalayas…Gulmarg, Kashmir..
I kept the fact that where I would be visiting – Gulmarg, Kashmir – was 60 miles due east of Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottobad, Pakistan quiet before embarking on the trip. Schtum’s the word. Not really a fact you want to share with the wife or travel mates before embarking. Gulmarg is nestled high in the Himalayan mountains and a two hour drive from Srinigar, the capital of Kashmir. I never expected to spend a week there bounding around the high peaks like a crazed mountain goat, but this was intended to be a trip with a difference.
Gulmarg was always a popular destination for richer Indians to escape the summer heat and now with one of the highest gondolas in the world (3,979 metres), some of the best ski terrain and powder in the world is accessible – if you don’t mind a bit of a hike. Hence it’s on the radar of powder junkies who want a bit of travel adventure thrown in to spice things up. As if jumping around mountains on planks wasn’t extreme enough. So amongst the local Kashmiri’s, you get the usual rota of Aussies, Kiwi’s, Americans, Canadians, Russians (plenty) and Europeans thrown in.
As might be expected in the Himalaya’s the mountain scenery is phenomenal. From the top of the gondola you look across the Kashmir valley floor, way above the clouds and surrounded by monumental peaks and jagged mountains. We could see the 9th highest mountain in the world – Nanga Parbat – which makes it into the top ten at 8,126 metres (26,648 feet). Alongside K2 this mountain is the only two of the plus 8000 metre peaks that has never been climbed in winter. On our second day we hiked to the top of Mt. Afarwat Peak (4,200 m) which is accessible from the top of the gondola – we had splitboards and skins enabling us to traverse up the peak. The altitude made it tough going but it was well worth it once we reached the top. From here we could see into Pakistan – as shown to us by our two local guides who were with us for all our days on the mountains. They were great and 100% a necessity – you didn’t want to make a wrong turn and end up in Pakistan.
Acting as a sort of buffer between India and Pakistan, and since partition in 1947 – blame the Brits – Kashmir has been a disputed and hence very unstable part of the world. Hence Kashmir is a Muslim majority state in North West India in which two thirds want independence. Culturally, religiously and ethnically Kashmiri’s have more in common with Pakistanis. When India plays Pakistan at cricket, Kashmiri’s root for the Pakistanis. Whilst here you have to get used to the massive Indian military presence which at times made it feel a bit like an occupied territory. On the drive from Srinigar every hundred metres or so there are machine gun toting Indian soldiers. Plus tanks, armoured cars with machine guns on top and military lorries ferrying more soldiers. There is a large military presence in Gulmarg itself including a few camps in the mountains – and in 2012 sixteen Indian soldiers were killed in an avalanche. If the insurgents don’t get you then nature will.
That said, we felt nothing but warmth and welcome from the Kashmiris we met – although admittedly most of whom we did meet were in the tourism industry and hence it was their job to be nice to us. Kashmiri’s are renowned for their hospitality and kindness and this was something we genuinely felt throughout the trip. As it’s a Muslim majority state, alcohol is harder to come by with most restaurants and hotels being dry – although of course it’s not hard to find the few venues that do serve up beer. We also stopped at an ‘off licence’ on the way up from Srinigar to Gulmarg ensuring we had ice cold beers on tap from our balcony throughout the trip.
From the top of the gondola there is a wealth of awesome terrain accessible, most of it falling in the advanced category. The main bowl of the gondola is patrolled with guides – but once you step outside of this zone and head into the backcountry you are well and truly on your own. Like really on your own in the biggest mountain range in the world. The first few days we explored various bowls, chutes, ridges, spines, tree runs and descents and found little pockets of powder – but the place needed more snow. Exposed rocks and branches would scrape under the board due to low snow coverage. On our fourth day it started to dump and continued throughout the night till we woke up to a metre of fresh powder. The snow Gods had blessed us and it was game on. Avalanche backpacks, transceivers, probes and shovels at the ready, we headed off into the glorious Himalayan backcountry. At points there was too much snow, much of it quite damp and heavy. I found myself on one run up to my armpits in heavy snow with snowboard still attached to my feet, doing my best not to panic as I huffed and puffed in the altitude to try and get out. As visibility was quite bad we did some lower down tree runs ending up in the villages of Tangmarg and Barbareschi to be picked up by drivers pre-arranged by our guides. Those guides really came in useful. We did our whole tour via Ski Himalaya who I can’t recommend enough.
Our second day from last it was a blue sky day – and hence very high risk avalanche conditions. Every Tuesday the head of ski patrol and American transplant Colin Mitchell gives a snow report for all the powder hounds in the resort. The verdict was pretty much ‘enter at your own risk’. The weather conditions of the season all met to form a ‘perfect storm’ avalanche scenario. Preceding the storm the lack of snow formed a 4 inch hoar layer which had warmed and cooled over weeks to become very unstable. The metre of heavy fresh dumped on this would be waiting to drop with any slight pressure – or not slight if you are a group of heavy footed snowboarders – causing slab avalanches that could gather enough momentum to take out a whole valley. Bigger mountains means bigger avalanche. The fact that it was blue skies and sunny – hence heating up that meter of snow only added to the danger ingredient.
Our first few runs were epic. We reached the top of the gondola and traversed three bowls over for some of the best runs of my life – fresh tracks all the way, light and fluffy powder, tree runs on the lower elevation, whoops of joy echoing around the valley. As we took a rest after our second run at the bottom of the life we heard a thump and saw powdered snow rising over the ridge like smoke. ‘Avalanche’ our guide Faisal said with a look of trepidation in his eyes. News quickly spread through the resort and Faisal rushed off to help with the rescue. The lifts were closed and we headed off to lunch as a unsettled atmosphere spread. Quick aside – hearty lunch with spicy curries and nonalcoholic drinks for four people cost under $4. The lentil dahl’s were very tasty, washed down with Qahwah (a delicious saffron infused Kashmiri tea). As we ate news filtered through that a group had been taken out by the avalanche and a Swiss man had died, swept over a ridge by the snow and buried. We looked up at the mountains, that, despite their beauty, now filled us with an uneasy foreboding. The lifts remained closed. Eventually the smaller chair lift opened and I did one more – slightly nervous – run after which, if I’m honest, I was pleased to get down to resort level. It made for quite an epic last day.
We did six solid, very hard days on the mountain so we were very tired – but totally exhilarated by the whole experience, not counting the tragedy of the last day. If you want a little bit more from your mountain – snow monkeys, curries for lunch, the promise of seeing snow leopards (we didn’t), out of this world scenery, genuinely friendly locals, and of course, most importantly, oodles and oodles of world class back country terrain – then Gulmarg is totally it. It takes a lot of effort to get there and you might have to get out a bit out of your comfort zone on some levels, but the payback is immense. Just remember to get good guides, don’t end up in Pakistan and keep schtum about Bin Laden’s compound.