How many places can you claim untracked, perfect, fluffy powder for 20 days on the trot? This place is awesome. Each day was a day in paradise. To the relatively untravelled like me, this place blew my head off. Kashmir gets all your emotions going- the poverty , the beauty, the kindness of the locals, the Himalayas, the unending downhills, the wondrous uphills, the politics, the hilarious taxi drives, the lack of basic resources (at times). Do not entertain going unless you have a sense of humour…sometimes things just won’t happen, like lifts and water…but these things don’t stop for long.
I can’t wait to go back….but just hope not too many people want to join me!
“Curry Powder” skiing!
Due to its geographic location Gulmarg gets some of the heaviest snowfalls in the Himalayas and it has earned the distinction of being the best ski resort in the Himalayas. The best conditions are usually found for just 6-8 weeks from the start of January until the middle/end of February although the season can start as early as mid-December and run into March.
Access on to the mountain is via the Gondola. Installed in 2005 it ascends from the resort to almost 4,000m on Mt Apharwat and offers over 2,200m of vertical descent. Thanks to the gondola, Gulmarg claims to be one of the highest lift-served resorts in the world.
In 2012 a new lift called ‘Marys Chair’ was opened. This follows a similar line to the upper section of the gondola – going about half-distance -and can be used to access the upper sections of the ski area.
Gulmarg is the perfect venue for natural, wild, backcountry and off-piste skiing for intermediate to expert level skiers and snowboarders. From the top gondola station, the upper slopes and bowls of Apherwat are wide and open whilst thick conifer forest covers much of the remaining area. If you are prepared to boot pack the 30 minutes (or so) to the summit of Mt Apharwat you’ll be rewarded not only with some awesome powder turns but also with spectacular views across the Kashmir Plateau to Nanga Parbat (8126m) the most westerly eight thousander and the ninth highest mountain on Earth.
A typical day in Gulmarg (as told by Nick Parks)
There’s a lot that’s different about skiing in Gulmarg and of course that’s what makes it so special. So how does a typical Mountain Tracks day in skiers’ paradise go exactly…
You’re awoken from your epic dreams of endless powder fields by your ever smiling houseboy knocking on your room door… “ChaSahib”. Yawn, stretch and pour yourself a nice cuppa in bed whilst watching the central heating being switched on, usually an exciting lesson in fire lighting as the same willing houseboy pours kerosene into the woodburner! Give the room 10 minutes to warm up and ablutions completed head up to breakfast in the Highlands Park hotel restaurant. Porridge, omelettes, fruit, toast, yoghurt…plenty of good tasty fuel, perfect for a big day on the hill, and all served by the cheerful restaurant staff many of whom have worked at the hotel for decades.
Gulmarg’s lift – aka”the gon-darla” – usually opens at 8.30am and it’s a gentle warm-up ski/walk of 10 minutes to reach it from the hotel. Getting it together to board the gondola cars is always challenging as skis have to be squeezed in with you and as there’s not quite enough room they have to stick out of the roof – “only in Kashmir” is a well-used phrase! The first phase of the lift takes you up out of the resort through rich pine forest and although only 300m in elevation gives views across the Kashmir valley and an idea of the extent of the awesome tree skiing.
When it snows in Kashmir it really snows, 3 days non-stop snowing is typical and falls of 1 metre plus are not unusual. Getting a resort up to speed after such storms is a test in any country but when you have as much skiable terrain as the Chamonix valley but only two avalanche control experts, its bound to take a little time to get the lift open. Considering the scale its amazing how quickly things get up to speed but as with most things in Kashmir it requires a dose of patience and a sense of humour. But if the top lift is closed all is not lost, in fact far from it. Lots of fabulous descents are always available either from the middle station or directly from the level of the village. This is tree skiing at its best, no nasty tree-wells and lots of space between the spruce trees…but keep your eyes peeled for a snow leopard! Don’t laugh they’re out there! Of course you double your options if you’re prepared to tour and for this reason we advise all skiers to bring touring equipment. But make sure your skis are fat and by that we mean 95-100mm under the boot.
Now, if the world’s highest lift is open, which is most of the time, well this special place becomes exceptional. Views across to Nanga Parbat 8125m the ninth highest peak in the world are enough on their own to justify the £2.50 lift ticket but it’s the 2300m of skiing terrain below your skis that really make it. You’re spoilt for choice: ridges, bowls, trees…Aperwhat Mountain has it all.
It’s hard to pick a best run, however for the full Kashmiri skiing experience I’ll pick the army camp descent to the village of Drang. Leaving the top station we head out across the summit plateau in the direction of Sunshine Peak, a favourite touring destination, past a small army installation to a beautiful ridge line descending into the head of the valley. 300m down and you enter the stunning paper bark trees, 200m further and you’re searching out the enchanting glades between the Himalayan Pine where invariably the powder is untracked. The valley spills you out at a wooden bridge, a short walk or skin and you arrive at the outskirts of the village of Drang. Depending on conditions or how quickly you want to get back up for another run you can arrange a taxi pick-up here, but that would be missing out on one of the most enjoyable aspects of skiing in Kashmir…the run through the village – dropping off the rice terraces, passing the villagers going about their everyday chores and best of all the children who come running to greet you and jump on the back of your skis for a slide down the track…unforgettable. In thirty minutes you’re in Tanmarg, the bustling town on the road up to Gulmarg. It’s certainly worth taking time for lunch or refreshment here in the Downhill restaurant which has a great kitchen before heading back up the hill.
For me the ultimate afternoon’s skiing in Gulmarg involves heading up to the summit of Apherwat. This ‘must do’ excursion is worth every step of oxygen-starved ascent which takes anywhere between 30-50 minutes depending on how acclimatised (and fit!) you are. Arriving on the summit, either by skins or just booting up, as the sun starts to dip and castes its golden light on the ridges I challenge anyone not to be moved by the sheer beauty of the world’s most magnificent mountain chain spread out all around them.
It’s hard to pull away but snap back into your bindings and head down you must as once the sun starts to go the temperatures plummet with it and 4000m up in the Karakorums in mid-winter is not a place to spend the night. If you have a time to spare you can head north-east along the summit flanks for up to a couple of kilometers until you make your choice of sweeping descent… ridge, bowl, couloir, paper bark trees. The main slopes ease back as you glide effortlessly across the mountain’s enormous apron and into the spruce. Focus on the gaps in the trees and search out the untracked glades. Keep your eyes open for the monkeys and foxes and head towards the flocks of crows circling above the village as they do every evening. Finally the run ends on the road just 100m from the Highlands Park, it’s time to relax.
The Highlands Park was built in the sixties by Benji. a Peter Sellers look-a-like character of Hungarian descent with a passion for golf. Gulmarg is home to the highest golf course in India where you don’t need to be a Tiger to drive your ball 300 yards at this altitude! The hotel reflects its golfing past with prints of the world’s finest courses adorning the walls of its bar and restaurant. But it’s the colonial charm of the place that really takes you. Sitting around the enormous “bakari’ woodburners sipping your Kingfisher beer its as if you’ve been transferred back to the days of the Raj. The hotel’s current owners, Benji’s niece and her husband, a former London hedge fund manager, who took on the hotel in 2007 are committed to developing the hotel into a haven of comfort and modern facilities and yet retain it’s character and atmosphere. 2008 saw a complete overhaul of all the guests bathrooms, the introduction of a fine wine list and of course wireless internet. So relax in your hot-tub, tuck into a fine curry washed down with a Sula wine and don’t forget to upload the days photos onto Facebook before dreaming of tomorrow.