After a few nights in Amritsar, the Mecca for adherents to the Sikh faith, and one in Jammu, I arrived in Srinagar, Kashmir. It was a pretty magical spot even in the dead of winter. The following day I hopped a series of buses and jeeps to arrive in Gulmarg ski village. I checked into a budget guesthouse and set off to find gear rental. I was lead to a shop with decent looking powder ski equipment. The owner advised me to return at the end of the day to avoid half-day charges. Instead of protest, I obliged.
I walked the icy mountain road dodging groups of skinny Kashmiri men pulling fat Indian suburbanites on primitive wooden sleds. With an overtly judgemental smile I declined a ride at frequent intervals. During the winter season the mountain meadow cum golf course assumes a third incarnation. A small hump serves as a bunny hill for groups of elated domestic tourists turning their tips downhill for their virgin ride. Most would collapse to one side before gaining anything that resembled momentum. Their smiles, at even the smallest hint of success, were fantastic.
Adjacent to the slope was government-run gear rental shop. I checked it out. In the back, behind no fewer than three separately locked doors, their premium equipment collected dust. I inspected the two rows of aged boots and a small rack of skis in need of a good wax job. I figured they would do the trick. I got totally outfitted (including a ski jacket embroidered with the Whistler Ski & Snowboard School crest) for 700 INR - $14 USD. I was pleased.
Sebastian and I arrived at the summit mid-morning. The view across the LOC (Line Of Control) into Pakistan was spectacular. We agreed to rip the easily accessible bowls as a warm up. I was excited.
Interlude: So, I am not a fantastic skier. In recent years I have probably averaged about seven days on the downhill slopes a season. It’s not that I don’t like skiing, in fact when I am on the slopes, I love it! It is moreso that I enjoy a wide range of activities and skiing just happens not to rank all that high on the list of priorities at this point in my life. Regardless of frequency, I am confident in my ability to get down pretty much anything – I just don’t guarantee that it will be pretty. I typically love tree runs, steep faces and mogul stretches , but have struggled at times adjusting to deep powder bowls. So, Gulmarg terrain would be a new challenge.
Sebastian began carving smooth turns down the mountain. I inhaled a deep breath of mountain air (a welcome contrast to Lahore’s throat scratching smog) and turned my tips downhill. Two hops made two turns and then I landed on my face. My left ski clipped out and took off down the mountain. I halted my tumbling. The ski had come off way too easily.
A local had witnessed my faceplant and had kindly skied ahead to recoup my left plank. I walked 50 metres down the mountain. Seb joined me and I borrowed his tool in an attempt to adjust my bindings.
Interlude: I know only a little more about the mechanics of ski equipment than I about open heart surgery. Those who know me best know that I am not one to volunteer my mechanical skills. This is for a good reason.
I fussed with the bindings, truly unsure of whether or not it was possible to properly calibrate the skis, nevermind how to go about doing so if it was indeed a possibility. Whether warranted or not, I concluded that it was a no-go. Humbled, I told Seb to get on with the run. I would sort myself out.
Without giving any more consideration to mid-mountain triage, I did what I knew best: get down the mountain any way possible.
It took me over an hour to hike down near mid-station, half of my body collapsing into the ruffled powder with each laboured step. It was demoralizing. I had put in a large amount of effort to ski Gulmarg’s fabled chutes and here I was walking. Not walking up to rip cleaner bowls, but walking down because I was too cheap to rent decent equipment from a reputable shop. What a loser.
Shortly before I arrived at the mid-mountain Gondola a man caught up with me. He introduced himself as the Gulmarg Ski Patrol leader. Brian is from Colorado. I explained my situation.
He quickly agreed that my binding was fucked, but then managed to tweak it just enough for me to straightline the short section that remained before I arrived at mid-mountain.
The liftees were intent on making me pay lift fare (150 INR -$3) to ride down. No chance! I unleashed all the energy and suppressed agitation that I had so far channeled into just getting down the hill on the poor guy. I was allowed to descend for free.
Aside: Buying lift passes at Gulmarg is a totally different system than back home. Although a traditional day pass is available for purchase, I had been correctly advised that this was a generally poor investment as it was difficult to gain full value based on variable snow conditions, gondola speed and stoppages, the sheer length of the individual runs and above all the endemic ‘India’ factor. So instead of a day pass, skiers can purchase single gondola rides. A ride up Phase I costs 150 INR and Phase II is worth 250 INR. I had been incorrectly advised that you could purchase passes for Phase II ONLY at the bottom for the hill. Wanting to spend my time exclusively on upper bowls and not in flat trees, I invested in four Phase II passes at the very beginning of the day. Mistake.
Now at the bottom of the hill and slightly calmer, I struck a deal to sell my three remaining Phase II lift passes on consignment. Teaching the ticket seller how a consignment system worked was likely more challenging than taking the time to sell them myself. But, time was precious and the clock was ticking. Ultimately I told the seller that if the tickets were gone and he had the appropriate cash amount for me when I returned I would give me 50 INR. As I interacted with the seller there was a girl from Alaska contemplating purchasing a Phase II pass. Though an already adept snowboarder she was learning how to ski and thus wary of the somewhat isolated upper slopes. I self-servingly encouraged her to push her limits.
My boots slung around my neck and broken skis poised on my shoulder I marched to the government ski shop. I was undecided on whether to storm in and demand a refund or whether to take the more calculated approach and calmly explain the situation. I like my heart decide.
I unloaded everything in front of the employees. I gave the boss a stern look and voiced my displeasure. He was quick to fish my passport out of his pocket and surrender my 700 INR. I was surprised at how little they protested.
I jogged out of the shop and slid down the bunny hill in my leather boots. I was quickly across the meadow and seated in the first rental shop that I had visited the day prior. Billa rented me boat-like powder skis and boots and poles for only a fraction more than I paid at the government shop. He had no stock of winter jackets to offer and only managed to scrounge a pair of leather gardening gloves. The only remaining pair of snowpants were size medium. As a result I couldn’t zip them up at the crouch. If you inspected solely my ski gear you would mistake me for a pro. If you only viewed my apparel you would think I was a bum. If this the origin of the term ‘Ski Bum’ then I was living the dream…
Happy that I had done the gear turn around so quickly, I made my way back to the gondola. The ticket guy had only sold one of my three Phase II passes and the one sale had been to the Alaskan chick – failure on his part. I took my money and tickets and went up the mountain. At the summit, I encountered two Aussies I had played dice with the night before. They were planning a short hike/traverse combo to find fresh lines. I was reluctant to join as this would be my first time ever skiing with powder equipment. I didn’t really know how I would handle. Also, I was feeling a little gun-shy from the morning’s episode. The last thing I wanted was to find myself ‘just getting down the mountain’ again.
They set off. Although I was a free individual, I had little choice but to follow. I came to Gulmarg to ski the big terrain, not cruise down the already cut slopes solo.
I sucked air as we mounted. Going from sea leavel to 4000m in a couple days is no joke. After about 30 minutes, we traversed. I dropped into the first bowl and carved six slick turns. With these skis I floated. I was overjoyed. We took our time getting down. It was just fantastic. At the bottom we went for beers and enjoyed the evening.
The next morning the Ski Patrol was at work bombing the hill for avalanches. As there had been no fact no snowfall for days, their motivation for this was a bit puzzling. I explored the trees of Phase I while I waited for the summit chariot to open. It eventually did. That afternoon I had the one run that made every ounce of money spent, time taken and effort made to check out Gulmarg more than worthwhile.
With Mitchell, an Aussie-American, Sebastian and two other Aussies I hiked over an hour to the true summit of the peak. Only Seb and I were on foot. The others had skins. It was super tough and I had no intention of making it to the top when we set out. Only once underway, did quitting early seem unjust and to embark on a premature descent solo, unsafe. The wind was merciless on top. After a couple of pics we started down, taking turns to carve. Seb and I rode in the middle as we were the only two sans transceivers. It was absolutely fantastic. The hairs on my neck creep up as I write this.
Below us, the Indian army firing range announced our proximity to their base. Off of the main face, we veered right through the ‘Paper Trees’ chute. I arrived again at the mid-mountain Gondola station exhausted and elated. I will be back.