Skiing in the Himalayas: Kashmir if you can

By Kieran Nash

Kieran Nash gets off the beaten snow tracks high in the avalanche country of the mountains of India.

Ploughing through the powder on the slopes of Mt Apharwat in Gulmarg, Kashmir. Photo / Kieran Nash
Ploughing through the powder on the slopes of Mt Apharwat in Gulmarg, Kashmir. Photo / Kieran Nash

"You know, I didn't realise, but when you're buried in an avalanche, it's like you're encased in concrete. Once the snow stops moving, you can't move. You've got about 15 minutes until your mates dig you out or else you're dead."

Hardly the most comforting piece of advice to hear when you're about to traipse to the gondola for a day's snowboarding. The cheery bearer of this news was a fellow snowboarder from Western Australia.

We were in Gulmarg, a tiny ski village in Kashmir, India, nestled high in the Himalayas, about 500km north of Delhi. The region has been described as one of the most dangerous in the world - and that's before you even head up the mountain.

Kashmir is under Indian administration but parts have been claimed by Pakistan, which has given rise to 60 years of political violence. It's not as dangerous as it used to be but the region's past is ever present - a military base is next door to Gulmarg, and camo-clad soldiers with automatic rifles are an everyday sight.

Gulmarg offers a chance to ride some of the most magic back-country powder in the world, all the while sharing the mountain with about 100 other people.

It also offers the unique everyday experiences that can only come with travelling in India, and the amazing food that the region offers.

It's not for the faint-hearted or the first-time skier or snowboarder though. There are no groomed trails, just a gondola, two chairlifts and the whole of the massive Mt Apharwat to explore. Barbed wire is a common hazard. So are dangerously sharp stumps. Monkeys are common, bears and mountain lions less so, thankfully.

The day before I arrived, a giant, man-made avalanche had buried half a dozen people, putting a number in hospital. The weather in the months leading to winter meant the snow base was as fragile as a pane of glass resting on ball bearings and the avalanche threats were a matter of when, not if.

The morning my Perth-based companion had decided to ruin had started out so well. I was staying in the Highlands Park Hotel, a beautiful Swiss-style lodge a short walk from the gondola.

Every morning, a kindly gent named Abdul would knock on the door of my lodgings, light the kerosene stove and place a piping-hot pot of sweet, gingery masala chai on the bedside table. Then it was to the dining room for spicy masala omelettes and more tea.

After I learned the worrying facts about avalanches, I paid the 150-rupee (NZ$3.60) fee for a single gondola ride up the mountain. I carried on up the chairlift and was away.

Although the avalanche danger was high, certain parts of the mountain were avalanche free. This is where I stayed most of the time. The cut-up powder, steep incline and plentiful trees provided more than enough adrenaline to keep me occupied.

Trying not to be impaled on a sharp tree stump is hungry work and, luckily, there was a fantastic collection of eateries on the mountain, including a rainbow collection of outdoor furniture huddled around some quaint, small cooking houses.

Lunch was steaming dal, buttery chappatis and, of course, hot masala chai. Probably the perfect snowboarding food, and the best thing was it cost about NZ$2.

After a day's riding, I finished off by attending the weekly safety briefing at a nearby hotel, on advice from Bill Barker, a veteran Aussie skier who has been running trips in Gulmarg since 2005 through his company, Bill's Trips.

He was putting my acquaintance and a dozen of his mates through their paces, teaching them about avalanche safety and showing them the best backcountry the mountain has to offer.

After a freezing tramp through the snow, I congregated with other travellers at the Pine Palace Hotel and crowded into a room with some beers to listen to the mountain's snow safety officer, Brian Newman.

"It is honestly as dangerous as I've ever seen it at Gulmarg," he said.

Gulmarg wasn't the place where skiers could suck on a doobie, plug in their headphones and cruise the afternoon away, he said. It was the opposite - good preparation, knowledge and guides were a must.

So was equipment - avalanche probes, beacons and spades were essential gear for the Mt Apharway backcountry.

Armed with that knowledge, the next morning I went out with a guide to find some backcountry of my own.

Well, it was two guides and about eight Russian skiers, who were generous with their hip flask of rum on the way to the slopes.

The first few spots we hit were unbelievably steep, dense tree runs, complete with hidden roots and barbed-wire fences. The riding was so challenging it made me pine for a cruisy, wide-open meadow.

A half-hour drive in the Jeep, a gondola ride and long traverse later though, we were in just that - charging through knee-to-thigh-deep powder and, apart from the soft whoosh of my submerged board and distant Russian whoops of joy, it was silent.

At that moment, it was hard to believe that was the same country that is home to the noisy, busy madness that is Delhi or Mumbai.

There was a peace and tranquillity to the place that was almost spiritual - I'm just lucky the deafening rumble of an avalanche didn't break the silence.

Winter wonder

About an hour's drive east of Gulmarg is Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir which has some of the most peaceful scenes the world has to offer.

Dal Lake is the centrepiece for Srinagar's natural beauty. In the summer, the nearby ranges burst with greenery and flowers, the snow melts and washes the lake clean and it's a haven for those wanting to trek in the mountains. In the winter, the crowds are gone, the water ices over and the trees cast skeletal reflections on the lake's mirror sheen.

I arrived at the lake to a warm greeting by Rasool Wangnoo, owner and captain of the H.B. New Sherin, one of more than 1000 houseboats that are moored on the Lake. Rasool claims his boat is the lake's finest and it's easy to see why - the wooden interior is hand-carved. He recommends my girlfriend and I take a ride on a shikara, a Venetian-style gondola.

Under a blanket, with a drink to keep us warm, we're paddled through the icy water, occasionally passing locals propelling their canoes across the lake with poles. The sun is setting, casting a peach hue.

As darkness cloaks the town, the Muslim call to prayer rings out, echoing off the mountains to give the scene a magical, ethereal quality.

Kashmir is a place like no other and to visit the summer capital in winter evokes a grandeur that can only come with being under the shadow of the Himalayas.

TRAVELLERS' TIPS

GULMARG

Getting there: Fly from Auckland to New Delhi, then take a one-and-a-half-hour connecting flight to Srinagar. From there, it's about an hour's drive west to Gulmarg.

Where to stay: Hotel Highlands Park has rooms from 6000 rupees (NZ$131).

What to do: Get shown around by Bill Barker, ski guide extraordinaire from Bill's Trips.

DAL LAKE

Getting there: Fly north from New Delhi airport to Srinagar (about one hour, 30 minutes), then it's about 40 minutes in a taxi to Dal Lake.

Where to stay: The H.B. New Sherin houseboat, opposite the Welcome Hotel, Dal Lake. Contact Rasool by email: hb_newsherin@yahoo.co.in.

Kieran Nash paid his own way to Gulmarg.

* The NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is currently advising against all travel to Jammu and Kashmir (with the exception of the Ladakh region via Manali, or by air to the region's main city of Leh), due to the extreme risk of terrorist activity and violent demonstrations. For the latest MFAT advisories on Jammu and Kashmir, see safetravel.govt.nz.

- Herald on Sunday

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