By Sam Collentine, Meteorologist Posted 4 years ago February 25, 2019
TRIP REPORT: Skiing Gulmarg, Kashmir
The following trip report was written by Paul Lalley, the founder of K-Line Adventures.
It all started in 2007 when I walked into Helly Hansen in Melbourne, Australia preparing for a backcountry splitboard trip to the South American Andes. A customer service person asked me "Hey, have you ever heard of skiing in India, I think the location is called Gulmarg".
I was hooked instantly and spent the better part of two weeks gathering research online and offline and looking at traditional topography maps of the "proposed" location in the Indian Himalayas. It was evident there were big mountains but at this point, I had no idea what I was getting into and all I had to go on was a few words from the sales guy.
My research revealed a small hill station at the base of Apharwat Peak that stood 4,270 meters (14,000 ft) above sea level with descents of what appeared to be well over 1,000 meters (3,280 ft) in vertical.
Armed with little-to-no-information, I booked my flights to Delhi and booked a connecting flight to Srinagar Airport in the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir, a prized possession of both India and Pakistan. A location with a long-standing conflict that has claimed thousands of lives. Irrespective of all the negative Embassy travel warnings I went against the grain and decided to pursue the adventure anyway.
Fast forward to the 2018-2019 winter, since the early days I’ve seen many things, and ridden across the globe. The only constant each season is my time in Gulmarg each winter.
It’s 2019 and I’ve landed back in Gulmarg for my 12th straight season. Arriving into Srinagar is picturesque as the snow has just fallen all the way down to the famous Dal Lake. I’ve arrived late in the afternoon and am traveling to my houseboat for the first night.
I get out of my taxi and see a bunch of gondolas (ferries), where I am greeted by a swarm of eager salespeople selling arts crafts to passers-by. It was a clever arrangement as they had a captive audience. It was hard to pass up so I bought a shawl for my partner as a gift, with no doubt that I overpaid...
Finally, I make it across the lake and board my houseboat, I’m greeted by the owner who welcomes me with what they call Kashmiri Khawa, essentially, black tea with saffron, ground cashew nuts and unfortunately a ton of sugar.
The houseboats are leftover relics from India’s colonial days. The accommodations are very ornate with intricately carved woodwork throughout the houseboat. Unfortunately, it looked beautiful, but the rooms whilst apparently “deluxe superior” were bone-chillingly cold with beds seemingly made of straw, fitted with stained sheets that smelt of body grease.
The bathrooms were also special, preventing me from taking a much-needed shower after a 12-hour flight. You might say it was a fantastic way to start the trip. I know it may sound a little rich going to India and expecting a basic level of cleanliness but it was way beyond that, it was really something.
Later in the evening, to my surprise, I was served the most watery lifeless curry I’d ever eaten. Shortly after I unfolded my backup sleeping bag and hit the sack. With my expectations intact and my optimism high, I was eager to get up to the mountains and see what I was getting myself into.
Early (5:00 am), the next morning I woke to the sound of the Islamic call to prayer, which sounded across the lake, with eagles soaring overhead and a purple haze in the morning sky, I soaked it in and enjoyed the cultural moment. At 5:30 am I leave for my destination Gulmarg, a 2 hour and 30-minute jeep ride up into the Pir Panjal mountain range.
After 2 hours we are getting close, and I saw my first glimpse of the alpine zone terrain which looked incredible! Time passes driving up through the old growth forests with notable well-spaced trees.
I finally reached the Gulmarg plateau and am driven up to my Himalayan abode. A Shanti called the "Gulmarg Ski Resort", my selected hotel, the Pine Palace "Platinum", I was apparently upgraded. The accommodation was in need of some serious love but was a good enough location with warm rooms and good hearty food like tandoori chicken (chicken cooked in an earthen pot) and other Kashmir dishes like Rista (mutton meatballs in yogurt sauce).
Gulmarg actually has a 5-star hotel now, The Khyber Resort and Spa pictured below.
Breakfasts each day were oatmeal (very sugary) with eggs cooked 1 of 3 ways, I'm a boiled kind of guy so I just stuck with it so I could peel my own eggs to prevent potential food poisoning via improper handling of food.
Moving on to the reason I chose to venture into the Himalayas, the terrain is simply epic with a cable car delivered back in the ‘80s and installed in 2006 a year before my first arrival.
The terrain was all-time with skiing from 4,270 meters (14,000 ft) for riding. The Gulmarg Gondola, one of Gulmarg’s proudest tourist attractions was built in 2 phases, the first phase takes riders from 2,600 meters (8,530 ft) to 3,250 meters (10,663 ft) and then from 3,250 meters (10,663 ft) up to 3,975 meters (13,042 ft), just shy of the summit.
To gauge the sheer size of the terrain is to picture an Olympic swimmers shoulders (wide). The mountain has a peak that tops out at 4,270 meters (14,000 ft) and shoulders that stretch some 8 kilometers, with endless riding options and runs starting in the alpine zone and running all the way down below the treeline. Take a look at the terrain map below.
The skiing was flawless with light dry snow top to bottom. Gulmarg’s season is short running from January through March with the driest snow in January and the deepest snowpack in February. Click here for more information on the best time to visit and what to expect.
The mountains were empty with not a soul in sight progressing in distance and difficulty each day whilst acclimatizing. Over the course of 15 days, I reaped the rewards and explored every inch of the terrain, with fresh snow available for weeks on end as the temps kept conditions perfect.
The mountain climate is an intercontinental snowpack so it’s not as deep as Japan but every bit as potent, with shin-to-knee deep turns welcoming me each time I laid a rail. You might say I visited the white room many times.
Over the 15-day period, I was skinning, boot packing, digging snow pits, riding through Kashmiri Shrines, and villages, hiking and exploring. I would have to say one of the most rewarding adventures I have ever been on and one that has kept me coming back, year after year venturing into new zones.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul Lalley is a former competitive athlete and expert snowboarder who is qualified to Level 2 with the American Avalanche Association. He has been traversing the Kashmiri Himalayas for the last 10 years and is the founder of K-Line Adventures, a company specializing in backcountry skiing and snowboarding programs in Gulmarg, Kashmir.