"You are too late. The snow is all melted.’
Words no skier ever wants to hear.
‘The snow is all melted,’ I repeat, unconvinced. This is an inevitable habit of mine when in Asia - repeating the important parts of sentences to portray understanding. Particularly when I don’t understand.
‘Yes yes, all melted! No snow left,’ my enthusiastic new Kashmiri friend insists. ‘You have come too late.’
This will not be the last time my late arrival is met with incredulity. The ski season at Gulmarg typically spans January and February, and I have rolled into town early March, ever hopeful that a few days of epic pow remain to be had. As we emerge from the Srinagar airport into the blazing heat of a big, hard sun hanging in a perfectly blue bird sky, I must nevertheless admit that things don’t bode well for winter snow conditions.
In actuality, my persistent pal has no current information on Gulmarg’s snowpack, but convincing me otherwise may mean business at his houseboat, at his brother-in-law’s carpet factory and at his auntie’s restaurant. Untruths and exaggerations such as this are not uncommon in Kashmiri culture; they are not thought of us lies but as arguments or persuasive tactics. Consequently, I am sceptical when my insistence on immediate departure, regardless of snow conditions, is met with further resistance.
‘Strike today. No public transportation.’
Ah yes, the fight for independence in Kashmir strikes again - the region has been in conflict since the late 80s. Water from the Himalayas in Kashmir flows into both Pakistan and India, so naturally both want control (China also wants it, go figure). Like their Pakistani neighbours, the majority of Kashmiris follow Islam; however, the region is officially controlled by predominantly Hindu India, which is reinforced by permanent military occupation. The Kashmiri separatists frequently clash with the army as they seek to rally support and incite chaos with suicide attacks, riots and strikes. The Indian army responds in kind with violence to quell insurgency and government imposed curfews to maintain some semblance of order.
The long and short of it is that I end up in a private taxi bound for Gulmarg at 4am to avoid the allegedly riotous mob of stone-pelters. Even in the inky blackness the towering snow banks lining the winding road don’t fail to escape my notice, but neither do the regular military check points or the piles of glass from shattered windshields of strike breakers.
The small town of Gulmarg is an anomaly, however, as the tension seems to dissipate immediately upon entering its snowy streets. Crowds of men loiter in their traditional Kashmiri gowns, called pherans, while the shouts of tea sellers and sledge-wallas compete for customers.
Their main clientele are ‘domestics’ (Indian tourists), who are enthralled by the snow, which they cannot walk on but love to throw at each other. Some learn to ski on the golf course while others settle for the view from the top of the gondola. I contend with droves of these enthusiastic folk in the lineup every morning; the brave few ask to take my photo, the rest click away inconspicuously, or so they think.
Mount Apharwat from my guesthouse.
After navigating the ticket and gondola lines at the base and extricating my self and gear from the gondola itself, I arrive at the midstation and generally have a chai while listening for the sounds of avy blasting. The decreased number of skiers in March means the gondola workers are less concerned about opening on time, and the ski patrol cannot bomb until they open.
The avalanche safety program at Gulmarg was recently granted permission to use explosives. Previously they were denied consent since Mount Apharwat lies in close proximity to the Line of Control (LOC), which is where the Indian and the Pakistani military face off over Himalayan no-man’s-land. There are several Kashmiri mountain guides in Gulmarg who claim to have skied into Pakistan and back. This is no small feat considering the Indian army men with AK-47s camped at 4000m keeping a close eye, as well as the pack of poorly trained and vicious army dogs.
Vicious army dogs – just bring a snowboarder with you for dog bait. Army camp on the right.
A recent foray of several foreigners to the LOC with the goal of peeing on it led to more stringent military control for several days, which meant diminished backcountry territory. Any attempt to ascend Apharwat or beyond was met with sharp blows of a whistle and harsh yells of ‘Go! Go! Back!’ accompanied by the brandishing of AKs in your general direction. The fact that none of these LOC guardians seemed to speak any further English made explanations, arguments or reasoning futile. On these occasions, I wisely stayed in bounds.
This sign appeared after the LOC mischief.
What is in bounds at Gulmarg, you ask? As with any safe ski resort, all in bound slopes are avalanche controlled. In this case, a single run named Gondola Bowl which runs, well, right under the gondola. As for the rest – you are on your own. There are approximately 24 bowls that can be accessed by the second gondola without touring, which says nothing of the backcountry terrain.
Ski area boundaries.
The most popular backcountry destinations are two ridges straight off the back of Apharwat called Shark’s Fin and Great White - any further and you dance along the LOC. To the south lie Sunshine Peak and its environs which can be accessed by helicopter or overnight touring trip. Needless to say, there is no shortage of epic lines.
Sexy lines off Shark’s Fin.
March may not boast the consistent and epic deep pow of January and February, but some late season dumps this year meant fresh lines nearly every day. This is also partly thanks to the mass exodus of skiers at the end of February; I was sharing this entire mountain with 5-15 other skiers on any given day. I ventured three bowls south three days after a storm and got first tracks; three days later, ours were still the only ones in the bowl.
Dropping in off Shark’s Fin.
One of those late season dumps.
View from the gondola top, looking South.
Indian army loading the gondola.
Cara, Harald and myself scouting our lines.
This is Ian. It’s his first day on a snowboard. Just kidding.
Don’t be fooled - these monkeys will steal your nuts.