“Chocolate, biscuit, coffee!”
“Very cold day, very hot tea!”
I hear the hawkers chanting in tandem. I hear it so often that I start chanting with them. Kahwa, Kashmir’s very popular tea, hits the spot after a long day of skiing. And today, I especially need a cup or two.
Only an hour ago, I was faced with a steep, 90-degree drop. I was supposed to get off the gondola halfway up the mountain, but in my eagerness to inhale the sweeping views, I missed my mark—so when I did stop, I was way too high. In fact, I was at the very top of Apharwat, which, at 13,780 feet, is one of the main peaks in the Himalayan range of Pir Panjal.
Gulmarg’s slopes are an attraction for skiers of all grades. While amateurs stick to areas below the Apharwat, experts can try heli-skiing. Photo by: Christian Aslund/ Lonely Planet Images/ Getty Images
With breathtaking vistas, including that of Nanga Parbat—one of the 14 Eight Thousanders, independent peaks around the world with an elevation of over 8,000 metres (26,247 feet)—I wasn’t complaining. I was, however, nervous. In the 10 years since I made my skiing debut in Colorado, I’d had some incredible experiences in the Rockies, Alps, Andes and even the Himalayas, but my intermediate level skills, I knew, would not be enough to navigate the run ahead. What lay ahead was far more formidable, a trail categorised as a double-black diamond (extremely difficult), reserved strictly for experts. I had no choice but to go down. So I collected my thoughts, calmed my nerves, and attempted to ski down. Thunk. Suddenly I was rolling down, gathering snow. I was effectively a human-sized snowball. Luckily, the fluffy snow protected me from injury. But I could hear amused locals laughing from the chairlift above—it must have been a comical sight. I would get up, try to manoeuvre my skis, and immediately fall for what felt like hundreds of feet. For the few seconds that I was up, I looked like I was auditioning for Grease. However, the great thing about skiing is that the progress you make is exponential. So by day five, I was cruising.
Nestled in the Great Himalayas, Jammu and Kashmir’s ‘Meadow of Flowers’, has long been a rewarding ski destination. The gondola in Gulmarg, running along Apharwat, is the second-highest cable car in the world. Gulmarg has only a few kilometres of pistes (marked ski runs), just one chairlift, and a couple of J-bars (low-capacity lifts to pull up skiers and snowboarders individually) for beginners, which makes it a really different experience from your average European or American ski resort. But it is famous internationally for its single cable car going up over an elevation of 4,265 feet to a point just below the summit, providing phenomenal off-pistes with cinematic views and tons of powder for serious skiers and riders. The skiable terrain of Apharwat is one of the largest, longest and highest in Asia. With local hotels of middling quality and little après-ski, the overall experience is bare-bones. This, of course, puts the entire focus on the thrill of the sport.
Gulmarg is located 51 km/1.5 hr west of Srinagar, which is connected to major Indian cities via daily flights. Taxis for Gulmarg are easily available from Srinagar’s Sheikh ul-Alam International Airport.
Gulmarg receives some of the heaviest snowfall in the Himalayan region, but ski season is short—mid-Jan to end-Feb. However, with the season cycle becoming increasingly whimsical due to climate change, it can sometimes start in mid-Dec and end in Mar.
For amateurs, there are bunny slopes within the town. One day of practice, and one can ski down the easier Phase 1 from the base of Apharwat. Mary Shoulder is ideal for intermediate skiers. Experienced backcountry skiers and snowboarders should head to the pistes and off-pistes of Sunrise Peak, Jamiah Gulley, Sunset Peak, and Monkey Hill, east of Trajan Bowl of Apharwat. Sunset Peak, which offers only off-pistes, has the best conditions for heli-skiing. Gondolas take people up to the ski areas (www.gulmarggondola.com).
Stay Highlands Parkis a traditional favourite (highlandspark.in). If you’re looking for small, medium, or large rustic cottages, Nedou’s is your best bet (nedoushotels.com). The most luxurious hotel in Gulmarg is The Khyber. It has a spa, pool, and some of the town’s only après-ski activities after a long day on the slopes (www.khyberhotels.com).
Gulmarg is famous for its single cable car or gondola going up—over an elevation of 4,265 feet—to below the summit of the Apharwat. Photo by: Images of India/shutterstock
While certain safety gear can be rented on the spot, you can decide what to rent or carry, depending on the difficulty level of your slope. Check out GPS-watches such as Suunto Ambit for satellite navigation; First aid kits with antiseptic wipes, matches, duct-tape, emergency blankets, adhesive bandages and gauze; Snow helmets such ones made by injurOC, Giro and Smith. Skis, snowboards, helmets, poles, and clothing are available for rent at shops in Gulmarg.
For professionals attempting steeper elevations, there are collapsible, portable, light-weight shovels like BCA’s aluminum shovels, useful in case of avalanches; waterproof, multifunction headlamps like ones designed by Petzl and Black Diamond; Avalanche transceiver from Arva, Pieps or Ortovox, handy in locating victims buried under snow; Avalung, a device that prevents asphyxia and prolongs survival in avalanche accidents.
For both beginners and experts, it’s a good idea to enlist the services of an instructor (available for fixed rates)—nobody knows the lay of the land better.
The upper reaches of Apharwat are only for intermediate and expert skiers and snowboarders. The ski resort boundary marked out above is an avalanche-free zone. If you should happen to wander out of the boundary, be safe, and shred the powder at your own risk.
Ensure you have a postpaid cellphone and an Indian MTNL connection—others won’t work. Phones from outside Kashmir do not have the option of roaming and network coverage is weak. Keep the number of the Gulmarg Avalanche Advisory handy (gulmarg-avalanche-advisory.com) and consider using VHF radios to stay connected.
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