Ski Travel in The Himalayas

Ski Travel Will Return.

Until then, Here’s a Skiing Adventure from India to Tide You Over.

A skier happily looking out a hotel window at falling snow is normal enough. The monkeys staring back at you take some getting used to. As a sheltered Canadian ski brat, much of India took some getting used to. I had no point of reference for the chaos of Delhi or the substantial military presence in Kashmir. Only once we were in the mountains did I start to feel comfortable, and still, I was routinely startled by foreign sights like armed soldiers in ski lessons, garbage being openly dumped in the woods, or monkeys in your way as you ski to the gondola. 

The Gulmarg Gondolas (two in line to ridge top) are the focal point of most ski trips here. The 1,150 vertical metre rise places you on an alpine ridge just shy of 4,000m above sea level, and right on the edge of the India-Pakistan demilitarized zone. The gondolas are the only thing in Gulmarg that resemble a classic North American ski vacation, and they give us less travelled skiers a comfortable lens through which to study India. 

India’s bureaucratic might is the first thing we study, as the Jammu and Kashmir government runs the lift. Skiers buy a paper lift ticket that’s good for one run from “the guy with the briefcase” who changes his location often and unpredictably. He tears the corners as he gives it to you. Then you cross the platform to load the lift and someone else studies your ticket. He rips it halfway through the middle, sometimes, and points you to his partner who crams you into a cabin. At the top, when you are trying to extricate your gong show of gear from the tight quarters, another man asks you for your now used ticket. He tears the middle slightly more, but not all the way, and gives it back.

Some great throwback style on the slopes in Kashmir. Travel India

Of course you don’t bring ski gear this far by plane, train, tuk tuk, and truck for a typical resort experience. Expectations will ruin your time here, and after a few days, we learn not to count on things we don’t understand, like the gondola operation. It’s been shut down for the last 48 hours while a storm dropped 20cm on the mountain. When it dawns blue, we don’t even look at the lift. Instead, we grab our skins and start walking. When we get to the alpine, two parties have skin tracks above us, but a patroller won’t let us pass because of avalanche control work. Rules here seem made to bend, so we go negotiate with the head patroller and return with permission. Happy to earn some powder turns, we climb into the alpine and enjoy views of Nanga Parbat and even K2 in the distance.

Mid-day, it clouds over and we think about finding some trees to ski. Before we descend into the forest though, we’re startled to see the gondola start spinning. By 2:30, we manage to find the “guy with the briefcase” and weasel our way into a cabin. With skies blue once again, we start getting excited. But, three-quarters of the way up, the lift stops and doesn’t start again. Half an hour later, we start discussing self-evacuation. Our car is next to a tall lift tower, and if we kick a window out, we could probably reach it. My five-metre length of cordlette will be our “backup”, as it were. 

The sun goes behind the peak, and we start to get cold. Before we put our plan into action (and break Government property), the lift starts on low, halting back-up power. Minutes later, it stops again but we no longer have a tower to escape to. After fifteen minutes, the gondola starts again, but for only 30 seconds this time. Finally, over an hour after loading, the lift sputters us to the top. It is too late to explore, so we settle for a direct run straight down. And what a run! We lay tracks down an entirely unskied rib that drops 900 meters to the trees below. Some of our group call it the run of the season, one even calls it the run of his life (East coaster!). Pure euphoria after all the gondola anxiety.

The alpine around Gulmarg, Kashmir, India

By the end of our trip, we’re getting better at enjoying the unpredictability of India and we long to see more, so we set off down ridge from the gondola on a long traverse and hope for the best. After the now typical alpine powder dream, we drop a short tree run that is, surprisingly, the deepest snow we’ve seen on the trip. Instead of catching the traverse back to Gulmarg, we can’t resist the powder forest below, so we drop in and hope to find the town of Drang, which should be below us… “Inshallah” (God willing). We gobble up 3 or 4 more pitches of steep and deep trees before getting spit out on the flats below. The snow is light and dry all the way down to 2400m, which is an unbelievable 1600m below where we started. 

Tree skiing to Drang.

We bump into a footpath in the snow and follow it over a tiny bridge, then through a gorge to a town (hopefully Drang). Kids bombing through the trees on homemade sleds point us towards “Main Street”, but before we can get there, shouts come at us from across the river. Several men are waving at us and pointing towards their taxis. They were waiting for someone, apparently, and all foreigners look the same. So we’re in luck. 

When we finally get back to the hotel, after dark, we walk right into a party for “International Media.” There’s a bonfire, mutton on a rotisserie, free whiskey (rare in this Islamic area), a band, and dancers (even more rare as we can count the number of local women we’ve seen since arriving). A couple hundred people mingle and make their way inside for the feast. The dancers and the band create a wild scene with ornate costumes and cross-dressers. In our tired state we feel slightly bombarded. But soon, our bellies are full, and the whiskey is working. We find out after dinner that the gondola has broken and won’t operate again for a couple of weeks… Inshallah. Lucky for us, we leave in two days, and our final run was amazing. We are content. It’s time to enjoy another whiskey, mingle with the locals and meet the skiers from all over the world who are standing around watching the show.

A ski trip to Gulmarg is about way more than just the skiing. Travel India