Colin Field is an outdoor adventure photographer, writer and editor, based near Collingwood, Ontario.

Paradise Stalling: Skiing in Gulmarg, India

Originally printed in SKIER magazine.

It dumped all day yesterday and today it’s perfect bluebird. Not to take anything away from skiers, but it’s the kind of day ski journalists, photographers and cinematographers dream about. And though we debated over a breakfast of eggs and Khewa tea whether or not to skin up 4,017-metre Mount Apharwat, in the end we decided to wait for the gondola.

Mistake number one.

Skiing the mellow but icy trail to the gondola, we pass other foreigners readying to start their day. Wooden hotels with more staff than guests stagger among huge Himalayan pines just above the 2,677-metre plateau town of Gulmarg, each with its own quirks of power outages, frozen pipes and occasional unfounded promise of dial-up internet. The village is populated with Swedes, Kiwis, Aussies, Americans and Canadians, nationalities found in every ski town the world over. And every single one of them is hoping to get to the top of Apharwat early today.

Photographer Kari Medig, skier Ryan Oakden and I slide past families of monkeys nibbling at random garbage piles from hotels that have no other choice but to dump it. Other simians sun themselves on branches of Himalayan Cedar. As we pass, a couple stray dogs give chase to Oakden, barking viciously as he skates away.

The lower gondola, which starts daily at 10 a.m., cranks up promptly at 10:43. We wait as patiently as western-trained mindsets will allow as the sun rises higher, slowly blowing out any chance of good shooting.

The first man we need to see is the guy with the briefcase. He sits behind a folding table in the far corner, amidst the chaos of revolving gondolas, collecting money and handing out tickets.

Simple, right?

Mistake number two.

“Sallahm a Lekhum,” I say, shaking his hand as is the custom and asking for a ticket. It’s 100 Rupees for a ride to the mid-station and thankfully, I have the right bill. Not even he has change for a 500 Rupee ($13 CAD) note. He opens the briefcase that lays flat on the table, tosses in my money and hands me a ticket.

“Shukriya.” I walk the four metres to the guy who collects the tickets and hand mine over.

“No,” he says.

“What?” I ask, taken aback.

“No, yesterday ticket.”

“I just bought that.”

“No.”

“I did. I just bought that.”

He yells in Kashmiri to the man with the briefcase, who walks over casually, grabs the ticket and takes a look.

“No.”

“What? I just bought that.” I look into the briefcase man’s eyes. “Remember?”

“No,” he states blankly.

What the hell? Oakden, who’s probably seen everything there is to see on a ski hill, is incredulous. I’m not even angry, just stunned. I know getting angry will get me nowhere, but stunned isn’t moving things along either. Standing my ground, I look from the collector to the seller, and remain firm.

“I just bought that.”

They call in another gondola worker, and after a few minutes of comparing ticket numbers decide that yes, I did just buy that. They make their completely random yet official tears in the ticket and I jam myself into the gondola.

At mid-station, as I get off the lift, I’m again asked for the ticket. A new guy makes another random tear, and hands me the now completely useless piece of paper.

“Thanks.”

The wonderful world of Indian bureaucracy is a hangover of British colonialism; nothing here happens without a form, a stamp, a signature, another stamp, a counter-signature, a confirming stamp, the occasional bribe and, finally, a tear. Throw in the region’s well-publicized conflict between India, Pakistan, Islamic Militants and native Kashmiris and it’s a miracle the lift runs at all.

Begun in 1991, it wasn’t until May of 2005 that the gondola’s upper section finally opened. Built by the French lift company, Poma, the project was plagued by problems from the beginning; start-and-stop building was dictated by extreme weather and the temper of local conflict. After more than a decade, with the upper lift’s opening once again delayed, the Jammu and Kashmir Cable Car Corporation that operated it finally admitted they didn’t know how to manage a lift and the mountain’s epic snowfall. It wasn’t until Israeli Ido Neiger organized Mission Gulmarg in 2005—a project aimed at training and equipping a local ski-patrol to organize avalanche control—that the gondola opened to riders. Naturally, word of the long-awaited lift running immediately drew adventurous skiers and journalists from around the world; after a few stories made it into magazines and videos after the 2006 season, like lemmings to a cliff we’ve all come a running. At the Kongdor mid-station, where we gather in the now not-so-early morning light hoping to top out before the clouds roll in, it looks like a press conference called for the worldwide snowsport media: in addition to our SKIER crew, Powder magazine is here with a film crew; there’s also a Norwegian film crew, Canada’s Ride Guide, and tight-lipped folks probably unwilling to say who they represent all hoping to show the world the best of Gulmarg. But we all need to get to the top to get the shots, and every second stuck at mid-station is a second of light wasted. If this is some sort of futile press conference, the message is clear: there’s nothing we can do.

People shake hands and get to know each other, all with an eye cast upward toward a glut of untracked lines, jonesing for a fix. The Wait Area Cum Restaurant (affectionately known as the Cum Restaurant, “don’t drink the soup!”) offers a few snacks to pass the time, but most of us sit in the sun. The few unfortunate in need of relief during this interlude are led to one of the filthiest squatters around. Walking on the wet, tiled floor in ski boots is perhaps more extreme than any line the mountain can offer, and stumbling in the tight, shit-stained quarters could be worse than a broken femur. Canadian ski-mountaineering legend Ptor Spricenicks, a man used to fall-you-die scenarios, is the only foreigner manly enough to use the facilities for number two.

Today the newly-minted international ski patrol, of which Spricenicks was coincidentally a member, is having a meeting. And we can’t go up until they check snow conditions. So we wait. And wait. The meeting finally ends and we watch as patrol heads up the gondola. We wait and watch as a few ski back down with huge grins, whupping it up, ecstatic at their unbelievable run down untracked Mount Apharwat. We enviously watch as they cut fresh tracks through the alpine, then zig zag through the last stand of trees just above us. Being well trained as patrollers, they aren’t shy to gloat.

The mid-station gondola will open when it opens. Inshallah. This is Arabic for ‘god willing,’ but it feels an awful lot like ‘tough shit.’

Today the largely Muslim region of Kashmir still has its share of terrorist attacks. Grenades go off regularly in the capital, Srinagar, and there are military officers armed with sub-machine guns everywhere. Though the Canadian embassy advises against travel to Kashmir, Gulmarg feels relatively safe—though this has nothing to do with the many trainees from the High Altitude Warfare School snowplowing down the hill with rifles strapped around their shoulders.

What the Canadian government suggests avoiding is actually a mountain valley of unparalleled beauty and a ski area that will have even the most die-hard skier salivating uncontrollably. The vertical drop from the top station down to Gulmarg is 1,323 metres, though given the right conditions there are options to drop down even further to the town of Tangmarg and beyond. Apharwat itself is a mountain that has been untamed by groomers, avalanche control, or even skiers. The backside flows down towards the line of control with Pakistan, and mountains spread out for as far as the eye can see. The ridge, which stretches perpendicular to the gondola for five kilometres offers endless untracked terrain. The only part of the mountain controlled and patrolled is a narrow strip directly under the gondola. Any foray down the ridge is a self-monitored experience: there is no one to stop the truly green from going wherever they want. It’s like heli-skiing without the mechanical bird… or the guides. Still, it’s hard to entertain any of these possibilities when you’re stuck at mid-station.

As the light begins to fade, the upper lift finally opens.

All of a sudden it gets ugly. Media crews begin jockeying for position, each assuming they’re more important than the next. Paying ski-tourists also step up, itching for a run. No one has a ticket yet, but no one knows where to get one anyway. The man with the briefcase has followed us up, but he seems to be in a different spot every day. Oakden once found him hiding behind the ticket booth.

You expect to be forced out of your comfort zone in India, but not by westerners. We’re all pushing and shoving like a Tokyo subway, desperate to get on the gondola. As each car passes, people shove themselves earlier and earlier onto cars. We all adopt the Indian lining-up system: muscle wins. After 20 minutes of fighting, we find ourselves at the front of the line.

Defensively positioning ourselves elbows out so no can barge in front, we wait for the next pod to round the bullwheel. As the door opens, we jam ourselves in, pushing and shoving and pulling to make sure all five of our group gets on, then positioning our skis so the door closes on them. It’s only then we realize Oakden is unable to sit, pinned between skis that are poking out the crack in the doorway. Instead he has to stand bent forward, forming a clothed pressed-ham against the outer window.

Beginning the final leg to the top, Oakden settles into the most comfortable position he can and we scope lines. Then suddenly, the gondola stops. Gondolas stop all the time of course, but once we’ve sat for ten minutes it becomes a tad frightening. Cold wind howls through the small cracks where our skis poke out and we start to question the reliability of the lift. More disconcerting, we start to question the ability of the Indian Ski Patrol to rescue us if need be.
“These tower pilings are the worst concrete pouring job I’ve ever seen,” says a Kiwi who’s also a builder.

“You mean they haven’t been vibrated?” someone asks.

“Oh they definitely haven’t been vibrated. But they’ve also poured different levels at different times. There’s exposed rebar all over the place.”

“Yeah, well at least we know there’s some rebar in there.”

Then pro skier Kevin Hjertaas and Ride Guide’s Mike Benedek start hatching a plan to kick out the window and swing over to the tower, about two metres away, on a small piece of string Hjertaas found in his backpack. We’re about 20 metres up, and I hope it doesn’t come to it. Benedek’s stoked because it’ll make a good segment.

“Fuck your segment,” I think to myself.

“So, what are you going to write about the place?” the Kiwi asks me point blank.

It’s a good question considering that we’re stuck in a gondola contemplating kicking out a window and using a piece of twine as a life-line. I think I could probably boil it down to this: If you came for a week, I’m not sure you’d love it. If you came for two, you’d probably do pretty well. If you were simply coming for the adventure and didn’t care about annoying roadblocks, well, then you couldn’t go anywhere better.

The lift groans to life and I praise Allah I don’t have to be part of any of the crazy scheming going on. We crawl along slowly on some sort of auxillary power past another tower and then, mid-way to the next, again slam to a halt.

Fuck. Now we’re stranded without a tower to swing to. Medig is in a gondola ahead of us, so we radio him to see if he’s at the top yet. His response speaks volumes.

“This is rated PG…” he says over the radio.

We look at each other, confused.

“…pretty gay.”

Known in local lore as paradise on earth, the geographic region of Kashmir could be a tourism gold mine. The valley is surrounded by towering mountains so summers are mild in comparison to the humidity of the south, making it a one-time vacation haven for Delhi’s wealthy. Over 500 houseboats peacefully float on Srinagar’s Dal Lake where they once served as hotels for the summering British; they’re now generally unoccupied as tourism struggles through the region’s perpetual conflict. In a perfect world, Gulmarg’s gondola should also be attracting much larger numbers, but five decades of turmoil is a hard sell to anyone looking for a peaceful getaway.

Since the partition of India in 1947, Kashmir has been split between India, Pakistan and China. Pakistan calls it an unfinished conflict of the partition while Kashmiris on the Indian side consider themselves an occupied people. On India’s Republic Day I had asked a local what he was doing to celebrate. He told me it wasn’t a celebration for Kashmiris, but a celebration for India. I asked if he liked Pakistan. He said no, and that Kashmiris want complete independence. Then, in an abrupt change of topic, he asked if my cigarette was “loaded.” I told him it was and passed it over. Five minutes later, mumbling incoherently with his head in his friend’s lap, our political discourse was over.

When we finally reach the top of Apharwat, Medig greets us by calling it a mini-miracle. It certainly feels like it: emerging into the bright sunlight, thin air and cold biting wind, the views are unbelievable. Pakistan lies behind us, great sheets of snow-covered mountains rippling into the distance. The ridge we stand on stretches kilometres in either direction. And it’s all open.

We debate what to do. It took us all day to get up here so we’re certainly not risking getting on the lift again. Despite the many who got up here before us, there are still fresh tracks to be had everywhere. We should probably go do some shooting, slowly work our way down the mountain, stopping where it looks dramatic or deep to take shots. But the light isn’t that great now, and maybe we can get those shots tomorrow. The other option, of course, is to go skiing.

And as I drop into the cold smoke behind Oakden (with no hope of keeping up), a conversation with Gulmarg legend John Falkiner comes to mind. The Aussie guide who came here with a merry band of Verbier-based ex-pat telemarkers back in the early ’80s is concerned about the place changing and losing it’s character.

“Don’t sell it too hard,” he’d said to me.

I’m not sure I could. I can only call it like it is. Guys like Falkiner have been coming here for decades, but there’s still a feeling here that you’re the first to discover the place. Of being one of a privileged few. No one wants to see a Starbucks here.

Like wise driving up winding valleys on my way to Gulmarg with a Kiwi patroller and another Aussie adventurer, they’d bitched about rumours of 300 people being at the resort.

“There were only 50 people here last year,” griped the Kiwi. “Sounds like Gulmarg’s been discovered. Give it 20 years and this place will be chock-a-block with people.”

Or maybe not.

The lift won’t run the following day. The ball-bearings in the upper gondola’s gearbox failed. And it won’t run for the next two weeks as mechanics await parts and an expert from France.

Skiing in Gulmarg is a trade-off. You sacrifice the efficiency, professionalism and pampered luxury of the west for perhaps one good run in paradise on earth. And in return? Well, that one run—through deep, virgin powder with views into Pakistan and the mighty Himalaya—was one of the best of my life.

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