Kashmir, India: An Adventure of a Lifetime

Gulmarg, Kashmir in India provides extraordinary view of the Himalayas / Photo: Will Wissman
Gulmarg, Kashmir in India provides extraordinary views of the Himalayas / Photo: Will Wissman

Words: Tony Rossi

The people of Kashmir are recovering from being immersed in a 25 year war. Lack of infrastructure limits their progression to a slow crawl. Power outages and lack of clean water are just some of the issues they struggle with on a daily basis. The main source of income is tourism but where there is war, there’s no travelers. Luckily the tide is turning and tourism is returning to the region.  For good reason, it’s quite possibly the most beautiful place on the planet. In the seventeenth century the Mughal emperor Jahangir set his eyes on the valley of Kashmir. He said that if paradise is anywhere on the earth, it is here, while living in a houseboat on Dal Lake. If there is ever a heaven on earth, its here, its here, its here.

Ski bag after ski bag piled high en route to Gulmarg. Skeptical of only one strap holding our precious cargo we were proven that less is more / Photo: Will Wissman
Ski bag after ski bag piled high en route to Gulmarg. Skeptical of only one strap holding our precious cargo we were proven that less is more / Photo: Will Wissman

We exited the plane in Srinagar and headed to baggage claim. Surrounded by armed guards, everyone was a bit intimidated. Nobody knew what to expect and after traveling for over 24 hours to get to our destination we were totally worked. We were approached by a local who acted like we should know him. He and his guys started loading our gear onto carts and saying “Come with us, we are to take you to your taxi’s.” After locating and loading our taxis sky high, the hands of the men who helped us with our bags were extended palm up. “Tip, tip. You owe us a tip” confused we start pulling out Rupees. Come to find out, the people who took us to our taxi were in no way affiliated with the taxi service and they weren’t supposed to be “helping” us.

When we arrived in Gulmarg the taxi’s couldn’t make it up to our lodge.  Huge ruts that even my Vermont roots were impressed with limited the SUV’s ability to climb the steep hill.  The SUV’s came to a halt right next to the community dumpster.  In the U.S. we are so used to unsightly things being hidden.  That’s not the case in Kashmir.  Trash from the Lodges goes directly to a cart in the middle of all of them.  The benefit for tourist is the trash attracts the Monkeys as well as the mammoth Ravens and Eagles. We realized quickly that it’s the ultimate form of recycling.  In the U.S. this “waste” would be buried below tons and tons of other trash in a landfill.  After a day you get used to the trash and realize it’s just part of the culture.

Trash was hauled to this "Dumpster" from the lodges daily. After the scraps were picked through by Monkeys, Ravens, and Eagles it was hauled off. We found it to be a refreshing way of recycling even though it was a bit unsightly / Photo: Will Wissman
Trash was hauled to this “Dumpster” from the lodges daily. After the scraps were picked through by Monkeys, Ravens, and Eagles it was hauled off. We found it to be a refreshing way of recycling even though it was a bit unsightly / Photo: Will Wissman

As we unloaded our gear and settled into our rooms at the Grand Mumtaz the weight of travel lifted from the crews shoulders.  It was time for beers and a little relaxation before production started.  There are a number of little watering holes around the Gulmarg and our first stop was the Hotel Highlands Park.  It’s a cozy nook about a 10 minute walk through the woods from the Mumtaz.  It’s at that point that you realize Gulmarg is much like any other ski town. Good times, good company, and lots of snow. We were lucky enough to catch up with winter locals who offered their stories from the past few days. Stable conditions with snow on the way was the word on the street and for a production company, that’s music to the ears. With the Stokemeter rising we departed the Highland to hit the sack.

Sleds are used to haul tourists and baggage around when their legs get tired. Expect to be followed around by locals trying to earn a buck / Photo: Will Wissman
Sleds are used to haul tourists and baggage around when their legs get tired. Expect to be followed around by locals trying to earn a buck / Photo: Will Wissman

It snowed, and snowed, and snowed! The upper elevations of Gulmarg are primarily above treeline and when it’s coming down it’s impossible to know where you are. With it’s limited resources Patrol ends up shutting down the upper portion of the Gondola.  We were limited to a zone called Monkey Hill for a few days.  A quick skin to tree filled lines and unlimited features proved perfect for Thayne Rich to get his Jib on.

Thayne Rich provided fireworks in Monkey Trees while upper elevations were closed due to avy conditions / Photo: Will Wissman
Thayne Rich provided fireworks in Monkey Trees while upper elevations were closed due to avy conditions / Photo: Will Wissman

When the weather cleared, it was game on.  Kashmir Heliski provided our vessel to the heavens.  The fresh snow was light and dry and each and every run was first descent after first descent.  Standing on top of 15,000′ peaks that are dwarfed by the surrounding mountains is a feeling I can’t begin to describe.

Tony Rossi takes in the fact that he's standing on a 15,000' mountain later named Grace Peak after his First Descent / Photo: Will Wissman
Tony Rossi takes in the fact that he’s standing on a 15,000′ mountain dwarfed by the surrounding peaks  / Photo: Will Wissman

As the crew became more and more comfortable with conditions bigger and more dramatic lines came into play.  Flying around, it was hard to choose which lines we were going to ski as there were so many.  Every twist and turn of the bird presented more and more opportunity for first descents.

Thayne Rich with a First Descent off of what was later named Soulryders Zone / Photo: Will Wissman
Thayne Rich with a First Descent off of what was later named Soulryders Zone / Photo: Will Wissman
Another First Descent provided by Kalen Thorien / Photo: Will Wissman
Another First Descent provided by Kalen Thorien / Photo: Will Wissman

After two full days in the bird, the heli budget was all but shot.  From here on out we utilized the gondola and human power to access terrain.  It was wonderful to be able to get a heli lift to the goods some of the deeper goods, but the front side of Gulmarg will have you drooling as well.  The Gondola drops you off on top of an enormous ridge that extends as far as the eye can see.  Flank after flank provide over 4000′ of vertical with open bowls, spines, Japanese like blossom trees, and softwoods that protected the incredible amounts of powder snow.  Let’s just say…if you don’t have the budget to get in the heli, there’s ample amounts of terrain that will keep a grin on your face for years to come.

Vanessa Aadland buried in the deep powder snow protected by softwoods / Photo: Will Wissman
Vanessa Aadland buried in the deep powder snow protected by softwoods / Photo: Will Wissman
Tony Rossi gets a taste of the local flavor / Photo: Will Wissman
Tony Rossi gets a taste of the local flavor / Photo: Will Wissman

We wrapped up our skiing portion of the tip with a 6 mile ski to the Drang Valley.  Starting at the top of the gondola on Mt. Apharwats 13,530′ peak you descend 5,600′ of vertical through many layers of high alpine until you reach a small village.  Be sure to bring some goodies for the children.

Kalen Thorien finds some amazing snow while heading towards Drang Valley / Photo: Will Wissman
Kalen Thorien finds some amazing snow while making the Six mile descent to Drang Valley / Photo: Will Wissman
Mark Koglemann gives out some goodies to the local kids in Kashmir, India / Photo: Will Wissman
Mark Koglemann gives out some goodies to the local kids in Kashmir, India / Photo: Will Wissman
Tony Rossi gets a warm welcome from the local children in the Drang Valley, Kashmir / Photo: Will Wissman
Tony Rossi gets a warm welcome from the local children in the Drang Valley, Kashmir / Photo: Will Wissman

We decided to pull out a day early, which was crushing on some levels as it started to hammer snow again.  That is, until we reached Dal Lake, the crown jewel of Kashmir.  Houseboats sit at the center of the lake which is surrounded by snow lined peaks for as far as the eye could see.  Our travel included a night on one of the houseboats.  Let’s just say…we got down!  We started out with a feast of a meal that concluded in raised glasses and words from each individual on the trip.  It concluded well into the night with many a memorable laughs and a peace that is unexplainable.  The next morning everyone woke with a haze but made sure to catch a Shikara ride to check out one of only two floating markets in the world, the Sabzi Bazaar.

One of only two floating markets in the world, the Sabzi Bazaar takes place everyday from 4am to 6am and is a must experience while in Sringar / Photo: Will Wissman
One of only two floating markets in the world, the Sabzi Bazaar takes place everyday from 4am to 6am and is a must experience while in Sringar / Photo: Will Wissman
A farmers strikes a deal with a sabzi seller and weighs out the goods with an old fashioned scale / Photo: Will Wissman
A farmers strikes a deal with a sabzi seller and weighs out the goods with an old fashioned scale / Photo: Will Wissman
Mr. Wonderful Flower man (in front) and the New Big Eye. These two partners sell flower seeds such as Poppy and Lotus to locals. Their names are as smile enducing as their personalities. The container in front of Mr. Wonderful flower man is a pot full of charcoal he called his "Winter Wife" which he drapes his full length coat over to keep warm / Photo: Will Wissman
Mr. Wonderful Flower man (in front) and the New Big Eye. These two partners sell flower seeds such as Poppy and Lotus to tourists. Their names are as smile inducing as their personalities. The container in front of Mr. Wonderful flower man is a pot full of charcoal he called his “Winter Wife” which he drapes his full length coat over to keep warm / Photo: Will Wissman

Out last stop and the reason we left a day early was the Taj Mahal.  It’s never easy to leave a place while it’s snowing, but how could we travel half way around the world and not check out one of the 7 Wonders of the World.  Let’s just say…it was worth it!

The Taj Mahal in it's full glory / Photo: Will Wissman
The Taj Mahal in it’s full glory / Photo: Will Wissman
Longtime friend of Soulryders founder Mark Koglemann, Chinese healer Thomas Flach made the journey from Kathmandu to join our trip. This guy works magic and was essential in negotiating many scenarios while in India / Photo: Will Wissman
Longtime friend of Soulryders founder Mark Koglemann, Chinese healer Thomas Flach made the journey from Kathmandu to join our trip. This guy works magic and was essential in negotiating many scenarios while in India / Photo: Will Wissman
The crew of a lifetime minus the man behind the lens Will Wissman
The crew of a lifetime minus the man behind the lens Will Wissman at the Taj Mahal

A journey; An adventure melded in rich culture immersed in a land far from home created a bond within our crew that is hard to express with words.  It’s something that is understood, not explained.  It may not have been lavished in amenities but it did provide an experience of a lifetime…and incredible snow.

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