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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.