Skiing Kashmir's snow-swept peaks

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Skiing Kashmir's snow-swept peaks
On a frigid night in Gulmarg, a Himalayan outpost deep in Kashmir, a friend and I sipped sweet tea and warmed ourselves next to a wood stove while a local ski guide named Javed stood in front of us, roaring like a bear.

"Baah! Baah!" he shouted, his hands outstretched like claws.

"I thought it was going to kill us," Javed said of the Asiatic black bear he had encountered a few days before while skiing in the backcountry.

Which reminded him of the time he skied off a natural jump in the forest and nearly landed on a snow leopard.

"Where did that happen?" I asked.

"Babareshi," said Mushtaq, another guide. "The place we skied today."

Jon and I had come to Gulmarg in the Jammu and Kashmir region of northern India for a reason that, given the area's militant history and lack of reliable infrastructure, might sound a bit absurd: to go skiing. We came for perfect powder, an absence of crowds and serene, stunning Himalayan beauty - as seen from the world's highest-altitude gondola-serviced ski runs. Those runs top out, dizzyingly, at more than 13,000 feet.

That some peripheral risk might be involved was a given. Just miles from the disputed Line of Control, which divides India from Pakistan, this part of the Kashmir Valley remains heavily militarized. Abbottabad, the town where Osama bin Laden was killed, is less than 80 miles west as the crow flies. The U.S. State Department's current India page recommends avoiding travel to most of Jammu and Kashmir "because of the potential for terrorist incidents, as well as violent public unrest." While we were visiting, local newspapers included an advertisement from government officials advising people to build nuclear bunkers, just in case.

But apparently all this doesn't stop travelers. According to a 2012 report in The Economic Times, more than 1 million Indian, and some 27,000 foreign, tourists visited Kashmir last year. German, French and Australian accents made up the bulk of what I heard on the gondola. Like many travelers before us, we encountered friendly people and an otherworldly landscape of lakes and snow-swept peaks.

To get to Gulmarg we flew to Srinagar, the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and spent our first night on a 100-foot houseboat with carved cedar interiors on Nagin Lake. Srinagar, it seemed, had declined from a grander time. Huge dilapidated wooden houses stood between storefronts painted in fading reds, yellows and blues. Women in bright headscarves and men in wool ponchos known as faren trudged through mud and slush, carrying small baskets filled with hot coals known as kangir, which they cradled under an outer layer to stay warm. In an area where the majority of the population is Muslim, the clothing appeared less about modesty than fending off subzero temperatures.

A few hours before sunset, we hired a shikara, a small, flat-bottom boat, for a tour of the area. With his paddle, the young captain guided the vessel across the water and through a maze of canals and raised beds where residents had built gardens. Patchy clouds drifted overhead, and solitary shikaras sat motionless in the lake as hundreds of eagles swooped gracefully above the water. A ring of snow-covered mountains leapt from the lake's mirror surface.

We disembarked in the hamlet of Hazratbal, where a mosque of the same name is said to hold a sacred hair from the Prophet Muhammad. The town was reeling with religious festivalgoers. A street vendor handed us a deep-fried lotus root. Another prepared mutton kebabs. A third vendor, a tailor, sold Jon a plaid faren. A young boy walked with us until he was distracted by something better: a snowball fight. Then, suddenly, there was a spectacular display as the setting sun painted the snowy faces of the mountains across the lake in pinks, purples and blues. It was a panoramic horizon-to-heavens canvas.

The next morning we piled into a Jeep for the tortuous 34-mile ride to where we would base ourselves: Gulmarg, a small hill station set in a meadow beneath the mountains. The roads were cut into the chest-deep snow. Along the way we saw Indian soldiers with automatic weapons sitting behind sandbags or milling about in thick winter gear.

As we soon learned, skiing at Gulmarg was not an activity to be taken lightly. Foolishly, we ignored repeated warnings about how quick changes in altitude can wreak havoc on the body. After starting the day in Srinagar at just over 5,000 feet, we ascended through pine forest and high alpine terrain to more than 13,000 feet. It took Jon nearly 20 minutes to ski down a few hundred feet of deep, tracked snow. Looking increasingly shaky, and falling at almost every turn, he was depleted by the combination of altitude and fatigue, not to mention his lack of experience skiing on powder. Wisely, he decided to take the only chairlift down the mountain. Largely unaffected by the altitude, I skied over the ridge to a wide-open patch of glorious powder, sharing the slope with just one other person, and arriving at the bottom before Jon. After that, we returned to our hotel and re-evaluated our plans.

That night, over a dinner of paneer masala and rogan josh at the Heevan Retreat hotel - a place that combined hints of luxury (official-looking uniforms, stylish public areas) with leaky showers and paper-thin walls - we agreed that the day had delivered a sort of cosmic justice: For decades, Jon, whom I had known since childhood, has been making fun of my first day of skiing, at Mount Tom in western Massachusetts. When we were 6, he watched me fall from the lift's loading area, throw a fit once up top and walk down in my boots. Now it was my turn to be smug.

Over the next few days we finally unlocked the promise of Gulmarg by hiring guides with the right combination of local knowledge and communication skills. Jon and I had breakfast and dinner together but went our own ways, with our own guides, on the slopes. While I skied high up with my own powder skis and avalanche equipment, Jon rented fat skis, hired a teacher and began adjusting to the altitude, progressively venturing into more expert terrain.

After insinuating myself into a group of three Frenchmen and their guide, Mushtaq, I engaged in some of the best skiing of my life. Not bad, considering that I live on the doorstep to the Austrian Alps. From the top of the gondola, a high ridge spread in both directions leading to bowl after bowl of virgin snow. Dropping into the bowls were steep trails that ran through rocky chutes, loosely spaced trees or wide expanses of fluffy white. Beyond, toward Pakistan, there were more mountains, more snow.

One day I rode the gondola to the top, put on skins (a mohair and nylon fabric that attaches to skis so they won't slide backward when going uphill) and plodded my way past the summit of Mount Apharwat (over 13,500 feet high), before skiing an exhilarating route known as Khilanmarg 3, which descends down a narrow bowl, then through a thin stand of birch trees that reminded me of cragged old men. Here the snow was deep, fluffy so-called "curry powder," which I practically flew over.

The next day, when Mount Apharwat was covered in snow showers and the gondola was closed, our small group made repeated steep powder runs through the forest, using the switchback roads that led to Srinagar for access. We would climb over a snow bank and shoot through dense stands of pines, many more than 100 feet tall, until we finally exited back onto the road farther down. One person saw a fox and we all saw rhesus monkeys huddling above us in the trees against rapidly accumulating snow. Instead of a lift, a Jeep ferried us to the next run.

Near the end of the trip, I made the 6-mile-long, 1-mile-steep vertical descent to Drung, a Gulmarg route that at its terminus passes through the winding footpaths of a Kashmiri hamlet. After exiting the gondola at a hair over 13,000 feet, we skied past an igloo-like structure used by the Indian military as a high-altitude outpost.

"That's Nanga Parbat," said Mushtaq a little later, pointing across a valley to a daunting peak with snow blowing over it like a wave.

At 26,660 feet, Nanga Parbat is the ninth-tallest mountain in the world and has a record not even Mount Everest can claim: It's so difficult a climb that no one has ever reached its summit in winter.

Midway down we made turns in deep, fresh powder, one by one - a standard avalanche mitigation technique - through a tight chute, just 10 to 15 feet wide, that opened up to a wide bowl.

I picked up speed, and as my skis planed atop the powder I had the sensation of floating. I felt like a kid losing track of myself.

Later, there would be tales to tell, sitting around a wood stove, as Kashmiris and locals shared stories about happy times and the deep turmoil that defined the India-Pakistan conflict in this region.

For a moment, though, nothing existed but the mountain and the glistening snow.

IF YOU GO

The Heevan Retreat hotel (Gulmarg; ahadhotelsandresorts.com; 011-91-1942501323) is close enough that you can ski to the gondola in the morning. Room quality varies, but the pre-dinner lounge area is stylish and meals are large. Wi-Fi and breakfast are included in the 8,000 Indian rupees a night (about $150, at 53 rupees to the dollar) for a double.

Most of Gulmarg is considered lift-accessible backcountry skiing, requiring the knowledgeable use of avalanche safety gear. Exposed terrain, avalanche risk and quickly changing weather make heading to the backcountry without a guide a bad idea. Guiding, inclusive of lift tickets and transportation by Jeep, ranges from 2,000 to 6,000 rupees a day.

Krystalline (klinehimalaya.com; 011-91-9624448850), a partnership between two locals and two foreigners, is the service we used.

We were far from the only foreign tourists in Gulmarg, which is in a region that has seen turmoil since the end of British rule in India in 1947. While our visit was trouble-free, the U.S. State Department recommends against travel to most of Jammu and Kashmir, including Srinagar and Gulmarg.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: March 10, 2013 18:02 IST

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