3 Meters at 4000 Meters
After a December 4th tumble in a boulder field broke 3 of my ribs and a hair-bone fracture in my arm, I was sidelined during one of the most stellar early seasons in Whistler’s history. After a painful month of waiting, I finally was able to get back on the mountain.
Wanting to avoid the resort for January and February, I decided I would best rehab somewhere far away from where I was apt to it easier. With its plentiful powder and general lack of extreme terrain, Japan seemed to be the obvious choice. However, as my trip approached, I began getting reports of an unprecedented shortage of snow throughout the land of the rising sun. While checking these reports, I happened to notice that Gulmarg in Kashmir had been getting consistent storms with high snowfall totals. And when I looked at the 9-day snow forecast, I was blown away by the 2.75 meters was being called for. I abruptly changed my ticket from Tokyo to Srinagar. Since this was during Chinese New Year, I actually saved some money since flights from Hong Kong to Tokyo were over $800 while I could fly from Hong Kong to Srinagar via Delhi for less than $600. Sometimes it pays to wait until the last minute!
I chose to arrive at Srinagar a few days after the storm had passed. As the gondolas would be shut down due to avalanche danger and it would be difficult getting up the mountain pass.
Unlike the trip I took the previous year with my buddies from Vancouver, I was traveling solo to Gulmarg. This did not faze me much considering the amount I have traveled by myself and that I had already spent time there. However, while waiting in the airport in Delhi, I made a last call to my parents. My mother reminded me that in America, President Trump’s Muslim travel ban was getting effective from the same day. To make matters worse, I learned that the past year had been a particularly violent one in Kashmir with rebel factions battling the large Indian forces, present in Srinagar. As a result, many groups had canceled their ski trips to Gulmarg. Boarding the plane, I was quite aware that I was the only foreigner and all eyes seemed to be on me. After landing and leaving the airport, this tense feeling only increased, especially when I did not know how to find the driver Anees had arranged for me. Fortunately, with my red hair, I was enough of a spectacle that the driver quickly found me. From there, he whisked me through the crowded streets and bazaars until we finally got to the foothills of Gulmarg.
Climbing up the steep switchbacks that wind its way up the 500 vertical meters, I quickly realized the difference in snow levels from the previous year. The walls of snow rose 2 to 3 meters on either side of the road creating a tunnel effect. Even with 4-wheel drive, many of the SUV’s were not been able to make it up the pass. This caused multiple bottlenecks that made the drive considerably longer. However, after it had already become dark, we finally reached the base of Gulmarg village and the Tree Top Hotel where Anees had secured a room for me. He was waiting there to welcome me and got everything ready for the next day.
As is typical when it snows considerable amounts in Gulmarg, the higher gondola (Phase 2) and the lower gondola (phase 1) had been shut down from the previous several days. The morning after I had arrived would be the first day to open in a while. The select few powder hounds who had traveled to Gulmarg despite the violence in the region and the travel warnings from their respective country, were chomping at the bit to get after it. Among the 30-some people waiting for an hour at the base of Phase 2, were a group from Salomon and a group from ‘Teton Gravity Research’ who were there to film this special place, in this very special time. Fortunately, the massif that Apharwat is, has over 4000 acres of skiable terrain, more than most resorts have in North America. Between 30 people, we were each sure to get more than enough fresh lines for days to come. That didn’t stop some from pushing with a few minor scuffles taking place. Fortunately, they finally opened the gondola and we were off to one of the best 8 days of skiing of my life.
Shark’s Fin and Monkey Trees
After we had bagged a few epic days charging the main lines of the mountain, Anees and I hiked to the summit of Apharwat to check out what the back side had to offer. This is where my friend Adam and I went the previous year to attempt a steep, tight chute that is entered on the far side of the Shark’s Fin, the next peak over (link to the other post). A short skin and boot pack brought us to the summit, about 250 meters higher than Aspectual. From the summit, we could either drop into the bowl in one of the several +45% slopes with overhanging cornices. Or we could ski the back side in a wide-open powder field that would have been quite tempting if it were not for the Pakistan Army Base at the bottom. While all of Kashmir is contested between India and Pakistan (and Kashmir by the local rebels), the army base signified that this was most definitely in Pakistan. So, we opted to take the bowl.
While we were contemplating this matter on the 4250-meter summit, Anees spotted some fresh tracks in the snow. Upon closer review, he got excited and jumped up to see if the animal was still within sight. He then explained that these were tracks of the famous and near-extinct Himalayan Snow Leopard. In the previous winter, a video from some skiers at Gulmarg went viral when a Snow Leopard jumped out of hiding in the snow they were skiing through. While we didn’t end up seeing the creature, it was still very cool to see the tracks and impressive considering how high we were and how treacherous the precipice we were standing on.
We decided to pass the big open lines heading down directly from the summit to attempt the same line that Adam and I tried the year before. With all of the fresh snow, the line looked much different and more inviting than it had previously. It was still quite steep and narrow. When I finally dropped in, I was noticeably nervous. However, once I hop turned through the crux of the chute, my confidence surged and I began opening up my turns and picking up speed. Once out of the chute, the flat light made features in the snow indistinguishable and a wave of vertigo hit me. Content that I made it down the chute, I gleefully face-planted in the snow to stop my momentum. I waited for Anees to follow me down.
Over the next few days, we continued to explore the mountain. In the process, we befriended some of the other adventurers who were sharing this phenomenal experience. I met a fellow American who was a director in Los Angeles. He would later come visit in Whistler and we skied together in Mammoth in mid-July the following summer (link to Cali Summer). I also met a group of girls (and a guy) from various parts of the world who were documenting their trip for their blog ‘seekingadventurefindingbalance.com’. It was with this group that I hung out with when the second storm came.
Storm Round 1
This storm was the first time in the 4 weeks combined with the previous year that I actually experienced significant snow falling while I was at Gulmarg. Both gondolas were shut down for 2 days. On the second day, I joined my new friends to ski the monkey trees. This is a large forest that starts in the village of Gulmarg at 2500 meters and continues all the way down to the village of Tangmarg where the road up to Gulmarg begins. Typically, the forest is full of monkeys swinging from the trees, hence the name Monkey Trees. While I did not see any monkeys, there was a ton of fresh snow to play around in. We took multiple short laps followed by a skin back to the top of the forest. On our last run, we came across a local guide who had been searching for his ski for a while. , the 4 of us assisted in the search. After more than half an hour of looking, we gave up realizing that the ski would not likely be found until the spring. We continued further down for our last run and eventually ended up on the road. We waited on the road hoping that a taxi or at least a car would come by and pick us up. In the end, only a pack of stray dogs came to our aid so we decided to ski back up to the village.
Storm Round 2
On the third day after the storm, we were once again in line with a rabid bunch of skier’s eager to board Phase 2 gondola. With 70cm of fresh snow, on top of the 225cm that had fallen the week before, as well as a bluebird sky, everyone knew we were in for something special. Since this was my last day before flying back to Hong Kong, I was ready to let it all out. We were on the 5th car of the gondola and from there the chase to powder glory had begun. The avalanche report was surprisingly optimistic considering how much snow had fallen. We learned from Luke who was in charge of avalanche safety that the type of snow and the minimal wind had resulted in a strong bond between layers of snow. With the green light to charge most lines on the mountain, Anees and I disembarked the gondola at the top and proceeded to charge without hesitation.
Most of the video below tells the story of our last day at Gulmarg. The accompanying chart outlines the details. We rode Phase 2 gondola 11 times. Considering I popped out of my ski on a cliff drop and spent over 30 minutes searching in the deep snow for it, this total was commendable (the ski was waiting for me at the bottom of the hill where it had traveled to when I popped out of it). We hit lines that we had been scoping out for the previous week but did not think was ridable. We dropped cliffs wherever they popped up. We charged a chute that was over 50% angle. At the end of the day, we were in the last car of the gondola. From there, we hiked to the summit of Apharwat with a group of Swiss and French snowboarders and skied down into the sunset. It was a fitting end to one of the best ski trips I’ve ever been on, culminating in perhaps the best day I’ve ever had on 2 planks.