Skiing in Kashmir: Gulmarg resort is off-the-radar paradise of untouched slopes and breathtaking terrain

Home to one of the highest gondolas in the world, this ski resort close to the de facto border between India and Pakistan is an undiscovered gem – be sure to keep an eye out for snow leopards

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 December, 2017, 6:04pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 December, 2017, 7:50pm

“Welcome to Kashmir,” says local ski guide Anees Bhat as he greets us with a bright smile just outside the airport. Still sleepy, we have landed on the morning flight from Delhi to Srinagar, the summer capital of India’s Jammu and Kashmir state.

Better known for its political turmoil than its skiing, Kashmir has been contested since the 1940s by Pakistan and India, and the region still has a strong military presence. In fact, from July to October last year, tourism in Kashmir practically ground to a halt due to unrest, according to a government of Jammu and Kashmir report.

However, my wife Esther and I are not in Kashmir to get involved in politics. We are here to ski. Having long heard whispers of it being a secret gem, we wanted to see for ourselves what all the fuss was about.

It takes an hour and a half to get from the bustling Indian city to the sleepy resort of Gulmarg. Everywhere we look is blanketed in snow, with thick smoke billowing out of chimneys. At an elevation of 2,650 metres, located at the bottom of Mt Apharwat, the resort is very close to the Pakistani border, officially known as The Line of Control.

Gulmarg was established during the British Raj as a hill station to which British colonial administrators would flee to escape the heat of the Northern Indian plains. To promote tourism, a gondola (Phase 1) was built in 1998 to carry tourists up the 3,000-metre Kongdori peak. In 2005, a second one, Phase 2, was added, reaching 3,979.5 metres, which is very close to the top of Mt Apharwat, making it one of the highest gondolas in the world.

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The cable cars provide ample opportunity for winter sports; it is estimated that Gulmarg gets around 14 metres of snowfall a year (similar to Niseko in Japan, but significantly more than American or European ski resorts). Indeed, half a metre of fresh snowfall overnight has made the twisting final kilometres of road to our hotel difficult to pass, and our car finally grinds to halt in a heap of snow 500 metres before we reach our lodge.

As if used to this, two boys were already waiting to carry our luggage the final stretch to our room. We haven’t brought much – only the essentials, including our ski boots. The owner of the local ski rental shop is happy to help, though the equipment is a bit hit and miss, and looks more like abandoned gear, left here by other tourists. After a bit of digging, however, we find some agreeable skis and before noon we’ve hit the slopes.

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The heavy winter snowfall means Phase 2 is closed for safety reasons, so instead we focus on Phase 1, skiing through the dense pine forests around Kongdori. All the fresh powder make skiing a dream, and we enjoy run after run in the unspoilt snow.

“Gulmarg is special,” Bhat says. “It’s like helicopter skiing, but you don't need a helicopter.” In fact the Phase 2 gondola allows for so many different descents in multiple bowls that even experienced skiers could spend several weeks here without having to repeat any tracks.

Contrary to the weatherman’s forecast of clearing skies, more of the white treasure falls overnight, and the next morning cars parked outside the lodge are buried under snow. Bhat decides to show us another run – this time down to his home village of Baba Rishi. Steep slopes in the forest make this a challenging but very rewarding ride.

“Make sure you don’t fall and lose the skis,” says Esther. She’s only teasing, but neither of us likes the idea of searching for equipment under this thick abundance of white.

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That day we don’t come across any ski tracks from other tourists; in fact the only tracks we spot are those of snow leopards, which still roam these forests. Sadly we weren’t as lucky as the group of tourists who found one of the elusive cats blocking their path when skiing here last year.

“Let’s drink one more kahwa before we do our last run,” suggests Bhat, when we stop to rest. Hospitality is a trademark of the region and, exhausted, we happily follow him to a small cafe where local men are chatting all around us. Kahwa is a local tea infused with a range of spices, including cinnamon and cardamom, and served with a touch of saffron and a garnish of chopped almonds. It’s delicious, although sometimes very sweet.

Wherever we go, the Kashmiris are curious, open hearted and helpful, even if timing is not always precise here; five minutes can turn into half an hour and waiting hungrily for food in the local restaurants can quickly become a game of patience.

Gulmarg doesn’t only draw in-the-know skiers from abroad; it also forms the nucleus for skiing in India. Arif Khan, 26, grew up next to the slopes and became a professional skier when he was 20. “Having grown up so close to the border, I always wanted to ski in Pakistan; we are the same people,” he tells us. “Now, my next goal is to compete for India in the [Winter] Olympics next year.”

The big upper slopes of Mt Apharwat are Gulmarg’s crown jewels, and enough to make any experienced skier’s heart pound. Twelve years ago, a ski patrol was established to monitor the safety of the ski resort, in particular control of the avalanche dangers posed by the snow chutes high up on Mt Apharwat.

Local patrol members are hired to keep an eye out for potential dangers. One of them tells us they have just finished teaching the first avalanche safety course for local instructors.

When a local guide died in an avalanche three years ago, professional support was brought in. Luke Smithwick, an American mountain guide and avalanche expert, is now in charge of the ski patrol and safety management.

“It's a unique situation here, skiing at high altitude with lots of snow,” says Smithwick. “We assess the avalanche situation every day. In the US, we would just shoot up projectiles to trigger controlled avalanches to make the area safer. However, being so close to the Pakistani border that would probably not be a smart idea. So we go up and ski to requested points to bomb the avalanches with explosive devices.”

As the clouds part on our last day and finally the whole expanse of the mountain becomes visible, we hear the faint “boom” of avalanche control work being undertaken. It takes a few hours for the slopes to be safe enough to be opened for skiers – too late for us, as we need to head back to the airport to catch our flight to Hong Kong.

We cannot leave, however, without taking a peek at the top of the Phase 2 lift. As we glide up in the gondola the whole panorama of the Himalayas is beginning to open up. Like a sleeping giant, Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth highest mountain, dominates the skyline above the clouds.

“On a really clear day you can even see K2,” says Bhat. “And over there, in the west, there is Pakistan. Next time we take the skis and venture all the way.”

Yes, next time, we agree. We can’t wait to return and explore more of this snowy paradise.

Getting there:

There are daily flights from Hong Kong to Delhi with Cathay Pacific and Air India and several daily local connecting flights to Srinagar.

Lift passes are very reasonable priced at 1,150 rupees (US$18) per day for Phase 1 or 1,800 rupees for Phase 2.

When to go:

The best time to visit is from January to the end of March, when snow conditions are the best. January and February are the busiest months, though even then only a few hundred foreigners visit, according to Smithwick. In March, numbers drop significantly.

Where to stay:

There are local hotels in a wide range of price categories. Highland Park (+91 1954 254 491) is one of the longest running and its bar serves alcohol.