Monday, 28 December 2009

Skiing in Gulmarg with a local girl

Gulmarg has earned the distinction of being the best ski resort in Asia, not to mention home to the highest ski slopes in the world

I plug in my ipod, check the tension on my skis and look around. We're skiing in Gulmarg and I see John Falkner standing by the gondola at 15,000 feet in masterful yoga stretch. To me John is God of the slopes, a veteran and regular on the soaring Apharwat peaks of Kashmir. Like me, he visits annually with his group of ski-crazy friends and advanced European skiers. A quick nod of approval from him, a short prayer, and I'm ripping down 13,000 feet of powder off the world's highest slope for the first time. Everything in front of me is white and I see kilometers of snow, glistening like diamonds, waiting to be kicked up like dust as my skis fly over.
Skiing in powder is the ultimate ski experience. The feeling of lightness, ease, and grace is incomparable. But the first time you venture into powder you may feel more like a fly in a spider's web than a bird on the wing.

Luckily learning how to ski on Gulmarg's well groomed slopes is easy.
Skiing was first introduced in these parts by two British Army officers who established the first ski club here in 1927. But it wasn’t until five or six years ago when Gulmarg's name first started to appear on the ski cognoscenti's hotlist.
Gulmarg is a small hill village situated in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir at the western extremity of the Himalayas in a mountain range called the Pir Panjals. Its name when translated means "meadow of flowers." It's 35 miles from Srinagar, the state capital and would, on a good day, take you about an hour and a half to drive up.

Skiing in powder, I think, is the ultimate ski experience.
— Zainab Nedou

I learnt how to ski in Gulmarg and then skied in different parts of the world but there's a special connect that forms between you and the mountains of Gulmarg that makes me want to run back every year. Probably because I'm Kashmiri. Or maybe it's because the slopes here are so perfect. In Gulmarg, with the use of snow-grooming equipment, a skier can learn to ski, and become quite proficient. There are well groomed slopes for beginners and intermediates. After you have mastered those you can easily move to what is locally known as the first phase of "The Gondola" -- a medium-to-intermediate run of approximately 2.5 kilometres of groomed piste.

Ski snobs love it because Gulmarg gets some of the heaviest snowfalls in the Himalayas. The high altitude snow remains cold, crisp and light for days on end. The snow cycle is unusually regular, often snowing every seven days for two to three days delivering over a meter of fresh powder at a time. The steep powder bowls stretch across the range, offering 1,000 meter vertical runs, not to mention skiing off the highest gondola in the world at nearly 4,000 meters altitude. There are even some 'super steeps' here, up to 65 degrees, to really get the endorphins flowing.

The diversity of skiing in Gulmarg means that you can experience what you want, when you want. Extreme backcountry, off-piste, on-piste, the highest gondola in the world or even resort skiing; take your pick. If company is a concern know that you’ll be skiing and boarding with professionals who know their playground (read: internationally qualified ski guides and mountaineers) and even trained Kashmiri locals. If first aid is what you're worried about, doctors and ski patrol personnel are always around. The medical staff even have snow mobiles for medical emergencies.
You'd be crazy not to be inspired by the raw beauty of Kashmir, the relentless pursuit of adventure, the thrill of slashing through untracked snow and the exhilaration of dropping into effortless runs, followed by a hot meaty meal, a warm brandy and a feather pillow.

The added advantage with skiing in Gulmarg is that it offers reasonably priced boarding and lodging and brand new equipment to hire for a ski holiday that won’t break the bank.

The Nedou’s Hotel, for example, is run like an old British lodge. The Lounge there, with the biggest wood stove in the valley, is lively till the wee hours of the morning with people nursing their drinks and discussing their day. Skiing in Gulmarg is definitely a place to make friends that last.


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