Friday, 15 January 2010

First clients for Sunstone at Gulmarg Ski Resort, Kashmir for 2010

A good pick up from the airport in the lush ‘scorpio’ with super driver Manzoor at the helm and we scooped team Sissons - father and son duo who were venturing not just to India for their first time but Kashmir. After a quick stop to Dal Gate to pick up a few boxes of Kingfisher Premium beer and some cash from the ATM we headed o Gulmarg passing the villages with classic driving antics that were certainly an eye-opener for the newly initiated! We checked the boys into Sahara Hotel and ordered a feast of full tandori chicken, sheesh kebabs, tomato paneer, rice, chapatis and washed down with traditional Kawa and sharing a cheeky beer to finish.

We headed over to Gulmarg Powder Guides to sort out rental skis, poles, transceivers, probes and shovels from the ever helpful Rashid. Dark was upon us and an atmospheric power cut ushered the boys back from the market to the legendary cosy Bakshi’s restaurant for a pre-brief of Gulmarg Ski Resort and a look at the trail map that was on the sunstone laptop. A few beers later and Terry was off to hit the hay having travelled from Wellington in New Zealand, Sam and I old school friends, of course had a few more beers as we chatted with a few of the local westerners who were here for the season – Roland, Kerry, Toby, Cindy and Kat. It was soon bed time and great to have the first clients arrive with no delays or hiccups – sweet as!

Day 1of skiing and I picked up the guys from Sahara meeting Mustaq, our Kashmiri ski guide and legend ski racer having won the Gulmarg top-to- bottom ski race in 2009. What a time he nailed it in – 6 minutes 26 seconds from top of the Gomdola (3950m) down to Pine Palace Hotel (2600m) in variable conditions to win the race and be crowned ski champion of Gulmarg! We walked the 15 minutes to the gondola and headed up to ‘Kongdoor’ mid station to get the guys briefed on avalanche safety and have a practice with the avalanche transceivers finding a buried transceiver and practicing with our shovels and probes. All went well with the guys getting the hang of it very quickly and Sam even finding a transceiver on our last practice in 29 seconds – a superb effort.

It was time to head up the gondola and have a run down the main bowl. Mustaq & Terry hit the chopped up powder while Sam and I carved turns on the chalky gun barrel carving and getting some nice pockets of windblown. A quick rest and up for another ski on the top ridgeline skiers right, with Mustaq & Sam heading down to hit the sheltered, deeper snow in Mary’s shoulder and Terry and I hitting the lovely wind lip in half bowl. We had some lush pow turns, as not too many people had been down there, particularly because it runs out of snow and the option skiers left is bush waking but we headed down a small steep colouir and out right bush waking into bowl 2 which led us to the traverse around to the teahouse to meet the guys for lunch in the sun! The Kiwi boys got stuck into Chicken Biriyani, Chicken curry and parathas washed down with Kashmiri Kawa. We cruised down the 1st phase in the lovely forest and cruised back to Sahara Hotel. A great day to ease the boys in. In a few days once they’ve acclimatised we’ll grab the fatter skis with Alpine Touring bindings set-up & skins and head out for some adventuring into the backcountry – good times!

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

High End Rescue at Gulmarg Ski Resort and a trip down to Srinagar

Well no more snow since arriving at Gulmarg and with lots of solar about there’s definitely a few rocks poking around especially on the exposed ridges. There are still lines to be found for the adventurous on the north-facing aspects and especially where snow is sheltered and kept cold by the tree line. It’s a super cool crew of old and new faces in Gulmarg and everyone is using the time to hone up on essential avalanche transceiver skills and techniques, trying other snow disciplines and partying it up with DJ Alex throwing 3 great parties (including a Russian Christmas Party) where the house definitely ‘went off’.

Brian Newman, Gulmarg’s Avalanche Forecaster runs an avalanche class every Tuesday from 7pm at The Pine Palace Hotel which is both a theoretical look at avalanche risk and some excellent practical insights into the huge terrain offering that is Gulmarg. Already we have had some incidents at Gulmarg including a Russian women fracturing both legs about 8 bowls skiers right of Mt.Apharwat in the ‘Drung Bowls’ that lead you down to the village of Drung in an amazing 20 something kilometer ski and over 2000m vertical. The alert was raised around 8.30pm and she was located at 10pm with an amazing effort of some 30 ski patrol and gondola workers it took 6 hours to retrieve and a successful rescue was made. In appreciation we all donated a bunch of rupees towards the guys who put on an amazing effort – government workers (Gulmarg Tourist & Development Board) who don’t get paid over-time let alone double time and still had to work the next day unlike other western resorts in which a day off in lieu would certainly be mandatory. A Big thanks goes out to this superhuman effort. We all signed a t-shirt for the women who is recovering in Srinagar hospital and our positive thoughts go out to her for a speedy recovery.

A fellow kiwi Kerry and I headed down to Srinagar on the local bus which was 15 rupees from Gulmarg to Tangmarg (the village below Gulmarg) and a further 18 rupees to Srinagar which is great value for a 2 hour ride mixing it up with the locals! We were heading to a houseboat and wanted to give the body a little break from riding and soak up some of the exotic local culture that is Kashmir. We headed to Cafe Arabica (in front of Grand Mumtaz Hotel) for a latte and some pizza. A bit of a treat as a little expensiony coffee was 65 rupes and pizza started from 200 rupes but not a bad pizza on my ‘Indian Pizza Scale’ NOT my ‘World Pizza Scale’ probably a 7/10 as it was from the wood oven.

With full bellies we headed to Lal Chowk where there was a bit of ‘action’ a couple of days earlier where 2 militants had been gunned down after being holed up in a hotel – the Indian Army taking care of business so we were a little cautious but this is not particularly unusual for Srinagar. When accessing Gulmarg Ski Resort it is relatively safe as the route from the airport to Gulmarg skirts the outside of the city and has Indian Army lining the road all the way up – which of course they have foreign & Indian tourists within their interest to protect. As we came across the bridge walking towards Dal Gate there was a heavy police presence and the shops in the outer market roadside seemed to be closed which was odd, it not being a Friday (a day of worship). We peered into the market and saw a barrage of rocks and stones being hurled at the police by locals. Apparently a local boy had been killed by the police and a 3 day strike ensued in protest of the police barricade intimidating the local community. Well the first bit of action I had seen, so it was head down and around the corner to Dal Lake. We had a good wander down the shores being badgered for Shikara rides and had arranged to meet Gulum our houseboat host. We met Gulum who is a lovely laid back local from Srinagar and is helper shokot who paddles us over to the ‘Highland Queen’ houseboat which would be our abode for the evening. We had the customary Kashmiri Kawa tea (made with saffron) and biscuits as we took on the locals paddling past in Shikaras and smaller vessels coming and going as the sunset. As it cooled with the departure of the sun we headed inside to the beautiful living room which was rather like being in your posh grandma’s house with chandeliers, intricate wood panelling, carved tables, exquisite couches and chairs set on the finest Kashmiri carpets. We sat down to roast chicken, potatoes, carrots and green beans – wow just fantastic with a fruit custard dessert a welcome change to curry. We planned an early morning rise to visit the legendary ‘floating vegetable market’ which kicks off at first light. We snuggles up in a bed fit for a king with a hottie (hot waterbottle) into dreamland.

We awoke to masala chai and headed out on the shikara at 7am, wrapped up in our down jackets, covered with a warm blanket, more hot tea and sharing the ‘winter wife’ – a flax made bucket that holds hot coals taken from a fire that the Kashmiri men place under their pharans to keep warm. We paddled through the frozen lake wonderland as it came to life arriving at the site of the trading. Probably over 100 small vessels were pulled up and the vegetable haggling, bartering and selling began in what is probably one of the more unusual markets in the world. The vegetables were all types of carrots, haq & palak (types of Kashmiri spinach), onions, potatoes and so on. We also had a little brekkie snack of Kashmiri bread with a lovely (not too sweet) sugary coating which was delicious. 200 photos later and with the sun coming up over the lowland Himalayan hills we paddled back for breakfast via the local bakery. The sun hit the frosted snowy Lakeland creating beautiful crystal reflections in the water – a photographers dream! We were again treated to great food -omelettes and Kashmiri bread washed down with Kashmiri kawa tea. After good conversation we left Gullum and hiked up the opposite hillside to the Shankaracharya Temple. You can’t take mobiles or cameras in due to security and unfortunately it has a military base surrounding the beautiful Hindu temple. 243 steps up and down was good cross training for skiing that’s for sure! Great views over Dal Lake really put the huge body of water into perspective and I started to hatch a plan of a lake circumnavigation! A mission for another time.

Some beer shopping (it’s located about 200m after Dal Gate opposite the lake front on the left side of a group of a shop front complex) and it was time to track down some Momos at Ying Yang restaurant (near Cafe Arabica towards the market before the bridge on the left). Awesome Momos made by the Nepalese crew and it was another mad tuk tuk ride to the local bus station to re-trace our steps back up to Gulmarg watching village life from the bus and arriving back to our peaceful little haven.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Journey to Gulmarg Ski Resort, Kashmir, India

Edinburgh – London – Delhi.

After an overnight stop in Delhi it was great to pick up some last minute things before flying the 1 hour 20 minutes to Srinagar in Kashmir, India to make my way to legendary ski resort of Gulmarg! I always stay in the Main Bazaar of Parha Ganj in Delhi as its good value, a well placed location for connecting and there is always something to see. A pomegranate & orange juice followed by a superb masala dosa and a full head shave was just what the doctor ordered. The main bazaar is a hectic backpackers spot but always full of action and interest with storage facilities, cheap shopping, some great local food haunts and some nice places for a quiet beer!
I arrived in Srinagar airport and travelled up to Gulmarg ski resort in good time (2 hours) as there was not too much snow about on the roads. Passing villages with people going about their day-to-day business, shopping, playing cricket, building and travelling in all sorts of vehicles from large jeeps, trucks, buses and even by horse & cart – a step back in time. We wind our way up past the village of Tangmarg on the Gulmarg road through the beautiful forest and finally pull into the valley arriving at the legendary Bakshi’s restaurant at Gulmarg ski resort. Gulmarg literally means valley of flowers and in summer is a riot of colour in which the Indian middle class come to retreat, play golf and take in the spectacular views from the gondola and around. This is how the ski resort has developed on the back of this summer retreat and with the extension of the gondola from 3000m to the top elevation of 3950m. it has opened up access to some 20 huge bowls across the Pir Panjal range offering some of the best steep, powder skiing in the world off the highest ski lift in the world.
A warm welcome from all the boys at Bakshi’s restaurant on my return and it’s a traditional cawa Kashmiri tea to settle in. I unpack and come down for dinner feasting on their signature dish - Afghani chicken with potatoes and green salad. Reports were that snow was needed and waking up the next morning it started dumping. Sunstone had bought the snow – but to be honest for a resort that gets over 20 meters of snow per year – odds are fairly good that snow is never far away! The Gondola was closed with white-out conditions and it was a good day to get my bearings again, sorting my room out (above the ski shop again) getting my gear ready for some fresh powder tomorrow – yee haa! We walk over to Pine Palace Hotel and say hello to the staff there and Brian & Tim who are snow safety this year. Brian returns for his 3rd season and has been a real asset to Gulmarg Ski Resort putting in sound processes and safety procedures with a remit of training & developing the Gulmarg ski patrol. Some tea, coffee and ice cream hanging out with Tara (Canadian), Momo (French) and Cindy (Indian snowboard instructor from Manali) while we watched the snow continuing to fall and build to 15cm at 2600m. It must be getting twice that up top at 3000-4000m, morning would soon tell!
I awake the next morning to a beautiful sunny day and looking forward to some freshies. We take the gondola up to the mid station and Brian is heading up to the top to perform the safety control work as there is certainly potential for slides with new snow on a firmer base. We decide to skin up Mary’s shoulder to get some exercise start the acclimatisation process. The sun streams through the trees hitting the beautiful snow glistening and sparkling in a thermonuclear explosion. Yanik, Tara, frank and I arrive just above the trees, gear up and head down in some sweet deep powder – 30-40cms. A two minute ride I score 5 face shots and get the heavenly floating powder feeling again – welcome back!
The top is now open so we take the Gondola to the top station at 3950m and skin up to Apharwat summit at 4200m. A glorious day with a huge cloud inversion offers stunning views of Nanga Parbat – just spectacular. We head out far across skiers left in between bowls four and five to the ‘singing trees’ where we score some deep deep powder, silky sugary light pow in which we sink into the layer before the snowfall which gives a depth of at least 50-60cms and I’m back in the sublime! We ski a 1500m vertical line and with only 2 runs for the day taking close on 6 hours is evidence of the huge vertical that Gulmarg offers. What a big day for my first so it’s back to base and a solid dose of Ibuprofen , a long hour stretch for the calf muscles and a hot shower before some more Afghani chicken to celebrate the first day skiing. I bump into an old ski friend - Roland from my home ski field of Criagieburn in New Zealand – gotta love the worldwide ski bum community! We have a couple of beers catching up and then play the crazy card game ‘spoons’ which is a little like musical chairs but played with dessert spoons spread across a table in which there is one less than the card players. Whoever feels to grab a spoon loses the round. This sees me dive across a table and then upside down curve under it smashing into a Finnish guy to snaggle the last one but unfortunately the Finnish guy falls back on his chair in the fraca breaking a chair in the process – doh. 500 rupees between us all as it was a combination of about 10 people in a huge ruck! Fortunately I didn’t lose but Toby a Londoner (now claiming to be a kiwi as he’s living in Ruapehu) spelt out the word ‘club’ after losing 4 rounds and has to dance like a ‘night clubber’ for one minute - which is a long time in front of a packed restaurant with no music – good times - Gulmarg style.