Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Skinning out to ‘Great White’ in Gulmarg, Kashmir

With a beautiful weather window in Gulmarg, Kashmir after 60-70cms of snow there were some tired bodies but some great weather to again get motivated for. After peeps rested a day or two it was time to make the most of the gorgeous sunny weather and great snow above 3000m. The kiwi boys were keen to head out past the ‘Shark’s Fin’ and hit a beautiful summit called ‘Big White’ following the sharky references. We headed up the gomdola and started skinning from behind G4 heading across the slope cutting off the Apherwat summit aiming directly for the ‘Great White’ summit! We headed out into the beautiful back bowl amongst huge puffy cumulus clouds looking over to Sunshine Peak. We stopped at a beautiful quartzite rock and stripped off the shirts and did a little sunbathing as it was beautifully still and warm even up at over 4000m. Pressing on we zigged and zagged our way up reaching the ‘Great White’ summit and checking out the lush powder holding onto the 40-45 degree slope below.

Once the group had gathered, a small chai stop and we geared on up. I decided to line up a perfectly formed ledge on the cornice bordering the whole slope and huck my meat. Especially as the snowpack had been stable for some time! I lined it up and cruised down the ridge line with anticipation of a nice air into a beautiful open bowl. I swung left and hit the launch pad and actually find the lip boasting me more than I thought as I fly through the air the slope keeps dropping away as my air time is extended! Unfortunately I get aways back and hit it like a bombshell. Of course hucking your carcass off a cornice in the backcountry must be done when the snowpack is stable which it was and after bombing my full weight into it evidenced this. I bounce back up and get into my turns slashing the ridge in the deep 50-60cms of sweet sweet pow, cutting under the ridge and heading down into the flat of the bowl. Now it was Ted’s turn who hurtles into the bowl skier’s right of the summit and straight lines hitting a small cliff, launching & landing, hitting big GS turns on the way out – sweet line. Scotty decided to run it through the middle of 2 rock lines in which it steepens, he drops it and slashes the ridge below soaking up the good times. Kerry was next and we directed him by radio to ski the line skier’s left of me as it was a beautiful fall line that looked nicely loaded with the sick stuff. He dropped in at the small point of the cornice traversing across a little to hit the planned fall line cruisng big laid back turns into the bowl to oomplete 4 epic lines!

We headed across the flats swinging skier’s right to cut across the low col at the end of the Shark’s Fin bowl aiming to return to the ridge where bowl 5 is and return to Gulmarg. Skiing down in the setting sun we arrived at Hill Top restaurant for burgers and coke - what a great day touring out back and scoring the goods!

Friday, 19 February 2010

3 days of epic powder at Gulmarg, Kashmir!

After snowing for nearly 2 weeks I was seriously starting to lack vitamin D and needed a sound dosing of sunshine! The Gulmarg snow safety team planned to get an early start and avalanche control work underway in the morning, but as per usual it was contingent on the military delivering the explosives. They arrived late and bombing didn’t start until late morning and after some waiting we finally got the green light at 2.30pm as the sun was shining. As a season’s pass holder I was lucky to be able to go straight to the front after a lie in, and skinning up monkey hill from the police station it was poised to go off. The first gondola delivered us to nearly 4000m and we could see the acres of fresh light powder in the shadowy light, as it licked off from a light breeze, completely untouched and ready for us to purge. I hit the steep fall line leading me into the gun barrel and it was deep 60-70cms of pure smoke – the lightest powder we’ve had this season! What a run and with closing time normally 3pm the Gulmarg snow safety team did a great job, with plenty of sunshine left in the day, to keep the gondola open until after 4pm. I managed to get in 2 more sweet sweet runs into 2nd bowl which were steep and deep, some of the best powder I’ve skied in my life and a just reward for putting up with power outages, no internet, blocked water pipes and backeris over 2 weeks and we finally got what we were all waiting for – Super Pow!

Day 2 I was guiding Swiss clients Jerome and Laura – ex ski instructors from Champrey and really expert skiers – the perfect clients to go rip fresh lines with. We hit the ‘Shadowlands’ nailing 4 runs before lunch, including our first run in 4th bowl completely to ourselves then onto Shaggy’s face. Shaggy’s face is named after an Australian guy ‘Shaggy’ tragically lost his life on this face in 2007 being caught in an avalanche and dieing due to trauma. It’s a steep face that gets lots of loading and gets great north-facing snow. After lunch we hit the summit, to Laura’s delight, traversing behind the ridge to 5th bowl (skier’s left) and again not too many tracks down there, skiing the bowl fall line getting it fresh. Laura and Jerome were cranking turns and for the second time Jerome, pulled a front flip within his turn (not hitting any lip) and kept on skiing – just brilliant! Down to their hotel for a well deserved beer - what an epic day!

Day 3 I went riding with the kiwi boys and skinned in behind the Apherwat summit going direct to the Shark’s Fin Col. Kerry and Scotty dropped the bowl, while Ted and I climbed to the summit and headed down the ridge to the ‘Bananna Chute’. A very steep 50-55 degrees colouir that is rock walled and needing full commitment. We had a great ski and skinned up to the ridge making our way over to 6th bowl (skier’s left). We climbed through the rocks to access a chute in between 5th & 6th that leads back into 5th bowl and it was super light powder - again. We traversed across skier’s left getting absolutely primo and just let it rip all the way down into the forest coming out above the High Altitiude Warfare School, where they had set up camp with igloos, little pine huts and snow made pot plants. Gulmarg always seems to come up with little surprises!

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Tragedy strikes with huge avalanche and a visit from Kiwi High Commissioner to India

After a huge snowfall of over 4 meters on the top of the gondola in Gulmarg snow conditions were treacherous. During the storm a group of soldiers from the High Altitude Warfare school ventured into exposed terrain on an exercise. A large avalanche came down and buried some 35 soldiers and 21 were not able to be revived resulting in fatalaties. Our thoughts and condolences go out to the family and friends of these tragically lost lives.

The storm kept raging and as a result the very weak layer described as ‘ball bearings’ was crushed by the heavy snow fall, which for powder hounds was a great result to have the deathly weak layer removed. After a very cold night the snow lightened and we hit the ‘Baba Reshi Temple’ run for a couple of days spinning loops being picked up by Jeep while we waited for snow control to take place and the 2nd phase of the gondola to open. This is a great ‘storm skiing’ or ‘gondola closed’ option as it provides some 1000m vertical of 40-45 degrees if you take the right guide to show you the right lines. It was great smashing the powder mushrooms and cream caked rocks, trees and logs making for some extreme powder jibbing and road jumps! Quite a unique environ and very different than skiing my home field of Craigieburn in New Zealand. Kerry, a fellow Kiwi couldn’t stop saying ‘champagne, it’s bloody champagne mate’ which is often what the Himalayas provides, the cold and altitude often retain or create very dry snow conditions!

We were privileged to have a visit from the New Zealand High Commissioner to India – Rupert Holborow, his wife Polly and 2 children. Rupert has been instrumental in helping Billa Bakshi (ski guide extraordinaire from Gulmarg) to bring a container of donated skis for the New Zealand Ski Club of Kashmir providing equipment for local Gulmarg kids. Often Kashmir has a reputation of a slightly edgy place to travel to and it was a great testament to have the High Commissioner visit showing that Gulmarg is a safe place to travel, although caution in Srinagar should be taken. This is a big step in the development of Gulmarg as a world class ski destination, the snow is some of the best in the world and now if we can look to improve facilities and infrastructure it is a very positive outlook going forward.
The opening of the 2nd phase was keenly awaited and when the floodgates opened riders took full advantage of the main bowl. Slightly wind consolidated and sporting huge cornice s on the ridge again, you always have to play it safe in Gulmarg and ‘ratchet it down’ a level! Although the north and north-east faces were to be wary of the south faces were lovely skiing and consolidation meant for safer riding. More snow in the late afternoon – does this place ever stop snowing!

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

A 400m ride of my life in an avalanche in Gulmarg Ski Resort, Kashmir

With more snow falling on a very sugary layer of snow, conditions have turned lethal in Gulmarg Ski Resort, Kashmir. The layer is sitting on what could be described as ball bearings and is creating a layer of friction that is setting off slides on all aspects. Gulmarg ski patrol kept the field closed for 2 days, and rightly so, after the storm performing essential avalanche control work ensuring the main bowl was safe for snow riders.

I was guiding 3 clients - ‘The Love Party’ when we decided to score some cheeky turns above 1st bowl skiers right which was advised as considerable risk in the backcountry. I could see 5 tracks that h and been made in this area and then the skiers had traversed back – still room for a few and to bug out back into the controlled area of the main bowl. We headed in and I stopped skier’s right close to the ridge anticipating to traverse back before the bowl steepened into the critical 35 degree + zone. Rich was loving the sweet 40-50cms of fresh powder as we all were hitting the wind lip and carving it up. He’d already been nicknamed ‘The Loneranger’ as he’d strayed a couple of times, but nothing serious and this time he kept going further near to the entry into the guts of the chute. I thought to myself ‘bugger we’ve gone too low and this feels sketchy’ and headed towards him going far lower than initially planned to start a traverse out and get the hell outta there. The 3 clients Jules, Rich and Michele were at a safe point so I started to traverse, as we were going to go one-by-one. The next I knew the slope cracked in front of me and before I could do anything, I shouted ‘Avalanche’ I was accelerating down a narrow couloir being tossed and turned upside down and feeling that drowning feeling I’d felt twice some years before.

The weight and strain of the snow was draining as I struggled underneath the snow fighting with my arms and every ounce of strength I had, I felt like giving up but thought ‘you either fight to get on top or you’re a gonna’! The Taylor omelette with 2 pouched eggs on top for breakfast gave me the energy to really fight but suddenly I was accelerating and must have reached between 50-60kms per hour (observed as one of my skis flinged meters into the air) it became a blur of blackness and suffocation, ‘must kept fighting’ I thought but at this stage with the gaining speed I thought I was toast, the speed just kept on increasing. I kept fighting and struggling thrashing my arms and suddenly after the 30 second ride I slowed up with the weighty snow compating around me and with my head coming to a rest just out of the snow as I was buried horizontally. I gasped for air and realised I’d come to a stop finally which seemed like an eternity. I gained my breath as my heart tried to burst out of my chest and struggled to raise my hand out of the snow to signal to my clients. Rich was on the scene within about seconds it seemed and pulled me out – good job he had gone straight for a visual search and had spotted me very quickly. I was 2 skis and I pole less so if anyone finds some K2 King Fujas with Craigieburn and Sunstone stickers on them please let me know. I couldn’t care less about the skis – that's what insurance is for right? I was a live and had a real close call - life had flashed past me but I had grabbed it and had the survival instinct to not give up but to fight to the end - but I had got lucky as I had just missed rocks on both sides of the narrow choker in the couloir travelling at speed and walked away with no injuries!

My 3rd avalanche in my ski career one at Craigieburn, Chamonix and now Gulmarg. I was thankful that the clients had taken on board the Sunstone avalanche training at the start of their 10 days and were already experienced backcountry riders. A very slick response indeed. We made our way back to the main bowl as I shared a ski with Jules to get across the exposed slope as quick as possible to avoid further risk. I had ended up 400m down 1st bowl near the very dangerous ‘Shaggy’s Face’ so named because ‘Shaggy ‘ an Aussie guy was taken by a large avalanche back in 2007 and had tragically passed away.

This is a real reminder to take maximum care and precautions when approaching backcountry terrain. In hindsight it was never my intention to ski this slope but putting turns above it and putting ourselves in that situation, in hindsight, was risky and we should have avoided this area altogether. As the saying goes ‘the last powder turns are often the best’. Fortunately I’ve still got loads more to come!