Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Sunshine Peak area backcountry tour culminates 2 epic days of light powder in Gulmarg, Kashmir

Another lovely 50cm snowfall came and produced surprisingly light powder for March. The freezing level dropped further than the forecast predicted and we were in business. A 5 day sunny period of high pressure allowed us to let loose hitting the cornices, bowls, banks and colouirs with reckless abandon. I was astonished when I joined a group of 3 to make the queue a total of 4 for the 2nd phase to open – it really is worth coming to Gulmarg in March with phat amounts of snow base and just a handful of skiers and riders. The gondola guy reckoned there was a count of 18 and our group of 4 riders struggled to see any skiers on the hill, although there was still lots if Indian tourists milling around the mid station and teahouses!

The second day of bluebird was the opportunity I’d been waiting for to branch out and get over to the legendary ‘Sunshine Peak’ area. Most people camp out overnight or iniaite a very early start (staying in G4 etc) but we reckoned we could get over there and back, knowing it would be a late one but with superb weather, lots of snacks, water, extra gear ie headtorches and down jackets (just in case) we set off from G4 at 10.30 (about as fast as we could get to the top and ‘get on the road’).
What an incredible day, we headed across the ridge and dropped into the south-facing bowls (warming up so some Avi risk here) where some snow had already released in slides so we chose a path that had already gone to be on the safe side! We accessed a ridge that would take us to a large bowl system right of the large jagged black pyramidal peak of ‘Sunset Peak’. The ridge was a lovely consistent 25 -28 degrees pitch pretty much all the way up and after 3 hours of skinning we gained some serious vertical. The US boys (Matt, Wes and Lee) were heading out to camp for 3 or so nights and it was nice to share the breaking of trail when they finally caught us up.

We broke for a quick 15 minute lunch as we were conscious of our time, as the slope we had come down to access the ridge was fairly large and I reckoned Mika and I would have a good 2- 2.5 hour skin back after our ski – depending where we decided to drop in. With time ticking we decided not to go all the way to the peak but take a lovely safe, mellow 25 degree line on the north face into the bowl which proved to be absolute perfect cruisey smooth, silky pow pow turns – just deluxe and understandable why Gulmarg Heliski want to access this area for their commercial operation next year. We put 2 beautiful lines down the fall line - skier and snowboarder in tandem, lapping it up making the hard work all worthwhile cruising a huge untouched bowl that had a huge build-up of snow! This led us into a drainage in which we had sussed out would bring us around to a line that we could skin back up to the Gulmarg ridge.

What a run, but time for more work again and I reckoned the 2.5 hour prediction back was still on track and then we could traverse back across to G2. If you had time you could ski down to Drang but this would make a massive outing with the snow deteriorating below 3000m vertical. The sun beat down on us but we made progress slowly and surely finally topping out on the ridge for sunset! We cut it a little short and should have skinned to the army hut but instead dropped in a bit too early to the drung bowls, I realised this and we took a high left traverse. On the way Mika pulled out a big release which to my horror, took him down 100m and as he luckily pulled up the avalanche kept going down the guts with large soft chunks of warm, spring snow, – my heart was in my mouth but he rode it out on top and was not buried, not hurt. I got down to him in seconds! This pulled him down past the ideal traverse line and with light fading we pulled out our down jackets and head torches to slog it back to the traverse out above the teahouses. By this time Mika was knackered (me too)traversing on the board was hard going so we were very happy to receive a hearty greeting by the teahouse boys (who stay over the night) normally servicing the daytrippers at the gondola mid station. They had thought we were 2 tigers with the scraping noises of the frozen crud from ski and board and were happy to see our torches, feeding us coffees, fortifying us for the night ski down the 1st phase of the gondola. I lead Mika down snow plowing with my head torch glowing as he followed using his skinning poles and we finally made it down to solid terra firma making the walk back to our respective lodges. A well-earned beer, dal and rice at 9.35pm and I crashed to bed.

What a finally to the end of the season!?!? Nah, it’s too good a snow and good weather to leave quite yet - Im hanging here for a while, get out do some more superb skinning – what a great time to be in Gulmarg with no crowds and great snow above 3000m! Rock on!

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