Words: Paul Lalley Founder & Rider
Photo: Paul Lalley
Gulmarg is located in Northern India, at the foot of the Himalayan mountain range.
The only backcountry ski area in the region with a moderate level of infrastructure, which is fantastic considering Gulmarg is situated in the far north of India in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. It’s also home to the world’s highest winter sports gondola, dropping people at an elevation of 3,950m, just beneath the summit of Mt. Apharwat at 4,390m. This unique setup allows easy access to a 6km ridge line where numerous couloirs plunge into the alpine zone down to 3,275m. For some, splitboard excursions are the order of the day, opening up endless backcountry terrain all accessible from the top of the gondola. The summit of Mt. Apharwat is only 30min skin away and, for the adventurous, the nirvana of Gulmarg’s deeper backcountry terrain another 90 minutes further, making the terrain quite accessible for numerous day trip itineraries.
Once the Gondola opens for business, your options in Gulmarg are virtually limitless. A day trip can take you on a 2km run all the way down to the local Drung village, or you can earn bragging rights by conquering the infamous shark’s fin, an epic 50-degree face of a ridge line that continues off the back of Mt. Apharwat. When the storms hit and the gondola is shut, it’s time for some jaw-dropping tree riding through century-old pine trees down to the ancient Baba Reshi shrine, or sampling Monkey Hill.
Lower down at 3,275m, the groomed trails either make a good warmup to the day, or an effortless cruise back to the hotel in the late afternoon. That is, as effortless as it can be after 6-8 hours of skinning and powder-surfing knee deep powder.
As I write this, Gulmarg is receiving its earliest consistent snowfall in 8 years and this winter is shaping up to be an epic season. Gulmarg receives 10 to 12 meters of snowfall each winter, with early-January to mid-March being the ideal period for visiting. The local hotels are authentic and comfortable, with standards ranging from the equivalent of ski lodges, to backpacker hostels. The Khyber Resort and Spa is the first and only five star hotel in Gulmarg and has all the international amenities and services you would expect.
Navigating all this amazing terrain is the most important consideration, however, this only becomes possible with decades of experience. The Himalayas are unlike anywhere else, particularly in Gulmarg where there is complex terrain which has, on occasion, made a grim examples of those who ride without local knowledge. To maximise your time riding, having a guide not only keeps you out of harms way, but gives you the local knowledge to ride the right terrain at the right time, taking into account the many unique factors that are present in the Himalayas. When you visit — think Everest, but dialled down a couple of notches. The bottom line is, know before you go, and don’t take unnecessary risks in the mountains.
It’s important to beware of “quasi guides” as it can be a minefield in Gulmarg, with inexperienced locals holding themselves out as qualified guides. Currently, there are only a dozen locally licensed ski guides who are active and of these, only 8 have formally accredited training with the American Avalanche Association (AAA). 8 years ago, I built a team of the most respected guides in Gulmarg, selected from among these few. Our team has been guiding since 1999 and continually receives training through the Gulmarg Avalanche Centre, foreign experts, and members of Gulmarg’s fully ticketed (AAA) ski patrol team. Gulmarg’s ski patrol team has a decade of experience in conducting avalanche control work, rescues and medical evacuations.
After almost a decade of riding this terrain, I have seen seasons pass, Russians party, the French chill and the locals develop into enterprising businessmen. They say that Alaska is the last frontier — if this is true, the Himalayas will leave you speechless like many have been before you. Welcome to Gulmarg, the new future of big mountain freeriding.