Ski tales from Kashmir
| Bill Barker
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“Best snow of my life”; “Best skiing of my life”; “Best trip of my life”; was belted out by someone virtually every day we were in Kashmir this season.
I’ve been coming to Gulmarg, Kashmir for 15 years and it’s one of the best places to ski on the planet. I reckon it is the whole experience that makes it easy to attract world-class guides. This year, I was stoked to enlist a few more of the best to our team. Dean Staples, Peter Bilous and Elliot James could work anywhere in the world but they chose Gulmarg because they know how good it is. Among too many other accomplishments to mention, Dean has summited Everest 9 times, Peter heads up all of the Avalanche Education in NZ and Elliot is the Avalanche Forecaster for Alpine Heli Ski. With these résumés I was pretty confident that our guests would be very well looked after.
Even during a less than perfect winter we usually ride fresh lines every day. but this year was pretty special. The storms came rolling through just when you wanted them… and they came in big! The snowfall events delivered awesome conditions in the trees while blanketing the massive alpine bowls with a few extra feet. Steep and deep storm skiing at the lower elevations was followed by windless blue bird days laying tracks in silky smooth snow in the alpine bowls. It was pretty much perfect! The storms were a little colder than normal, so the snow quality remained awesome all the way to the valley floor (well below the Gulmarg village). The lower elevation trees were as good as I have had them, and were a beaut option on the wild days.
Aside from the incredible snow, Kashmir is a pretty special and unique destination for a holiday anyway. Just watching everyday life happen around you is an eye opener for most westerners. Every season there are always a few events that stand out, like snow-leopard sightings and more. This year was no exception. In our first week of operations we hosted a wedding for a couple of our Australian guests. Tim and Kate got engaged in Jackson Hole USA and somehow decided on Gulmarg for the big event. As soon as our local friends got wind of it, the day was organized perfectly and could not have been better. The morning started with all of us getting in several really good powder runs before the ceremony. Then, the heritage church was opened and two characterful local priests held an entertaining service, before we all moved back to the Highland Park for a traditional ‘Wazwan’ banquet. After that, it was high energy celebratory dancing to the Kashmiri band. The wedding made mainstream Indian media and even Prime Minister Modi commented on the occasion. An Australian couple wearing Hindi dress (and snowboard boots), getting married in a Catholic church in a Muslim majority state was seen as a very positive news story for the area.
Unfortunately, not all the news from Kashmir was so positive this season. Nearing the end of the winter, tensions between India and Pakistan increased after the suicide bombing of a military bus in Southern Kashmir. Because the region straddles both countries, it has seen a lot of bloodshed over the years sparked by border, religious and political disputes. A couple of days after the bombing, some fighter jets flew over the border to target a terrorist cell that was blamed for the attack. A pilot was captured during the offensive. Seeing the jet streams high above while we were touring in the back bowls was a new, and little disconcerting, sight for me. Fortunately, Pakistan released the pilot the next day as a show of good will, and diplomatic talks began soon after. There were no major impacts on the people of Kashmir this time. Life for everyone in Gulmarg and Srinagar was business as usual during the whole event.
Despite those tense moments, it was one of the better winters that I have seen in Kashmir ever. We definitely had our share of epic days full of powder and laughs. I love everything about Gulmarg, but it’s being able to introduce others to the magic of Kashmiri life that makes it even more special. I can’t wait to get back there for more snow, culture, and maybe another wedding or two.
Bring on 2020!