Sunday, March 22, 2015

Gulmarg 2015

I was so excited about Gulmarg this year because of the ski-mountaineering equipment I had just bought. Pradeep, a good friend, was travelling to US and Canada last year; and he was kind enough to offer to bring in my new equipment. I was so short of words to express my gratitude. I met with Pradeep a few years back in Gulmarg. An Air Force Pilot by profession, he was smitten by the adventure bug too. We hit it off right away. I had done a few expeditions by then and owned some good gear and apparel; so I was able to address some of his concerns about mountaineering and equipment. After that first trip, we stayed in touch until we met again last year. Him, I and Divyansh, a common friend, would ski during the days and dine together during the evenings. That’s when we would discuss gear and apparel. I was looking to pick some new gear; Pradeep mentioned that he was gonna visit the states and offered to bring in anything I required. Boy! Was I glad to hear that? A few months later, he got his leaves from his unit and like a gentleman, he kept his word. 

The equipment I bought, adds a new dimension to ones mountain endeavours. With alpine skis, one is limited to the resort where most skiing happens in the winters. Even the touring equipment seems like relics from the days of yore. They are just too heavy and cumbersome. At best, they afford someone to do some backcountry stuff but most high mountains are not really accessible with such heavy stuff. But with ski-mountaineering gear, uphill becomes just as fun as downhill. The equipment is so light that no place is inaccessible anymore. One is not restricted to just winters anymore since the big mountains are accessible anytime because of the gear and there is always ice and snow on the big mountains. I couldn’t wait to try out the stuff on a Dzo Jongo or a Kang Yatse or a Kedar. I guess that will have to wait till next month when the passes are accessible. But I was not gonna sit on my butt till springtime while that beautiful equipment was sitting there in my room imploring me to take her out to the mountains. So I set aside a couple of weeks for Gulmarg.

News since December was not so good. Apparently there was not much precipitation and as a result skiing was not so good in Gulmarg. Fortunately, a week before my flight to Kashmir, there was some snowfall which was a relief; and the forecast was for constant snowfall during my stay at Gulmarg. Normally with regular alpine equipment, I would feel miserable at the thought of snowfall ruining a day; not anymore. I had determined that I would use the bad weather days for skinning up to some shoulder or nearby hill. This turned out to be a wise decision because there were 7 bad weather days and on 5 of those days, the chairlift to Merry shoulder and the Gondola to G4 (The top of Afarwat) were shut down. So the skins were a treasure and a joy on those gloomy days.

I had a horrible 3 hour layover at Delhi on my way to Srinagar. To make matters worse, the flight to Srinagar was further delayed by an hour. Thanks to the airport wifi, I was able to pass time. I reached Srinagar by 5 in the evening. Usually my friend Zahoor picks me up from the airport and drops me at Tangmarg (13 km short of Gulmarg) or Gulmarg depending on the condition of the roads between Tangmarg and Gulmarg. I was a little perturbed when I didn’t find him at the exit, since some weird reason my phone had no reception. Some of the drivers at the airport offered their phones so I could call Zahoor. How nice? It’s this aspect of Kashmiris that most westerners (Indians too) are not aware of. If one can look past the troubled times and the militancy that Kashmir and Kashmiris have endured, one will find a number of such “drivers” willing to help a traveller. Anyways, I spoke to Zahoor and he advised me that he was stuck at the security post and that he would be at the terminal in 5 minutes. While I was waiting for Zahoor, I thanked those chaps who offered their phones, for the kind gesture. In no time Zahoor and I were on our way to Gulmarg. Along the way, he narrated some horrible anecdotes of how the recent floods had afflicted the state and its people. I expressed my condolences and encouraged him to look forward to a future full of hope. We reached Yemberzaal, my abode for the next two weeks, by half past six. Nazir, a good friend, and one of the three brothers who run the hotel, was there to receive me. I was given the corner room on the ground floor which is by far the best as far as views are concerned. I was all set in an hour. I went to the restaurant so I could chat with the staff. I had an early dinner by 7 since I hadn’t had a meal the whole day; just a sandwich and Orange juice at a kiosk outside Delhi airport. After dinner, I decided to meet with a friend, Jaan, who runs a shop, but the shop was closed by then. So I decided to meet Jaan, the following day. I was also so restless about the gear. I just couldn’t wait for the night to pass.

The following day, I rushed to the restaurant for a quick breakfast so that I could get out of the hotel and on the slopes as soon as possible. I wanted to take it easy the first day and went to an intermediate slope within the village called the Highland Slope, courtesy Highland Hotel. It had been about 11 months since I last skied, so I needed to get a hang of things. The all mountain La Sportiva RSTs were just as fun on the groomers too. After a few rounds, I was able to carve a few turns. It was awesome. Now I just couldn’t wait to take the skis to the mountains the next day. Around lunch time there was some snowfall and a lot of the tourists had scattered away. It amazes me how a little snowfall works to my advantage at the lifts. I took turns skiing at highland and 85 slope which are opposite to each other. I lost count of the number of rounds I did. At 11 AM when I started skiing, there was such a rush. But between 2 and 4, when it was coming down so heavily, there was just me and a few other skiers. I was so exhausted after a while, but I just couldn’t stop myself. I think between 2 and 4, I must have done 25 rounds, but when the conductor at the lifts requested me to stop at 4, I begged him for one more. He smiled and said, “Ok, ek aur (one more)”. I thanked him stopped after one more round. By the time I got back to the hotel, I was famished. I bought some chips and orange juice, since it was too late for lunch and too early for dinner. I usually buy tidbits and juice from Jaans shop. That is when I met him and he was so glad to see me. After a while I took his leave and went to my room to change into my hiking shoes, since the ski boots made my feet so sore. Even though I train hard for any trip and this trip was no different, I guess the over exertion had to take its toll. I was feeling fatigued and exhausted. So after washing up and a change of boots, I sat down by the window, staring at Afarwat, munching Uncle Chips and sipping some tangy orange juice. It was good. I had a very early dinner that night. Throughout the trip, dinner usually consisted of Rista or Sheekh Kebab in rich gravy, with rice or butter-roti, some curd and some juice to wash it all down. After dinner, I usually walk around the village for a while before going back to the room.

Merry Shoulder
The next day was exciting. Since the snowfall hadn’t really stopped since afternoon the previous day, I decided to try out the skins. It was fantastic. La Sportiva sells pre cut skins for the RST, so the cut and fit are no hassle. The glue was a bit botchy in places, but overall it was pretty good. The glide was amazing and friction was pretty good on all sorts of ice and snow. I started skinning up from the Gondola station G1 in the resort and climbed through the woods. The terrain was pretty steep in a couple of places, but it was no problem with the new skins. I was ascending at a pretty good rate. I was able to make it to Kongdoori in just over an hour. The best part of the route till Kongdoori was the slope just under the Gondola Station G2, which is a big steep drop. I was able to negotiate that slope well enough. I stayed at Kongdoori for a few minutes before resuming the ascent. About 15 minutes from Kongdoori, I noticed that the basket on one of the poles was about 10 inches above where it should be. The stopper was missing from its place, and as a result the basket was sliding upwards. This was heartbreaking for someone who loves to keep his equipment in top condition, not to mention that it was also making the ascent difficult, since there was lot of powder above Kongdoori, and the poles were going in deeper into the snow than they should. So with a heavy heart, I sat down and got down to work on the basket. I had some thick paper (boarding pass from the flight), which I used to jam the basket. One, two, three layers were not sufficient; it turned out that a 4 fold jammer worked well enough for the moment. After a drink, I resumed the climb and reached a shoulder at about 3600m by 1300; about 1000m ascent in well under 4 hours with a couple of breaks. I was pleased with the effort. By now the visibility was really bad and there was some snowfall too. I quickly took care of the skins, had a drink and a quick bite, before beginning the descent. Since this was only the second day for me this season, I was struggling a bit on the downhill, especially deep powder. But it was promising, since I knew that in a couple of days I would be able to figure things out and then it would be much more fun skiing down.

In a few minutes, I reached Kongdoori and continued skiing to the village. Along the way I would often take a detour from the track and ski through the woods. Once I reached the village, I realised that there was still some time to go; so I bought a ticket on the Gondola to G2. The Gondola and chairlift are a lifeline for those who love to ski off piste, but do not possess the aerobic fitness to climb/skin up to a high point. They also work out well for someone like me. I mean after 5 hours of skinning/skiing up and down, I could still get a
View From The Room
few cheap thrills on the downhill without much effort. The day was pretty good. By now I had tested out all of the new equipment; all but the ski crampons; and everything worked as well as I had hoped. It was a good day for me. This was pretty much a trend - I would reserve the bad weather days for skinning up and take a day pass on the chairlift on fair weather days. If I must be critical, the only sore point of the trip was that the Gondola to G4 (top of Afarwat) was never functional for skiers throughout my stay at Gulmarg. Other than that, it was a splendid fortnight.

During my stay this year, I came across some interesting people. I met with a father-son duo,Ya Halome and Nahar, from Israel; Andrew, a senior snowboarder from Australia who refuses to grow old; Nawab an off road enthusiast and fantastic snowboarder; Sameer, a govt servant, who was in Gulmarg to learn snowboarding and Anubhav, a novice skier. On my fifth day (I think), while I was skinning up, I caught the attention of Ya Halome. He was skiing down with Nahar and we stopped for a moment, exchanged pleasantries and discussed our respective equipment. They were using Dynastar Legend skis with alpine bindings. I’ve used those planks, so I know that they are extremely heavy, a lot heavier than my Sportiva RSTs. Ya Halome was intrigued by the physics of the Dynafit Bindings that were installed on my skis. I did my best to demonstrate the dynamics of the gear I had. He seemed impressed. After a brief chat, we continued in opposite directions. Since my plan for the day was to skin till G2 and ride the lift for the rest of the day, I met with them again in about half an hour. For the rest of the day, Ya Halome, his son and I were skiing together. We did our best to point out chinks in each other’s techniques, and tried to improve our stance. They stopped at about half past three, while I did a couple more rounds. I skied with them a couple more times that week. Nahar didn’t ski on the last three days of their stay since he had a minor injury because of a fall. It was fun hanging out with them. One of those days, Nahar even came to room, and I showed him all the gear and apparel I had. He seemed impressed by the equipment. The two of them left a day before I went home. Ya Halome was thoughtful enough to leave his number and address with me so I could visit him. Reciprocating likewise was the only logical thing to do.

The most intriguing day, by far, was on the eighth day. There was heavy snowfall and visibility was zero above Kongdoori. Well the visibility was not so good in the resort too, but it’s somewhat possible to orient oneself between the resort and Kongdoori because of the dense woods. Above Kongdoori, there are no trees, so it’s a literal whiteout during dense fog; the heavy snow fall makes matters worse. As expected, the chairlift and Gondola above Kongdoori were abandoned for the day. However, I was surprised that the First Phase Gondola was dysfunctional too. The officials had operated the First Phase Gondola for about an hour, but the operations were discontinued by 1030. Anyways, I started skinning up by 11. My aim was to avoid sitting in the hotel. I hate it when it snows during the days. I don’t mind overnight snowfall as long as the days are clear. The problem with a brief two week trip such as mine is that I cannot afford inactivity due to bad weather days. Of course, touring/skimo equipment ensures that I can get some action on foul weather instead of being restricted to the hotel room. So I on my way up I crossed a few skiers and boarders who fortunate enough to get a ride on the Gondola a little earlier. I advised them to make the most of their ride since the Gondola was shut down for the day. The visibility was terrible, but I was able to orient myself using the trees. In about 50 minutes I caught up with a bunch of tourers. They had obviously started skinning up before me. While I was going past them on the slope just short of G2, one of them hinted that I was gonna win the race. I laughed and said that I wasn’t racing. We took a moment and had a brief chat. They were French; 4 guys and 2 girls. One of the guys was an intern in a college in Chennai, my town. They seemed surprised that someone like me who is from the south would actually be interested in mountain sports. We discussed the weather. The group was curious about touring beyond Kongdoori. I suggested that it wasn’t a bad idea on a good day. I advised them to return from Kongdoori and suggested that even if they did decide to continue touring, they better stay close to the chairlift or Gondola line. We parted ways once we reached Kongdoori.
I was pretty sure that the French group wouldn't go beyond Kongdoori and to an extent relieved too. They went on a tangent, towards a restaurant at Kongdoori. That is usually a sign that folks are planning to head back after a snack or Tea. When I started skinning up from the resort, I had intended to return from Kongdoori, but after talking to the group, I was considering continuing the climb. So I thought about it for a while and thought to myself, “what the heck”. I kept the skins on and continued skinning up. After about 5 minutes the people, the restaurant, G2 and everything thing else around was invisible to me. In 10 minutes, I couldn’t even hear the faint voices I was hearing in the background. I deliberately tried to stay close to the Gondola pillars, but even they were barely visible. For a moment I did think about returning back, but I did the math and at the moment it seemed possible. So I continued skinning up. The visibility was zero, so this was not the usual “fun on the way up” climb. The idea was to get up and get down. No sights, no fun, nothing. As I gained altitude, the powder got deeper and deeper. Beyond 3200m the snowfall was pretty heavy too. It usually takes me about 70 minutes from Kongdoori to reach the cabin at Merry Shoulder. It might have taken me about 90 minutes that day. I was covered in snow. The heavy snowfall and winds had made the climb difficult and I was frozen by the time I reached the cabin. The cabin is meant for the Gulmarg Gondola employees, but it was vacant that day and it worked out well for me. I sat in the cabin for a few minutes, had a drink and some chocolates, got rid of the skins and sat there. I was hoping that the weather would get better, but the snowfall just got heavier. I didn’t see the point in hanging around for too long. So I geared up to go down. Since the visibility was zero, making those big turns was out of the question. In fact after the first couple of minutes, I was warming up to the fact that this was going to be one LONG descent. I couldn’t appreciate the terrain; I didn’t know left, right, up or down, sudden drops, bumps etc. So I kept it simple. I would traverse the slope for 30 seconds, and then make a kick turn and traverse the other way for 30 seconds. This way I was at least making sure that I never strayed away too far. It took me close to an hour to get to Kongdoori. I usually go off track between Kongdoori and the resort, but that day I was in no mood. I just wanted to go to the hotel, eat and sleep. I had had just about enough for the day. Was it a good decision skinning up beyond Kongdoori; Probably not. Was it fun; Nope. Would I do it again; Can’t say NO. But I didn’t do so on this trip. Once in a while I like doing stuff like this just to see if I can hold it together. I was glad I could. Almost everyone else from the Hotel had decided to stay indoors. So I was one of the few who was active that day; and the only one who was above the tree line.

At the hotel, the guys were curious about my day. I had a few things to share. The snowfall didn’t stop for the next couple of days. The Gondolas and chairlift were abandoned the following day too. I went skinning up to Kongdoori. This time I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t go beyond Kongdoori. There was so much powder below Kongdoori that there was no need to go beyond. Besides, I didn’t wanna replay the events of the previous day. Skiing blind was no fun at all; besides there was a high avalanche risk above Kongdoori. SO I played it safe and decided to return from Kongdoori. Kongdoori seemed like a totally different place. There were no tourists or hucksters around. The Gondola station had an eerie feel to it since everything was quiet. There was literally no one around. I just hung around for about 10 minutes, took off the skins and skied down. It was fresh powder and untouched too. All of it would be tracked within a couple of hours the following day once the Gondola was operational, so I had my fun while I was the only one skiing there. It was great fun.

I was so occupied with the skiing throughout the trip that I hardly realised when the two weeks were over. I had to have more of this. I resolved that I was not going to wait till next year. So I planned to get back home, get some rest and go off to Ladakh for some solo, alpine, ski-mountaineering. It would still be extremely cold between 3500 and 6200m in Ladakh and there is always ice above 4900m on Dzo Jongo and above 5200m on Kang Yatse 2. Well I thought Ill just get there and see how things go. For the moment I was keen to get back home and get fat. All the skiing for the last 2 weeks had ballooned my appetite incredibly. Unfortunately, the weather and the stupid airlines had other plans for me. I was stranded at Srinagar for a couple of days. On the 1st of March, it was the airline. Spicejet. While all other airlines were able to take off, our carrier decided to cancel the flight for an unknown reason. I had to stay in a dirty hotel near the airport. It was disgusting. The following day, the weather was terribly bad; Heavy snowfall and poor visibility. Fortunately we were made aware by noon that the flights were cancelled. So I was able to find a reasonably clean hotel. I shared the room with a couple of army blokes. Both were married, so they had to report to their respective wives like a soldier reports to his CO. It was hilarious. Anyways, after much tension, we were able to get out of Srinagar the following day. Apart from travellers, security personnel, airline employees and ground crew, the Terminal also plays host to cats and a number of Avian species such as Pigeons and Sparrows. How nice. I felt so relieved when I reached home around midnight. Eversince, I haven’t quite thought of anything else apart from events of the fortnight in Gulmarg; and I cannot quite think of anything else but the trip to the mountains next month.