A family ski adventure in the Himalayas
Jeffrey Gettleman :
ast winter, as I was riding in a car with my family through the Kashmir Valley, the driverâ€™s phone rang. He listened carefully before frowning.
â€œWhatâ€™s going on?â€ I asked.
â€œMan killed in avalanche.â€
â€œA Russian, skier, went by helicopter.â€
â€œWhere?â€ I asked.
â€œWhere else?â€ The driver shrugged. â€œGulmarg.â€
Gulmarg. Thatâ€™s exactly where I was taking my family for a ski trip. Gulmarg is Kashmirâ€™s underdog ski resort, tucked in the snowy Himalayas, a place of magnificent skiing and no frills. Few foreigners visit, for reasons I will get into, and as we drew closer, I began to wonder if this was such a great idea. I looked out the window. It was now dark and snowing, and we were winding our way up a narrow road into the mountains. After we passed another military checkpoint, the driver nodded to me.
â€œYou see that spot?â€ he said, pointing into the woods. â€œWe saw a bear there last week.â€
My wife, Courtenay, who was sitting in the back, tapped me on the shoulder.
â€œWhy canâ€™t we go skiing in Austria like everybody else?â€
â€œNo,â€ she said. â€œIâ€™m serious.â€
Floating through a forest
I had always dreamed of skiing in Kashmir. That name alone conjures up adventure: white-toothed mountains and deep green valleys, wide open slopes and tough highland people. Draped in a mysterious beauty, Kashmir is one of those places most of us have heard of but know little about. And I had a personal agenda. My children are among that strange breed of Americans who have never lived in the United States. They were born in Kenya, raised (so far) in Africa and India, products of the tropics who go to school all year round in shorts, and I wanted them to experience snow.
So one weekend about a year ago, while we were sitting around our apartment in New Delhi, I suggested a trip to Kashmir's winter wonderland.
â€œAre you kidding?â€ Courtenay said. â€œIsnâ€™t there an active conflict up there?â€
â€œI wouldnâ€™t necessarily call it a conflict,â€ I said.
â€œWhat would you call it then?â€
â€œA dispute, maybe?â€
Iâ€™m an average skier, trained on the snowy pimples of the Midwest, with a few lucky trips to Vail and the Alps. But I love skiing, and the thought of plunging down the Himalayas, the world's tallest mountains, fired me up. I soon learned that Kashmirâ€™s ski spot, Gulmarg, is huge (about seven times the size of Jackson Hole), with some runs so long they take all day to ski. I also learned that Gulmarg is cheap, never crowded and blessed with perfect high-altitude, inland snow. One experienced skier described it as being so soft and feathery that skiing through it was like floating through a forest. I wanted to float through that forest.
But before getting more excited, I needed to check out the safety of the area. This was a
family trip, after all, and my wife was right: Kashmir is contested territory, torn between India and Pakistan. Itâ€™s a long story, flaring up in the 1940s, when the British divided the subcontinent into Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan.
The people of Kashmir fell in between, religiously and geographically. They were ruled by a Hindu maharajah, although the population was mostly Muslim. And their area, with its fertile orchards, deliciously cool climate and legendary scenery, lies right between what is now India and Pakistan.
After the British left, India and Pakistan fought three wars over Kashmir, and today the conflict has settled into a thorny standoff, with India controlling most of Kashmir and Pakistan a smaller slice.
Many Kashmiris donâ€™t want either country controlling them: They want independence, and a small, dogged separatist movement operates in Kashmir, attacking police posts and civilians believed to be collaborators. Gulmarg, however, is rarely affected; it lies in a nook of the Kashmir valley tightly controlled by the Indian military.
I was obsessed with getting us there but had no idea how to pull this off. As luck would have it, right when Courtney and I were haggling over the trip, we were invited to a dinner party in New Delhi where I was seated near a charming, fit-looking Indian with a bald head and handlebar mustache. His name was Akshay Kumar, and he was a former champion skier. He had skied Gulmarg countless times, ever since he was a child, and he and his wife, Dilshad Master, run an adventure tour company, Mercury Himalayan Explorations.
When I asked him if Gulmarg was safe, he said: â€œVery. I'm taking some families up there in a couple of weekends. Want to come?â€
I now had the necessary cover.
â€˜Like ice, Daddy, like iceâ€™
As I waited at the Srinagar airport for my family, I was giddy with excitement. It had just snowed, and the trees were delicately coated, the roads wet and shiny. When I picked everyone up, Asa, our 7-year-old, pointed to a lumpy bag tied to the taxiâ€™s roof and asked, just as I knew he would, â€œWhatâ€™s that?â€
I untied the bag and told him to put his hands in. â€œOoh, thatâ€™s cold,â€ he said, turning over his first clump of snow. â€œLike ice, Daddy, like ice.â€
I would have loved to linger in Srinagar, an old town built on a lotus-covered lake, where you can stay in a gorgeous houseboat, wake up with kingfishers plunging into the lake next to you, and then stroll through rose-filled gardens sculpted by Moghul emperors hundreds of years ago. But we only had the weekend to work with, so we had to skip all of this.
It's about an hour-and-a-half drive from Srinagar to Gulmarg, and Courtenay was quiet the entire way. I did not blame her. Kashmir isn't a war zone, but everywhere you look, you see Indian soldiers running checkpoints, patrolling the markets and peeking their helmeted heads out from the turrets of scarred-up gun trucks. The US government warns citizens to stay away, although I feel that's overblown. Iâ€™ve been to Kashmir now more than half a dozen times, and I've never heard a single gunshot. The Indian troops exert control in just about all parts of the valley, especially in Srinagar, and I know several other expat families who have visited, and all said they felt safe.
Gulmargâ€™s slopes cover everything from green to double black diamond, but few are marked. Part of the mountain is groomed, but advanced skiers love the ungroomed, backcountry skiing. The gondola reaches around 13,000 feet, one of the highest in the world. Some skiers hike up even higher or take helicopters to virgin spots. Gulmarg's vertical drop, a measure of the altitude from where you start to where you finish, can be as much as 6,000 feet. With good snow, some runs stretch more than 4 miles. They can take the better part of a day and end in the woods, near some old temples.