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.
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 fo