GULMARG, India -- There are very few ski resorts in the world where you see a soldier in uniform waiting for the gondola with a snowboard in one hand and an AK-47 in the other.
But this is Gulmarg, nestled in the Himalayan mountains in Indian-held Kashmir, one of the most militarized places on earth.
India and Pakistan have fought two major wars over Kashmir, which is divided between the two countries and claimed in its entirety by both. Tension flared earlier this year when the worst violence along the disputed border in a decade left half a dozen troops dead — one of them an Indian soldier who was reportedly beheaded.
The clashes hurt business in Gulmarg, according to local tour operators, but a few hundred skiers and snowboarders were on the mountain during my visit at the end of February — almost all of them foreign.
It’s good to know there is a hearty breed of outdoor enthusiasts willing to brave conflict between nuclear-armed archenemies to hit the slopes — admittedly ones that rival any major ski resort in the world, are much less crowded and cost a little over $100 for a whole week.
Imagine sharing Jackson Hole resort in Wyoming with just 200 fellow skiers and snowboarders. That’s what Gulmarg has to offer, complete with knee-deep powder and a wealth of off-piste terrain easily accessible from one of the highest gondolas in the world.
Did I say easily accessible? That doesn’t include the experience of getting on and off the small, four-person gondola.
Many of the cars lack a place to store skis or snowboards while you ride. That leads to what feels like a Three Stooges routine every time you and your companions try to pack into the gondola carrying skis and poles and wearing bulky backpacks. It doesn’t help that you only have a few seconds before the car starts moving and are already unsteady on your feet in ski boots.
The trip to the top of the gondola, at a height of nearly 13,500 feet, is breathtaking and can offer views of one of the tallest mountains in the world, Nanga Parbat, in Pakistan. But there is always a hint of trepidation knowing you have to untangle yourself and do a timed tumble out of the gondola at the end of the ride.
You can forget about finding another way up, unless you want to hike. The gondola and a chairlift that starts halfway up the mountain are pretty much the only game in town. But the trip is definitely worth it, especially when there are 3 feet of fresh powder as there were during my recent visit.
One of the first things you see when you step off the gondola is a small army outpost, one of many throughout Indian-held Kashmir that house at least 500,000 troops in an area the size of Utah. It’s no surprise soldiers seem to be everywhere in Gulmarg: milling around the gondola, driving convoys of trucks over twisty mountain roads and even waiting in line to use the ATM.
Until recently, the resort was using military-grade plastic explosives procured from the army to control avalanche risk on its “in-bounds” slopes, said Brian Newman, Gulmarg’s snow safety officer.
Resorts around the world set off controlled blasts to trigger avalanches before they consider slopes safe for skiers, but they normally use commercial explosives from the mining industry that are more suitable. Newman, who hails from near Boulder, Colorado, began using military explosives when he first arrived six years ago because they were more readily available, but was finally able to get his hands on the commercial type this season.