Many of the visitors to Gulmarg are advanced skiers and snowboarders who have little interest in the resort’s relatively small in-bounds area and have come to the resort for the off-piste terrain — and perhaps also for the readily available hashish that sends wafts of fragrant smoke over your head in the lift line and at lunch.
Given the avalanche danger, basic safety gear like a beacon, shovel and probe is vital in the backcountry. Many people sport more advanced equipment such as backpacks equipped with air bags you can trigger if you get caught in a slide and AvaLung devices to help you breathe under the snow. GoPro video cameras are also ubiquitous, sticking up from helmets in the gondola line like mini-submarine periscopes.
Perhaps the most important safety gear for heading into Gulmarg’s backcountry is a local guide. We hired 31-year-old Javed Ahmed Reshi, who started skiing at the age of 10 in leather boots nailed to rickety wooden skis made by his father. Fueled by seemingly boundless energy, he guided us down wide open bowls and steep runs through evergreen trees — always mindful of the avalanche risk around us.
At one point we stopped in a dense forest, and the only sound filtering through the trees was the Muslim call to prayer from a nearby village — pure serenity.
“I like the adventure and don’t like sitting at a computer in an office,” said Reshi, ignoring the fact that there didn’t seem to be a wealth of office jobs available in Gulmarg, minus the dozen or so hotels that cater to tourists.
Our guide also took us to one of the most unusual apres ski events you will ever find: a dance performance by a local hijra, the cross-dressing “eunuchs” common in India and Pakistan. The hijira shimmied in a red dress as foreign tourists danced along and pasted rupee notes on the performer’s forehead.
For those seeking even more adventure, Gulmarg sports a heli-skiing operation that can drop you on distant mountaintops and provides foreign guides to lead you down miles of untouched powder — assuming the weather is good enough for the chopper to fly, which wasn’t the case during my visit.
Kashmir Heliski has also run into periodic problems with the Indian army stationed in the area, said the organization’s chief guide, Tim O’Leary. The group’s permit to fly was delayed for weeks this year because of the tension along the Kashmir border. One of the first flights three years ago accidentally ended up over the razor wire marking the disputed border with Pakistan. The group was met by a very angry army officer when they landed, and a commander told the team “you play ski games, but we protect the border.”
Luckily the episode was eventually resolved amicably over whisky shots, O’Leary said.
Not everyone in Gulmarg is looking for that much adventure. Many Indian tourists make the two-hour drive from Srinagar, the main city in Indian-held Kashmir, to see snow for the first time and ride up to the gondola in ill-fitting, rented jackets to see the view. They also pay “sled wallahs” in heavy woolen robes to pull them around town. Locals in Kashmir often keep a pot with burning coals under their robes to keep them warm.
The sled wallahs can also be useful for lugging your skis back to the hotel at the end of the day.
One American couple from Boulder, Colorado, visiting Gulmarg for the first time in nearly 25 years, managed to find the same sled wallah, a man they knew as Habeeb, who ferried around their gear when they spent six weeks in the area in 1989. He also carried their 1-year-old daughter on the four-hour trek up the mountain when they skied back then, since the gondola had not yet been built. The couple, David Paine and Julia Nicholson-Paine, held a reunion filled with hugs and tears at Habeeb’s rustic, mountainside home.
They also tracked down a local porter who carried their daughter miles to a distant hospital when she became severely ill. They showed the now 95-year-old porter a picture of him with their daughter on his back that they took many years ago. With tears streaming down his face, he kissed the picture, held it to his heart and said he would pray for their daughter.
More proof that Gulmarg is definitely not your average ski resort.