If a picture is already worth a thousand words, then why am I writing all this stuff?
To see all the photos from day 12 of skiing in Gulmarg, visit this gallery.
Our last day of ski day in Gulmarg saw no change in the avalanche conditions and no change in the explosives standoff. Luckily, they did decide to open the chair that day as they had the day before. Eric and I had some schedule constraints because we needed to catch a ride back down to Srinagar in the afternoon, but we still had time to ski this route.
Here’s a photo that shows both Phase 2 of the gondola and the chair. The top of the chair is map point 1.
There are a couple of interesting things to note in that photo (to see all the detail you might have to click through to see the photo a bit larger in its home gallery). First, note the thoroughly tracked out slopes below the top of the chair. Those tracks were put in by people hiking like we did on Day 10 and skiing from people skiing the chair on Day 11, like we didn’t. Now note the paucity of tracks above the chair and the teensy weensy dots below the gondola lift towers. Those teensy weensy dots are people, around 50 of them, skinning up to get to all that untracked snow…that hasn’t been avalanche controlled. Now note the run out zones for those slopes and how they intersect the fields of tracked out snow toward the right side of the photo. This is obviously not a good combination of circumstances and the ski patrol ended up shutting the chair down in the middle of the day to keep that kind of thing from happening. Luckily, they did this right after we got our ride up. Yay!
We quickly traversed out along those snowfields and to the paper trees we skied on Day 6 off the right side of the photo above. Rather than ski down from the traverse entry point like we did on that day, we put on our skins and zigzagged almost 1000 vertical feet up the ridge. The photo below was taken at map point 2 and looks out to the south where you can just make out the gondola towers against the sky along the horizon of the farthest ridge.
Not much farther along we made to our high point and skied this north facing bowl at map point 3.
The snow in the photo was plenty good, but the snow below my feet where I was standing to take this picture was fascinating. It was a relatively dense layer on top that was maybe a foot thick and then it just gave way to completely unconsolidated granular snow several feet deep. This stuff had absolutely no cohesion and was more like a layer of BB’s than a layer of snow. It would not support any weight so it behaved like quicksand. Really really weird stuff.
After skiing that upper bowl we contoured around to get back to another drainage and into some paper trees to the south of map point 4
The photo below is an overview looking back at the terrain we’d just skied.
We ascended the ridge along the leftmost edge of the stand of paper trees on the left to the point where it meets the rightmost edge of the stand of paper trees on the right. The bowl that we skied at the top of our run is kind of ninety degrees to this view, but you can just see the edge of it in the shadows on the right side of the ridge. When we contoured around from the bottom of that bowl we came into the drainage seen in the center of the photo and that’s essentially what we skied out.
To see all the photos from day 11 of skiing in Gulmarg , go here: http://www.bernardsphotos.com/skiing/2012/gulmarg/feb8
I’ve really got to hand it to Bill Barker and the rest of his guides at Bill’s Trips. They saw the potential for a major gondola shutdown days in advance and at that time started to put plans in motion to keep their guests skiing; and not just tired old Phase 1 laps, we’re talkin’ proper Himalayan scale skiing. So it was on Wednesday morning that we gathered early and headed down to Gulmarg Heliskiing for a special one-off trip. The plan was that the heli would take us up to a major peak neighboring Mt. Apharwat drop us off and then just fly away. From that moment on it would be up to us to navigate out own way down nearly 7000 vertical feet and 7.5 miles back to Drang where we would get a taxi ride back to Gulmarg from the other side of the river. Here’s the route we ended up skiing:
From the 13,500 ft summit of Mt. Sunshine (I think that’s what it was called) say bye bye to Mr. Helicopter as he leaves us to ourselves at map point 1.
The great hope for the recent storm was that it would load up the unstable snow pack enough to trigger a natural avalanche cycle that would clear out the pesky depth hoar that had been plaguing the region. This only partially worked out. Yes, the new snow triggered natural avalanches and some of them did go to the ground, but many of them did not and instead only affected the newly fallen snow. The result for us was a bit of a maze of slide paths, safe zones, and suspect slopes and all of it in infrequently skied terrain. It made for a day of what one of guide, Mark Brown, characterized as “proper adventure skiing”. Indeed it was. Here’s a photo of the kind of ugliness we worked to avoid:
The photo below is of our first pitch taken from map point 2. It’s about 1000 vertical feet of somewhat crusted powder between map points 1 and 2. Three of those specs are skiers on the hill. It was a long run.
This run took us into some more protected terrain where we found a bit of a bowl. The snow in there was really quite nice so we decided to skin back up the ridge from map point 2 to 3
and then have a bit of a ski
Moving along, we then descended the next 2000 or so vertical feet picking our way through boney ridges, patches of powder, and slide paths. The photo below, taken from near map point 5 looking upward to the slope marked by map point 4, illustrates the point.
We came onto that broad slope from just above the knob on the horizon line above it. Just down from there we came to a group of shepherds’ huts at map point 5 where we had lunch
After that it was a bit of low angle tree skiing, some long just-barely-steeper-than-flat gliding, and a couple of river crossings at map point 6.
You can see our tracks on the right side of the photo above.
We then glided some more along what must be gentle hiking trails that parallel the river in the summer. It all sounds kind of boring, but the local was exotic, the scenery was pretty, and the sense of adventure was high.
How exotic was the locale? Well, we eventually came upon a meadowy confluence where two rivers that formed the mountains all round us met. Thanks to some snow-covered foot bridges, it was easy to cross. Then after a short scramble up an embankment at the edge of the meadow we took a rest on a nice high flat spot with a good view…right next to an Indian army outpost of some sort at map point 7. This little outpost wasn’t much to look at, but it was strategically placed to maintain a commanding view above the meadow and up both river valleys. I wasn’t really sure what the photography protocols around such a place were so I stayed a bit camera shy and this I the best shot I got of it
At first, the guard to came to the gate to check us out stood and watched us silently form the gate. Gradually he started chatting with a few of the skiers in our party. Eventually he got another guy and came out to give us all a spot of tea, which was really more of a sweet Kashmiri chai. In hindsight, I probably didn’t need to be so camera shy. Bummer.
From there, we followed the trail along the river a bit farther and eventually met up with the drainage that we skied out of on Day 3 at map point 8. Not long after that we were back in Drang, though this time we crossed a much more substantial bridge right before we got to the village instead of skiing through the village. Once on the other side of the again there was nothing to do but park the skis up against the mining trucks and wait for the taxis to show up.
An awesome day!
To see all the photos from day 10 of skiing in Gulmarg , go here: http://www.bernardsphotos.com/skiing/2012/gulmarg/feb7
With Phase 2 of the gondola shut down until what looked like (and turned out to be for our purposes) the end of time, the obvious question arose: What to do? What to do? What to do? Answer: earn your turns! Our general strategy for this day was to skin up in the inbounds part of the ski area and ski a couple of pitches. Here’s the map of our route:
Map point 1 is pretty much at the group of stores and restaurants above the gondola midstation (it has an actual name, but I’ve forgotten what it is). Anyway, that’s where we put our skins on and began the straightforward ascent to map point 2. We knew there was a party ahead of us but it wasn’t a problem as we made our way up the spine and through the trees in solitude. This is what we saw when we arrived at map point 2:
Obviously we weren’t the only ones with the basic plan to skin to where the gondola should have been able to take us in the first place. Nevertheless we got on the skin track and made our way up.
Looking at the gorgeous sunshine in the photo above kind of makes it easy to forget that this was all a brand new snow on top of snowpack that was already known to be sitting on top of a dangerous layer of depth hoar right at the ground. So, when we got to point 3 on the map we decided to dig a pit to see what the snowpack was really like.
Here’s a detail of what is essentially a layer of unconsolidated ball bearings we found in a layer just above the ground, i.e. about 8 feet below the surface:
While we were going through all this trouble--which, by the way, wasn't trouble at all, was absolutely fascinating, and would later reveal itself to be the highlight of the day--the people ahead of us inevitably made it to their destinations and decided to start skiing. Predicatably, they eventually made it down to us:
So this guy in the above photo beat us to first tracks on our section of the ridge, but he was far enough out that it really didn’t make much difference. The thing that made the difference was the whole guided(!) party that came after him and low cut our lines. This was not a pleasant moment. The thing about Gulmarg is that to really maximize your vertical you have to ski a lot of sidehill lines rather than true fall lines. This is what the guide was doing, but he was clearly unaware of some basic powder etiquette that would have diverted him and his party to some the many other unskied acres that were not directly in our fall line. Grrr. As I said, it was not a pleasant moment.
Eventually our snow science session was over and it came time to ski. This is the point where I discovered that my deep acclimatization to typical conditions in the Pacific Northwest left me unprepared for some the subtle considerations of cold, clear, high altitude conditions. Naturally, I took off my skis when we decided to dig the pit and just as naturally I stuck them tail-first into the snow. I did not pay attention to the fact that my skis had some accumulated snow stuck to their black bases and that those black bases were facing the sun. Well, the sun melted the snow just a bit and the cold air iced the snow just a bit and the end result was that when it came time for me to put my skis on and go, the iced based just stuck like crazy. I tried to scrape them off, but they still stuck and ruined my run from map point 3 to map point 4. Ugh!
Once we were all a map point 4 we decided to skin back up for another run because that was a fairly short pitch and it just made sense to try again, though this time we’d go for a spot a bit higher up. So, skins back on, we headed up. By now, it was midday and it seemed that half the population of India had finally made it out of bed and decided to go for a bit of a ski. Nothing like a frothing mob of powderhounds to cut into one’s sense of solitude.
As we made our way up, the weather slowly started to worsen. Clouds moved in and the wind picked up. By the time we's skinned up to the top station of the chair at map point 5 the wind was really howling. As I took off my skins it was all I could do to keep them from getting blown to Pakistan. At that point the wind made it clear that fun time was over, photography time was out of the question, and getting off the mountain time was right at hand. So that’s what we did. From map point 5 we traversed out much as we did on Day 6, except we didn’t stop off at the paper trees choosing to make best time for home instead.
The last post was for Friday, February 3rd, day 6 and it told of the coming of a much anticipated storm. Saturday, day 7 really brought the storm. All lift operations in the ski area were closed, as they would have been anywhere. No problem. I went out with our guides Sam Dunlop and Mark Brown for a short tour on Monkey Hill. Unfortunately, Eric was sick that day so he wasn’t able to join us. That wasn’t much of a loss for him because the skiing wasn’t really much to write home about (note that I’m writing this from home, not to home so everything remains OK) and I didn’t bother to take any photos of the excursion. We just toured through some open evergreen forests, which was very pleasant to be in, but not particularly photogenic.
Monkey Hill is the prominent lump of trees seen in the center of the shot at the south edge of the Gulmarg plateau in this photo taken a few days later
The standard thing to do is to skin up the hill and then ski down the north side, which is facing away from us in that north-looking photo. The standard is standard because A) it conveniently takes you down to the road that goes around the perimeter of the plateau for an easy trip back, and B) it’s north facing. Because of all the people that had already hit the standard routes over the past day or so we chose to descend the less commonly skied south side. We skied through the trees you can see in the photo down to the small valley at the foot of the hill and then skinned back up to the plateau.
I’d been fighting some kind of "Delhi belly"ish stomach thing for the prior couple of days and on Sunday, day 8, it finally got the better of me and just laid me out for the day.
A little Sunday evening cipro did wonders for my outlook (though it did not actually cure me; I’ve continued to feel the slowly slowly tapering effects of that illness for about a month) and I was ready to hit the slopes on Monday, the bright clear day right after the storm:
But were those slopes ready for me? In a word, "no".
And now we come to the heart of the matter, the nut, the crux, the Tootsie Roll center of the Tootsie Pop: a standoff between the ski patrol responsible for the safety of the ski area and the Indian army who hold all the explosives required for proper avalanche control. The details of this melodrama are outlined in the "Military Explosives Injunction 2012", which is somewhat of an open letter written by the Gulmarg Ski Patrol and is available in PDF form from the link on this page:
It’s just a short letter so I highly encourage you to give it a read because it gives a real insight as to why skiing in Gulmarg involves so much more than just mountains and lifts and snow and how it’s not like skiing anywhere else I know of.
At the risk of destroying whatever narrative mystery there may be in these posts I’ll tell you right now that the explosives standoff continued for days and Phase 2 of the Gondola never opened for the entire second week of our trip.
So that was the news for Monday, day 9. We made the best of the situation by turning around 180° from where that photo was taken and skiing the trees on the low rolling terrain of Phase 1. Nice powder, but again, not very photogenic.
If you're uncomfortable with the sporadic state of affairs around the limitaitons placed on the Gulmarg ski patrol to do their basic job then the way to do something about it is to complain to the right fellow in the Indian government, namely this guy:
The above message was presneted by the Gulmarg Ski Patrol at the February 7th Avalanche Awareness talk. To make it easier for you to copy and paste into things, the text above reads:
Would you come to Gulmarg next winter if Gulmarg [ski patrol] does not have explosives for avalanche control?
Nothing will change in Gulmarg unless you voi[ce your] demands to the Jammu & Kashmir Dept of T[ourism]
'Military explosives are not acceptable'
'Brian Newman ['s] plan [is]"
(That last part is a bit to cut off so I'm not sure if I got the transcription exactly right. Basically it's meant ot say that Brian Newman, the snow safety officer for Gulmarg, has worked out a modern and reasonable plan for responsibly managing explosives and they just need to be able to implement it.)
To see all the photos from day 6 of skiing in Gulmarg, go here: http://www.bernardsphotos.com/skiing/2012/gulmarg/feb3
(A quick note for those of you paying attention at home: My last post was for day 4 but now we're on day 6, what happened to Day 5? Ski touring a 13,000 ft turns out to be pretty exhausting so that was a rest day for me which I mostly spent walking around metropolitain Gulmarg with Dave Marchi.)
Day 6 brought a change in the weather. Everybody likes skiing in sunshine but since it had been about two weeks since the last storm a fresh multi day weather system that started to blow in on Thursday night was a very welcome thing. We woke on Friday morning to a very nice storm. No one had any illusion that they’d be opening Phase 2 anytime soon, but we weren’t yet in the full belly of the storm so Phase 1 was open, as was the chair. Knowing that most of the terrain accessed by the chair was already tracked out, we made the strategic decision to wait a bit for the snow to accumulate. So, at the crack of 2:00 PM we headed out for a run on the route shown below:
For reference, Point 1 on the map is the top of the chair, and point 3 is the doorstep of Hotel Highlands Park.
Anyway, the day was a pretty straightforward thing: ride the chair, traverse out to the north on as high a line as possible, sidestep up a ridge and then ski the "paper trees" along the top of the ridge in the background of this shot taken several days later:
What, you may ask, is a paper tree? Well, I’m not exactly sure what the actual species is but I think they’re a birch tree of some sort. They get their name from the way their bark forms little papery curls. It only occurs to now as I write this weeks later that I never took a close up photo of those curls. D’OH! Well, now I guess I have a reason to go back. In the meantime, a YouTube video with close-ups of paper trees and made by some random Aussies by the sound of it is available here.
It’s hard not to talk about the paper tress without falling back to cliche words like "mystical" and "magical". The truth of the matter, however, is that they really do give the place a certain feel. Maybe it’s just because I’ve spent my life skiing in evergreen conifer that the light and airy feel of the paper trees is so compelling. Regardless, they’re great, and wish we could have skied more of them.
Here’s a shot of our guide, Sam Dunlop, making it look easy on the tele skis (Map 2)
And now here’s one of Eric (Map 2)
When we entered this stand of trees and came to the first open glade Eric and I played rock-paper-scissors to see who would get to ski and who would get to shoot. If you want to see the result of that, then here you go. Thanks for the great shot, Eric!