Feature Located in the Himalayan mountains in Indian-controlled Kashmir, the resort of Gulmarg sees fewer than 500 skiiers each year. Adventurers from around the world come to ski in isolation.
Me and my mountain
This is the first time I've ever stood at the top of a perfect ski run and not wanted to go down it. To my right, three dark bubble-shaped huts hug the treeless mountain ridge like a remote base station. Behind is a small flat bowl backed by another wind-carved, blue-tinged peak. We're almost 1,200m above Gulmarg, the Indian ski resort which boasts the highest gondola on earth, and that this month became accessible via a four-hour flight direct from Dubai to Srinagar, only 45km away. To the front, the Himalayas span the entire horizon, topped by Nanga Parbat, the ninth-highest peak on earth. This could be the ascent to Everest, I think. I narrow my eyes to slits, studying the landscape and calmly breath in the cool, crisp air. It takes Peter, a snowboarder from England, to snap me out of my mountaineering fantasy. "Go with those two," he says, pointing to Mahboob and Yusuf, two twenty-something, wealthy Kashmiris. "Honestly, you probably ski better than they do." It's then that I remember that I am no gnarled member of the back-country skiing fraternity, no veteran off-pister happy to ice-climb vertical ascents for a taste of virgin powder. I'm dreadfully out-of-shape, haven't put on a pair of skis for about eight years, and am far from certain that I'll make it to the bottom. Peter slings his snowboard behind his back, and turns to follow his guide on the 200m trudge to the peak of Mount Apharwat. But I needn't have worried. From the very first turn I take, I realise that the powder is flawless. It's deep enough to cover your boots, but so light that you float through. Turning is almost effortless. Mahboob and Yusuf hoot and yodel as they tear down, their skis wobbling precariously. When I started planning a ski-trip to Gulmarg in January, I saw it a bit like the Scottish ski resort of Glencoe - when I lived in Edinburgh, it was somewhere close to home, where one could do a few runs - quite fun probably, but nothing like the real thing. So I was amazed to find that it's actually one of skiing's best-kept secrets. The Gulmarg gondola gives access to a huge ski area, containing 18 different bowls. You can ski continuously on a run some 7km long, as you drop from close to 4,000m to 2,165m. And whereas in the Alps or the US, you'd have thousands of people skiing alongside you, Gulmarg still only pulls in around 250 international skiers each season. We are on the main ski area, but there are only a few tracks from other skiers. "There are only a couple of places in the world where you can get that sort of vertical," says Dave Watson, an American who runs Ski Himalaya in Gulmarg, "And there's only one place in the world where you can ski it by a world-class gondola, looking out across the valley at the world's ninth tallest mountain. It's like a heli-skiing experience but using a gondola." The only reason it's not better known is that the gondola only opened in 2005. I meet Watson at his weekly avalanche training session in the Pine Palace Resort. The session is probably Gulmarg's biggest weekly social draw and, apart from the queue for the gondola, is the best place to size up the grizzled mix of Australians, New Zealanders, Americans, and the odd Brit, that the resort attracts.
Watson doesn't pull any punches. If you stay within the very limited official ski area, he says, you are protected from avalanches, you can count on ski patrol coming to your rescue, and you can count on decent medical treatment. If you leave it - and almost everybody does - you can count on none of these things. "I can't call Gulmarg a ski resort," he says. "It is basically a raw Himalayan peak with a gondola going up it. There are a lot of intermediates that come here, thinking this is a ski resort and it's not. It's a small ski area, and the best part of the skiing happens outside of the ski area boundary." Watson knows what he's talking about. He's climbed Everest twice, and last year skied K2 in Pakistan - you can see the mountain from Gulmarg. His audience cram the seats and spill out on to the floor, listening in rapt silence as a procession of maps, charts and photos shoot slickly from his MacBook. For Watson, Gulmarg beats the resorts in the US where he worked in ski-patrol. "For the expert skier Gulmarg holds tremendous appeal. The kind of runs you can do - a really great powder run that's 1,000m vertical - in somewhere like Alaska, you'd pay US$200 for a run like that." When he finishes, the sound system the organisers have rigged up in the bar pumps in, and Indian beer starts to flow. What nightlife there is, is relaxed and improvised. Conversations circle around mountain-topics such as ice-climbing on Mont Blanc and how to use avalanche beacons to rescue buried colleagues. The atomosphere, both on and off slopes, is fantastic. There's a great sense of cameraderie at being one of the few international skiers adventurous enough to make it here. The top half of the gondola hadn't opened yet, and the snow beneath the first stage was thick, sticky and heavy. After around 20 turns, I was worn out. Sajad, my Kashmiri ski guide, dashed through the trees effortlessly, however, despite the fact that he was wearing borrowed boots two sizes too big that had broken buckles. The altitude makes a difference, explained Peter, the British snowboarder who I first met in the queue for the gondola on the first day, when he saw my flushed red face. It took him a few days to acclimatise. He's just been to the village of Drang, below Gulmarg. "It was more walking than skiing but you come into this village and its like you're on a different planet. It's a real Kashmiri mountain village and they all came running out; a huge crowd of Kashmiri kids." The Kashmiris, in their traditional tweed ponchos, give Gulmarg a special character - them and the wooden chalets built by the British who pioneered the resort back in 1927. Skiers fortify themselves with warming Kashmiri curries and a sweet green tea called kahwa. The army presence, there to guard against separatists and Pakistan, is very pronounced at the airport but it leaves little mark on the resort. "Just being in Kashmir, meeting with the people of this country with its vast Himalayan backdrop is magical," says John Falkiner, a guide famous for stunts in Bond movies like View to a Kill, The Living Daylights and Goldeneye, who now moves to Gulmarg from Verbier for much of January and February. "Nowadays the European resorts, no matter how good, are becoming victims of their own success," he says. Falkiner first came to Gulmarg back in 1989 and is one of many regulars. There's also Shaun, a bearded, earring-wearing South African, who taught himself to ski in Gulmarg and has been coming back for two months every year since 2006. He prides himself on doing 12 complete runs a day. Then, there's Robert Skinner, an Australian businessman who owns a ski resort in New Zealand but has been coming to Gulmarg for the last two years to ski with Falkiner. The other part of its appeal is the price. Gulmarg is very cheap: you can easily do a week's skiing - including flights, accomodation, ski-gear, lift passes and a guide - for about $550 (Dh2,000). It costs a bit more if you book in advance with Ski Himalaya or Gulmarg Powder Guides, two local ski companies. On the other hand, if you have your own gear and live with the other hardened ski bums in the minimal Bakshi Backpackers, you could do it for less. My only reservation about Gulmarg as a ski destination is the reliability of the lift: if it's snowing or the avalanche-control team haven't yet done their work - and that's probably at least half the time - the top lift doesn't open. However, that still leaves you a fair bit to do, with six or seven different off-piste runs from the first lift (and one semi-pisted one), the tree runs of Monkey Hill and trips down to the villages of Drang, Tangmarg or the Babarishi shrine. But it's the pristine, untracked powder from the top that people come for. For me, just a couple of hours on those perfect slopes was enough.