“Curry Powder” – Kashmir, India ‘Blog’ 2012
Julia & Andrew Hather
Guide – Dave Cumming
Instructor – Lee Townend
Words by Lee Townend (unless otherwise stated) Pictures to follow!
Day 1 –
Travel day for the India Snoworks adventure course is shorter than some of our other trips, with an 8-hour flight from Heathrow to Delhi in the capable hands of ‘Virgin’. The 2-hour delay at Heathrow meant a later arrival at our first hotel the ‘Retreat’ in Agra, which in normal circumstance is a 4hr transfer South-East of Delhi. However with our 4pm departure we hit rush hour Delhi style! Take the carnage of London or New York, the obvious wealth split of Thailand, the dust & dryness of Turkey & times it all by 10 & you might be close! The traffic is insane, add rickshaws, motorbikes, buses, street vendors & a sprinkling of cows, pigs & monkeys & have a go at making it through. Our host & guide at this stage was the ever smiling Balawnt Kumar or ‘Balu’ as he prefers to be known told me you only need 3 things for driving in Delhi – A good horn, good brakes & good luck!
We stopped on route for a late lunch in what was clearly a tourist style restaurant by its layout & English menu. However the food was incredibly fresh & tasty with all bar one of us plummeting straight into the local fair (washed down with a Kingfisher).
We arrived at 9-30pm to the hotel due to the traffic & late flight all looking a little jaded, so after a fabulous Indian buffet dinner an early night was the general consensus.
Day 2 –
Words by ‘Multi Snoworks adventurer’ Tony Daw
The best time of day to visit the Taj Mahal is first thing in the morning, or late evening due to more favourable temperatures, fewer tourists and better light for photography! So 7am it was, up & away with our intrepid driver & new man on the scene, tour guide pro ‘Yesh’. Split gender queuing meant a 10-minute wait for the ladies after the gents had whisked straight through. With the hindsight of how busy it was as we left, the serenity of our arrival time was a time to savour. It was chilly and clear, but with an atmospheric haze. The fountains were not running allowing the touristy reflection shots and there was all the history and stories you could wish for from our guide. The mausoleum itself is cool, quiet and dark. The carving detail in white marble, red sand stone and semi precious stone are exquisite.
On leaving, the crowds were building and by now breakfast was beckoning; local fare for most and beans on toast for the homesick.
Second stop – Agra fort, which is enormous. It is pretty much a walled city in its own right, full of gardens and palaces and again as much history as you can manage. There is the Emperor’s Palace, his daughter’s palaces, the Glass Palace… and that’s from the 20% of the whole complex the public are allowed around. There are also great views across to the Taj Mahal over the River Yamuna.
Comment on Indian roads/driving: Most of the road to Agra is what we would call a 2-lane dual carriageway. This however, is entirely hypothetical. The lane nearest the central reservation is used for cruising of large vehicles, the other lane is both the slow and the fast lane! All animal or human powered vehicles hover around the road/path border, but this lane is also used for undertaking. Actually describing 2 lines is also over-simplifying. It is quite common to see 4 vehicles abreast or massive bags of straw grass taking up nearly 2 lanes.
The journey back to Delhi was, in Indian terms, uneventful. We are now used to “random acts of road use” and the incessant horn blowing, which seems to be a national pastime, the Indian equivalent of the vuvuzela!
Time to head to the mountains. Today we rose from our hotel in Delhi & took the short transfer to the airport, which is very new & shiny & even has a ‘Costa’ for those needing a decent coffee!
The flight was 2hrs into Kashmir, landing at Srinagar airport was an experience in itself with us circling over the Himalayas & the airplane map showing the close proximity to Kubul & Afghanistan.
When you arrive we get lynched by many wishing to carry your luggage or offer a taxi, to this day I don’t know how we found ‘Aqil’s’ men, maybe they found us, but all was packed into 4×4’s with ‘character’ & the 2 hour transfer up the twisty alpine-Esq. road to Gulmarg behind a fleet of Indian army trucks.
With colourful & frantic little villages set with a snow capped Himalayan backdrop it was nothing far from Spectacular & like no other approach to a ski field in the world.
We where welcomed with open arms & hot tea by Aqil & his team. With time to settle in & freshen up before another fantastic Indian buffet & an early night with the building excitement of all the snow & talk of the top Gondola due to be open.
Ski day 1 of 7 would bring great news as the powder was still fresh & the top Gondola was opening. The lift here in Gulmarg is not only the highest in the world, but also an imported ‘oeuf’ from Les Houches in Chamonix!
We split into 2 groups with Dave taking his guys for a short walk up to skiers left of the top station to get into Apharwat North bowl, beyond the main control area. I took my guys for their first run within the controlled area of Tower 15 bowl. Don’t however be confuse by the term ‘controlled area’ with what you’re used to in Europe as the first run here was a steep red slope pitch, variable off-piste at 4000m, we were all breathing heavy with pressed chests after 20 turns!
Second run would be to the skiers right of the main area for both groups, into Sheenmai bowl, where we found the best snow of the day on North facing aspects leading into long sweeping gullies of 900m + vertical decent.
Lunch, was tasty, spicy & hot, in an ‘interesting’ venue. Then out for our third & final run into Shaggy’s face, everyone was buzzing & suitably tired with burning legs & struggling lungs.
3 runs in 1 day! Is that all I hear you ask? It’s such a massive area from 1 lift & such a huge decent that 2 runs is the norm, 3 is good & 4 is rare.
The snow (according to returning adventurers Chris & Peter was considerably better than last year) was still soft & powdery & the weather had occasional breaks giving us enough visibility to really make the most of the first days skiing. All content we returned to Nedou’s for a kingfisher, hot shower & another fabulous buffet dinner. Roll on tomorrow this place is like no other.
Day 5 –
Words by ‘Tony Gillon’ Snoworks Adventure Rookie
We awoke at Nedou’s in Gulmarg (unfairly tagged “Gulag” by some, perhaps as many of our rooms are in “Block K”, mine is “cell” 2!) to a grey day, but the light snow that had been falling last night had eased off – for now.
Fresh powder was calling. The challenge of getting so many of us into the police jeep/taxi 5 at a time led to a larger group taking to walking to the gondola.
At the mid station, we were disappointed to find the upper gondola closed, at least until dynamite blasting was completed. A quick cuppa was taken, but the gondola was still closed. So the powers that be decided it was time to refresh our skins-skills (or to learn them in my case!). Twenty minutes later, huffing and puffing we were looking down at a lovely descent through the trees back to the bottom. A very nice run, all bar one of us managing to avoid the bear-trap holes left by the river we passed alongside. The sun came out a few times and viz at this stage was good.
The top gondola was not to open today. Instead, we rode the ‘new’ chair lift a couple of times, wind increasing and viz reducing, but had fun and challenging descents back to mid-station. A late lunch at “Kong Dory Restaurant” – for us a rather bizarre step into an atmospheric, if rather cold, Indian restaurant in an alpine environment.
A post lunch skin in low viz gave us a second go at the descent through the trees, but this time bearing slightly left, taking us directly to the steps of the Highlands Park Hotel, where well earned beers beckoned. Getting stiff, cold ski boots on again proved rather a challenge for us, but a short ski/walk got us back to Nedou’s hotel well in time for a clean up prior to another great curry dinner.
Rated ten out of ten by me!
Day 6 –
We awoke to fresh snowfall on Day 3. Today would bring true meaning to the word ‘Adventure’ as on arrival to the gondola base station we found all lifts to be closed. I was informed that the lower gondola ‘might’ open, but is currently closed for wind & avalanche control at the top.
With snow falling non-stop, we prepped the skis with skins & climbed the tree lined, powder filled ‘Monkey hill’. On first climb this took us 40mins & Dave guided us down the front side, although only a short descent, the snow was fantastic, with fresh powder for all. It soon become clear to all that ‘M.H’ would provide a days worth of adventure skiing, no problem.
Second time up we reduced climb time to 32mins as everyone got acclimatised & found their skinning legs. This time we went over the back, this brought not only more tree lined powder, but a much longer descent bottoming out at the road below Gulmarg village. A short walk up & we arrived into the bedlam of the village & rush hour Gulmarg style. We were swiftly directed & recommended the nearby restaurant (probably by the owners cousin!) the food ‘again’ was fab, hot & sour soup, veg pakora, rogan josh, veg biryani & we were recharged & ready for run 3.
Some tired legs called it a day at 2 climbs, whilst a smaller splinter group went for the third & final attempt with blistering skinning times put down. Dave C – 16mins, Lee T – 18mins, Steve L – 20mins (fastest non-pro!) Ian H – 25mins, Bridget C – 29mins, & Tony & Andy – creeping in just inside the 30min disqualification time. A brilliant performance from all & rewarded with a third & final run down to the road side where this time we had pre-arranged for a taxi to be waiting to whisk us back to Nedou’s. Top day done! It should also be noted that after lunch the bottom gondola was open, but the remaining clients voted for a third climb as apposed to gondola ride. Good work team.
Quote of the day from Ian Holten ‘Best day yet’
Day 7 –
Words by sophomore Snoworks adventurer Paul Coverdale
The 4th day of skiing here was a day that encapsulated a Snoworks adventure trip perfectly, with the emphasis firmly on adventure. After a few days of mainly low cloud and visibility – but lots of lovely fresh snow – today dawned to the unusual sight of blue sky and a strange yellow ball in the sky so everyone took the opportunity for some photographs outside Nedous.
As expected, the conditions meant that the gondola and chair lift were both closed for the day while ski patrol made the area safe. So following yesterday’s epic assault on Monkey Hill Lee and Dave decided to employ the services of two local Kashmiri “guides”, Shabir and Javid to take us to the village of Barbereshi lower down the valley. A promised taxi to take us to the drop in through the trees never materialised so a 30 minute hike through knee deep powder warmed everybody up nicely. Following a minor discussion over our guide’s avalanche equipment – they didn’t have any(!) – the group commenced our descent in untracked powder. Despite Lee’s exhortations to simply take the fall line and enjoy, Javid, our half of the group’s guide, seemed intent on demonstrating his finest traversing skills. It should be pointed out that he was excellent at this.
As we swooped and hollered down through the many totemic trees, branches drooping with laden snow, it soon became obvious where the freezing level lay during the recent snowfalls. The light fluffy icing sugar of the top half gave way to heavy cake mixture about the same time as the weather closed in again. Dave’s group reached the road at the bottom to find themselves suffering the skiers’ bête noire, rain. Undeterred, after another wait for taxis (which arrived this time) and an entertaining bump up the road to the start we went for another and better run as the rain thankfully turned to snow.
By this time it was after 2 o’clock so lunch was eagerly devoured in possibly the only restaurant in Islamic Kashmir to have a hanging of the Last Supper on the wall! With great reluctance it was decided to part company with our guides, despite their excellent service (well they were very good at shouting), but keep our taxi drivers, and head back up the valley for a final attempt at Monkey Hill to take advantage of the fresh snow. We started at 4.15 and less than 30 minutes later all 14 of us – a first for ever in the history of Snoworks Kashmir – arrived at the top ready for the final descent. What followed is what Snoworker’s dream of and certainly the deepest powder I have ever skied in through stunning scenery.
As an extra bonus in the evening we decamped to another local lodge to hear an avalanche awareness talk by Brian Ferguson, an American who has run ski patrol here for the last 5 years. The preponderance of antipodean accents, dreadlocks and beards only served to remind me that Gulmarg remains a pioneer’s resort only explored by an adventurous few and the lack of infrastructure is all part of its unique charm.
Day 8 –
This storm is unbelievable! Whilst snow-forecast (lie-forecast) claims 10cm of snow, it has snowed virtually non stop for 4 days & we can barely see the hotel, or K-Block for the banks of snow. Today after yesterdays local ‘guide’ experiences we decided to collar the same taxi drivers as yesterday & go for a repeat of venues just under the leading of Dave & I.
The snow was of course replenished to the point of untracked, the wind & slight temperature drop had produced lighter snow on the descents to ‘Barbereshi’. With fantastic snow, semi-efficient taxi’s with spectacular driving skills, bearing in mind these ‘Tata’ trucks have 2 wheel drive & 1 or 2 snow chains depending on how lucky you are! We were in for another memorable Indian ski experience.
Following our duet of Barbereshi runs we looked at the clock & collectively decided lunch would have to be sacrificed for the pleasures that lay on our now ‘speed-skin’ favourite ‘M.H’. Again it delivered, this time with P.B ascents & yet another fresh powder tree lined ski on our 7th descent of this hill, this trip.
Quote of the day this time coming from our illustrious Guide Dave Cummings ‘That was the best powder & most enjoyable pitch I have had this season’
I guess if I asked Phil Smith (Snoworks director) to market the Kashmir adventure trip on the strap line the clients created after today’s experience we wouldn’t sell many courses!
Sales quote – “3 runs, no lunch, no lifts, curry for breakfast & dinner & finish at 6-30pm. Book now!”
But the 14 clients here this year are fully signed up & loving every bit of it! Each day gets better & better. Who needs lifts!
Day 9 –
We woke to blue sky, sunshine & dispersing clouds for the first time in 4 days & all prayed to Allah for some mechanical mountain climbing assistance today. We were granted just the bottom gondola, but epic views of the entire mountain & great photo opportunities. After Dave & I had a quick word with Brian (head of mountain security & piste patrol) we decided to skin out wide to the river valley that would give us a gentle tree lined first run & more untracked powder. The risk of avalanche was very obvious from above, with reports that a large one had taken out the entire water supply for Gulmarg, we were on guard.
Whilst skiing the same tree lined river valley that we had done on Monday, we not only came across local workers digging out the damaged water supply pipes, but also obvious tree damage from the avalanche.
With our second ride up phase 1 of the gondola it became quite clear that neither the chair nor phase 2 of the gondola would open today, so we formulated a plan to skin up ‘Mary’s Shoulder’.
This would prove to be the best plan of the day & right up there as one of the best of the week, as with only about 6 skiers ahead of us after a 45min skin up we were all supplied with the freshest & near deepest powder to date. Clients whooping & a hollering their way down the face as I tried to capture their delight on video & Dave swept up at the back.
We are really having to work to earn our turns this year, but that just made them all the more enjoyable.
A quick bite of lunch & up the shoulder again, this time with a well needed & productive ‘Kick-turn’ clinic from Mr Dave.
And how could we possibly finish the day without a quick run on our now hill of choice, the infamous ‘M.H’. A few ducking out & opting for relaxing back at the hotel under the flawless service skills of Mr Sofi.
Our last evening meal at Nedous was, as ever, a fabulous Indian buffet with rice, breads & 6 dishes of varying spice, vegetables & meats. Concluding the evening with a presentation of parcels & Courchevel world cup hats to thank all ‘27’ staff!
At ‘Nedous’ hotel you don’t just feel welcomed, you feel at home.
Day 10 –
Words by multi-Adventurers Julia & Andrew Hather
Our final day in Gulmarg – programmed as an ‘optional’ ½ day skiing, what would it bring! Our house boy Rashid arrived early with our morning tea, which must have been a good omen. It was another ‘blue sky’ day – we hoped that the chairlift would be open and maybe there would be a small chance phase 2 of the gondola would open later.
After taking the first phase of the gondola, there was an air of excitement – the rumour was that the second phase would open in ‘1 hour’. The clear skies gave us our first opportunity to see the entire Gulmarg ski area, you could really see the potential of the region – it was just a pity we had to leave later in the day. The group decided to enjoy the sunshine and await the upper gondola, a small group had a quick blast back down to the base station, whilst the rest stood around chatting. Brian and his group of ski patrollers headed up and onto to the ridge and we spent about 90mins watching them dynamite the controlled area. Despite all the discussion on wind loading and avalanche safety not one of the blasts triggered a release – the ski patrol announced the controlled area was open and the ticket office opened.
Our ‘man’ in the ticket queue soon sorted out tickets and we joined the throng of excited boarders and skiers waiting to climb into the second phase. Another 45mins later we were aboard the gondola, the weather was starting to close in but there was enough visibility to see the slopes below looked great to ski.
At the top at last, it’s amazing that a 3hour wait can pass so quickly. We divided into two groups for safety and we were off following Dave into the gloom. The snow was a little heavier and more wind packed than the deep powder we had enjoyed in the trees, but Dave sniffed out some lovely pockets of soft snow as we descended from over 4000m. We crossed over some avalanche debris and enjoyed fresh tracks back to the midstation. As we arrived they announced the second phase was now closed due to avalanche safety so we continued down to the base station – over 1350m of vertical in just one run, wow!
Time was running out for us in Gulmarg, and we all decided that after such a great run down the mountain there really wasn’t time for a quick ‘Monkey’. Half the group hired men with sledges for a race to the top of the hill – my man won and he earned his winning 100 Rupees. After a quick drink in the bar – we returned to Nedous for a quick change and into our taxis for the trip to Lake Dal. It was sad to leave Gulmarg, it had given so much and yet there was so much more on offer when the weather is good.
Our trip to Lake Dal was somewhat uneventful, although we did travel Indian style for the first hour with 9 people in a 7 seater taxi, but who could refuse a lift to Amir and one of the other Nedou house staff. We approached Lake Dal at dusk, and were whisked away to our houseboats on small ‘gondola’ type boats, the H.B Shanez had intricate woodcarvings and the luxury of oil fired Burkhari’s. The group was split over 3 boats, and Pete, Chris, Andy and I had the only non-curry meal of the week, we’re not sure whether he forgot the chilli powder but the beef stew and grilled chicken was very welcome. A couple of sellers descended onto the boat, and after a little haggling a pashmina was bought!
It has been an amazing day – less than 6hours earlier we had been at 4000m and now we were settling down in a wooden houseboat. Where else could you have such an experience than a Snoworks adventure holiday!!
‘An ode to Monkey’ – to the tune of ‘Hey Hey we are the Monkeys’
Here we come, skinning up the street
Past the festering toilet, where you wouldn’t pee
We’re skinning the monkey, and then we’ll ski the backside right down
We hope our taxis waiting, cos we don’t like hanging around.
The drivers are friendly, they’ve always got something to say
It’ll cost you five hundred rupees, and you’ll sit in traffic all day
We’re skinning the monkey, with Lee and fabulous Dave
With deep, steep snow and tree skiing, the Snoworks group are here to play.
The last day of the 2012 India adventure would be a laid back, leisurely boat tour of ‘Dal lake’ with the lake draped & encircled with snow capped Himalayas & local Kashmiries selling their wares from boat to boat, it was a relaxing wind down from the activity of the previous 7 days’ skiing. With a few clients investing in some local produce & souvenirs, we then left the comfort of our houseboats for the madness of Srinagar airport.
As you pass the countless army soldiers behind metal guard shields, holding AK47’s you approach the first of 3 x-ray & security stations. How complete chaos & bedlam can go hand in hand with stringent airport security defeats me, however these guys seem to pull it off!
After form filling, x-ray machines, luggage tagging, checking, re-checking & identifying we boarded one of the non-cancelled Kingfisher flights back to Delhi, where we were met by our ground team chief ‘Randhir’ who expertly guided us around the ‘India Gate’ & surrounding points of interest before heading to a fabulous restaurant for our final meal together. We then took the short shuttle back to the hotel where Dave & I wrapped up proceedings with a photo slide show & a final Kingfisher.
If reading this Blog, flicking through the pictures, skiing past Indian army guys with AK’s or the thought of experiencing the best hospitality & powder the Himalayas have to offer then give Linda or Gaynor a call & put your name down for 2013.
My final word goes as many thanks to all involved, Linda, Phil, Wild World India, Mountain Adventures India, all at Nedous & a special thanks to co-leader & mountain guide extraordinaire Dave Cumming.
Lee.TKashmir (3) Off-Piste Skiing Kashmir (3)