Bret Shandro has been globe-trotting a bit lately, he’s sent me this update of his travels in Gulmarg Kashmir near the disputed Pakistan/India border. Using his charm and wit he has made some new friends and found a new splitboarding essential, bugger the fancy poles and ice axe Bret has stepped up to an AK47!!! Read on to see what he experienced up there……
Last winter in New Zealand, I financially caved and gave into a few years of longing for a splitboard. The board arrived days before New Zealand’s first Splitfest at Temple Basin, impeccable timing. At which Rich from SplitN2 introduced me to the Spark Blaze bindings and the Spark Deeluxe splitboard specific boots. Compared to traditional snowboard bindings bolted to a rail plate, the Spark bindings are a serious improvement in two aspects. One being weight saved, this is especially noticeable when the skin track ends and the board is strapped to the back for the hike up the coulior. Second, with the spark bindings you are now standing on the board at the same or similar level as your solid board setup.
Many solid weekend warrior missions from home base in Christchurch, a wicked trip to the ice plateaus, Garden of Eden and Allah in search of the seasons last shred. With New Zealand snow disappearing I knew it was time to take the board traveling.
Kashmir is located between Pakistan and India, one of the areas of the atlas where the solid bold lines identifying countries turns to dashed lines, Bill Clinton in 2000 referred to as the ‘most dangerous place on earth’. For decades war has been a major problem and reality for residents of Kashmir, recently it has become increasingly safe for visitors. A two-hour drive from the capital of Srinigar is Gulmarg, a backcountry playground. A gondola that allows cheap access to the alpine over 4000m, and it snows. A lot. Powder, three hundred and fifty degrees of backcountry terrain accessible from the top gondola station, and adventure of being in Kashmir.
First day riding in Gulmarg racked up nearly 5000m vertical, second, third, etc. days were much of the same.
One of the coolest things about riding in Gulmarg is the ease of finding fresh turns, all day and even days after a dump! For me two missions stand out, Summit line off Shark’s fin and the major couloirs on Sunset Peak.
Sharks Fin is approximately a 30-40 min ridgeline skin from the gondola. From the summit, the most natural line starts off close to fifty degrees, a few gripping turns before mellowing out allowing you to fully enjoy the This is the furthest 99% of the people riding Affarwat venture out, therefore finding fresh turns requires very little effort, that is what the splitboard is for right?
The first mountain that stares you down upon exiting the gondola from atop Affarwat is Sunset Peak. Normally accessed by Gulmarg Heli Ski, but the main couloir on Sunset Peak seemed like an achievable day mission, and a suitable finale for the season in Gulmarg. After unsuccessfully attempting to bribe the gondola operators, getting off to a less then alpine start at 1030 am. From the top of Affarwat we descended/traversed the icy windswept less popular face, arriving at the base of the massive ridge leading up towards Sunset Peak. Five hours of skinning and sunburn later we stood just shy of 4000m looking up major coulior of Sunset Peak. Huge grins emerged as we realized the powder was waist deep in some places! Mostly climbed with skins on except for a steeper section that encroached 40 degrees and thankfully would be wide enough to link big comfortable turns together. A short pause on top to snap a few pictures and stare off into the flats of what we assumed to be the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. The descent alone would have made travelling to Kashmir worthwhile! Below 3500 meters the snow turned a pleasant combination of slush and corn that again reminded us this was the last day riding for the season. The descent included stopping at an Indian army base for Chai and conversation with the Indian officer. Leaving the Indian army base with an hour of sunlight remaining, we made it back to Gulmarg to a feast of delicious curries.
However, Gulmarg is not immune to bad weather and sometimes or even often the alpine wind is just too much, and visitors usually make one of two choices; A ride steep pillow lines off the side of the road. Or B, retreat to a hotel room to smoke hash or pop – available only in India strength over the counter – painkillers. The popularity of choice B leaves plenty of untouched powder days after big dumps, accessible in under 30 minutes!
The two options when the alpine wind is howling are Monkey Hill and Babarashi. Monkey Hill, however completely devoid of monkeys, is a ten to twenty minute skin up Monkey Hill offers fantastic tree lines and for some weird reason hardly anyone rides the backside, fresh turns! Also, Down hill, and down the road from Gulamrg is the village of Babarashi. Drop in almost anywhere along this road for perfectly spaced tree runs in deep powder. Inshallah!