I have a wee dilemma on my hands here. There is this incredible place to ski that I discovered with friends and normally I would never make its whereabouts public on the World Wide Web. But, you see, this particular place is rather removed and the local people are crying out for visitors to kick start tourism again in this black listed part of the world. If you hadn’t guessed, it is Kashmir. But inside I’ll give you the finer details.
Kashmir, and Gulmarg in particular has grown in profile in the last few years through publicity in ski magazines, movies, and word of mouth. After 2 weeks in Gulmarg this February, we were eager to escape the 250 strong crowd that patronizes the Gulmarg slopes in peak periods and get off the beaten track to take advantage of the endless skiing and solitude that the Great Himalaya range offers.
I had arranged to meet up with Ptor Spricenieks in Gulmarg and plan a mission into the backcountry. Yaseen from the Kashmir Alpine Shop suggested we visit Aru in the Pahalgam Valley, 300kms from Srinagar. Pahalgam was at one point a jewel in the tourist crown that Kashmir boasted, but with the militant war that ignited in the early 90’s, it has since largely fallen off the map. In many regards barely on the map is the small, end of the road village of Aru that we found ourselves in a few days later.
A hamlet of 300 people, Aru sits perched at the head of the valley, 16kms above Pahalgam, underneath towering snow-capped mountains with old growth forest clinging to them like ivy. It has a small mosque, half a dozen guesthouses, a general store and is cutoff for long periods of time in the winter when the road closes due to snow. Upon opening the guest book at our guesthouse, we learnt we were the first guests since October 2008.
Yaseen put us in contact with Fayaz who is the proprietor of the Milkyway Guest house in Aru. A pious and gentle man, Fayaz entertained us throughout the evening, showing us his maps of the mountains surrounding the village and inviting a musician friend to come and play Kashmiri music. Over dinner he answered our questions about the conflict in Kashmir and became impassioned when discussing the bureaucracy of the Kashmiri Government. Articulating his simple desire to be allowed to live in peace and provide for his wife and twin children, it was a sharp reminder of the difficulty the people of Kashmir live with every day. It was also stark contrast to the violent Kashmir depicted in travel advisories and in the greater media. It seemed the people we encountered only ever wanted to be allowed to live their lives.
The next morning as we readied to leave, we discovered our kerosene was more water than fossil fuel so we drank more tea and waited while Fayaz drove to Pahlgam to get petrol. Fayaz’s son, Amar quickly discovered our skis and with all the curiosity and excitement that only children have, played while we gazed at the slopes above town. A few weeks earlier and we could have ski toured from the guesthouse, but we were keen to find ourselves some wilderness.
The plan was for 6 of us, (Ptor, Karin, Roddy, Catlin, Stevie and myself) to venture up the Lidder River valley and see what we found. At the head of the valley stands Kolohoi Mountain topping out at 5400m. Along the way weas also a clump of decrepit huts used in the summer known as Lidderwadd. With no idea what lay out there and no beta to guide us, we finally shouldered our packs at midday and began our foray into what was to us, the unknown.
Following a shepherd and trekking road along the side of the valley at ~3500m we soon found ourselves in our element. Our plan to reach Lidderwadd was thwarted by the late start and an impending storm so we made camp a few clicks before Lidderwadd by a shepherd’s hut. The snow was falling heavily and by dinner the tents were already buried with ~10cms. Over soup we made bets on how much would fall; everyone was convinced that we were in for at least 30cms, and the majority of us dreamt big with 50+.
The next morning dawned bluebird, but no more than 20cms had fallen and over porridge we watched as the sunlit cliff opposite us on the other side of the river shed the newly accumulated snow in big arching avalanches and sloughs. We decided to leave camp where it was and tour up the valley a little further to try and gain some elevation in order to get a view of what surrounded us. Given that this is the Himalaya, it goes without saying that everything is huge. Far bigger than you think even after you recalibrate your “how big?” gauge. We were in for some big days.
We followed the valley for a few kilometers, passing Lidderwadd, before beginning a steep skin track up through the forest. The going was tough since the higher we went, the more pillows we encountered and were forced to thread our way through. Being north facing, the snow had stayed preserved and with the fresh dump from the last night, it was knee to thigh deep.
By the time we reached the tree line the weather had come in again and we couldn’t see anything. That was fine though because we were now ~800m above the valley floor and standing at the top of a long snaking couloir.
In true Ptor style, we skied it top to bottom, gasping for breath from the altitude and faceshots at the top and then again from the burn and slightly heavier conditions at the bottom. All day we only skied one run, but it was incredible.
It snowed another 15 that night and cracked bluebird again the next day. It was agreed that we would venture up another drainage and explore what we could up there for the day. I wasn’t so fortunate, however, managing to fall in the river 30 minutes from camp. And I mean really fell in the river. I will detail it here much to my embarrassment only so that hopefully you will never do what I did.
Ptor pioneered a crossing that went up and over a 2ft wide log and then side stepped down onto a pillow that connected to a more solid expanse of snow that led to the other side. It was technical and about 6ft above the babbling waters of the river.
The rest of us decided to look for something a little less extreme and continued up stream. At one point not much further, we thought we were in luck and I stopped to take a picture. They had to go around the corner it seemed to get onto the bridge and so I waited for them to come into view. They didn’t. They discovered that it wasn’t going to work either and continued up stream. I had no idea, and after 10 mins guessed as much and decided to go back to Ptor’s original crossing. Ptor was now up on the bank, inspecting the huts at Lidderwadd and out of hearing distance, especially with the noise of the flowing river.
So I stepped up and crossed the log which was fine, but when it came time to side stepping down, the snow under the tail of my ski gave way and next thing I was tumbling head first into the river. Thankfully I did’t hit my head, and I stood up quick enough so as to not soak all the camera gear in my pack, but now I was knee deep in water. I was soaked from head to toe. I climbed out the side from which I had come and preceded to call for someone’s attention while pouring a liter out of each of my boots. No one could hear me and it wasn’t until Ptor came to see where the hell we were that I got his attention. I was out. I needed to get back to camp and start a fire and dry my gear if I was going to get out of there with all my toes intact.
Thankfully it was sunny at the time. I sprinted back to camp, stripped off and started a fire in the small clay fireplace inside the shepherds hut. Hanging my boots to dry, I then set about collecting more wood and traipsed around with my skis and skins, boots with no liners or socks, a G3 Bonesaw and iceaxe, hacking to pieces anything that looked dry. It was my “Into the Wild” moment.
But learn from my mistakes. Do not cross rivers without company. Don’t take risks when crossing rivers, even when with company. Even though the river wasn’t deep and there was no chance of being washed away, the fact that it was shallow means I was lucky not to hit my head.
All that aside, I managed to dry out all my gear by dinner and while I smelt of smoke, I was good to ski the next and final day of the trip.
Once again, it stormed that night and left ~10cms of fresh for us to savor. The crew had had such a good time while I was fishing myself out of the river that they decided to go back. On the shady northern aspect, the skin track from the day before was only just visible and breaking trail was as laborious as I have ever experienced. For hours we hiked up through perfectly spaced trees. The weather stayed clear and we went above their high point from the day before.
Topping out on a sharp ridge, we had a crystal clear view to the northeast of the jagged Kolohoi Mountain. All around us was sublime skiing and we were humbled by the shear size of the mountains here. We were still only two thirds of the way to the top of the peaks surrounding us. To bag a summit here would be a huge day with most of it breaking trail through thigh deep powder.
For the time being though we had a few thousand feet of powder at our disposal. Dropping in gave way to a few minutes of surfy skiing. In only a few places are you so aware of how big the mountains are as you descend that you have time to notice you are still skiing and still have more to go. This was definitely one of those places.
The next day we broke camp reluctantly under one of those hot, reflected heat, overcast skies that is not particularly motivating and leaves you feeling lethargic. It was the perfect kind of day for leaving because there is little to stay as for since the temperature had spiked, making the skiing either heavy or dangerous. We skied back to Aru across a frozen crust, skating without skins along the flat sections of the road. We arrived in Aru in the early afternoon and were greeted by groups of lazy men crouched over kangris to keep themselves warm, smoking hash from hookas.
Fayeez welcomed us back to his guesthouse for lunch, excited to hear about our trip. Thanking Allah for our safe return, he was most pleased that we had enjoyed ourselves and proud that we had declared Aru a world-class destination for skiing. Ever the optimist he hoped that this would mean more skiers would come to stay in his guesthouse and begin to revive the flow of tourism that his father had enjoyed before the war scared foreigners away from Kashmir.
And for that reason I feel compelled to spill the beans on our discovery. It’s not often I feel that my gloating about how good we had it might actually help someone in need. Yaseen’s Kashmir Alpine is a good portal for organizing logistics and finding information on Kashmir. Ptor is also considering guiding trips to Aru if you like the sound of what you read.