Gulmarg’s Great Ski Bum Days Are Over

On his third trip to Kashmir’s legendary Gulmarg, Sam Leitch finds the glory ski bum days are over, the craziness is next level, and more than ever, always be competent, never complacent – avalanche death awaits if not.

Put that aside, and you get this..

Sam on the charge at Gulmarg © Alex Meinic

2023 was a wild year in Gulmarg. January lacked the huge snowfalls that avalanche and flush out the depth hoar in the Alpine. So when it dumped in late January the snowpack had a persistent weak layer. Brian Newman, the snow safety officer for the gondola company, made this info known.

However, Gulmarg operates under a European style model. There are no ropes or patrollers that will stop you venturing out of bounds to get the run of your life. Or die looking for it..

Which is exactly what happened this season. Although being guided by a registered guide, who expressly told them to stay in his track on the ridgeline, some eastern European clients couldn’t resist and dropped into the steep terrain trap called “Shaggy’s Bowl”

The Kashmiri name is “Sheenmai Bowl”, which means Avalanche Bowl. And who is Shaggy? An unfortunate Aussie guy who made an easy mistake in 2008. In the Himalaya life is cheap, and it’s very easy to underestimate risk.

I made a similar mistake in 2012, but got away from it. Sadly this year the two guys died, and I spoke to an Australian father/son duo from Sydney who were involved in the rescue.

They were above on a ridgeline when it occurred, and ended up digging out the dead bodies.

Welcome to the Himalaya, where you can be swatted to death like a fly.

So I waited. And hung out with Billa Bakshi. Billa is an OG (Original Guide) here, who started Kashmir Heliski. The heli ski didn’t operate this year, but he’ll be back in 2024. 

Instead, Billa guided from the gondola and I tagged along with his groups, who tended to be high level western europeans. We had a great time, with the backcountry stabilising in mid-February and regular small tops ups of snow up high.

When I first went to Gulmarg it was quite peaceful. Most of the sightseeing tourists from southern India came in summer. Now? Snow selfies are a massive thing on Insta and Tik Tok. Hundreds of sightseeing tourists jostle in the gondola queue with the local Kashmiri guides and western ski bums and guides

 As a season pass holder ($AUD 800) I had the privilege of going straight to the front and pushing in with the “guides”. Much to the dismay of day pass holders who had been queuing for hours

Acomodation prices have tripled – like $30 a night has become $100 a night at least, and subsequently there are less ski bums.

The Gulmarg village is now a chaotic miasma of rubbish and dog turd on the roads.

The walk to the gondola in the morning involves an icy road and endless stoned taxi drivers missing you by 30cm at 70kph with their hand on the horn.

You can grab a tow behind on skis and meet some nice local tourists though. I did. Don’t think they would allow it at home in Hotham.

Once you’re at the top of the gondola, with the village kilometres away and the Himalaya warping your vision, the contrast could not be more insane. Endless terrain stretches a few kilometres from both sides of the Gondy. With very few cliffed out zones. A few hundred western skiers and guides ski the giant bowls and ridge lines.

The hundreds of sightseeing tourists sit at the summit, ignoring the Himalaya and dancing on rocks making tik tok videos. Soldiers with machine guns head off on exercise.

One time I got off and found the sliding door to get outside inexplicably closed. The other way out involved a convoluted walk through a restaurant. So I opened it. A lifty slammed it shut and glared at me. I opened it again. He slapped me. So I leaned against the wall with my skis and punched him in the forehead. 

“Why you do that?” he yelled.

Billa got out of the next gondola to find me holding ski poles tip first at the face of the unruly lift operator.

“What the fuck is with this guy?” I asked.

Billa just smiled and said, “That’s my cousin and he wants you to walk through his restaurant!”

We made friends after..

More info: https://www.kashmirheliski.in

Loaded Rigeline , gulmarg © Sam Leitch