G’day to everyone at Epic.
Here’s a pretty detailed account of our trips to Gulmarg this season. Now, I’ll give the immediate disclaimer that this is a sponsored post, we will be posting about the trips we ran last season to Gulmarg with our clients for The Adventure Project, but I’ll try and do it from my perspective and try not turn this into a major marketing piece. Hopefully there will be some decent information for those looking to conduct their own trips to Gulmarg and I have absolutely no problem with people asking me questions, even if you were not interested in one of our trips. I’ll always try to help anyone going to Gulmarg for the first time, as I’ve done before; it’s good to have any advice if you’ve never been there. There may be a few mentions to Grace Skis in there as well, I apologize for that; Grace are our ski sponsor and we had designed a ski specifically for Gulmarg and we were testing them out, so there may be some reference to that. Now, there’s potentially a lot of information going to be posted, so be patient, I’ll post a couple of sections at a time so you don’t get overloaded. I'd love to hear your comments!
Living in Telluride, it’s a bit of a hike to get to Denver to start our trip, but always a fun start. In the car we had Gordon, a good friend and client returning to Gulmarg for his “second rodeo”. Gordon was the first return client we’d had, so I was excited for him and eager to see how much more at ease he was with going back to Gulmarg for a second time. It’s always pretty overwhelming going to Kashmir and Gulmarg for the first time, so I was keen to see what the difference would be for him this time. Also in the car was Karl Welter, also from Telluride. Karl is an experienced ski patroler from here in Telluride and also works for AIARE as an avalanche course conductor. Karl was on board to experience and learn the mountain, with the potential to come on board for 2013/14 as our Snow Safety Adviser, guide and avalanche safety training leader for our clients. I’d been revving the trip up to him for several months back in Telluride (which was off to a very poor season, so the thought of skiing some decent powder was an exciting prospect to all of us), so he was super keen to get out there. The drive to Denver was uneventful. We visited with Dave Liechty, owner of Grace Skis and he presented me with my new KIWI skis, a 138mm underfoot beast that would be my weapon of choice on the trip. I had them mounted with the new Salomon Guardian binding, a sidecountry touring binding I’d never tried before. They set up looked pretty aggressive, (fast in my mind), but immediately they felt really heavy. I was going to lose some weight this trip….
We checked in the next day nice and early, I’m a big believer in getting to the airport early so we have plenty of time to get sorted, hopefully the check-in people are in a good mood earlier as we always come through with a bunch of extra bags. We were flying Lufthansa and we were stoked to find out that they were going to give us the ski bag for free, that’s about a $150 saving! We are off to a great start.
We were due to fly Denver – Frankfurt direct and then change planes and fly to Delhi, this was about 16 hours of actual flight time, not including the 3 hour stopover in Frankfurt. The flight cost around $1,700 return, not too bad. Lufthansa seemed like a good choice, you actually have leg room in cattle class and all the chairs have their own entertainment system. So, an easy flight (9 hours) to Frankfurt and then plenty of time to make the connection, so Karl and I had a couple of German beers at Frankfurt.
The next flight (7 hours) proved a little more eventful; Gordon and I had an older gentleman from India sitting between us and he decided to hit his smuggled on-board Jim Bean hard. He was 1/3 of the way through it after not even an hour, plus he was getting drinks from the stewardesses. He pretty quickly got very drunk as he was drinking his Beam straight from the bottle. Then he started to try and strike up a slurring conversation with us in Indian and kept prodding and poking at us both. Needless to say, I wasn’t too appreciative of this and asked the stewardesses if we could be moved. They had extra seat so Gordon moved and our drunk friend was moved to the aisle seat, so at least we had a buffer between us. Time for some sleep!
We arrived in Delhi around 1:30am local time (1/20/13) and by the time we got out of the airport, it was closer to 3am. We had changed all our $USD into INR at the airport, you get a reasonable exchange rate (MUCH better than at the airport in the US!) and then you have all your money ready to go. Make sure you ask for some smaller bills as well as, as per usual, no one in India ever seems to have any change. Make sure you remember to pick up your bags in Delhi as they won’t be automatically put onto the next flight to Srinagar (as one of our later guests found out…it gets very complicated if that happens and your best bet is to fly back to Delhi and pick up the lost bags physically yourself…. The issue is due to having to clear the bags through customs yourself. Don't forget your bags in Delhi)
Our transportation to the Airport Hotel was waiting, so we strapped all the bags to the roof for the short 10 minute ride to the hotel. The Airport Hotel is a reasonable choice of accommodation if you have to do the overnight in Delhi, its cheap (about $70 for an air-conditioned room) and most importantly, very close to the airport. The transportation is free, but the drivers will definitely ask for a tip (200INR should be more than enough) and they include breakfast. We were meeting another new trainee guide, a snowboarder from Big Sky called Jeremy Wood and another client, Jim, the next day at the hotel. We had to be up early for our 12:30pm flight to Srinagar as it takes a long time to clear security, we always allow at least 3 hours. You’ll have to go through at least 3 or 4 x-ray machines and security checks. They take their security very seriously in India.
We met Jim and Jeremy downstairs in the hotel, had a quick breakfast and made our way back to the new International Terminal for our quick Air India flight to Srinagar. The new terminal is a big upgrade from the old terminal; it’s really clean and modern with plenty of shops inside. After we cleared security we went to the terminal and did a little shopping. Gordon went straight to McDonalds for his last Western food fix and the rest of us did some shopping. I always like to visit the pharmacy and stock up on anti-biotics (no prescription needed) and anti-diahorrea tablets. Karl had advised me to get some Forcan tablets, designed as an anti-biotic to treat worms, they also work very well to treat Delhi belly (we never advise people to take any kind of prescription medication without consulting a medical professional first!). You can also stock up on Immodium, pro-biotics and hand sanitizer, all good things to have in the med-kit. We met our final guest, Mike at the terminal, just before getting on the plane.
The flight to Srinagar is very quick, only an hour and twenty minutes. You definitely want to get a seat on the right side of the plane as you get the best views of the Himalayas. They really are amazing, I love looking at them; they go on forever and are very impressive. The terrain looks amazing, from a skier’s perspective! As quickly as you’ve gone up, it’s time to start coming down. The descent into Srinagar Airport is fun; it’s on a plateau and is also a military base. You are always going to see a lot of military personnel in Delhi, but you’ll see even more in Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir. The hangars on the outlying areas of the airport are all painted in camouflage and you’ll see plenty of MIG’s and attack heli’s parked in the hangers. Not a good time to be taking photos; you probably want to put the camera away until you are out of the airport.
You then make your way to the baggage claim and wait for your bags. The porters will come in and try and help you with your bags, you don’t really need them unless you want to tip them for their services. Finally you have to fill out another long arrival/registration form (You’ll do about 4 or 5 of those during your stay) and then it’s outside to the taxis. Our man on the ground, Bashir, was there to meet us and we had 2 jeep-style taxis. I was happy to see one of the drivers was our friend Mushtaq, one of the best drivers in Kashmir! His prowess in snow driving is legendary. Unfortunately I was not in his vehicle and had a very young-looking driver. Inevitably we ended up getting stuck a bunch of times on the drive up to the mountain. We didn’t have that driver again after that, but Mushtaq drove us a lot and definitely is the man!
As we left Srinagar, we started out into the countryside and hit the alpine road. It wasn’t long before we started to hit the snowline; it was very low this year, an excellent sign. There was a ton of snow as we got to Tangmarg, where we had a quick rest and stretch of the legs. The drive up to Gulmarg normally takes around 1 ½ hours, but with all the snow on the road and the one inexperienced driver we had, it took a lot longer. Even with chains on, our vehicle was slipping and couldn’t get out of the deep ruts so it was hard to allow passing traffic to get around us on the mountain road. It didn’t help that our driver only thought we needed one chain as well. Weird…. Anyway, we finally made it up to Gulmarg and the crew got to see their first look of the town and the mountain. I think a few jaws dropped when they finally got to see how big the mountain is. It’s impressive. We drove past the golf course, past the bottom of the gondola and up to the hotels.
Unfortunately, we were not all staying together as Mike and Jim had missed out on availability at the Hotel Heevan and were staying a little higher up at the Grand Mumtaz. The Mumtaz was the only hotel available when they booked, Gulmarg was seeing a rush on in accommodation bookings at the last minute and this was the only hotel available, so the best we could do unfortunately. I had also never been to the Mumtaz before and could not personally vouch for the hotel, other than the recommendation that our booking agent had given us. The Hotel Heevan Retreat where the rest of us were staying, we know that hotel very well after staying there the previous 2 years. The welcome you receive from the hotel is always very special, there is always a lot of handshakes and hugging that goes on and this year, we even had a cake baked for us. Lovely stuff! So, we had to quickly unpack at settle in as we had dinner and the indoor greeting and initial indoor avi safety talk to get through by the end of the night. So, a big day and the next day we would be out on the mountain. Day 2, to be continued…. Photos coming next.