Wednesday 25th Feb
Pow day – 2 x Monkey Hill laps, 1 long, 1 medium. 1 x mid-station lap and 1 Baba Reshi lap. Wet slide.
This is a long post, so get comfortable...... This day definitely had it all. We did a lot of skiing on different areas on the mountain. It was another powder day, we’d had about a foot of snow overnight and there was supposed to be more snow during the day. The visibility was poor up high, so again no chance of the chairlift or upper gondola being open. Luke Smithwick, head of the snow safety team was keen to take some time off and make some turns in with us, so we were looking forward to that.
The plan was to take a couple of laps on Monkey Hill and get first tracks there. If we had Luke with us then we’d be able to keep a good ear out IF the chairlift was opening, so we felt our chances of getting first tracks there too (if it opened) would be good. It was just Andrew and I, Jeelani was having a later start and would meet us on the second lap and Nigel was suffering from the flu, so he was also having a later start. Brennan’s crew was also having a later start as Brint had some work to do.
They hadn’t cleared the road down from the Khyber yet (they have teams of men clearing the road by hand) so the skiing was really nice on the way down to the start of the Monkey Hill skin track. We started hiking and made it to the top in about 30 minutes. We wanted to ski a longer line, so we went all the way to the summit and a little further out to the skier’s right. It was completely untouched. I felt it fitting to let Andrew drop in first and get first tracks. He jumped in and after I started to lose sight of him, I dropped in after him.
The turns were great, nice and smooth and deep enough. We weren’t getting faceshots but it was still great skiing and only our tracks were on it. We got down to the road and skitched back to the start. We’d had a call from Brennan that they were out and about, along with Nigel and Jeelani. Jeelani had his radio on so we arranged to meet at the top.
Sure enough when we got to the top they were waiting for us. We dropped in a little more skier’s left so we could get back to the road easier and wouldn’t have as far to skate back to the gondola. Again, it was another nice run. We got down to the bottom and headed back to the gondola. Brennan and his group were down at the bottom and they had Luke with them. We decided to mix it up and go for a ride up the gondola and do a mid-station lap. The bottom of the gondola had just opened so we could do a nice easy run down.
The wind was howling when we got off the gondola so none of us wanted to go too far past the patrol HQ which would have meant traversing under potential large slide paths. No one wanted anything to do with that so we dropped in just left of the mid-station and the turns were surprisingly good. Brennan took some shots and we hammed it up for the cameras. It was a fun ski down, having Luke on board with us and the whole group together, we were in high spirits and there was much tomfoolery. In the distance, we could hear some scary rumbling noises, it sounded like some big avalanches were coming down from the top of the mountain……
We skied down under the old chairlift line and found untouched snow. I poached the line as everyone was talking about where to ski (no friends on a powder day!), maybe they needed me to show them how it was done? Anyway, it was a lot of fun and we were all high fiving by the end. It was still early and we had plenty of daylight left, but where would we go next? We’d already lapped Monkey Hill and with all the scary noises coming from the upper mountain, we wanted to stay away from there. So, there was only one choice really, Baba Reshi! Brennan hadn’t been there yet (as well as none of the clients), so it would be a welcome change. Everyone knew that it could be a bit of a junk show getting back up the road, but they were ok with that.
So, we were going to roll the dice and head over to Baba Reshi. We’d need to get to the drop in zone. That either means walking (or skating, I’ve done that before and it’s not super fun….) for a mile and a half or we’d need to find a taxi. Most of the taxis were already being used by other groups so it took us a while. Finally we got one out the front of Jeelani’s ski shop. There was a big traffic jam as we put our skis on the roof of the taxi (we were also a bit guilty of holding up the traffic as we loaded up our gear…… oops!). Anyway, were all piled in and it was a really tight fit, 9 guys and all our gear in one Tata Sumo, a new record!
We got passed the market and then we started having trouble getting up the small hill. One of the chains was really banging on the underside of the vehicle and the driver had had to stop twice to try and tighten the chain (normally the vehicles crap out on the drive BACK UP to Gulmarg, not on the way to the drop in point….!). Finally, with a loud bang the chain finally came off and got spat out behind the vehicle. That left the tire spinning on the road (it wasn’t all snow, some of the bitumen was exposed) and we were doing a massive slow burnout up the hill. The smell of burning rubber was over-powering, we nearly had to get out and walk but the driver finally made it to the top of the hill and we were able to get out at the start of Baba Reshi.
It was a big relief to be able to breathe in fresh air again. The burning tire was nearly too much for some of the crew. There was a small path leading further up the closed section of the road and Luke was keen to show us a zone further away. There was another group getting dropped off at the same spot and we took off together. Luke was keen to lead us to a zone further up the path, so we followed him for about 10 minutes before we got to the potential drop in zone. The other group kept going and we lost sight of them.
Looking at the top of the drop in point, the zone looked steep, really steep, surprisingly steep! We had about a 6 foot drop off a wall, onto a somewhat flat landing before we even got to turning. It was hard to tell how much snow was on it too. It definitely had our attention. Looking at it, everyone was pretty pumped. This would be a challenging ski, easily the steepest line we would be skiing. Calmer heads needed to prevail so Luke and I called a bit of a huddle and we came up with a bit of a plan. We’d need to ski it one at a time, with eyes on. I agreed to go first, the proverbial guinea pig. I really didn’t fancy having to do the jump in, but there were no other close options to get into the line.
So, I was going first. It took me a little psyching up before the drop, then finally I called out, “3, 2, 1 drop” and off I went. The landing was a little softer than I thought and I managed to stay on my feet, then I had to go straight into a right turn. I started the turn but then something wasn’t right, I had turned my skis across the hill but I was still moving downhill. The ground was moving. I hadn’t initially realized it but I was caught in a wet slide, the snow was thick and heavy and I couldn’t get out of it, my skis were like anchors as the snow pulled me downhill on my side. I couldn't get up onto my feet. My only hope was that the snow wasn’t too deep and I could somehow dig in with my edges and stop myself. I was worried that the snow was going to send my down the really steep part to my left, I couldn’t see what was down there but I was thinking that would be bad……
There was a tree coming up below me, if I could slow down, I could use that to stop me. Digging my edges in even further, I got to the tree and I managed to slow myself and stop. What a relief. The rest of the snow kept moving downhill to my left. I was fine, a little shaken but ok. I’d been taken over a buried rubbish dump as well, the smell was pretty bad and there was trash everywhere. Nasty……
Anyway, I got up and surveyed the scene. I still had most of the face to ski. There were still pockets of deeper snow on the face and they were sliding off as soon as you touched them. Then I heard a noise from above and for some reason, Philipp had dropped in as well. I was still on the face and not in a good spot. Then he yelled out a warning, there was more snow coming down. Thankfully it slid down past me to my right. I yelled back at him not to move anymore and to let me get out of the zone.
So, now I had to move. It was steep and I couldn’t go fast as there were some rocks on the face and I had to avoid those. I had to pick my way down the face and finally I found my way down. I skied through the run out, there were several debris piles. I traversed left and past a large debris pile. That was from the slide I was briefly in. It was larger than I thought it would be. If I had been caught in that, then that could have been bad.
The rest of the guys gradually made their way down. We all met up in a flatter spot well away from the steep face. It was time to talk about what had gone wrong. Well, in our youthful exuberance and high spirits, we’d definitely been too complacent about our line choice. It was a really steep line, too steep for the recent heavy wet snow. That new snow hadn’t had time to bond yet and we shouldn’t have been on that face in hindsight. The face was short but it had some consequences; there were trees in the mix and some rocks on the face. It could have gone worse for me. So, in hindsight, we should have chosen an easier line; we’d ski more suitable terrain in Baba Reshi before and should have done something similar this time. It was the human factor (having been having fun all day and therefore being in high spirits) that made us not question the line.
I was upset with myself at being so eager to jump in and not stop and think about it more. We probably all felt too safe together as a group. I wasn’t sure why Philipp had dropped into the line whilst I was still on it. Why he was told to go, I don’t know why that happened. At least he had the foresight to give me a yell when he had dropped in and kicked off another small slide. I know Luke was definitely questioning his line choice as well, but again, we all chose to knowingly ski it, so I don’t apportion any blame to him.
So, I think most of us were upset with ourselves after that. The mood was definitely more subdued on the ride back to Gulmarg. That was as close as a call as I wanted to have. Only 2 more days of skiing to go and then I could relax somewhat. I was ready for a break…….