Hope all is well. The winter is about to kick off for me and I'm stoked to report on what should be a pretty epic season. I decided to do a season long post as I have a ton of trips planned this year. Let me know if you would prefer me to do separate reports, I'm happy to do that. Anyway, I'm pretty excited about the upcoming season. Why? Well read on......
In January I'm heading back to Japan to do a couple of sessions in Hokkaido. I'm really excited to be returning as last season (even though the locals were pretty down on how "bad" it was), I was blown away by how much snow they get. The terrain is definitely not the steepest, but for sheer quality and amount of snow, then Hokkaido is hard to beat. I learned a lot in a month in 2016 and I'm excited to double that experience. This time I get to go without any clients for 10 days first and I'm going to use that time to explore some new, hopefully even more under the radar resorts and sidecountry areas before everyone arrives on the 13th Jan. The long range forecast was for a weak La Nina season (so above average snowfalls) and already they have had decent snowfalls. It's looking like a much better start compared to 2016 which causes me to be very optimistic for an extra good time. We are just focusing on the Furano and Otaru areas this time around (we took Niseko off our list for 2017 as it's comparatively busy there plus the accommodation is much more expensive and harder to get, compared to Furano and especially Otaru). I leave on Jan 2nd so the skiing will start on the 4th Jan and will be out there until Feb 6th. Not long to go now.
I have about 9 days at home in Denver and then it is off to Gulmarg, Kashmir on Feb 15th. That will be for approximately 3 weeks and I'll have 2 small groups. This time it is with regular clients so I'll actually be skiing again (unlike last winter when it was guiding the Level 1 film crew and there is a ton of standing around filming). There is definitely a lot more focus on skiing, when I'm guiding regular groups. I'm ready for that again! I know Jeelani my local guide prefers that too...... We are lucky to even be going to Gulmarg this winter after all the tension in Kashmir this summer. It's been a really tough summer for the locals with all the protests against the Indian government and the subsequent crackdown by the Indian army against the local people. It was pretty bad. We nearly cancelled our season but are going to push ahead now that things have finally calmed down (Gulmarg was quiet all summer, so much so that they couldn't even run the gondola as there were zero tourists in town, the cities were where the troubles were). Thankfully the gondola is running again and the domestic tourists are starting to return. Soon the Western skiers will return as well, but I'm sure the mountain will be extra quiet this season as only the most hardy of Westerners will come. If the snow is good, then come the end of Feb and the start of March, then we might have the mountain to ourselves. That's a pretty mouth-watering prospect. We'll see what happens. The season still hasn't started yet and there is very little snow on the ground (see photo from yesterday), but that is normal in Gulmarg. The season generally starts a lot later than most Western resorts, but when the snow does come (normally early next month), then it comes in hard and often. There is no reason to worry given we won't be out there for another couple of months.
Local traders in Tangmarg getting ready to sell Kongri's (clay pots used for personal heating). Pic: Jeelani Rather
The hustle and bustle in Srinagar finally returns - life starts to return to normal. Pic: Jeelani Rather
The first domestic tourists return and the gondola resumes operation. Pic: Jeelani Rather.
The mountain is gradually turning white again..... Pic: Jeelani Rather
Head Gulmarg Patroller, Shabir after the latest storm. Pic: Shabir Skipatrol
I'm coming straight home from India on the 13th March and then I have 5 days at home (really glad I get to spend a few days at home between trips) before heading to China. This trip, I am super excited about. I have never been to China before and I have been invited out to the Xinjiang (with a photographer, so expect some quality photos from this trip!) to come and check out a new cat skiing operation and a new heli ski operation that are starting up this winter in a remote area of NW China. If you remember back to an old Warren Miller movie they filmed in 2008 for their move "Dynasty", then they went to a very remote area in the Altay area in the Xinjiang province and that is where we will be going.
If you have been following the growth of the Chinese ski industry recently then you will know that it is absolutely booming over there with the lead-up to the 2022 Chinese winter Olympics. They are putting up new ski areas like crazy right now. The problem has been that despite this massive boom, there are relatively few resorts going up in the more mountainous areas that actually have decent terrain and snow. Those areas are typically away from the major population centers and aren't necessarily sustainable for skiing..... yet! Hopefully that is about to change with the start of the heli and cat skiing ops outside of Altay and the Kanas. We'll find out soon when we head out there on the 20th March. I don't know much at all, I haven't seen any of the hotels, I know practically nothing about the heli or the cat ops, it's all a bit of a mystery and that to me, only adds to the excitement.
What I do know is that local hunters in that area have been skiing in the Altay mountains for potentially thousands of years (well before the Norwegians would have been skiing) and there is an amazing ski culture where locals make their own fully-rockered fat skis with horse hair skins permanently attached to the bases and they use a long pole as a rudder. I can't wait to see all this for myself. Supposedly this ski culture is on it's last legs as the local government is banning hunting and the locals have no reason to ski. Maybe tourism could be the way to save this old craft? We'll see, but the chance to be a part of a new era of skiing in the region is an exciting prospect. I can't wait!
We have a very well-connected local coming with us (he has put the trip together for us) and I'm sure we will be in good hands. Hopefully my China visa is granted and I get my passport back on Dec 30th (as I leave for Japan on Jan 2nd..... it will be tight!). I've only cat skied a couple of times and I've certainly never heli-skied before, so this is a dream come true and I am truly thankful I have been given this opportunity. You guys will hopefully be the first to read about it. Here's some photos of the mountain they are running the cat this season (see why I got excited in the first place.....). I don't have any photos of the heli terrain yet.
All photos courtesy of Maolin Gu.....
Tasty, tasty terrain!
Maolin (right) with a champion local skier and his handmade local skis. You can see the horsehair skins that are nailed to the bottoms and the pole that is used like a rudder for steering, not that they like to turn apparently, the locals say turning slows you down too much and is inefficient!
I hope you guys will follow me on this season of adventures. It should be a fun ride.