Heliskiing in the world’s most dangerous spot

In 2002, Bill Clinton described Kashmir as the ‘the most dangerous place in the world’ but the pull of knee-deep powder and endless faceshots has made it a freeriders’ paradise, as Matt Clark discovers

Tomasz Fichtel rampaging through the Kashmiri forests | Matt Clark

Groggy from the long flight and interminable wait at the baggage carousel, we stepped outside the airport into the steamy, sweaty, air of nighttime Delhi to find a taxi. This wasn’t much of a challenge: almost immediately we were approached by a friendly man peddling rides “to anywhere you want go.’” Excellent. 

“This your first time in India?” asked the friendly man as he led us to his taxi. “Yeah, and we’re stoked to finally be here” I naively responded. Mistake number one, I thought, watching his eyes light up with flashing dollar icons as the fare to our hotel visibly tripled and quadrupled.

Mistake number two wasn’t long in coming: as we approached the taxi, it was noticeably quite… small. Looking around, it swiftly became apparent that the average Delhi taxi is built on a far smaller scale than their European counterparts, which considering the baggage we had brought was something of a concern.

“Hey boss, I think we need a bigger car – we need to fit these skis inside!”

“Skis? What?”

In the sweltering midst of India’s capital city this didn’t seem to be an unreasonable question – it’s hardly a typical winter sports destination – but it was an issue I had totally failed to anticipate beforehand. The driver stared blankly at the two 190cm bulky ski bags lying at our feet, then just shrugged:

“Huh, no problem Boss – we just put them through the windows!”

Fast forward to a precarious ride – complete with a good 50cms of ski sticking through each window – through some of the most manic traffic on the planet, an uncomfortable night in one of Delhi’s cheapest hotels (mistake number three, not recommended), another mind-boggling navigation of the most inefficient check-in and customs system known to man, a further internal flight and gauntlet-run of the inevitable butter-wouldn’t-melt hawkers and touts, and finally we met our driver outside Srinagar airport.

Attaching Kashmiri style ’snow rope-chains’ after a near miss on the road up to Gulmarg | Matt Clark

This feels a lot more like it: it’s snowing hard, flakes big enough that you can actually hear them land, and despite the rather ghetto ‘snow rope-chains’ the big jeep actually looks pretty capable (and certainly has room for our skis). 

I catch my buddy Tom laughing face-up into the falling snow and can’t help but grin too: we’re in Kashmir, about to fulfill an almost lifelong dream to ski the Himalayas, and the madness of the journey seems like the perfect way to kick the adventure off.  The feeling lasts until we discover that Swiss Air decided to confiscate our airbag gas canisters. Despite promising to take them at check in, there’s nothing in the boxes other than a rather terse note, lying alongside our carefully printed off and highlighted regulations and specifications info sheets.  C’est la vie.

The next morning we awoke to clear blue skies, the brilliant sunshine dazzling as it reflected off  the newly laid carpet of snow. After shovelling down a surprisingly tasty breakfast of omelette and curry, we stumbled out of the Heevan Retreat Hotel – a bizarre mixture of elegant colonial luxury, smartly uniformed staff, unreliable showers and plastic-wrapped windows – and clicked into our skis. Sliding down the road though well over 50cm of fresh powder, we looked around in amazement.

There’s no getting around it: Gulmarg is like no other ski area on earth. Amidst the half-buried shapes of poorly-constructed huts the occasional luxury hotel doesn’t stand out as much you might think, though that might just be due to the uniform blanket of snow swathed over everything.

Tom slides through the quiet village of Tangmarg | Matt Clark

What does stand out are the half-finished skeletons of buildings, including the open-sided and incomplete shell that houses the gondola. Everything is just so much more raw than we’re used to in Europe and North America – and even Japan. It feels like skiing a frontier town from an old Western movie. In many ways it is exactly like a frontier town – Mount Apharwat, looming overhead, is quite literally the edge of the disputed ‘line of control’ between India and Pakistan. And in 2002, Bill Clinton declared it the most most dangerous place in the world.

Accepting a steaming cup of the glorious local speciality Kahwa – a sweet and fruity spiced tea – from a Chai Wallah, we asked for directions and slid on, past monkeys gorging themselves on hotel leftovers and locals towing shivering Indian tourists on homemade wooden sledges.

We met Kathrin and Billa from Kashmir Heliski at their paddock on the edge of Gulmarg Village, and helped the team stamp out a platform of firm snow to start prepping the heli. It’s hard to believe that this is actually happening: we’re high in the Himalayas, on a bluebird day with half a metre of new snow, and we’re about to go heliskiing. As Kathrin introduces us to our guide Mushtaq, she smiles at our overflowing levels of stoke.

Heli appraoches the LZ at the bottom of Hell Bent Woods | Matt Clark

This is the last day of the heliskiing season: this far south, the spring sun comes in early and hot. With all the new snow avalanche danger is high, and Mushtaq makes the call to head to Hell Bent Woods, where we can warm up in low risk terrain and get a feel for the snow. After a quick safety talk, we load the skis into the heli, climb in, and look around with sudden nerves.

If you’ve never been heliskiing, it’s an odd experience to describe. The heli is small, with room for just 6 people (including the guide and pilot). It feels flimsy, and the windows flex when you lean against them.  The noise and vibrations are incredible as the pilot opens the throttle, and all of a sudden it really hits you that you’re about to fly around some of the biggest mountains in the world in a machine smaller than your average family car.

The nerves fall away as the bird rises into the air, left behind in a chorus of whoops as we soar away from the village. The views are incredible in the cold clear air, and the mountains stare us right in the eye.

As we approach the woods, the pilot disconcertingly drops the nose and drives forward and down; nose ploughed firmly into the snow he levels out and sets the heli down. Clambering out, we hunker down and squat, trying to keep as low as possible as the whirling blades rotate too fast to see just over our heads. GoPros are forbidden on the first few landings until the snow gets packed down – the heli sinks further than we do into the powder, and the risk of clipping the blades is just too high. We regroup as it flies away, clicking it our skis in the sudden silence. With a whoop, Mushtaq sets off, tipping over the edge of the plateaux and into the trees.

With a quick tap of my ski poles I roll over the lip and drop in behind. Driving down the fall line, I slash my skis sideways to make the first turn, and – UUMMPPFFF – snow sprays up and slams into my face. My god this is good! Left, right, thread the gap – it feels like slow motion as I drag out a full 10 second faceshot. This is the ultimate pillow fight.

Matt Clark on one of many pillows in Hell Bent Woods |Tomasz Fichtel

As my vision clears a cloud of snow slams past on my left: it’s Tom, but even his huge six foot frame is obscured by the sheer amount of powder billowing on the air. He sends a pillow and disappears below the horizon as I cut right.

A fallen tree appears in front of me like a diving board, should I hit it? Yes? No? Screw it. I suck my knees up as I hit the ramp to absorb the compression, I can see the snow cracking off the sides ahead of me, but I’m at the end of the log now. Suddenly weightless, suddenly enveloped in another cloud or marshmallow or down feather duvet.

As I come to a stop I look around and spot my skis sticking up in the air a few metres away. The snow cushioned my fall so well I didn’t even know I’d crashed. At the bottom of the slope I can see Tom and Mushtaq laughing at me, and I can hear the heli approaching to pick us up for another lap. Dear god, this is good! As I arrive at the pick up zone, I choke out a few garbled sentences, slurring the words in my intoxication: “It’s like Hokkaido, but steeper.”

Praise doesn’t come any higher than that.

Where is Gulmarg?

Gulmarg – or ‘Meadow of Flowers’ – is a small village in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, lying at 2690m in the Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas, 56km from the state capital Srinagar. It is just a few kilometres from the ‘Line of Control,’ the disputed border between India and Pakistan.

Getting there

Generally you’ll need to take an international flight to New Delhi International Airport, then a domestic flight to Srinagar (use LUEX Travel’s Ultimate List of Airline Ski/Snowboard Baggage Fees to help plan flights).

Taking your own skis is recommended due to the limited rental options; despite the seemingly endless and often illogical checks and controls in Srinagar airport, we experienced no hassles with a giant ski bags each.

Generally it is best to arrange a four wheel drive (ideally pre-paid to avoid price negotiations) to pick you up in advance – the road up to Gulmarg is steep and often snowy, and it’s not worth the risk in small local 2wd taxis. Operators like Kashmir Heliski can arrange this for you.

Why should you go?

Gulmarg really does offer a ski experience that’s hard to match anywhere else in the world. It’s wild, raw, and adventurous. Avalanche control work is limited, there’s no real mountain rescue, the gondola is slow and prone to closure.

It also snows a lot. Dry and light snow, known locally as ‘curry powder.’ The gondola is the highest ski lift in the world, rising to 3979m on the flanks of Mount Apharwat, accessing a long ridge line filled with huge bowls. Most of the terrain isn’t too gnarly – it’s ideal for skiing fast – but the sizeable avalanche paths are intimidating.

Matt Clark finds a fresh line in the Gulmarg resort area | Tomasz Fichtel

Fresh tracks are easy to come by even a week after a storm, and the hike up to the top of Apharwat (4200m) more than doubles the amount of lines to choose from – well worth the lung-burn. Traversing across the plateau in the other direction opens up the possibility of several long, 2000 vertical metre descents to Drang and Tangmarg, down through a series of ridges, bowls and trees.

The heliskiing terrain is out of this world, including steep, widely spaced pine forests, pillow fields, and huge swathes of open alpine terrain. Trust me, you’re not going to get bored!

Other highlights?

There’s far more to Kashmir than just the skiing – it’s an incredible cultural experience. Some of the hotels are a simply beautiful insight into old-world colonial style, the staff are warm and friendly, and the food is just incredible: curry fans will be in absolute paradise.

Most Gulmarg trips include the option to spend your last night on a traditional luxurious Kashmiri houseboat on Dal Lake, by Srinagar. Hail a local Tuk Tuk driver to give you a tour of the fascinating city (make sure to take in the Pari Mahal gardens overlooking Dal Lake, and visit a Pashmina and carpet weaver), buy some souvenirs and spices, then take a small Shikara boat back to the house boat where your onboard butler will prepare another delicious curry meal, and serve cold beer. Sheer peaceful bliss.

Flower delivery service on Dal Lake, Srinagar | Matt Clark

Any Safety Concerns?

Despite noting “an overall decline in violence in the state in recent years,“ the FCO still “advise against all travel to Jammu and Kashmir with the exception of (i) travel within the cities of Jammu and Srinagar, (ii) travel by air to the cities of Jammu and Srinagar, (iii) travel between these two cities on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway.”

Though Western and Indian tourism has been steadily increasing in the region, no attacks on foreigners have been reported recently. In practise, despite the heavy military presence, we never felt anything less than perfectly safe at all times. The local people are warm and friendly, and other than an incident where soldiers prevented us from skiing one bowl (with our guide) due to avalanche concerns, the military presence was never threatening. Though Kashmir’s history may be bloody, we found it to be beautiful and peaceful during our visit.