Skiing in Gulmarg: tips from an 11-season veteran
“You have no choice but to really fall in love with Gulmarg, and it’s not just for the snow,” says Yanik Turgeon, founder of Ski Gulmarg.
Meet Yanik Turgeon: A self-proclaimed “ski enthusiast”, who first arrived in Gulmarg in 2009, fell in love and continues to return year after year (that is, until COVID hit). Last winter would have been Yanik’s twelfth in a row, but the worsening pandemic meant he – like many others – was banned from traveling abroad.
Yanik has agreed to give us an overview of Gulmarg, and he says in our conversation that his travels have been primarily focused on skiing; he is a powder hunter who is bubbling with passion for the great Himalayan lines and incredible snow that have made the resort a hit with like-minded adventurers.
But he is also the founder of Ski Gulmarg, an online guide and booking site that has helped hundreds of travelers plan their visit to the resort – “my job is to make sure everything is 99.9% to 100% ready before they arrive” , he said.
In a place like Gulmarg, the value of expert advice cannot be understated, and Yanik is blunt when he says you have to be a little adventurous to visit. It’s in a part of the world that’s known for political turmoil, traveling the region can be chaotic, and the sheer scale of the mighty Himalayas means skiing – though epic – can be fraught with pitfalls (more details shortly).
Ski lifts and terrain in Gulmarg
Gulmarg’s ski lift infrastructure, which Yanik bluntly declares “is not like Chamonix or Whistler”, is limited – the resort is mainly served by two connected gondolas, which take guests from their base in the village to 2600 m to dizzying heights of nearly 4000 m – 200 meters before the summit of Mount Apharwat (4200 m).
The first of two gondolas serves an area called Phase I, a 2 mile run through a pine forest with gentle, rolling hills that can be a challenge for beginners and better suited to lower intermediates. It can be crowded with locals during peak times and is generally best avoided by advanced skiers, although the views can be stunning.
From Kongdori Middle Station 3000m, skiers have the option of taking the Phase II gondola to the top or a quad chairlift to an area called Mary’s Shoulder. The latter option allows skiers to access very good off-piste terrain, with a few groomed runs for those less comfortable in fresh or chopped snow.
But the Phase II gondola is where the real action takes place, and a ride to the top is an experience in itself.
“… there are hardly any trees [past the mid-station], so you have this massive mountain – a white wall – in front of you, ”Yanik says.
“Then when you turn around, if the clouds are high, you have the Kashmir valley under you, then on the other side is the Himalayan wall, with a view of the Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world.
From the upper station, skiers can stay within the limits and in an avalanche-controlled area by simply dropping to the left (of the skiers) of the gondola. There are many options from here, although they can be detected quite quickly due to the ease of access.
But for the many off-piste skiers who come to Gulmarg for its deep snow and crazy big mountain lines, the gondola is often just a useful starting point. From the upper station, at 3,950 m, the options are simply endless for those who want to hike and “win their turn”.
“You just use the main gondola and then walk away,” Yanik explains. “There are usually only three of the four races in your day.”
We ask Yanik where he goes to ski the best lines.
“There are too many options,” he laughs.
“If it’s very stable and you want to go up steep slopes, you can go to the back [of Mt Apharwat peak] – we call it “shark fin”.
“If it’s been a long time since the last snow, you can go to an area that we call the ‘Far Far Side‘, which is at the end of the upper ridge of Mount Apharwat and faces north. Due to the appearance, the snow is dry and deep.
“Corn [the decision] depends on avalanche conditions.
Danger of snow and avalanche
And he’s not making that point jokingly. Avalanches are a pervasive danger in Gulmarg.
“I’ve always been a little afraid of avalanches in Gulmarg. So I learned the safety rules very early on, ”explains Yanik, who insists that riding with a guide is a must for anyone new to the resort.
“You have to ski with a guide, you have to listen to the guide and you have to respect the mountain. It’s huge – you are in the Himalayas. It’s high and it’s windy and Gulmarg, and the way it’s oriented, you’re on the leeward side of the mountain, so it’s still charging and charging.
“You have a lot of snow in a very short period of time, so you have to be careful,” says Yanik, who notes that the eight meters that fall on average each season happens almost entirely between mid-January and the end of March.
Gulmarg for beginner skiers
With all the talk about great mountain lines, avalanches and deep powder, we can’t wait to see what Gulmarg looks like for a beginner or intermediate skier.
Of course, the reality is that most people who go to a Himalayan ski resort aren’t there for snow groomers or rabbit trails. But the growing number of beginner skiers, mostly Indian, suggests that there is enough appeal for someone just starting out.
There are four ski lifts (pomas) around the golf course at the foot of the mountain at Gulmarg, serving slopes 50 to 100 meters long. It’s a suitable place to start, advises Yanik, but it should be noted that snowboarders are not allowed to use the ski lifts here (they have the option of walking or hiring a sled driver to pull them).
Phase 1 is a natural next step for someone who can turn and stop with confidence, although the narrow sections and crowded nature of the trail make it less than ideal for someone with little confidence.
Even the Mary’s Shoulder Quad chairlift from the 3,000m middle station may be suitable for lower intermediates, says Yanik, but only if the trails have been groomed that day (subtext: proceed with caution!).
“My girlfriend arrived three years ago – she had already skied a bit in Japan,” Yanik explains.
“She spent three days on the lifts on the golf course, then two days on Phase I. Not bad – you can definitely learn.
“There are a lot of Indians who learn, and they all learn like that.
The consensus on Gulmarg is that you shouldn’t show up expecting 5-star accommodation, shopping and dining experiences at top European or North American resorts.
“It’s a very small seaside resort”, says Yanik – “really a tourist town”.
“There is hardly anyone who lives in Gulmarg 365 days a year – only those who work in restaurants or hotels. “
But the city is full of character, offers interesting experiences off the slopes, and is especially enjoyable for foodies looking for a taste of local cuisine.
Yanik is quick to recommend Highlands Park Hotel, both as one of Gulmarg’s most premium accommodation providers, but also as a retreat for a meal and a drink at the end of a great day of skiing. The charming hotel lounge is one of the most beautiful bedrooms in the valley and offers stunning views of Gulmarg and the Apharwat mountains. The kitchen serves ‘old Continental and Kashmiri recipes’ and uses an old fashioned tandoor (clay oven).
When in a rush to find out what to do in Gulmarg other than skiing, Yanik rolls out a list that includes ice skating, billiards, snowmobiling, or visiting a spa, but says that a leisurely stroll through the street market to buy local art, spices or just soak up the culture is the best way to get a feel for the city.
“If you have time, take a day off [skiing] is a good idea, ”he says.
Yanik’s tip for first-time visitors to Gulmarg
“Come for more than a week, because you don’t know what the weather will be like. You need the weather to get the best of Gulmarg, that is: stable, beautiful snow that you can ski up and down without stressing out.
“Sometimes you can be stuck in the clouds for a week, where you can’t even get to the top. It’s not like your typical Japanese or European resort, where the avalanche danger can be alleviated in a matter of hours, it may take a while… you are in Kashmir.
It’s a long journey [for most people], so it is better to come longer.
What’s next for Yanik
Yanik, who works as a teacher in Taiwan during the off-season, reveals that he currently cannot return to Kashmir due to the border closures. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the ski lifts are still operating, the vaccination rate among Kashmiris is increasing rapidly and the last season has been one of the busiest in Gulmarg – although there have been no tourists foreigners.
But he remains hopeful for the coming season and wants to continue racing Ski Gulmarg as a way to share his love for the place far away. “That’s what motivates me,” he says.
“The only thing I do is bring stuff to Kashmir. I don’t make a living doing this. It is not enough money to support me.
“If it brings me some money to put aside – and I can ski one month a year. That’s enough. I’m not trying to get rich with this.
“You have no choice but to really fall in love with Gulmarg, and it’s not just for the snow. You are in Kashmir. Kashmiris are world famous for their hospitality. After 5 minutes, they’ll give you a big hug like you’re their distant cousin from an extended family – they’re the best people ever.
“You are surrounded by the Himalayas, the pace of life is very slow, there is no stress. I love it. I love.”
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