This year, Europe is out of bounds for winter sports enthusiasts from India because of travel restrictions. But Courchevel and Gstaad’s loss has been Gulmarg’s gain and skiers and snowboarders from all over the country are descending upon the glistening slopes of the staggering Pir Panjal range in Kashmir instead.
At an elevation of 3950 metres, Gulmarg is the world’s third-highest ski resort and known around the world for its powdery snow runs. Its majestic Apharwat peak (4390m) is the longest ski slope in Asia. Despite its natural gifts, as a ski destination, Gulmarg can be chaotic and needs more infrastructure to be able to do justice to those exceptional mountains. Still, the ski town’s endless slopes and fantastic snow conditions are reason enough to head there for a few days of skiing or snowboarding.
Here’s everything you need to know before you go skiing in Gulmarg
The base of Apharwat is where it all starts. The mountain is split into two phases: Phase I is accessible by a Gondola. It connects Gulmarg to Kungdori from where you can ski down right back to the village. Phase II, which can be reached on the gondola as well, connects Kungdori to the Apharwat peak. There is also a chair lift from Kungdori to Marry Shoulder, from where one can ski back further down to Gulmarg.
Down by the village, which is usually smothered under a thick blanket of snow with barely a patch of earth visible from January through early March, are the bunny slopes for beginners. These are wide and easy slopes and open through the day and also at night for night skiing. There are two button lifts along these slopes but long queues call for great patience during the peak snow season.
What are the Gulmarg slopes like?
The easy ski runs on the Apharwat are about 7.5 km long, the intermediate 16.5 km and the difficult run is 6 km long. There is avalanche patrolling on Phase I and II because those mountains are highly avalanche-prone. This is why getting an instructor from the region is essential even for expert skiers and snowboarders.
What about the gondola service in Gulmarg?
The ski station in Gulmarg is where the gondola service starts from and it offers services like avalanche mitigation and forecasting, snow grooming as well as first aid and rescue services. The station is overcrowded with honeymooners, general tourists and skiers and the wait for the gondola can be fairly long and trying especially for those skiing downhill and waiting to go up again to do another run. The gondolas are well maintained and run from 10am to 4pm in winter and can be shut during snowstorms. Because of how overcrowded the station gets, one can only manage a few runs a day from Phase I.
Where can I buy passes from and how much do they cost?
The day passes for the different phases can be purchased at the ski station itself. A ski pass can cost between Rs740-Rs950 a day depending upon the phase one is going to.
Can I rent equipment to ski in Gulmarg?
The government equipment rental shop is right next to the beginners’ slopes, and one can rent out a pair of good quality skis, boots and poles for Rs800 per day. It is, however, advisable to travel to Gulmarg with your own helmet and eye gear because those cannot be had on hire.
Should I get an instructor even though I know how to ski?
The ski instructors are all local Kashmiris. They usually hang around ski slopes and charge approximately Rs2,500 a day. While all of them are experienced skiers, not every one of them is a certified instructor. Most of these instructors, however, speak basic English, are good at what they do and know those mountains intimately. It is advisable though to go with a seasoned instructor who is certified as well.
They buy your ski passes, rent the skis and shoes for you as well, if you share your shoe size with them. This saves a lot of time because you really don’t need to go to the ski rental store or queue up to buy tickets for the gondola or the chairlift.
What can I do apart from skiing?
For children and those not interested in skiing, snowboarding and sledging activities are available too. In fact, two of the groomed slopes are accessible only by sledges, and as inhuman as it sounds, a porter has to drag your sledge uphill on the slopes for a small sum of money to help you ski down.
Can I access a washroom while out on the slopes?
Be warned, the toilet situation is bad. You’re better off just avoiding it altogether.
What are the COVID protocols I need to be mindful of?
Officials are testing arrivals at the airport in Srinagar, mandatory and free of charge. The staff at the restaurants and hotels are wearing masks, however, not everyone follows the rules.
Good to know
Unlike most ski resorts, Gulmarg is an off-piste ski paradise and has about three to four groomed slopes that are long and wide in most places. Unfortunately, they aren’t groomed every day and can feel a bit coarse and crunchy for the early birds doing the runs. Fret not—they quickly become softer as the sun gets brighter. The ungroomed slopes are not only long but also wide and with the right instructor, can be safe for intermediate to advanced skiers.
How long should my trip be?
For a beginner and intermediate level skier, five days should be enough. But for someone who can ski really well and is keen to go to the higher peaks, a week should be alright.