The Wild Wild East
Author - Kevin Hjertaas
Date - 3/30/2007
ALL PHOTOS BY CHRIS WINTER
From my hotel window I look through falling snow to see a monkey
climbing a tree. It seems almost normal after two weeks in Kashmir. It was all so foreign at first. I had no point of reference for the chaos of Delhi or the huge military presence in Kashmir. Only once we were in the mountains did I start to feel comfortable and still we are constantly startled by foreign sights like garbage being tossed in the woods, soldiers in ski lessons, or monkeys in your way as you ski to the gondola.
Even the gondola is a constant reminder that we aren’t at home and a great example of the bureaucracy that is the Indian government. The government runs the lift, so that bureaucracy dominates your ski experience. You buy a paper lift ticket that’s good for one run from the guy with the briefcase and he tears the corners. Then you cross the platform to load and another guy has to look at it. He tears it halfway through the middle. Then at the top, when you are trying to extricate your gong show of gear from the tight gondi, another man asks you for your ticket. He tears the middle slightly more in a classic government make work project.
Expectations will ruin your time here and we’re learning not to count on the gondola (or anything else here for that matter). It’s been shut down for the last two days while a storm dropped 20cm of fresh on the mountain. When it dawns blue we don’t even look at the lift. Instead we grab our skins and head up. When we get to the alpine, two parties have skin tracks above us, but there is a patroller who won’t let us pass because of avi control work. Rules here seem made to bend, so we go negotiate with the head patroller and return with permission. In the alpine, we get a couple shots before the clouds roll in and shut us down.
Over lunch we’re startled to see the gondola start up. By 2:30 we manage to weasel our way into a car. It’s gone blue again and we’re fired up.
But, three quarters of the way up the lift stops and doesn’t start again. Half an hour later we are discussing evacuation. Our car is next to a tower and if we kick a window out we could probably reach it. My sketchy little rope will be the back up.
The sun goes behind the peak and we start to get cold. Before we put our plan into action and break Kashmir Government property, the lift starts up on low, halting back-up power. Minutes later it stops and we have no tower to escape to. After fifteen minutes the gondola starts again for 30 seconds before freezing. Finally, after an hour, the lift gets us to the top. It is too late and too dark to shoot so we just go for a fun run down. And what a run! We traverse out until we have a completely unskied rib that drops 900 meters to the trees below. Some of the skiers in our group call it the run of the season and one even calls it the run of his life. (East coaster!) After an emotional roller-coaster of a day- I need a beer.
By the end of our trip we’re getting better at not expecting or counting on anything and just sort of enjoy the chaos and unpredictability of India. But, we still need footage, so we go for a long traverse and hope for the best. After the typical alpine powder dream that we’ve come to expect, we drop a short tree run that is, surprisingly, the deepest snow we’ve seen on the trip. Instead of catching the traverse back to the gondola and Gulmarg (where we are staying), we can’t resist the powder and trees below. So we drop in and hope to find the town of Drang, which should be below us… InshaAllah (God willing). We gobble up 3 or 4 more pitches of steep and deep trees before being spit out on the flats below. The snow is great all the way down to 2400m, which is an unbelievable 1600m below where we clicked in.
We ski until we bump into a footpath in the snow and follow it over a tiny bridge and through a gorge to a town (hopefully Drang). Kids rallying through the trees on homemade sleds and they point us towards Main Street. Before we can get there, though shouts come at us from across the river. A number of men are waving at us and pointing towards their taxis. They were waiting for someone and all foreigners look the same, so we’re in luck.
When we finally get back to the hotel we walk right into a huge party for “International Media”. Bonfire, rotisserie, mutton, free whiskey, band and dancers. A couple hundred people mingle and make their way inside for the feast. The dancers and band are wild, with awkward costumes and a cross dresser or two. It’s an amazing scene and we are almost too tired after our adventure to deal with it. But soon our bellies are full and the whiskey is working. We find out after dinner that the gondola has broken and won’t operate again for two weeks- at best. Lucky for us we leave in two days and our final run was so amazing we have all the footage we need. Time to enjoy another whiskey, mingle with the locals and meet the skiers from all over the world who are standing around watching the show and trying to figure out who the new girl on the dance floor is.