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August 22, 2009

gulmarg 2010 – a heli skiing experience by cable car

by Chris Werren

Many skiers and snowboarders who enjoy freeriding in deep powder snow dream about being able to enjoy heli skiing one day too. Unfortunately for many this remains an unfulfilled dream, mainly because this exclusive pleasure has its price. The typical costsHeli Ski Terrain for a week of heli skiing (5 to 6 freeriding days!) are between 4’000 EUR and 8’000 EUR, an amount that is a huge expenditure for most and exceeds the holiday budget options of a large portion of the freeriding community, even in good times.

Up to a couple of years ago it was still possible for freeriders to enjoy powder snow skiing on untracked fields in a number of cable car serviced ski areas in Europe and other western ski resorts. However, with the appearance of snowboards and the introduction of wide freeriding skis this has changed considerably. Today the capacities of freeriding terrains available in the proximity of cable car serviced ski areas are no longer sufficient to cope with the huge number of back country skiers and snowboarders. Most of the few available powder snow terrains are therefore usually covered with numerous lines the moment the cable cars start to operate.

Instead of reacting to the changed preferences of skiers and snowboarders and to develop or create new dedicated powder ski areas most cable car operators and ski sports resorts missed this chance for market differentiation and have instead accepted that many of the available powder snow terrains were converted into “wild protect zones” and therefore banned from freeriding.

Most freeriders are wondering why these new regulations have been accepted without further appraisal of the long term consequences for the ski and winter tourism industry and why the constantly rising demand for untracked powder snow terrain was so blindly ignored.

The facts remain and the resulting consequences must now be borne by the freeriding community – When vacationing in a ski resort in the Alps people who would love to enjoy some “freeriding” runs will have to get up early in order to have a chance for at least one single run through little tracked snow fields. Due to many new regulations they may even perform their favorite sport on foolishly restricted areas and have to accept the risk that they are fined and banned from skiing for the day as a consequence thereof.

Apharwat Range

The continuous introduction of new rules and regulations that limit the access to untracked powder snow terrain for skiers and snowboarders has pushed me to search for new destinations where I can still perform my favorite sport free of trouble. I started to look for ski areas that offer unlimited possibilities for freeriding, for ski resorts where skiing is still part of the lifestyle and not just a leisure sports activity with imposed limitations. Finally it was also important that this new destination was affordable for skiers and snowboarders with normal incomes.

During my trekking expeditions in the Himalaya I was therefore constantly scouting the region for places which could be used for freeriding and that also offered some basic infrastructure to lift people to the mountain top. In the winter 2005/2006 I finally got lucky and landed in Gulmarg in Kashmir. Here I rediscovered what ceased to exist in the European Alps some 15 years ago. After years of involuntary “powder snow celibacy” I felt here as if I was reborn in a freeriding paradise with an ambiance that reminded me of the pioneering years of skiing.

This new found remarkable powder snow ski resort is located in the Pir Panjals, one of the six ranges which make up the Himalaya. Thanks to the completion of phase 2 of Gulmarg’s gondola project in 2005 by the French cable car company Poma freeriders have nowadays convenient access to a fantastic powder snow terrain that is located between the village at 2’600m and Mt. Apharwat atgulmarg gondola1 4’127m. Starting from the top station skiers can easily reach 19 access points by simply traversing the 6km long mountain ridge and then revel in numerous long powder snow descents back to the middle station or to the village of Gulmarg. With 6 to 10 descents per day it is possible to achieve a daily powder run volume of up to 10’000 vertical meters and to enjoy a back country skiing and snowboarding holiday which can definitely be described as a true “heli skiing experience by cable car”.

Up to the present day Gulmarg has remained an insiders’ tip among powder skiers and snowboarders. Despite all efforts to promote the ski area of Gulmarg this resort will continue to remain a treasure for powder snow lovers, even if the present lodging offer of 300 winter suitable beds might be doubled in the coming 3 to 5 years.

The costs for a typical freeriding vacation of 2 weeks also played an important role when I was evaluating this new ski and snowboard destination in the Himalaya. It was my intention to find something that was affordable for people with normal incomes. Thanks to the pricing evolution in Gulmarg and also within the airline industry it is nowadays possible for interested freeriders to experience an exceptional powder snow vacation at more or less the same price as they would pay for staying in a similar resort in the Alps (e.g. Arlberg, Davos, Andermatt, Verbier, Chamonix, etc.). The total costs for the plane trip to India and an all inclusive 2 week stay in Gulmarg during the coming winter season will be between 1’700 EUR to 2’000 EUR.

For the winter season 2009/2010 also heli skiing will finally be available in Gulmarg for the first time. Contrary to other heli ski destinations guests can chose between two options here. They can either book a full 6 day heli ski program for 7’000 EUR per person or reserve single flights for 300 EUR per persoSunset Peak Mn. Due to my experience with weather and wind in the Himalayas over the past years I recommend interested guests to enroll in one of our powder skiing programs first and to book single heli ski flights only on the spot when there are good weather and flying conditions.

With the possibility to combine freeriding in a cable car serviced area with some individual heli ski runs on suitable days, skiers and snowboarders are now offered perfect conditions for an exceptional powder snow ski vacation in the Himalayas – and at far lower costs than for a conventional heliskiing vacation elsewhere.

To complete the information about the powder ski area of Gulmarg I would like to highlight its key characteristics:

  • Top station on Mt. Apharwat at 3‘990m
  • Highest point reachable from the top station: 4‘300m
  • 6km mountain ridge with 19 “ski to” or “traverse to” access points
  • Long descents to the middle station offering runs of 800 to 1‘200 vertical meters, 1‘600 vertical meters for the descent to the village from the highest point
  • Longest descent to the valley floor in  Drang 1‘800 vertical meters and 18km skiing
  • Slope angle 32° to more than 40°, slope location N-NE
  • Achievable run volume per day 6‘000 to 10‘000 vertical meters, depending on physical condition and skiing or snowboarding skills
  • Number of skiers and snowboarders on the mountain: On peak days roughly 300 persons
  • Queue time on peak days: 20 to 30 minutes
  • Average snow depth in the village at 2‘600m: 3m
  • Average snowfall per season: 20m
  • Season duration: Mid November to beginning of May
  • Best vacation time: Mid January to Mid March
  • Good/bad weather ratio: 50/50
  • Recommended length of stay: 2 weeks (Acclimatization , good weather reserve)
  • Costs for a 2 week stay in Gulmarg: 800 EUR to 1’300 EUR depending on the chosen program plus costs for the flights

This information is for all skiers and snowboarders who are like me on a permanent search for freeriding and skiing areas where they can enjoy their preferred sports freely and untroubled by too many rules, and also at an affordable price. I also would like to let people know that such perfect ski spots still exist and let them know that skiing and snowboarding in gondola serviced areas is also possible in the Himalaya Mountains.

Further information about the Himalaya Heliskiing and Freeriding Destination Gulmarg you find here: Free Ski Himalaya.

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