Gulmarg – Winter Season 2009/2010 Review
Lack of snow in the beginning of the season and overbooked quality hotels presented the biggest challenges this past winter in Gulmarg. Perfect weather and excellent snow conditions in March were the biggest surprises and many happy customers the biggest joy – this is my summary of a successful and instructive 5th winter season in Kashmir.
Every season numbers of people document their stay in Gulmarg’s ski area on personal videos or with professional film productions. An example of a short but comprehensive presentation of the terrain possibilities is the “Gulmarg Ski Teaser” produced by be4apres which is introduced here as a visual impression of the resort and as introduction to my Gulmarg season review.
Upon my arrival in Gulmarg by the end of December I was confronted with a very unusual snow situation. Instead of being covered by the typical solid snow layer the ground was nearly bare, despite a snowfall of over one meter in the beginning of November. As my first guests were set to arrive only by mid January there was no reason to panic yet. Fortunately it started to snow a little in the beginning of January and because of the roughly 30cm of fresh powder the first program participants already had an opportunity to enjoy some runs in untracked terrain. The snow conditions were, however, still far away from what we were used to and from what our guests expected. Luckily we had warm and sunny weather during most of January which contributed a lot to our guests’ happiness with their vacation in the Himalayas.
The poor snow conditions at the beginning of the season showed the importance of competent guiding and sound terrain knowledge for being able to offer customers a good skiing experience also in difficult circumstances. In addition alternative programs like visits to historical sites, boat rides on the lake or shopping tours in Srinagar gain in importance during situations with unsatisfactory skiing possibilities, especially as Gulmarg offers no options for other activities.
By the end of January it finally started to snow regularly which led to improved conditions. During the first half of February the conditions were still not perfect but at least it was now possible to ski down to the valley floor in Baba Reshi and Tangmarg or to enjoy the long descent to Drang. Due to over 2m of fresh snow in the second half of February the conditions became ideal and remained so till the end of the season.
Because of the aspect of the terrain, the steepness of the runs and the regular strong winds the Mt. Apharwat ski area must be considered as avalanche prone. The unusual meteorological conditions at the beginning of the season contributed to an increased danger potential. Except for a few minor critical incidents the season ended however without serious accidents, even though many people were on the mountain without experienced guides or even adequate equipment and avalanche awareness training.
Possible consequences of a wrong assessment of the avalanche dangers were experienced by the soldiers of Gulmarg’s Mountain Warfare School. They were running their training program below the tree line at a spot considered to be safe when suddenly a massive avalanche was triggered naturally and moved far below the known run out zone. Approx. 50 soldiers were caught by this avalanche. 17 soldiers unfortunately lost their life and another 17 were injured.
Another big challenge this winter concerned once again hotel accommodation. I addressed this subject before with this blog “Hotel Accommodation in Gulmarg” and highlighted potential problems. After spending 4 winters in Gulmarg I thought I knew all the tricks and pitfalls in the reservation and booking process, however, on my 5th season I was taught differently. Despite negotiating the price for the planned and reserved room quantity already in March 09 and emailing regularly an updated booking list to confirm reservations for several hundred room nights I was informed on arrival that unfortunately there has been a “misunderstanding” between the hotel and its reservation center and therefore there were no rooms available anymore for me or my guests. I was proposed to lodge my program participants in one of their friends’ hotel nearby and was even told it was an “upgrade” for the same price.
The hotel’s proposal was unacceptable for me and after some hard negotiations including the acceptance of an increase of 15% on the earlier agreed price I finally managed to lodge my guests with them. Others were less lucky, especially individual travelers who booked directly or through a web based hotel reservation service. Regardless of advance payments or valid vouchers many visitors had to accept being lodged in other hotels with lower service standards, especially during the high season in February. Despite an unfortunate beginning of an intended long term partnership I decided to keep this hotel as our preferred lodging partner in Gulmarg, the main reason being that all my guests were happy with their rooms and the food.
Even though the number of new hotels is continuously increasing a reasonable lodging quality is still only assured in 3 to 4 hotels. Therefore most program operators book their accommodation requirements 9 to 12 month in advance which means that all available rooms in quality hotels are already reserved at the end of the running season. All other hotels in Gulmarg don’t meet the quality standards my guests expect, the services described on websites are often only partially or not at all available, e.g. heating systems that don’t work properly, no hot water, mediocre food quality etc. Part of this unfortunate situation is the result of a “little investment for rapid maximum return” business policy which means that investments in sufficient generator capacity to bridge regular power cuts or in large tanks to build enough water reserves are not made. Another problem is the local administration’s inability to adapt the local infrastructure (water, electricity and communications) to the growing number of hotels.
People who are planning to spend their ski vacation in Gulmarg in a comfortable hotel and also want to benefit from competent guiding services are therefore best advised to book a program with an established international operator who is present in the area himself.
A point which led to the disappointment of some of my customers was „heli skiing“ or better the lack of it. In the summer 2009 it looked as if the operators had everything under control and therefore I included a heli ski option in my programs. A couple of guests have made use of this offer and booked a number of flights. However, in December I was informed that there would be no heli skiing in 2010 due to missing permits but also because of other reasons. To some extend this was not surprising as in this part of the world agreements are changed or linked with new rules all the time, especially in an area near the line of control between the Pakistani and Indian parts of Kashmir where many official bodies and also the army play important roles in granting the required permits.
It looks as if everything was under control now and therefore heli skiing could finally become a reality in Gulmarg. The program “powder skiing with heli ski option” will hence be continued but potential participants will be advised that the availability cannot be guaranteed to 100%.
Reviewing a winter season in Kashmir without a statement on skiers’ safety would be incomplete. In recent month terror attacks and militant activities in Kashmir have unfortunately risen again. This led to a wider media presence of this area and resulted also in more cautious travel advisories by the foreign offices for trips to Kashmir. Safety will consequently remain a point of concern for visitors also in the future. As it is in my interest that people have the full picture on safety issues I posted this blog “Skiers’ Safety in Kashmir” some time ago describing the situation and its consequences from my perspective and personal experience.
A very positive experience in the past season was the snow condition in March. In previous years I left Gulmarg always at the beginning of the month, however, this year I decided to stay on till the end of March to get my own impression of the situation in order to make an educated decision on whether to propose my programs in this period too. I was positively surprised by the snow conditions and can now tell from personal experience that it is also possible to ski the whole day till mid March too, often still with good powder snow on north facing runs and even later in the month snow conditions remained good till the early afternoon. For people interested in “Free Touring” March is the perfect month offering many possibilities to ascend up to 4’500m by starting early from the cable car’s top station and to enjoy long descends to the valley floor. Another much appreciated factor of March skiing is the limited number of people on the mountain which means we have the terrain to ourselves more or less all time (at least up to now!).
For me that past season was an overall success, I had the chance to meet many sympathetic people with whom I explored Gulmarg’s back country terrain and let them enjoy an exceptional adventure ski vacation. Despite the poor snow conditions early in the season all my guests were enthused by the possibilities of this Himalayan ski terrain and returned home happy and satisfied with their adventure ski experience. Certainly the good weather conditions also played an important role in their satisfaction. Most groups had a couple of sunny days with a good view on the surrounding mountains and nearly everyone had a chance to enjoy numerous powder runs on untracked snow fields.
To conclude just a short preview on the 2010/2011 season. I continue to offer my programs in their present form including the heli ski option from early December to the end of March. From what I hear Cat skiing could be available next winter too. An appropriate program option will be published on our website Free Ski Himalaya as soon as more details are known.
Finally for people looking for more picture and video impressions on Gulmarg go to our facebook page “facebook/freeskihimalaya” This site can be accessed without prior registration. Enjoy the content and we would of course be pleased if you became a fan too.