Winter 2011 in the Himalaya – A Review
Winter 2011 in Gulmarg – A Retro Perspective
A few days ago I completed my 2011 winter ski season with some last turns in excellent snow conditions on the Glacier 3000 near Gstaad in Switzerland. Now it is time to look back on the season in Gulmarg and to share our experience with interested parties. First, however, I want to thank all our guests for the trust they have put in us and for their participation in our programs. It was thanks to their feedback and encouragement that we were able to improve the service level of our partner hotel and they also have provided the framework for our guides and drivers to test and strengthen their professional skills and capabilities. I am pleased to note that today we are well positioned to offer a wider spectrum of programs and to better address the diversity of expectations of our guests.
I would like to start this Gulmarg 2011 review by introducing a slideshow with pictures taken by the renown photographer Yves Garneau whom I had the pleasure to accompany for a photo shooting in Gulmarg’s ski area.
Off course also this year many guests have documented their stay in Gulmarg on videos and shared their impressions with the public. Most of their video posts you find here http://www.facebook.com/freeskihimalaya and on Free Ski Himalaya’s web page http://www.freeskihimalaya.com/Gulmarg_References.htm.
Snow and Weather Conditions
As in many other regions of the world also the Himalayas suffered this year from poor snow conditions, at least for half of the season. When I arrived in Gulmarg on December 15 I was welcomed by an extremely blue sky, freezing cold temperatures and a picturesque autumn scenery, and the weather was to remain like this till the end of the month. There were some small snow fields on the top of the mountain where in the worst case guest could have made a few turns after a strenuous ascent through rocky terrain but real skiing was not possible. By the end of the month just two days before the first guests arrived it started to snow (ca. 40cm), just enough to get the impression as if the mountain was skiable. Unfortunately this fresh snow barely covered the rocky terrain and therefore the few runs we made with our guests were not a real pleasure but rather a massive torture on body and material.
After January 10 the snow pack started to improve but the ski conditions remained feeble. Many days with lots of sun and blue sky compensated for the lack of snow. In February the weather finally turned to normal and snowfall became regular. Unfortunately the poor weather periods lasted longer than in previous years and therefore the upper phase of the gondola remained closed for more than 15 days in February (heavy snowfall, strong winds, poor visibility, and increased avalanche danger). At least the snow conditions for tree skiing were now perfect and our guests enjoyed numerous runs down to Tangmarg and Baba Reshi. Despite the many days phase 2 was closed all our guests were able to enjoy at least one day on the upper terrain and to complete several runs from the top of Mt. Apharwat and also the run from the top to Drang.
As in previous years March was once again the best month to take full advantage of the Gulmarg ski terrain. Regular snow fall in the first week of March brought the snow depth at village level to 250cm. The roughly 70cm of fresh powder resulted in excellent ski conditions and from March 8 till my departure on March 13 we enjoyed perfect powder terrain and great weather – sun, blue sky, nice temperature – and only very few skiers on the mountain!
A short review of Gulmarg’s 2011 winter weather with some statistics I published here https://freeskihimalaya.wordpress.com/2011/05/03/winter-weather-in-gulmarg-2011/. A day by day report on the 2011 weather status in Gulmarg including pictures has been published here http://www.facebook.com/Gulmarg.Weather.Snow.Information. On this site our guests and all other interested parties will again be informed about the snow and weather status in Gulmarg in 2012.
Accommodation, Service and Infrastructure
In Gulmarg every year new hotels open their doors and existing hotel are trimmed “fit” for the winter – this is at least the impression an outsider gets. In reality the number of hotels which have rooms that meet the expectation level of our guests (24h electric power availability, working heating system, sufficient running cold and warm water, wifi availability, electric blankets) is still limited to our partner hotel and an anotherl ski in/ski out hotel in the same area plus 3 additional hotels which are bit further away and which can’t be reached on ski. The information on hotel accommodation provided in my blog https://freeskihimalaya.wordpress.com/2009/08/01/hotel-accommodation-in-gulmarg/ is therefore still valid.
In our partner hotel the staff in the restaurant and in room service has made progress, they were very engaged this winter in making our guests’ stay as comfortable as possible. With regard to cleanliness in the dining room and the guest rooms we saw improvements but there is still a way to go till western standards are met – should that really be necessary?! An area where certain ameliorations need to be envisaged is the kitchen, not with regard to food quality but with regard to variety. For guests who stay longer than a week the daily curries become quite monotonous. However, for me it is more important to have “good and sufficient food than innovative and potentially unenjoyable meals”. Meal creation is not easy in Gulmarg, lack of adequate storage facilities and freezing infrastructure, obligation to purchase from defined vendors in the area (who also don’t have storage and freezing facilities) and the limited availability of certain ingredients during the winter months in Kashmir are quite a challenge even for good chefs. Despite the somewhat monotonous meals our guests where happy in this hotel and therefore we will remain there also next winter. A sufficient number of rooms have already been reserved there for our guests.
When talking about infrastructure we mean primarily the gondola and the road clearing services, both are important for us to properly run our programs and on both we have only limited intervention options.
With regard to the gondola we are happy to say that from January 16 to April 5 skiers had access to phase 2 on 66 days and on 20 days phase 2 remains closed because of poor weather and avalanche danger. Phase 1 was open permanently for the whole season. An issue that always gives raise to debates is the “hours of operation”. These have remained the same as ever, e.g. 09.00h to 16.00h for phase 1 and 10.00h to 15.00h for phase 2. What we hope for are opening hours from 08.30h to 16.00h on both phases, this has been promised already many times but I doubt that it will ever happen. Looking back on 6 years of operation in Gulmarg I can say that these somewhat limited hours of operations have always been a concern for our guests, at least on the first days of their stay, however, most people became happy with the number of verticals they were able to enjoy in this short period. For us it is important to provide our guests with sufficient skiing in a day so that they return tired and content to the hotel in the evening but still have enough energy left to keep on skiing for the rest of the week. When skiing in Gulmarg there is one aspect that many guests underestimate – the altitude – an element which makes skiing much more energy demanding than in similar conditions in the alps and other mountains and which also requires that we plan our programs in a manner that assures that the participants remain strong and in good health. We must therefore take the necessary precautions to avoid that any of our guests have to pause because of symptoms or consequences of altitude sickness.
Another element that hindered the proper execution of our programs in the past was “timely road clearing” after snow fall. In the past years we usually had to walk approx. 3km to the village or the first access point for tree skiing after a snow storm hit. This year, however, the road was always cleared to a loading point near the hotel before 09.00h. So there is an improvement what still remains are the last couple of 100m to the hotel, this road part usually stays closed for a couple of days and thereafter it is never properly cleared.
Heli Skiing/Cat Skiing in Gulmarg
Heli skiing was finally available for the first time in Gulmarg this winter. More than 30 of our guests have booked daily programs with one or more flights despite the considerable cost of 300 EUR per flight and person. Till January the heliski operators also suffered from the poor snowpack but in February they were able to fly for a couple of days. Our guests were satisfied with their heli ski days on the mountain and I think that some of our program participants will book individual flights again next winter.
Cat skiing is a different story. Despite that the vehicle left Sweden in December it reached Gulmarg only mid February. This was mainly due to complex customs processes and related negotiations to get the vehicle through. Once the cat was in Gulmarg the operators started to test drive it in the terrain in an around Gulmarg and on 2 days the cat skiing service was then available for bringing skiers back from Baba Reshi to Gulmarg – then it broke down and the season was over for the cat! At this moment it is unclear whether cat skiing will once again be available in Gulmarg. I am sure that there is a demand for this service but maybe not necessarily for transports in the areas surrounding the gondola.
A “new” Guest Profile and the “right” Equipment
Over the past 2 years we have seen considerable changes in the profile of the guests who participated in our programs in Gulmarg, the expectations with regard to the content of our programs have become broader and the skiing skills and the physical readiness for the demanding terrain are not as homogenous as before. Besides addicted freeriders we have now also guests who have discovered the pleasure of powder skiing only recently and who come to Gulmarg to improve their powder ski skills or to learn how to ski in the back country. There is also an increase in guests who are looking for so called Free Touring, for one day tours in the upper reaches and to the nearby peaks of the gondola serviced area.
The broader interest in back country skiing and the thereof resulting changes in the guest profile reflects a general market trend which can also be recognized in the growth of material sales in this area. A constantly increasing number of people have enough of overcrowded groomed slopes and therefore start buying either touring skis or broader all mountain skis with the required avalanche safety equipment for off piste and back country skiing. Thanks to the broader skis today more people are capable to ski outside of the groomed terrain, even people whose skiing skills have so for hindered them to pursue this activity. However, soon they discover that the few spots in the lifts serviced areas in the Alps are usually skied out quickly. The powder ski pleasure therefore lasts only for a short time as the conditions become rapidly difficult, especially for newcomers. People interested in learning and improving their powder ski skills are therefore searching for new destinations where they can practice this activity undisturbed for longer periods. Gulmarg as an outstanding destination for back country skiing becomes often their natural choice.
With regard to the material guests usually bring their own skis, from a slightly broader touring ski or bigger all mountain skis to the true “fat boy”. Despite our recommendation to bring skis with a minimum width of 100m under the binding still around 50% of the participants arrive with skis that have widths from 80mm to 95mm under the binding, skis that are not ideal for the terrain in Gulmarg. Some guests remained with their material for their stay but the majority of participants decided to rent “fat boys” from the local ski shop after their first day on the mountain.
We have recognized the changes in the guest profile and will undertake adequate changes in our programs next winter. We plan also to better address the different expectations of the skiers and will focus more on advising the guests to bring the best suited material when joining us in Gulmarg.
I am pleased to note that despite the broader guest profile we had last winter again no serious accidents on the mountain, only 3 guests suffered from slightly pulled muscles or minor strains and 4 participants were impacted by the high altitude and had therefore to pause for 2 to 3 days.
Our Team in Gulmarg
Our programs in Gulmarg are executed in close cooperation with local guides and drivers, this means that besides me four additional guides are taking care of our guests and on bad weather days one jeep driver per guide is on duty. Overall our team performed again well last winter and all guests were very happy with the performance of their respective guides and drivers. I am glad to say that by now we have a group of professionals in Gulmarg which allows us to expand our activities on the mountain and which is capable of making sure that our guests will continue to enjoy exceptional and unforgettable powder ski vacations in the Himalaya.
Outlook Winter 2012
Based on our experience with the snow and weather evolution in Gulmarg in the past years we propose our programs next winter officially from January 14, 2012 to March 31, 2012 as this is the best period to guarantee reasonable and often excellent powder ski conditions.
We assume that next winter the majority of our guests will still comply with the freerider profile which means we expect mainly strong skiers with a sound physical condition and the capability to ski with confidence in challenging terrain and all types of snow. For these guests we continue to offer our classical freeriding programs.
At the same time we realize an increased demand for so called free touring programs (one day tours to upper reaches and nearby peaks in the gondola serviced area). Up to know we haven’t provided guests with the option to let us know their preferences when booking and tried to address their expectations with a mix of typical freeriding runs and short hikes or extended traversing to the more remote terrain access points. Overall this mixed approach has been well received but there were always a number of guests who would have loved to undertake some one day skinning tours to more remote areas. For the season 2012 we will therefore for the first time offer free touring programs to more remote areas as a separate program option.
In order to have a better idea on our guests’ skiing profile participants will be asked to assess their own skill level themselves when they book with us. This helps us to have a better overview of the skill mix and to plan the group organization accordingly. In March we will also run so called Powder Perfection Programs for guests who would like to familiarize themselves more with skiing outside the groomed slopes.
I will introduce our programs and plans for Gulmarg next winter in a separate blog and the respective details will then be published on our website http://www.freeskihimalaya.com . On our facebook pages http://www.facebook.com/freeskihimalaya and http://www.facebook.com/Gulmarg.Weather.Snow.Information we share information on various subjects related to freeriding and during the winter regarding the weather and snow status in Gulmarg. On these pages you can also find picture and video reports about skiing in Gulmarg from our guests.
This review completes my winter season in Gulmarg. However, skiing continues for me and in a couple of weeks I will be on the road to Argentina and Chile for the exploration of new freeriding and free touring destinations in Patagonia for the summer 2012. I thank all our guests for their trust in us and am looking forward to welcoming many of them again in Gulmarg or on one of our ski trips to Patagonia.