Black Summer, White Winter
Late July 2019
All foreign and Indian tourists were rounded up and ordered to leave Kashmir. No reason was given, but there were rumours spreading of an imminent terrorist threat from across the border. The locals had no idea what was to come, the media were taking stabs at scenarios, but no-one expected it when on August 5 the Indian government announced it was revoking a section of the constitution which would strip Kashmir of its right to self-determination. They would no longer have their own government or laws, or a safeguard to property ownership in their valley. Their cultural identity would be threatened.
To limit the inevitable backlash of local protests, state politicians were arrested, government offices, private businesses, and schools were closed, local media was shut down, a strict curfew was enforced, hundreds of youths were jailed and a total communications blackout began. No phones, no Internet, and no way of contacting anyone outside of your immediate village for months. Without any warning, this suddenly became the new daily life for the Kashmiris. Sadly, 70 years of political unrest in the area means the locals are no strangers to living through tense periods, but fortunately, they’ve built up such resilience to a hard life that their spirit is unflappable. They maintain a positive outlook during the toughest of times.
Above: The hotel and the mountain behind… looking about as good as it gets. Banner: Jason, pictured, had just saved his house from the fires before boarding the flight to escape the smoke for a while. Photos: Powder Hounds.
From afar, the only way for us to keep track of what was happening on the ground was via sensationalised media reports from opposite perspectives. The truth was obviously somewhere in between but it was really hard to know how dire the situation was for our local friends. Politicians and human rights organisations from across the globe were calling for an investigation into what was unfolding on the streets of Kashmir, but the Indian government was keeping it close to their chest. No foreigners or unauthorised journalists were allowed in.
Four months later, early December
The locals were still under curfew but the communications blackout was slowly starting to lift and some landlines reconnected. Surprisingly, when we could finally make contact our local friends were their normal happy selves, and rather than dwelling on the obvious upheaval of their lives over the past few months, they almost shrugged it off and were more intent on finding out what had been happening in our world. The upcoming winter would hopefully bring some tourists and employment and provide the local powder junkies with a very welcome relief after months of lockdown. Fortunately, the region was enjoying its best early season snow for a couple of decades – they just needed the area to open up and the foreign skiers and boarders to arrive.
Lunchbreak with a view. Photo: Powder Hounds.
With the political tensions in the area, running a backcountry guiding operation in Gulmarg can certainly have its challenges but the benefits are totally worth it. Working closely with the locals for the past 15 years has been an honour which has led to many lifelong friendships, and the buzz I get from introducing newcomers to the magic of Kashmir and its people never fades. Not to mention the hedonistic thrill of linking hundreds of epic powder-turns down massive bowls in the Himalaya.
Smooth Himalayan powder turns. Photo: Bills Trips.
For those who haven’t travelled to Kashmir before, the media focus on the most shocking newsworthy events always makes the region appear highly dangerous, however, this is definitely not a true reflection of what’s actually happening on the ground. More often than not the region is quite safe for travelling. Fortunately, our trusted local friends are able to keep us up to date with real information.
Early January 2020
In Kashmir the curfew has been lifted, landlines and mobile phones are back on and the gondola is preparing to operate. Still, no Internet (mainly to inhibit the use of social media) but businesses were open, there were no travel restrictions nor any obvious signs of political unrest. The valley was peaceful and life was getting back on track. Plus, there had been another couple of big storms that had left the mountain with a massive January snowpack. Things were definitely starting to shape up well for another great winter in Gulmarg.
The locals are definitely the best snow drivers I have ever seen. Photo: Powder Hounds.
However, back home in Australia, I was in the midst of the mayhem caused by the bushfires, and although the snow sounded epic in Kashmir I was on the verge of cancelling our operations for the winter. I was torn between staying home to see the fire season out in my local community or heading to Gulmarg and providing some much-needed employment for our Kashmiri friends. Phone calls from a few persistent regular guests who also felt indebted to the locals (powder tragics who knew Kashmir was now peaceful) swayed me to take the middle ground and opt for a shortened snow season.
In Australia, the immediate threat to our village had passed but the fires were still in full swing a little further north. I almost turned back around on the way to Sydney to fly out.
We retreated to a bunker on the beach when the fires came too close. Photo: Dean Dampney.
I eventually arrived into Srinagar airport a day later to be met by the smiles and excited welcomes from the baggage porters that I’ve gotten to know over the years. Yousuf and Shabir were waiting outside, and after hugs and handshakes with virtually all of the usual airport crowd they whisked me off to spend the night on the houseboat with Rasool. Everyone was stoked to see a foreigner arriving in Kashmir and while chatting, rather than focusing on the horrendous past six months, there was a definite celebratory vibe in the air. “The past is the past; let’s live now and look toward the future” is a common Kashmiri take on life. It’s truly inspiring they can maintain this attitude considering the rough cards they’ve been dealt for so long. The next day in Gulmarg saw the same scene play out many times over. The locals were grateful to see a few tourists returning, and the small ski community was abuzz as friends from across the globe reunited.
And the mountain looked epic.
Follow me, the snow will be great once we get off the windboard. Photo: Powder Hounds.
The next month was pretty surreal and almost felt like the clock had been turned back to my first visit in 2005. There was hardly anyone around, the snowpack was as predictable as it gets and we enjoyed day after day of quality, untracked turns. There was no early morning powder frenzy as we couldn’t track it out if we tried. I revisited lines that I have avoided for years, picked off the low-hanging cherries, cut laps on old favourites and explored new zones. “Let’s do that bowl today and leave that one for tomorrow.” Most guests called it their best ever skiing experience and were blown away by the terrain and snow quality. But it’s most likely the memories of the cultural experiences that will stay with them forever.
The local ski guides we work with are a classic snapshot of the Kashmiri spirit, and it’s hard not to be taken in by the charm. Always smiling and constantly going out of their way to make sure that your time spent in their beautiful part of the world is as rewarding as it can be. This warm hospitality is everywhere you go in Kashmir, and regardless of the political tensions, their incredible resilience allows an amazing spirit to always shine through.
Khalda and Shabir graciously treating us to tea and cake after a long and adventurous ski to their beautiful village. Photo: Powder Hounds.
The season had been short but very sweet. We’d scored epic turns, caught up with old friends, and injected a little into the local economy, but it was now time to head home. The bushfires at home had come to an end thanks to a massive rain event however the next challenge was just starting in earnest. COVID had been a distant threat when I’d arrived in Kashmir, but face masks were common by the time I flew home in late February. It took a while for the virus to reach Kashmir but many cases have now been detected and are increasing rapidly. After a short three-month reprieve, life in Kashmir has once again come to a complete standstill while the whole Kashmir Valley is under another strict lockdown. Medical services in the region are poorly resourced and even a mild outbreak could be devastating, so the shutdown may continue for months.
Tre Kaka – It has been an honour to lose some hair, go grey, forget a few things and reach Kaka (uncle) status along with Wali and Yaseen over the past 15 years. Photo: Bills Trips.
For most people, staring down the barrel of another lengthy lock-in after what has already been endured would be hugely challenging, but whenever I speak to our friends in Kashmir they sound as happy and positive as always. I have no doubt they will come out the other end with their incredible spirits intact. Hopefully, the hard times of the past year will soon be just a memory and the people of Kashmir settle into a much deserved and long-lasting peace.
Swooping turns in massive bowls is par for the course in the Gulmarg back-country. Photo: Powder Hounds.