Season 2013

The scotsman sums up his season

Sandy looks back on his lines
Three months snowboarding: how can you summarise it? Do you go for the one-worder? Do you write a little and let the pictures do the talking? Do you go off on a complete tangent and pick one tiny little detail and make it the be-all-end-all of the season? It's a challenge, but a challenge I'm willing to undertake. The easiest way to cover the whole season is to break it up into two. I'm going to talk about the snow and the riding, then the people and the shenanigans.

The Shred!
Probably the most important thing over any season is how good the snow was. Gulmarg is slightly unique in the large amount of backcountry options available. Therefore, what I look for, firstly, is not how blower the pow-pow is but how stable is the snowpack. This season I can report an amazingly stable snowpack, which means I can happily go on about the epic snow! It puked. It was my third year there and this one was a doozy! By the middle of January, we were riding lines that the previous two seasons I had to wait until early February to shred, for fear of big nasty gouges. That's not to say I didn't get any. Seems I've got an innate ability to find sharp, angry rocks and mash my board on them!
I've stuck more snow up my snoze this season than the rest. The 2012 season was a face-shot spectacular! So much of the goods fell and then kept on falling. Getting ridonkulously stuck dropping in from the village down, we didn't even have to ride the gondola up anywhere, was a first for me. On another occasion setting boot packs was an impossibility as you were trying to wade, waist deep, through the snow and this was only half way through a three day storm. (I'm 6'4" so imagine how it would've been for you!) Also, we were blessed with a fair whack of high pressure. This meant, not only were we riding epic powder, it was sunny too! Please tell me where else in the world I can get light, fluffy, white goodness, next to no people shredding, a gondola to the top of the mountain and BLUEBIRD 6 days in a row?
slaying some spring snow.
Milking face shots in mid-March might be the norm in other resorts across the world. However, the primetime season in Gulmarg is the month of February. Come March the season starts to wind up as the temperatures increase. It's the altitude and your patience that makes March amazing. Only a few people come at this time of year and many of the seasonaires start peeling out as the snow changes. All that this means is when your patience pays off and you get a late season dump you don't have to milk anything! You have an incredible abundance of snow on a relatively stable base. When you can count the total number westerners on one hand, literally, you know there is fun to be had!
(N.B. This is my personal opinion as to what the snow was like. For a comprehensive round up of the 2013 season snowpack and avalanche activity visit for Brian's end of season report)

The People
Obviously the quality and amount of snow will make or break a season. Yet, in Gulmarg, that is only half the awesome equation solved. Due to the extent of the backcountry, you require people to ride with if you ever hope to get out alive, if things go wrong. Now, this means that the people you meet do essentially become a potential lifeline. For me that makes it hard to be a social gazelle and bound around the 'savannah' being chums with everyone. I'm more suited to taking my time and getting to know a persons ideas and skills before battering off into the unknown of the backcountry with them.

If you look closely you can make out 
Sandy and Dave. A sketchy situation?
^^click to enlarge
Thankfully, this season there seemed to be an abundance of sensible people. (I use this in a quite loose term. You'll have to come to Gulmarg and see for yourself just how sensible we all really are!) Over the few years I've been attending, my skills have developed ten fold and so has my level of care for my life. All of this means is I can be a bit of a surly Scot on first impression. I can assure you I'm not too bad. I just don't want to end up in a sketchy situation with people that aren't going to challenge or deal with what's happening.
Luckily, more people seemed to be attending this year for a good stint. This allows time to pass among us and friendships bond. More than any other, I felt a real feeling of community among many of the Westerners. That is not to say I didn't meet interesting people just there on a whim or a week! Yet, because of the community spirit and the general epic-ness of snow lovers we got up to some nonsense off the hill too. How does a late night toboggan party, with freshly squeezed OJ cocktails take your fancy? Alternatively, a full moon shred mission with an amateur gymnastics performance? or an all night, bonfire-booter, extravaganza sound? Truly was a memorable time.

Dave, all smiles post sketchy situation

On the other hand, which is if I was a social gazelle. Gulmarg never leaves you disappointed. You could be scoffing racks of lamb, with an international quota, at the 5 star Hotel. Raging it up at one of the notorious Russian led, dub-step infused, dimly lit, late night booze fests. Staring at walls, through a cloudy haze, discussing mega-physics and quotient spaces and refracted light, while jazzing out to some down-tempo beats. Drinking chai, you can always drink chai. Read and then swap and discuss other epic novels. It's never a dull moment if you are there for a couple of weeks or a couple of months!
Thing is I could go on and on about so much more but I have to leave some things to be discovered by you. So all in all I say the 2013 season was a huge success for me. I've made some great friends (a heart felt thanks to all those who spotted me and had my back this year), I rode some lovely powder (that's a lie; I rode an awful lot!), I ticked a trip of my list and added a few more lines to my to-do. Guess I'll be heading back next year. See you there?

Until next year.

Post Storm Explorations

All of a sudden BAM goes Gulmarg; an explosion of technicolour outerwear, big groups and queues. It must be February.
The Gondola queue at Kongdoori is inside this year!

 The end of the storm sees about 200 people lined up for opening day. It’s a mad dash, to cash in, on the powder stash. What took well over ten days to track out in January is now done a few. This is when a good knowledge of the mountain will see you reap the best rewards. My tip, if you are new to the place, is get a good guide! For me it is all about exploration.

The typical sunny morning view from Sandys breakfast table
 I finally got some binoculars this year. I also have a prime breakfast view of the entire mountain. I combine these two things and pick out spots, usually on the rocky out crops, which still have no lines. It’s then off out, to pick our way, into the lines and leave the only tracks on that face. Guess what? They’re still there! It pays to spend the busy times exploring new lines. I’ve opened up a few spots this year that, after the next snowfall, I know are highly unlikely to be ridden and I’ve got more to explore.

The other option is to skin. Probably one of the best days I’ve had this year was in variable snow conditions. We set off to the top, went round the back of Shark’s Fin, to a zone called Great White. There the three of us were the first off the top, a nice 45 degree pitch. Good snow into a bit of crust but fresh lines. Then it was a little scoot and a short scramble into the doggy chutes.
 Named because the best way to access them is from behind! Again the snow looked hard and sun- crusted but after a couple of jump turns it softened up nicely. First three down there too! A second skin saw us back onto the Apherwat ridge and one final 1000m run for the day. The top quarter was sub- par but you persevere and are rewarded with an epic fall line tree run. Then a bouncy and fun natural border cross run to the gondola.
The fun thing about Gulmarg is most of the time you will not know if a spot has a name yet!
Sandy and crew put some lines in "the Doggy Chutes"
 That last run was 9 days since our last snowfall. Gulmarg is such a wonderful place because even as busy as it is and with a long period of no snow, one can still find the goods. The best thing about pushing further out is that you keep discovering new zones. From that one day I’ve got two new projects for future exploration. This place never ceases to amaze me. My third season and I’ve found even more new places and I haven’t even been in a helicopter!

Hunter Gatherers

 N.B. This is a blog from about three weeks ago. It started snowing as I was writing it, and low and behold, I got side tracked and have just got back to the computer. 

The last week has seen a hunter gatherer approach being applied to my riding, by observing the mountain, talking to friends and a little natural instinct helped me to locate the position of the best powder stashes. Then it was on with the skins and out to stalk my prey.

 By no means am I a skilled split-boarder, so the numerous switchbacks, on one expedition, saw a less than stealthy tracker fumble up the slope. But that’s part of the fun for me, learning new skills to help me access the bigger trophies. Luckily, my bumbling efforts that day didn’t alert our objective and the back of the beast was satisfactorily slashed. One run, no lift, new skills attempted what a great day in Gulmarg.

The view from Monkey Hill under a clear full moon
 Another time we went out night stalking, under the full moon, on monkey hill. It was, for me, part homage to the founder of Di5, for everyone else something fun. Having dodged the poop chute boot pack we enjoyed late night refreshments. Once the amateur gymnastics show had finished up top, we rode down under a mixture of torch and moon light. At the bottom uncontrollable fits of laughter were a sign of a great adventure!

 Then the snow started to fall, and fall, and fall. Three days producing well over 1.5m of light fluffy good times. A much loved top up that whetted everyone’s appetite for the mountain to open again soon. While we waited patiently we built hit runs that got buried, put in skin tracks that got filled and watched the people arrive, with a look of awe, at the mass of snow that was falling.

Sandy has been busy at the keyboard over the last few days, here are his latest adventures:


worth the wait?

The beautiful thing about the early season is that you can have a leisurely breakfast, a gentle stroll to the gondola and still be 6th in line! Our numbers swelled close to 15 as the anticipation for the fresh, deep, powdery goodness increased exponentially, with every minute passed. After 2 hours we were positively frothing for our fix. A little bit of argy-bargy and eventually I was cocooned into my bubble on my way up to find ‘paradise on earth’. Using my time in the Gondola to spot the natural avalanches that had ripped out the nasty depth hoar, which is one of the snow-packs potential future weaknesses. Soon enough though, I was, once again, standing at the top of a massive, open bowl ready to satiate my desire for snow and I set off with a child like enthusiasm.

Bombing down the first pitch the snow was billowing up around me and my cheers were well heard. Having only 5 people ahead of me, I knew, I had an exceptional opportunity to lay down a line without having to cross another. However, as I pulled around the first ridge, the slope angle decreased and I became aware that I wasn’t floating like an angel anymore. My board was sinking and I was firing out all my skills to stop my nose getting completely buried. I came very close to swimming like the days before, yet, this was like being dropped in the ocean and told to swim for a shore you cannot see! Luckily a lot of back leg pumping and being able to jump on a skier’s track saved me from drowning. Back at the bottom there were a lot of bemused grins. Everyone had been surprised by the snow, which was so deep and unsettled that, while exceedingly fun, was harder work than expected. A quick set back of the stance made the next run better. Then the rest of the day was amazing after you realized that you had to jump into other people’s tracks, build up sufficient speed, then pop off into the next untracked field of fun you find.

The next few days saw the snow settle and things speed up. Once again everyone was treated to line after line of freshies. We were running over 2000m of vertical into the Drang valley with barely another Westerner in site. Skinning out through local villages, where the pace of life was far removed from what you experience in Gulmarg. Old favourite runs were being whipped, new routes opened and transceiver skills honed. The mountain was a like a fruit tree, rich with plump juicy morsels of goodness, ripe for the picking. As a high pressure band saw a big swing in day and night temperatures complemented by the wind scouring some aspects, you soon had to re-evaluate your days to allow you to access the goods.