“Chocolate, biscuit, coffee!”
“Very cold day, very hot tea!”
I hear the hawkers chanting in tandem. I hear it so often that I start chanting with them. Kahwa, Kashmir’s very popular tea, hits the spot after a long day of skiing. And today, I especially need a cup or two.
Only an hour ago, I was faced with a steep, 90-degree drop. I was supposed to get off the gondola halfway up the mountain, but in my eagerness to inhale the sweeping views, I missed my mark—so when I did stop, I was way too high. In fact, I was at the very top of Apharwat, which, at 13,780 feet, is one of the main peaks in the Himalayan range of Pir Panjal.
With breathtaking vistas, including that of Nanga Parbat—one of the 14 Eight Thousanders, independent peaks around the world with an elevation of over 8,000 metres (26,247 feet)—I wasn’t complaining. I was, however, nervous. In the 10 years since I made my skiing debut in Colorado, I’d had some incredible experiences in the Rockies, Alps, Andes and even the Himalayas, but my intermediate level skills, I knew, would not be enough to navigate the run ahead. What lay ahead was far more formidable, a trail categorised as a double-black diamond (extremely difficult), reserved strictly for experts. I had no choice but to go down. So I collected my thoughts, calmed my nerves, and attempted to ski down. Thunk. Suddenly I was rolling down, gathering snow. I was effectively a human-sized snowball. Luckily, the fluffy snow protected me from injury. But I could hear amused locals laughing from the chairlift above—it must have been a comical sight. I would get up, try to manoeuvre my skis, and immediately fall for what felt like hundreds of feet. For the few seconds that I was up, I looked like I was auditioning for Grease. However, the great thing about skiing is that the progress you make is exponential. So by day five, I was cruising.
Nestled in the Great Himalayas, Jammu and Kashmir’s ‘Meadow of Flowers’, has long been a rewarding ski destination. The gondola in Gulmarg, running along Apharwat, is the second-highest cable car in the world. Gulmarg has only a few kilometres of pistes (marked ski runs), just one chairlift, and a couple of J-bars (low-capacity lifts to pull up skiers and snowboarders individually) for beginners, which makes it a really different experience from your average European or American ski resort. But it is famous internationally for its single cable car going up over an elevation of 4,265 feet to a point just below the summit, providing phenomenal off-pistes with cinematic views and tons of powder for serious skiers and riders. The skiable terrain of Apharwat is one of the largest, longest and highest in Asia. With local hotels of middling quality and little après-ski, the overall experience is bare-bones. This, of course, puts the entire focus on the thrill of the sport.