"You have no choice but to really fall in love with Gulmarg, and it’s not just for the snow", says Ski Gulmarg founder Yanik Turgeon
Meet Yanik Turgeon: a self-professed “ski bum”, who arrived in Gulmarg for the first time in 2009, fell in love, and keeps going back year after year (that is, until COVID hit). Last winter would have been Yanik’s twelfth in a row, but the worsening pandemic meant that he – like many others – was prohibited to travel internationally.
Yanik has agreed to give us the rundown on Gulmarg, and he makes it clear in our chat that his travels have been first and foremost about skiing; he is a powder chaser who bubbles with passion for the big Himalayan lines and incredible snow that have made the resort such a hit with like-minded adventurers.
But he’s also the founder of Ski Gulmarg, an online guide and booking site through which he’s helped hundreds of travellers plan their visit to the resort – “my job is to make sure everything is 99.9% to 100% ready before they arrive”, he says.
In a place like Gulmarg, the value of expert advice can’t be understated, and Yanik is candid when he says that you need to be somewhat adventurous to visit. It’s in a part of the world that is known for political unrest, travelling in the region can be chaotic, and the magnitude of the mighty Himalayas means that skiing – while epic – can also be fraught with danger (more on that shortly).
Lifts and terrain in Gulmarg
The lift infrastructure at Gulmarg, which Yanik bluntly states “is not like Chamonix or Whistler”, is limited – the resort is mostly served by two connected gondolas, which take guests from their base in the village at 2600m to the dizzying heights of almost 4000m – 200 metres short of the Mt Apharwat peak (4,200m).
The first of the two gondolas serves an area that is referred to as Phase I, a 3.2 km run through pine tree forest with mellow, rolling hills that can be a challenge for beginners, and is more suited to lower intermediates. It can get congested with locals during busy periods and is generally best avoided by advanced skiers, though the views can be magnificent.
From the Kongdori mid-station at 3000m, skiers have the option to take the Phase II gondola to the top or a quad chairlift to an area called Mary’s Shoulder. The latter option gives skiers access to some very good off-piste terrain, with a couple of groomed runs for those less comfortable in fresh or chopped up snow.
But the Phase II gondola is where the real action is, and a ride to the top is an experience in itself.
“…there are barely any trees [past the mid-station], so you have this massive mountain – a white wall – in front of you”, says Yanik.
“Then when you turn around, if the clouds are high, you have the Kashmir Valley beneath you, then on the other side it’s the wall of the Himalayas, with a view across to Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world.
From the top station, skiers can remain in-bounds and in an avalanche-controlled area by simply dropping in to the (skiers’) left of the gondola. There are plenty of options from here, though it can get tracked out reasonably quickly due to ease of access.
But for the many backcountry skiers who come to Gulmarg for its deep snow and crazy big mountain lines, the gondola is often just a helpful starting point. From the top station, at 3,950m, the options are simply endless for those willing to hike and “earn their turns”.
“You just use the main gondola, and then walk away”, says Yanik. “There are usually only three of four runs in your day.”
We ask Yanik where he heads to ski the best lines.
“There are too many options”, he laughs.
“If it’s very stable and you want to ride some steep, you can go to the back [of Mt Apharwat peak] – we call that ‘shark fin’.
“If it’s been a long time since the last snow, you can go to an area we call the ‘Far Far Side‘, which is at the far end of the top ridge of Mt. Apharwat and north-facing. Because of the aspect, the snow is dry and deep.”
“But [the decision] depends on the avalanche conditions.”
Snow and avalanche danger
And he doesn’t make this point in jest. Avalanches are an ever-present danger in Gulmarg.
“I’ve always been a little bit scared about avalanches in Gulmarg. So I learned the safe lines early on”, says Yanik, who insists that riding with a guide is a must for anyone new to the resort.
“You have to ski with a guide, you have to listen to the guide, and you need to respect the mountain. It’s huge – you’re in the Himalayas. It’s high and it’s windy in Gulmarg, and the way it’s oriented, you’re on the leeside of the mountain, so it’s always loading and loading.
“You have lots of snow in a very short time, so you have to be careful”, says Yanik, who notes that the eight metres that falls on average every season comes almost entirely between mid-January to the end of March.
Gulmarg for beginner skiers
With all the talk of big mountain lines, avalanches and deep powder, we’re keen to find out what Gulmarg’s like for a beginner or intermediate skier.
Of course, the reality is that most people making the trip to a ski resort in the Himalayas aren’t there for the groomers or bunny slopes. But the increasing number of beginner skiers, mostly Indian, suggest that there’s enough appeal for someone starting out.
There are four surface lifts (pomas) around the golf course at the base of the mountain in Gulmarg, servicing runs between 50 to 100 metres in length. It’s a suitable place to get started, advises Yanik, though it should be noted that snowboarders are not permitted to use the lifts here (they have the option to walk or hire a sled driver to pull them up).
Phase 1 provides is a natural next step for someone who can confidently turn and stop, though the narrow sections and crowded nature of the trail make it less than ideal for someone low on confidence.
Even the Mary’s Shoulder Quad chairlift from the 3000m mid-station can be suitable for lower intermediates, claims Yanik, though only if the runs have been groomed that day (subtext: proceed with caution!).
“My girlfriend came three years ago – she’d skied a bit in Japan before”, explains Yanik.
“She spent three days on the surface lifts on the golf course, then two days riding Phase I. Not bad – you can definitely learn.
“There are a lot of Indians learning, and they’re all learning like that.”
The consensus on Gulmarg is that you shouldn’t show up expecting the 5-star accommodation, shopping and dining experiences of top European or North American resort.
“It’s a very small resort”, says Yanik – “really a tourist town”.
“There’s virtually no one who lives lives in Gulmarg 365 days a year – only those working in restaurants or hotels.”
But the town is packed with character, offers some interesting experiences off the slopes, and is especially enjoyable for foodies looking for a taste of local cuisine.
Yanik is quick to recommend Hotel Highlands Park, both as one of the more upmarket accommodation providers in Gulmarg, but also as a venue to retreat to for a meal and a drink at the end of a big day of skiing. The hotel’s charming lounge is one of the most beautiful rooms in the valley and offers sweeping views over Gulmarg and the Apharwat mountains. The kitchen serves “age old Continental and Kashmiri recipes”, and uses an old-fashioned tandoor (clay oven).
When pressed on what there is to do in Gulmarg other than skiing, Yanik reels off a list that includes ice skating, snooker, snowmobiling or visiting a spa, but says that a leisurely stroll through the street market to shop for local art, spices or simply to soak in the culture is the best way to get a feel for the town.
“If you have the time, taking a day off [skiing] is a good idea”, he says.
Yanik’s tip for first-time visitors to Gulmarg
“Come for more than a week, because you don’t know how the weather’s going to be. You need the weather to experience the best of Gulmarg, which is: stable, beautiful snow that you can ski from top to bottom without being stressed.
“Sometimes you can be stuck in the clouds for a week, where you can’t even get to the top. It’s not like your typical Japanese or European resort, where avalanche danger can be mitigated in a matter of hours, it can take a while … you’re in Kashmir.
It’s a long journey [for most people], so it’s better value to come for longer.”
What’s next for Yanik
Yanik, who works as a teacher in Taiwan through the off-season, reveals that he’s currently unable to return to Kashmir due to border closures. In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lifts are still running, the rate of vaccination amongst Kashmiris is growing rapidly, and the last season was one of Gulmarg’s busiest ever – albeit with no foreign tourists.
But he is holding out hope for the coming season, and aims to keep running Ski Gulmarg as a means to share his love for the place far and wide. “It’s what drives me”, he says.
“The only thing I do is to bring business to Kashmir. I’m not making a living by doing this. It’s not enough money to sustain myself.
“If it brings me a little bit of money to put aside – and I can ski a month a year. That’s enough. I’m not trying to become rich with this.
“You have no choice but to really fall in love with Gulmarg, and it’s not just for the snow. You’re in Kashmir. Kashmiri people are world-renowned for their hospitality. After 5 minutes they’re going to give you a big hug like you’re their far cousin from an extended family – they’re the best people ever.
“You’re surrounded by the Himalayas, the pace of life is very slow, there’s no stress. I love it. I just love it.”
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