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Andrew McLean: Skiing Through Kashmir

Thursday, April 6, 2017
Black Diamond Ambassador Andrew McLean is a globetrotting powder hound. So when he says he’ll always remember skiing the fluff he found recently in the mountains of Kashmir, it’s time to take notice …

It’s my birthday, but I don’t want to jinx it by saying anything. Truth is, my birthday wish has been coming true all day—I wanted to ski endless deep powder with a good group of friends under clear blue skies. So far, so good. I know what will happen if I open my mouth: “Hey guess what, today is my birthday!” Skrinkkkk, ahhh, there goes my ACL. I later decide to pass up a steep couloir with Glen and Ming, not because I should be old enough to know better, but because I’m afraid of how it will look if things go wrong. “Skier dies in steep Kashmir couloir on birthday.” I’m not so much superstitious as paranoid—skiing powder with your friends on a perfect day is as good as it gets, and it can be dangerous to ask for anything more.

Words: Andrew McLean, Images: Ming Poon

Throughout the day, I’m reminded of a party conversation where the guests were asked to recount their top ten all-time great powder days. Maybe I’m a jaded local, but there have been so many of them over the years that they all kind of blend together in a waist deep 5% orgy that makes it hard to separate out individual days. (Disclaimer: Skiing the “Terminal Cancer” couloir in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada with 6 feet of sub 5% powder was VERY memorable.)

Skiing powder is ephemeral, and while the memories of the actual turns may fade in a month, week, or, depending on how big the birthday celebration is, maybe even tomorrow, what doesn’t fade are the memories of the places and the people you do it with. Even now, less than two weeks later, I can’t remember the names or number of runs we skied that day, but I’ll never forget floating through Kashmiri fluff at 13,500’ under clear, sunny skies with a close group of friends. Maybe in a few more years, it will be remembered as even deeper, lighter and definitely one of my top pow days of all times.

I found my way to Kashmir through my most trusted pipeline of skiing information; a close group of skier friends who raved about it. Kip Garre planned his whole season around it and wouldn’t budge his schedule. Bill Barker and Mark Sedon returned year after year. Dave Marchi and Ptor Spricenieks were involved in the early days of establishing the snow safety program. Skiers like this don’t return to beater places, which to me is far more important than a 5 star rating on Yelp.

Like La Grave in France, Gulmarg in Kashmir has one central gondola and is basically a lift assisted backcountry skiing destination. You can stick to the main run/runs at either location, but you’ll be missing out on what these areas are really all about. What La Grave has in vertical drop and technical steeps, Gulmarg counters with a vast broad horizon and thigh smoking endless bowls of powder. At Mark Sedon’s suggestion, I brought a JetForce avalanche airbag pack with me to Gulmarg, but even that was a small comfort when I slipped into the head of some of the monster runs off of the summit ridgeline of Apharwat. It was like being a mouse in the barrel of a 16” canon on the USS New Jersey battleship, an image reinforced by photos of people standing next to avalanche crown lines off of Apharwat with their ski pole extended upwards to give the size of the fracture scale.

Fortunately, 2016/17 was a relatively stable year, but in other times, skiing some of these lines would be suicidal. Bill Barker, a veteran snow safety guide who now runs trips out of Gulmarg, would frequently start the day out by saying: “Today we will be seeing people skiing slopes that we are not going to ski,” implying how easy it is to get off the top of the tram and get yourself immediately into dangerous avalanche terrain.

The sense of danger didn’t just stop with avalanches, but extended to an endless parade of men with automatic rifles as well. Like a diamond formed by immense pressure, Kashmir is a tiny mountainous kingdom caught between India on one side and Pakistan on the other. Forced to choose a side, Kashmir aligned itself with India, which has resulted in a three way stalemate with occasional “difficulties” ever since. Technically, visitors should feel reassured by the presence of the Indian army, although for me it took some getting used to. Severe economic inequality also led to situations like armed bodyguards giving you the stiff arm when trying to pack into a gondola with a wealthy couple from India.

Prior to visiting, all I knew about Kashmir I learned from Led Zepplin’s mega hit by the same name, and the words still seem fitting today:

Like Shangri-La beneath the summer moon
I will return again
As the dust that floats finds you
We’re moving through Kashmir

Birthday translation: “As the powder that floats finds you, we’re skiing through Kashmir. I will return again.”

—Andrew McLean

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