“Hearing gunfire echo around the valley reminded us that we were not in the Swiss Alps! We silently contemplated the prospect of spending a night in the woods, acknowledging that we were unlikely to all wake up in the morning.”
We were lost. Trudging through the woods in waist deep snow, it was dark, and bitterly cold. We were in Kashmir and getting closer and closer to the disputed Indian and Pakistani Line of Control.
Earlier that day myself and four other ski and snowboard tourers had made our way up to 4000 meters above the town of Gulmarg in Northern India. The plan was to have a fairly relaxed second day in the area and ski down a ridge avoiding the highest avalanche risk zones back to our basic, but authentic accommodation.
Why had we ended up in India to ski? Is that even a thing?
Those questions were the very reason it was so appealing, as soon as I heard that skiing was possible in Kashmir, I knew I had to experience it. The ski village of Gulmarg is located at 2600 meters on the lower slopes Mount Afarwat. The closest city and airport being Shrinagar.
As it turned out, the area had attracted a fair few other western ski adventurers, it was certainly not the usual European style ski resort, we were definitely in India, with one Gondola and a single ‘groomed’ run, the skiing is technical and 95% ‘off piste’.
Kashmir is blacklisted by the UK foreign office as there are ongoing conflict and terrorist attacks over the Indian and Pakistan border. This made the area even more appealing for me to travel to, knowing the danger was heightened increased my excitement.
I had not expected my adventure to get to this level quite so soon. After leading my four new friends down a beautifully enticing snowy bowl, we had found ourselves descending further and further down a gully, in the wrong direction, heading into the unknown. No wonder we were making fresh lines in the deep powder, as no other skiers had taken this route.
We followed the gully but kept having to climb up ridges and hills to avoid impassable cliff faces, which the course of a river ran. We had long been out of food, and our energy levels were much depleted after arduous hiking through the deep powder snow.
We came across the tracks of the elusive snow leopard and bear through the woods. Darkness fell and the level of peril increased. Our torches had died from the cold and only one phone remained, with no signal. We were treated to Gods amazing creation display of a thick blanket of stars, gazing up and making out the Milky Way was an incredible sight, but even that momentary escape couldn’t distract from our situation.
Hearing gunfire echo around the valley reminded us that we were not in the Swiss Alps! We silently contemplated the prospect of spending a night in the woods, acknowledging that we were unlikely to all wake up in the morning.
Time passed as we slowly covered ground. Scrambling up a rocky face carrying our skis and snowboards, two lights appeared on a further ridge. Assuming that the lights must be from an army base was hope, but not ideal. We trudged closer, shouting and trying to draw attention, dogs could be heard barking from within the base.
A miracle was occurring, which we didn’t realize the extent of at the time. The one phone with battery found signal! We hastily made contact to our hosts back in Gulmarg to let them know we were alive and that we were approaching the fence of an army outpost somewhere in the mountains.
They were already in the local Police station back in Gulmarg, trying to organize a small search and alerting the Indian army that there were five lost foreign tourists in the area. Unbeknown to us, there had been an incident that very morning with Pakistani terrorists infiltrating an Indian base and killing 4 Indian soldiers.
Understandably, there was therefore heightened security in the usually twitchy area. The order was ‘shoot to kill’ any persons seen near a base in this restricted area. At the point of knowledge that tourists could be in the area, this command was reduced to be very suspicious of unidentified people outside of the razor wire compounds. We later realized that there was a 3-5 minute window between the connected call and being within the range of the base as the command was changed. We had made it to the high fence of the base on a dirt track, searchlights highlighted us and shouts came from the darkness,
“Who are you?! Where are you from?! How did you get here?!”
Two soldiers walked towards us with bright flashlights, blinding our sight.
“Drop your bag, put your hands up!”
“We are English, we are very lost, we have come from Gulmarg, skiing, My name is Alex.”
“How did you get here?! Why are you here!?” was the response from behind the lights.
“We are lost, we are from England.”
I approached the soldier, took off my glove and extended my hand.
“Salam, hello,” I clearly said.
“Give me your Identification!”
I happened to have my passport in my pocket and handed it over to the soldier who studied it curiously.
Further questions were directed at me while the rest of the group waited a few steps behind. We were then ordered to follow the soldiers up the track briskly towards the barks of savage dogs. There was a shabby corrugated iron fence, heavily covered with razor wire. Armed soldiers appeared out of the darkness surrounding us.
Ordered to sit down on the dirt, freezing, tired and hungry, our belongings dumped in a pile, we obediently did as we were told.“Are you thirsty? Do you like wine and beer?!” mocked the soldiers as if they were about to bring us cans of Kingfisher Lager.
“Do you know where you are?! You are on the Line of Control, you are two kilometres away from Pakistan. You are very lucky! If you went there you would be dead already! We are the Indian Army and at war with Pakistan.”
We had put ourselves in an extreme situation. We had almost been killed.
We were in various states of cold, hypothermia, shock and anxiety. A soldier doused kindling and logs with kerosene and kindly made us a fire. We were surrounded by the armed soldiers who all wanted a look at their unexpected guests.
“It is not possible to get here from Gulmarg, it is too far,” said one of the soldiers, “you must have planned this.”
At this point, I secretly removed the memory card from my camera and put it in a hidden pocket. I presumed we would be searched and that our cameras would be taken but I certainly didn’t want to lose the footage of the day.
We were ordered to move from the dirt track into the base, ducking through the gate. We entered what looked like a construction site, with small buildings scattered amongst diggers and piles of rubble. Lead into a bunker with two beds and a small heater, which didn’t seem to emit any heat, the steel door was shut behind us and we were left alone, concerned with what might happen next.
I cherished being in this experience that was unfolding and the environment that few outsiders would ever see. The door was suddenly pushed open. “Alex, come with us.”
The order was given for me to follow soldiers down the yard to another building. As I had initially spoken to the soldiers on the road, I was the point of contact and representative for our group.
I was shown to a window on the outside of a wall and a phone receiver was handed to me. On the other end of a faint line, a man introduced himself, telling me of his high rank in the Indian Army. He went through all the questions we had already been asked but in much further detail. I was soon taken back to the room with the others.
We all remained calm, unsure of what was happening, it seemed unreal, a dream-like experience.
A while later we were escorted back to the dirt road, where there was an army truck waiting to take us down the valley.
I made sure to shake as many hands as possible, apologizing for our actions and thanking them for treating us well.
After a long and bumpy ride down the mountain, we entered a larger military base and were shown into a room decorated with trophies and exotic animal skins hanging from the walls. A commander introduced himself and upon hearing that we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, treated us to a sit-down meal in the officer’s mess.
It had been an incredible day, one of my best. Perhaps not the experience most skiers will have while in Gulmarg. Adventure skiing at its finest.