In a Himalayan valley surrounded by military barracks, blasts of artillery fire often reverberate across the icy mountain peaks. This is one of the world’s longest-running conflict zones. It’s near where India and Pakistan recently traded airstrikes. So it’s not unusual to see helicopters buzzing overhead.
But on a morning in early February, one particular chopper was not part of the conflict.
“I run Kashmir Heliski. We have clients from different parts of the world. We take people to 4,500 meters. They enjoy it!” says Billa Majeed Bakshi, a local skier turned businessman.
Since 2011, Bakshi has ferried more than 1,000 skiers and snowboarders nearly 15,000 feet up into the Himalayas, via helicopter, in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Kashmir is split between Indian and Pakistani control. The mountain valley is the site of a decades-long insurgency, as separatists on the Indian side fight for independence. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers are stationed on either side of the Line of Control, Kashmir’s de facto border. India blames Pakistani-based militant groups for attacks on Indian security forces, including a Feb. 14 suicide car bombing on the valley’s main highway.
But in the cold months, when the valley fills with snow, it also becomes a winter sports haven for a small but devoted gang of extreme sports enthusiasts. They often ski — “shred lines,” as boarders and ski bums put it — just a few hundred yards from the Line of Control, within view of Pakistani troops on the other side.
“I think it’s fantastic! I just wish we could get over their mountain ranges and shred with them too,” says Jimmy Hands, 41, who’s visiting from Toronto. “Look, nothing brings peace like a little bit of snow, and everybody’s been magical here! Like, it is magic.”
The powder this high up may be magical — but it also leads to avalanches. In early February, at least nine people died in avalanches triggered by a single snowstorm.
“Someone who’s had an accident, whether it’s a fall on ice or they’re involved in an avalanche, to move that person to a hospital — that is a big challenge here, without the infrastructure of other countries,” says Brian Newman, a Coloradan who serves as the snow safety officer for the Gulmarg Ski Resort, a Kashmiri state government-run resort with two giant gondola lifts. During the recent Indian and Pakistani airstrikesand shelling over the Line of Control, the ski station at Gulmarg remained open for business.
The main Jammu-Srinagar highway, the only route connecting Kashmir to the rest of India, is often impassable for several days at a time because of snow. At the area’s main airport, flights regularly get canceled due to foul weather. Snowplows are in short supply.
Until the 1990s, Gulmarg, with fewer than 2,000 residents, was a sleepy hill station. The area, the Pir Panjal Range of the western Himalayas, was a summertime playground for India’s British colonial rulers, who came to escape the sweltering heat farther south. There’s still a British-built golf course.
Synonymous with romance and revolution, Kashmir has always captured the Indian imagination. Bollywood song sequences have long been filmed there. But after the state government built two gondolas in 1998 and 2005, Gulmarg began attracting more tourists from abroad, and increasingly from India too.
In 2007, the government hired Newman. He obtained explosives from the Indian military to blast off excess snow that might otherwise avalanche and imposed rules requiring skiers to carry avalanche beacons, shovels and probes. He even learned the Kashmiri language.
As India’s middle class grows, domestic tourists have been coming to Gulmarg in greater numbers. The state government says 800,000 Indian tourists visited Kashmir in 2018, along with 50,000 foreigners. There are traffic jams every Sunday afternoon, as day trippers, having paid about $5.25 for a scenic ride up the first gondola, exit the resort and drive back to Srinagar, the biggest city in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, about 30 miles away.
“It’s almost like a different world! You’re cocooned in this space between the sky and the snow,” says Nikita Kapoor, 29, visiting for a long weekend from Kolkata — where it never snows. “I’m learning how to snowboard for the first time, so it’s really exciting!”
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