It was February when we got to Gulmarg and it had been snowing. The slopes were soft and cushioned the impact when we fell off our snowboards. We were taking more spills than we should have and it was all my fault.
Snowboarding had come to me as part of an early mid-life crisis in 2006. I was 39 and suddenly felt the need to do something cooler. I had been windsurfing several times and was reasonably comfortable standing with my feet strapped to a board.
I managed to get six friends together for a boys’ trip to Gulmarg. My friends were apprehensive when I claimed that we wouldn’t need an instructor: I assured them that I would master the technique and then teach them how it was done. All of us ended up with angry bruises; one of us dislocated his shoulder, another damaged his knee. Once we hired an instructor, though, the four of us still in action started to fall a lot less, and quickly improved our technique and skills.
We were at an altitude of over 15,000 feet, whizzing down the slopes, sometimes at speeds close to 60 km/h. The adrenaline rush of snowboarding is much more intense than with skiing, simply because you have less control of your snowboard with regard to your direction and speed. You’re relying purely on balance.
Snowboarding is a cross between cycling and windsurfing. It’s like cycling downhill really fast with the constant terror of falling off—but on a flat board. If you’re a reasonably quick learner, and aren’t deterred by the prospect of falling into the snow face first, you can expect to master the basics in around five days. It’s quite a workout, particularly hard on the knees and thighs.
Once I was confident that I could stay on my board for extended periods of time, I really enjoyed it. Being on that board and zigzagging down the slopes at such tremendous speed was exhilarating and addictive.
I then started to attempt a few tricks. I even managed a jump, though that was more by accident than design. I felt an incredible sense of freedom on the slopes. They became my playground.
After a long day, with aching muscles and bruises, we’d be groaning all through our walk back to the hotel. The Highlands Park resort organised masseurs, to rub the aches and pains out of our bodies.
My friends and I were so thrilled by our first trip in 2006 that we’ve made snowboarding an annual affair. The end of February every year is earmarked for our boys’ trip to Gulmarg.
We have lost a few of the original group to broken bones, but for the rest of us, it’s an excuse to go out on to the slopes, get the adrenaline going, have some fun, and feel young and cool all over again.
—As told to Azeem Banatwalla.
Gulmarg is a hill station and ski resort in Jammu & Kashmir. It is located at an elevation of close to 9,000 feet and is around 56 km west of Srinagar.
Srinagar is the closest airport to Gulmarg, around 56 km away. Direct flights are available from Mumbai, Delhi and Amritsar. Drive to Gulmarg from the airport; pre-paid taxis as well as shared cabs are easily available. It’s advisable to hire a 4-wheel-drive taxi to avoid being stranded if there’s snow on the way.
Gulmarg’s weather ranges from pleasant to freezing at different times of the year. Day temperatures are around 34°C between April-September. The winter sports season is from late November to early March. Temperatures during this period are usually around 20°C, although it can feel a lot colder with the wind chill.
There are a number of hotels and guesthouses in Gulmarg. It’s best to choose a hotel that’s closer to the gondola (cable car) to avoid long walks, especially when you’re tired after a day of snowboarding.
Hotel Hilltop Gulmarg is closest to the gondola, with comfortable rooms and Continental, Indian and Chinese restaurants (01954254559/60; www.hotelhilltopgulmarg.com/; doubles from ₹7,500).
Hotel Highlands Park is a family-run heritage hotel spread over eight acres. It also has a lounge and discotheque (1954-254430; www.hotelhighlandspark.com/; doubles from ₹14,000).
Pine Palace resort is a popular three-star heritage hotel, which now has over 15 luxury rooms (01954254466; www.pinepalaceresort.com/; doubles from ₹8,400).
Many adventure sport operators conduct week-long snowboarding courses between Dec-Feb, but it’s easy enough to find instructors and equipment in Gulmarg without prior bookings. Snowboards, boots and helmets can be rented from a number of ski shops scattered across the town. It’s advisable to bring your own jackets and ski goggles. Guides and instructors are also easily available, and will often approach you themselves when they see you renting equipment. They charge a few hundred rupees per day, but you usually have to pay for their equipment as well. It will probably take around five days of snowboarding before you really start to enjoy the sport
A good workout Snowboarding not only requires balance, but is quite hard on the thighs. It’s advisable to start exercising your lower body a few weeks prior to a snowboarding trip.
Bruises As with any sport that depends on balance, you will fall off your board a lot. If the snow is fresh and soft, it won’t hurt much, but prepare for bruises if you hit patches of ice.
Adventure Gulmarg is primarily a ski resort, so there isn’t much else to do for entertainment beyond hitting the slopes or relaxing. Most hotels have basic recreational facilities including table tennis and billiards tables.
Relax Many hotels also organise masseurs for when you return from the slopes.
Friendly atmosphere Most of the visitors to Gulmarg are families or adventure enthusiasts, many trying skiing or snowboarding for the first time.
Most snowboarding equipment can be rented locally, but it’s vital to bring a good snow jacket, layers of clothing, and a pair of gloves. Some travellers may want to bring their own ski goggles and helmets. Sunscreen is a necessity even though it’s cold, the sun can be bright and harsh at that elevation. Those who would like a drink after the day’s exploits are advised to bring their own alcohol.
Snowboarding is relatively new in India, and was started around 10 years ago. It can also be done on the slopes of Manali (Himachal Pradesh) and Auli (Uttarakhand). Both have facilities similar to Gulmarg; equipment and guides can be found easily. Private operators organise winter camps as well.
Appeared in the December 2012 issue as “Sliding Down The Mountain”. This story has been updated in December 2015.
is the founder and executive chairman of Magic Bus, an NGO that works with children.
is a street, travel and documentary photographer based in Mumbai, India.
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