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Powder, AK-47s and hashish: Skiing in Kashmir

Tuesday - 3/19/2013, 1:02am  ET

In this photo taken Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, a Kashmiri resort worker carries skis during heavy snow at Gulmarg, Kashmir. Gulmarg, a ski resort nestled in the Himalayan mountains in Indian-held Kashmir is one of the most militarized places on earth. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)

SEBASTIAN ABBOT
Associated Press

GULMARG, India (AP) -- There are very few ski resorts in the world where you see a soldier in uniform waiting for the gondola with a snowboard in one hand and an AK-47 in the other.

Welcome to Gulmarg, nestled in the Himalayan mountains in Indian-held Kashmir, one of the most militarized places on earth.

India and Pakistan have fought two major wars over Kashmir, which is divided between the two countries and claimed in its entirety by both. Tension flared earlier this year when the worst violence along the disputed border in a decade left half a dozen troops dead -- one of them an Indian soldier who was reportedly beheaded.

The clashes hurt business in Gulmarg, according to local tour operators, but a few hundred skiers and snowboarders were on the mountain during my visit at the end of February -- almost all of them foreign.

It's good to know there is a hearty breed of outdoor enthusiasts willing to brave conflict between nuclear-armed archenemies to hit the slopes -- admittedly ones that rival any major ski resort in the world, are much less crowded and cost a little over $100 for a whole week.

Imagine sharing Jackson Hole resort in Wyoming with just 200 fellow skiers and snowboarders. That's what Gulmarg has to offer, complete with knee-deep powder and a wealth of off-piste terrain easily accessible from one of the highest gondolas in the world.

Did I say easily accessible? That doesn't include the experience of getting on and off the small, four-person gondola.

Many of the cars lack a place to store skis or snowboards while you ride. That leads to what feels like a Three Stooges routine every time you and your companions try to pack into the gondola carrying skis and poles and wearing bulky backpacks. It doesn't help that you only have a few seconds before the car starts moving and are already unsteady on your feet in ski boots.

The trip to the top of the gondola, at a height of nearly 4,100 meters (13,500 feet), is breathtaking and can offer views of one of the tallest mountains in the world, Nanga Parbat, in Pakistan. But there is always a hint of trepidation knowing you have to untangle yourself and do a timed tumble out of the gondola at the end of the ride.

You can forget about finding another way up, unless you want to hike. The gondola and a chairlift that starts halfway up the mountain are pretty much the only game in town. But the trip is definitely worth it, especially when there is a meter (3 feet) of fresh powder as there was during my recent visit.

One of the first things you see when you step off the gondola is a small army outpost, one of many throughout Indian-held Kashmir that house at least 500,000 troops in an area the size of Utah. It's no surprise soldiers seem to be everywhere in Gulmarg: milling around the gondola, driving convoys of trucks over twisty mountain roads and even waiting in line to use the ATM.

Until recently, the resort was using military-grade plastic explosives procured from the army to control avalanche risk on its "in-bounds" slopes, said Brian Newman, Gulmarg's snow safety officer.

Resorts around the world set off controlled blasts to trigger avalanches before they consider slopes safe for skiers, but they normally use commercial explosives from the mining industry that are more suitable. Newman, who hails from near Boulder, Colorado, began using military explosives when he first arrived six years ago because they were more readily available, but was finally able to get his hands on the commercial type this season.

Many of the visitors to Gulmarg are advanced skiers and snowboarders who have little interest in the resort's relatively small in-bounds area and have come to the resort for the off-piste terrain -- and perhaps also for the readily available hashish that sends wafts of fragrant smoke over your head in the lift line and at lunch.

Given the avalanche danger, basic safety gear like a beacon, shovel and probe is vital in the backcountry, and many people sport more advanced equipment such as backpacks equipped with air bags you can trigger if you get caught in a slide and AvaLung devices to help you breathe under the snow. GoPro video cameras are also ubiquitous, sticking up from helmets in the gondola line like mini-submarine periscopes.

Perhaps the most important safety gear for heading into Gulmarg's backcountry is a local guide. We hired 31-year-old Javed Ahmed Reshi, who started skiing at the age of 10 in leather boots nailed to rickety wooden skis made by his father. Fueled by seemingly boundless energy, he guided us down wide open bowls and steep runs through evergreen trees -- always mindful of the avalanche risk around us.

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