In the cold winter mornings, when most of Gulmarg is fast asleep under layers of thick, cosy blankets, Amit Kapoor slips into his skiing gear and zips down the powdery slopes of the Apharwat Peak. The temperature, -2 degrees Celsius — hardly deters him. A pilot by profession, Amit spends 45 days a year skiing. A love for mountains and snow led him to this sport. “I started learning skiing in 2015. I first trained with Mehmood Ahmad Lone at Gulmarg Adventure Academy, then did some lessons in St Moritz, Switzerland,” says Amit.
Adding that it is therapeutic, he says that the surroundings are so surreal, that he does not feel tired even after hours of skiing. It has also introduced him to a lot of interesting people and together they set off on snowy adventures across the globe right from New Zealand to Antarctica. “And I have introduced around 200 other pilots to this sport,” he says. All of them are students of Mehmood who has been training novice and advanced skiiers since 2015.
Mehmood started the Gulmarg Adventure Academy with the intention of making skiing everyone’s cup of tea. “A lot of Indians wanted to train in Germany and Austria but couldn’t afford it. One day of skiing costs around ₹35,000-40,000 abroad. Here, it is ₹3,000 to ₹12,000 per day depending on the certification (local, national, international) of the trainer,” says Mehmood who trained in Salzburg, Austria and was the national coach for winter sports in India in 2017.
He has taught 7,000 students so far, some as young as four. However, most are in the 10-40 age category. Every ski season — usually from January to March — Mehmood’s academy trains 1,600 people. “Anyone can ski. You need to have strong leg muscles because the ski shoes weigh around five kilograms. That locks your ankles. So to take a step you have to move the entire leg. But in two days this feels normal,” he laughs.
The academy offers basic, intermediate, and advanced courses. For beginners it takes anywhere around four to 15 days to learn the skills.
Gulmarg has 11 ski slopes and all packed with skiers — an indication of how popular this activity has become over the years. “We also have one of the world’s highest gondola rides that goes up to 14,000 feet above sea level, up to Apharwat Peak,” says Mehmood who has just launched another ski school in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Previously a hobby limited to foreigners primarily, skiing over the last few years has piqued the interest of the Indian traveller. Ajay Bhatt who runs the Auli Ski And Snowboard School in Auli, Uttarakhand, says he used to earlier get a majority of foreign nationals and only a handful of Indians. But of late, 80% of his skiers are from India. “It’s a dream for many to ski in the Himalayas.”
A part of the technical contingent for the 2017 Asian Games, Ajay started his school in 2007. He trains tourists and serious skiers through the season, which starts in November and goes up to March. His oldest student so far has been a 70-year-old man who effortlessly completed his 14-day training. “Among a batch of 40 people, he even finished first in the races that we organised for our school,” says Ajay.
Many of his skiers are regulars, who turn up every season. He says even national players come here to ski. Some avid travellers train here and then go conquer the Alps.
The slopes of Auli easily get around seven feet of snow, which is great for snow sports. “Plus there is the added attraction of skiing in the Himalayas. For many, from the country and abroad, it is a dream to ski in the Himalayas,” he says, adding that the International Skiing Federation has certified the slope of Auli, which means it can also conduct Skiing Winter Olympics.
Most of the skiing schools in India offer packages that combine training, food and accommodation. “It’s a minimum of seven days for beginners. The entire package is priced at ₹29,500,” adds Ajay. If people do not want packages, then it costs ₹1,500 per day.
At Zanskar Feels, a travel company run by Mumbai-based Bhavini Dhaliwal, the focus is on promoting winter activities like skiing, trekking, ice hockey, snow leopard expeditions in the Zanskar region in Ladakh.
After a frozen river trek to Zanskar in 2018, Bhavini was so inspired by the beauty of rural tourism that she decided to start a company of her own. Tashi Wangyal, who was her tour guide on that trip, is now her business partner.
The ski school is in Padum, the main town of Zanskar region. It was started by Canadians, a few years ago, for children so they had some activity to indulge in during the harsh winters. “It’s fully equipped; there are good equipment for skiing and snowboarding. It’s all been brought from abroad. Very few people in India know about this school. They only know of Auli, Manali, and Gulmarg,” says Bhavini. who is on a mission to put the spotlight on this region. Since the 1960s skiers from France and Japan have been frequenting this place, she further adds.
“A lot of enquiries have come in, primarily from the 25-40 age group. We want to promote skiing here. The weather is harsh but the beauty is insane,” she says. For the duration of the ski season from January to March, the temperature hovers at around -5 degrees through the day and plummets further to -10 to -20 degrees at night.
“We are doing entire packages for our clients as getting here is tough. There are very few properties that are open so we also arrange for some guest houses,” says Bhavini. A seven-day trip costs around ₹25-30,000.
Keeping the altitude in mind, all their cabs have oxygen cylinders. They also have their own kitchen setup to cater to the guests specifications. Bhavini is aided by local teams who know the region and understand the vagaries of the weather that can tend to change without warning. But despite these conditions, hobbyists and skiing enthusiasts from Mumbai, Delhi and across the country have moved mountains, literally, to get here, all to ski in the lap of the Himalayas.