Finding Ourselves Suspended at 13,500 Feet Above Sea Level
It’s minus 3°C and the visibility is getting lower with each passing minute. “They closed Phase 2 this morning,” announced the guide as he leads the way toward the Gondola platform. Because of the bad weather, my walking abilities severely affected by the slippery snow, and the guide’s persistent reminder that we’d be completely lost without his services, we reluctantly allow him to show us the way. Turns out the gondola is a mere 15-minute walk from our hotel.
Gulmarg’s gondola operates in two stages. The first one takes us 8,530 ft to Kongdoori Station, while the next stage goes way up to 13,780 ft on Kongdoori Mountain, a shoulder of nearby Afarwat Peak. The latter stage is highly dependent on weather conditions. Disappointed though I am for phase 2 being inaccessible, there isn’t much choice. Few minutes later, up in Kongdoori station, the visibility drops to less than 10 feet. And then, since it snowed all night, we’re now standing on 8 ft of snow, each step sinking 2 feet deep as we slowly inch forward. It takes us twenty-five minutes to walk a distance that would have otherwise taken us ten minutes to accomplish in normal weather conditions. But the experience of dining at 8000 feet with snow all around us is priceless.
The guide looks at me disgruntledly when I inform him that I have checked the weather report whilst planning this trip and that the weather is predicted to clear up the next day. “Only God can tell what the weather will be like tomorrow,” he says. I decide to leave the conversation at that and enjoy my lunch.
The weather clears up the next morning. I jump out of my heated bed and draw the curtains to find glorious sunlight shining outside. There is already a queue at eight in the morning when we arrive at the gondola’s phase 2 platform, all of them geared to ski the slopes. I notice there are no benches to sit on while waiting for the car to arrive. This could be a major issue during the peak season in summer when the schools are off and local tourists flock this part of the country. I’m told people end up waiting three to four hours for their turn on the gondola!
There is an option to buy tickets online, but since you still have to fall in line to collect boarding passes and show some ID at the same window where they sell the tickets, I don’t really understand what the benefit is of purchasing the tickets in advance. The disadvantage of going up the second phase the following day is that we have to repurchase the phase one tickets again. But it’s totally worth it.
At one point—two minutes before setting foot inside the cable car that sits 4 adults with ski gear, to be specific—we question the safety of Gulmarg’s gondola. However, since we have already paid quite an amount for the journey and queued for over an hour, we quickly climb in with another couple, the door automatically closing itself.
The gondola literally creaks its way, hanging from the cable. There are moments of nervousness, specially when I focus on the height and begin having doubts about the gondola’s safety. The breathtaking view, however, distracts me from my silly thoughts. There’s a couple sitting behind us, all geared up to ski the slopes, and I pick up snippets of their conversation as I take pictures of the mountain in front of me. I overhear them comment about how fresh and perfect the powder is for skiing.
Just a few meters toward the end of our phase 2 ride, the gondola abruptly comes to a halt. We choose to ignore this for the next couple of minutes, busying ourselves by looking down at the skiers gliding swiftly on the snow beneath us. A few more minutes later, realizing we’re still not moving, my imagination begins to run wild. Outside, a strong gust of wind gently rocks the car we’re in. I wonder what happens if someone falls from such a height. Will the soft and deep snow provide enough support so that the bones aren’t crushed? Will it bury the entire cable car in its frozen embrace so that no rescue team can find whoever is in there? Is there a rescue team in Gulmarg?
We’re still suspended and we don’t know what’s happening. I won’t lie and say I wasn’t scared because there are few seconds where I was truly frightened. Knowing how to find ways to distract the mind with pleasant thoughts is such a blessing! Finally, after what seems to be an eternity, we begin to move forward and upward toward our destination.
Stepping out of the car, I turn around to see where we’d come from. A young man stands with one hand on his hip and another holding a shovel. Working here on a regular basis, the clouds floating about the majestic snow-swept peaks must appear as normal for him as it is for me to see a caravan of camels relaxing in the great expanse of the Arabian desert.
The LOC or Line of Control is the border that separates the Indian and Pakistani parts of Kashmir and this is only a few kilometers from where I am standing. Armed military men roam the area. I notice a camp in the distance and wonder how these men handle the extreme temperature. I suppose one of their duties is to make sure tourists and skiers like us do not wander off across the border. Although they appear intimidating at first—with their scrutinizing looks and armed uniforms—they eventually smile and try to make small talk with Masood.
Skiing in this part of Gulmarg is not for the amateur. First off, the quick change in altitude can wreck havoc to a person’s body, causing labored breathing, increased heart rate, and fatigue. Then there’s the risk of an avalanche.
A young Kashmiri man skis past us. I have great admiration for these local men who can expertly maneuver their way on these dangerously vertical slopes. These Kashmiri men, with their good knowledge of the terrain, act as avalanche experts and guides for the foreign skiers.
I envy these people who seem to be enjoying skiing from such a high point. Masood and I stay at the top of the mountain and watch them glide down the slopes one by one. We don’t talk much, too mesmerized by the incredible view. It’s such a surreal feeling to be standing above the clouds, at the level of the snow-capped mountain. If I only focus on the view in front of me and forget than I’m standing on solid ground, it feels like I’m flying. It feels like I’m weightless and floating with the clouds. It’s the most incredible feeling.
Eventually, it takes a lot of effort to breathe and my nose is frozen and numb. The rays of the sun bounce off harshly against the white snow, forcing us to squint and quickly put our sunglasses back on. We take the next available car and head back down. Fortunately, the return trip is uneventful and I am able to take a lot of pictures. My favorites are the ones below: