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February is the perfect time to head to India’s ski towns of Gulmarg and Manali, in Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh respectively. Besides groomed slopes with ropeways, gondolas, and ski lifts, there’s a whole selection of off-piste trails, and a community of instructors and enthusiasts enjoying them.
“It’s magical when it starts to snow and you are on your skis all day, flying down the mountain,” says Shiva Keshavan. The 39-year-old six-time Olympic luge participant grew up in Manali and spends most winters on the slopes at nearby Solang.
The adrenaline rush is what drew Cindy Khrime to snowboarding in her teenage years in Manali. Turning a pastime into a profession, she traveled to Whistler in Canada and then to New Zealand and Japan as a snowboard instructor.
Now Khrime is back on the slopes she grew up on. Standing atop her snowboard, the 32-year-old demonstrates traversing turns, riding the slopes as she zigzags down the mountain.
The lower slopes of the Solang Valley are easy to access for beginners but are shared by the growing community of winter sports enthusiasts drawn to them too — skiers, snowboarders, paragliders, and snowmobilers that carve gigantic circles in the snow.
By 4 pm the sun disappears and a chill falls over the landscape. When the snow starts to go from powdery to icy smooth, as it refreezes, it’s time to pack up for the day. Little clumps of skiers and snowboarders head to the red plastic chairs of the valley’s cafés, yanking off their bulky gear and gratefully accepting glasses of steaming ginger-cardamon tea.
There are good days like this one. But as the group drives the 13 km back to Manali, Khrime becomes wistful. She is not sure what the next few months will bring. Making a living in snow sports is beset with difficulties, she says. Like most instructors, she works freelance, depending on word-of-mouth referrals and her Instagram page.
And there is so much untapped potential. At Solang, Sethan, Gulaba, Jagatsukh — all picturesque villages perched at heights of over 4,000 meters — backcountry snow trails meander through magnificent deodar trees. In the Lahaul Valley, a few hours’ drive away across the new Atal Tunnel, there are spectacular snow runs across rugged terrain that is now easily accessible in winter.
It is the beauty of trails like these, set amidst breathtaking landscapes, that inspired Keshavan to present a plan to the Himachal Pradesh government to develop winter sports here.
“The plan spells out details, from the training of children in winter sports to infrastructure and international partnerships,” says Ram Lal Markandey, minister for IT and tribal development in the HP Government and the legislator from Lahaul-Spiti. “We have the best natural slopes in the world,” he adds.
Across the Pir Panjal range, 700 km away in Gulmarg, the slopes are better groomed, the range of choices even greater, and the snow falls steadily and powder-like. But even here, the skiers must be lured. Most of that luring is being done by individual instructors.
Every December, for instance, Mudasir Ahmad Bhat begins sending out pictures of skiers trailing clouds of powder snow, to his list of contacts. “Sir Ji, Naya snowfall Hua hai. Kab aa rahe ho (There’s fresh snow, Sir. When are you coming?),” the 27-year-old texts.
Among those who often respond is Maulik Sharedalal, a Mumbai-based investor. The 54-year-old first came to Gulmarg in 2016, with his wife and then seven-year-old daughter. They’ve returned again and again over the years.
“After a day of hard physical exercise on the slopes, my wife and I spend the evenings at the hotel bar. Sitting among skiers from all over the world, over après ski drinks, we compare the thrills and spills of the day,” Maulik says, adding that he enjoys the sense of community.
Pravin Devanathan, 38, a vice-president at the supply chain start-up Ninjacart in Mumbai, says he prefers Gulmarg to the slopes of Fugen in Austria. “Here, there is help for everything — from a dedicated guide to a porter to carry your skis — so you end up learning much faster,” he adds.
In an adventure sport on moody terrain, expertise is crucial, and some skiers keep coming back for the guides.
“Talented local guides make all the difference,” says Angus Winstone, 48, who runs a ski tours agency with his wife Victoria in New Zealand and visited Gulmarg last year. The fact that the region is under-developed is another reason to bring international ski groups here in the future, he adds.
There’s enormous potential, says Nitisha Sethia, a former consultant with McKinsey and now founder of outdoor sports company Adventure Play. She first came to Gulmarg last year and says she fell in love with the town and its highest slope, Phase 2. “It’s mostly foreigners. Why can’t more Indians venture higher? It’s beautiful, wild, pristine,” she says. “There’s fresh powder snow. You can carve your own path here.”