Slowing time in the Himalayas
Slowing Time in the Himalayas
"Worlds Highest Gondola"- is printed on every lift ticket here in Gulmarg, India. As Jordan and I step out of the rickety gondola carriage I lock eyes with an Indian soldier. Four camouflaged men stand at the exit, wearing bright white boots that would look more at home on a storm trooper. Each soldier has a loaded Kalishnikov strapped around their shoulder and I cant help but notice how un-cautiously they are waving their barrels around. We head out the door of the building and around the back to the hiking route. We want one last session at a zone off the backside called Shark Fin. Things are not looking good at this point.
We heard stories that a few people had skinned to the Pakistan boarder and taken a piss on it. I see the attempted humor here but the Pakistanis are not so understanding. Now the hiking routes to Shark Fin are shut down and patrol is on high alert. We make our way up the trail until we run into AK-47 toting, whistle blowing; soldiers demanding we go no further. Hands on their armory suggest they are ready to use them. All is not lost, from there we can still strap in and traverse to 3,000 foot spine arms.
Nothing in India is as simple as it seems to be. On the traverse to the spine lines there is a military camp guarded by two very viscous dogs. Dropping over the hill where the camp becomes visible, my eyes begin scanning the foreground like a futuristic cyborg in search mode. Jordan is ahead of me which puts me in a bad position, seeing him first makes me an easy target. The dogs come after us as if we are coming to attack their beloved family. Barking, growling, and one runs so fast it starts cartwheeling through the snow down the hill. Looks like we are riding the spine fall line. I don't feel like visiting the doctor for fear of rabies.
We carve our way down hooting and hollering, with the dogs falling further and further behind. We're not in Kansas anymore Toto. This is the Himalayas, and we worked too damn hard getting here to let mad dogs and surly soldiers spoil our fun.
As the plane touched down on the tarmac, hot tires screeching to a halt, I was shaken awake. Rubbing my eyes to relieve 30 hours of travel, I reached over to open the window shade. I was stunned by the vision of beat up buildings smothered in camouflage, gun turrets, and a uniformed army toting tattered machine guns. We had arrived at our destination, Kashmir, the northern-most region of what some consider to be India. The locals tell another story. Kashmir was once its own country. Out numbered and over ruled, they now face an altered version of reality. The Indian Army looms over them with machine guns, shotguns, and riot gear in hand. Kashmir seems to be at a tipping point toward all out madness. As I lifted my eyes away from the alien terrain I found my self wondering, what are we doing here?
This past year I have become quite familiar with the term ‘manifestation’. By definition: One of the forms in which someone or something, such as a person, a divine being, or an idea, is revealed. That is exactly what this trip had become. From the unfathomable coincidences, to the last minute budget breakthroughs, it was all meant to be. We wanted excitement and adventure, but our primary commitment was to slowing time and enjoying every step of the way. With that in mind, photographer Jordan Ingmire and myself; set out to break free of routine, obligations, technology, and our known world in an attempt to take it all in. We spent the month snowboarding in the highest mountain range in the world, with open minds ready to take on everything, moment by moment.
After a 2 hour taxi ride on sketchy roads from Srinigar, we were relieved to arrive safely in the mountain town of Gulmarg. Secluded in the Himalayas, the surrounding mountains felt like our barrier from the madness below. We were able to shake off our worries and focus on why we had come so far.
The stars aligned, the snow was deep, the tracks were few, and sunshine was on its way. With no time for rest to get over the jet lag and a 13 hour time difference, we went out full force. It was still nuking snow our first day, limiting the gondola access to the bottom half. We opted to do some exploring in the low lands and followed a boot pack up behind our hostel to a zone called Monkey Hill. To our surprise, the terrain offered virtually every side-country feature imaginable. We were 4,000 feet below the summit and the snow was awesome, enticing us to experience every challenge that towering mountain had to offer.
Our first blue bird day arrived two days later and it was soon obvious that getting to the top of the gondola wasn’t going to be quick or easy. This isn’t your typical resort situation. The mountain was shut down for about 20 years while India was fighting a war with Pakistan, only a few miles away. It has been back in operation for 6 seasons, but Gulmarg is years behind on technology and organization. First lesson… get accustomed to the ‘shove or be shoved’ mantra in order to purchase tickets and hold a place in line for the gondola. Acquiring your tickets is only the beginning. Next comes the patience test. The line fluctuates between standing still and a snail’s pace, for hours. The gondola's uphill capacity is about 200 people an hour, with a 400 person line on a busy day. Not to mention everyone is frothing with mad pow disease, hypnotized by the views of the summit. There are no enforced rules, as long as you hand a ticket to the gondola staff. On the positive side, Gulmarg is the cheapest ski resort in the world at 150 rupees ($3.00 US) for the first half of the Gondola and 250 rupees ($5.00 US) for the second half. In total its $8.00 to get to the top of the "Worlds Highest Gondola". Our first day in line, people were arguing, cutting in line and even fist fighting. We didn’t choose to be around so much concentrated negativity and planned our days around avoiding it. We would spend our mornings in the low lands, head up around noon to hike, and miss the crazy lines. Once we got it dialed, we had a paradise all to ourselves.
A couple days into the trip we followed some tracks we had noticed traversing across the summit which led us on a wild adventure. The run felt like 5,000 vertical feet, over rivers and through vast forests. We ran into some local kids on clicker bindings, wearing old swishy pants and hand me down jackets. They led us through the village, snowboarding on the sides of the walking paths. Startling locals, busy with their daily routines, as we cruised past. When we were snowboarding through the village, the kids, one by one, would stop at their homes along the way. Jordan and I snowboarded until the ground was no longer white with snow, unstrapped and started to walk through town. Another bunch of local youngsters started following along curiously, asking for chocolate. It felt like we were in another world and a strange place in time. We hailed a taxi and made our way back to the town of Gulmarg. Adventure was lurking around every corner.
After a week of nonstop powder and high elevation sun we needed to give our bodies a break. So we headed to the desert, a few hundred miles to the southwest; with a new friend we met at Global Hostel. There was another storm on the horizon so we didn’t feel too bad about leaving our paradise. You can't travel half way across the world and miss out on the culture, especially in a place like India. We left the safety of the mountains and headed for plane, train, taxi and camel safaris. First task, getting out of Kashmir. Leaving the Srinigar airport out of Kashmir was repetitive and required serious patience. We had our boarding passes checked, bags searched and were forced to walk through X-rays countless times. No one else had carry-on luggage for the plane ride which was confusing at the time. At the last security check point we found out why. They emptied our bags and had me take a bite out of a cliff bar to prove it wasn't a bomb. I was also pushed to ingest one of my ibuprofen, while they watched ever so closely. Jordan had to show his camera wasn't a ‘W.M.D’. and verify his rolls of film from the Holga were not filled with anthrax. Luckily we passed all inspections and were again on our way.
We arrived in Delhi and were picked up by our driver Shankar. During our taxi excursion we saw breathtaking poverty but at times it was accompanied by the most happiness we had ever witnessed. Smiles seem much whiter when they are surrounded by dark skin and a dirty face. For days the only view from the cab was of endless shanty villages, stacked several stories high. Scooters, tuk tuk three wheelers, army trucks, camels, donkeys, cows, beggars, merchants, vendors, and constant and intense stimulation surrounded us. We stayed in four-star hotels for $10 a night. Trash was thrown about as if for decoration and cows ate it as though it were fresh green grass. But happiness pervaded all of it. People used whatever English they knew just to smile and shake our hands, looking at us as if we were movie stars coming to pay them a personal visit.
We found our way to the Jaipur desert in Rajistan, ready to embark on a camel safari. Indian children guided these enormous beasts along the dunes as we watched the sun fall below the horizon. Back at camp we enjoyed a genuine Indian dinner followed by local music performances, dancing, and fire breathing. The rest of the evening we spent smoking hash with the locals, drinking rum and dancing around in what felt like a dream. To finish it off, we had a brush fire in the dunes and slept beneath the stars. Who knows what creatures crawled over us that night, but we awoke in the morning only to see the thousands of tracks in the sand. After a quick breakfast we were on our way back to the mountains. Another big storm was on its way in.
We arrived back in Gulmarg weary from travel. We welcomed the stormy weather, relishing the downtime we so desperately needed. As soon as the skies cleared there was only one place we had in mind to take photos. With a fresh blanket of snow from the storm, conditions were all time. After our day of being denied access to Shark Fin and almost being eaten by the army dogs, we had to come up with a plan to make it back up. The days were numbered and we were very attached to dreams of visiting just one more time. Shark Fin is like an Alaskan face, resting at 14,000 feet, and only takes 30 minutes to hike to from the gondola. Only a handful of people ever ride it. Not even an army could to stop us from getting one last chance with this mountain.
Our only hope was to get there before the soldiers and make a run for it. This is not an easy task at 14,000 feet. The next day we got to the top at 9:45, held up in lines for a bit too long. Neither of us spoke of the possibilities that lay ahead, but I was literally crossing my fingers. With a fresh coat on the whole mountain, the lines were worthy of a helicopter ride in. We got to the top of the gondola with no sign of the soldiers. We proceeded to sprint for the summit with scattered thoughts of being gunned down racing through my head. We paused at the halfway mark where you can finally see the face of Shark Fin. There wasn't a track in sight. I made it to the top as Jordan arrived at the facing vantage point. We were in a dream. This was what the trip was all about. I sat down on the mountain top and cleared my mind. I emptied it of all thoughts and worries. I focused on breathing and being completely present. Jordan’s voice called over the radio," I’m ready”. I took a deep breath, aligned myself with the slope and dropped in. Time seemed to come to a halt as the powder flew and gravity pulled me downward. At such altitude thoughts are slowed and everything feels more like a dream. Unlike back home, there are no trees to judge distance and height. You carve your way down the mountain with no ability to judge time or space.
I stopped at the bottom, admired the mountain, and smiled. I traced the best line of my life with my eyes. It is an intimacy only those that snowboard understand; being alone, dancing with the mountain. As I unstrapped and took what seemed like my first breath in minutes, my body and mind finally molded back to a place of feeling normal. This is getting high on life, no drugs required. Shortly after, clouds rolled in faster than I had ever seen. We got what we came for and headed back to town full of gratitude.
Our last day on the hill, Jordan ditched the camera pack and we put in as many fun laps as we could. The next morning we stuffed our belongings into our bags and headed out, it was painful to say good-bye. The fear of time speeding up again and getting lost in our normal world began to creep in. As we drove to the airport, we shared stories of our adventures as if to re-live them one last time. 30 hours later we were back in the hustle. I found myself slipping into daydreams of India, while attempting to be present in the here and now.