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Exploratory Ski Touring in the Himalayas

 

Why walk down when you can ski down? The mantra of the skier is as simple as it is direct. Once you start seeing the mountains through the eyes of a skier everything changes. You’re no longer looking at a peak solely as the aesthetic matter it is, you’re looking at a way to ski it, whether it’s “skiable” or not. The latter thought has a long history in the Himalaya as to most snow sliders across the world the narrative of alpinism is far more dominant in the region than that of the skier. And for good reason. The Himalaya is home to more than fifty 7k-meter peaks, and when including the Karakoram, every 8k-meter peak in the world. The history of the alpinist in the region is steep, and that type of skiing at altitude is not for everyone. But it was that same thought veteran Himalayan guide Luke Smithwick and I shared a few years back that brought us together this past spring. As much as I believe if there’s snow, and you think you can ski it, why not give it a try regardless of altitude, the reality is once you get below 7k-meter threshold and into the 5-6k-meter mark, the Himalaya transforms into one of the most accessible, unique backcountry skiing destinations in the world.

Luke has known this for some time. He has guided in the range since 2010, completing 51 expeditions to date, and founded Himalaya Alpine Guides back in 2012, which has allowed him to deeply explore the range as an alpinist, skier, and trekker for the past several years. From January through March, Luke is the snow safety director for Gulmarg Ski Resort and backcountry avalanche forecaster for the Gulmarg Avalanche Advisory in Kashmir. He has been the lone Westerner working with locals in what has become the most famous place for skiing and riding in the Himalaya. Gulmarg Ski Resort is a gondola-accessed skiing and snowboarding destination in the Pir Panjal range of the western Himalaya. The backcountry access is mind-blowing, and slowly but surely, word has spread across the globe about this uniquely situated, powder drenched, cultural ski experience in the heart of the Himalaya.

 

It was here that Luke and I met a few years back while I was on assignment guiding, and Luke was in the midst of his season. It was a serendipitous series of events that brought us together, and somehow in the midst of his heavy daily work demands and my guiding schedule we were able to carve out some time to chat about the ski touring potential of the Gulmarg region. Naturally, the more we talked, and the more I learned about Luke, our thoughts turned to Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet, and other parts of the Indian Himalaya. As much as we too had been influenced by media centers reporting on Himalayan expeditions growing up, and much of that was either centered on climbing Everest or climbing high mountains in some other part of the range, our focus was on skiing. And it wasn’t necessarily to ski the first descent of 8586 meter Kangchenjunga. It was about quality skiing. Accessible skiing. Skiing that leant itself to a backcountry skiing aesthetic, that would be relatively affordable for guests, that worked with fluidity and in respect of the local cultures with whom we worked with and would interact with along the way.

The seed was planted. Over the next couple of years Luke and I would email, chat on the phone, and go out of our way when possible to physically meet and discuss the vision. Luke was aware of the helicopter assisted backcountry ski touring program I co-guide annually in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska. With this trip guests are flown into a camp that is setup by myself along with my co-guide and camp manager. Guests stay and ski with us for a week accessing a mountain range that was put on the map by helicopter access, but is a very different experience when accessing terrain via human power. As Luke and I spoke about prime locations, drawing from his experience in the Himalaya, and my experience running exploratory ski trips internationally and in Alaska, we developed the idea for Himalaya Alpine Guides Camp (HAGC).

This past late May into early June was our inaugural trip. We ran the expedition on barebones with the two of us as guides and two guests. But to make this trip a reality we also had a cook, camp manger, a dozen horses and a horse handler. The goal was to return to a place Luke had climbed in the past where he believed the ski potential was ripe. A couple of lines had been skied in the area by past expeditions, but our trajectory was to explore the adjacent, previously unskied drainages of the Kang Yatze massif in the western Indian Himalaya.

 

Having experienced Gulmarg, and a previous ski trip to Manali-another five-star ski touring locale in India, this was my first time traveling to Leh. The ancient capital city of Ladakh is located at 11,562’, which is a great way to acclimate for those traveling from places that are lower in elevation. While acclimating for the bigger Himalaya peaks above 7k and 8k meters takes a considerable amount of time, getting ready to climb and ski around the 6k-meter mark is considerably easier. That is not to say that people don’t get altitude sickness at these so-called lower elevations. In fact, 6k meters is almost 20k feet, which to most people in the world is exceptionally high. But having Leh as a meeting point is great for slowly building red blood cells that help oxygenate blood at higher elevations. It’s also a destination in itself steeped in a rich peaceful culture where Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims have coexisted for centuries.

Leh is an incredible place to meet intrepid travelers from all over the world. Its location on the western edge of the Tibetan Plateau makes for a Star Wars like backdrop, with a dry, desert landscape gradually giving way to lush riparian corridors that bring life to the valley from the nearby snow caked mountains. The way locals manage snowmelt from the mountains is as fascinating as it is sustainable. It illuminates the strong connection people have here with the environment, and the utter importance snow has on all sentient beings living in the surrounding bioregion.

I had a blast walking around town, learning more about the religious pluralism in the area, how people live so in tune with their surroundings, as well as the unique diversity of the local flora and fauna. The mountain views were inspiring to say the least, and after a day of resting, eating, and hydrating our team was ready to make our first turns of the trip. Good thing the Khardung La is a relatively short taxi ride away.

 

The Khardung La, or the Pass as some refer to it, is a local attraction that is the highlight of many travelers experience in the area. At one point it was the highest motorable pass in the world. It’s not anymore, nor is it 18,379’ feet as it is sometimes incorrectly referenced. However, it is 17,582’ and the ski touring access is phenomenal. Luke and I plan to return to the area in the future with hopes of spending more time exploring the area with skis, but last spring it acted as the perfect place for our team to get out of breath, get a little sick, and make our first turns of the expedition.

Our ski team beyond Luke and I was made up of Amanda Malis from Sweden, and Amit Kapoor from India. We didn’t tour much on our first day, still very sensitive to all the traveling that brought us here, and the fact that we could already start skiing from about 17k feet. We decided to go for a moderately pitched chute spilling off the southern side of the pass for our first ski. The snow was variable, but predictable. It’s interesting how easy and natural it seems to start skiing from this elevation based on the ease of access, only to get a few turns into a descent and remember 17k feet is high! It doesn’t matter if you forget because your lungs will remind you. The line was a good opportunity to check in with our crew in terms of their ski ability, and check in with how the altitude was treating everyone.

Back in Leh, delicious food, comfortable accommodations, and friendly people were waiting for us as we fueled up and talked logistics for our trip into the Kang Yatze. As much travel as it takes to get to Leh, and we were all pretty excited after getting our first turns of the trip in, we were still only at the start of our journey. In the morning we would start traveling through the Indus Valley to the village of Chiling where the real adventure would start.

 

At this point I was already impressed with the access provided by the pass, and the whole setup in Leh. It was a rich cultural experience and the nearby skiing had massive potential. It was also living up to the affordable tag Luke and I had talked about when envisioning what a ski touring program in the Himalaya might look like. One of the biggest problems for many backcountry enthusiasts is the price tag of international ski travel. It’s no mystery that given the costs of gear and such, the sport is inaccessible for many. As someone that guides trips that have price tags above the $5k and even $10k realm, our vision for HAGC was the opposite. There’s a reason costs are so high to ski in the Arctic and Antarctic, and why bigger Himalayan expeditions routinely cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Our vision with HAGC was one that could be kept to a ski bums standard of price. That means this trip and future trips we promote are going to try and hit this benchmark, which for now is sitting around the $3k mark. That is still a large sum of money to spend on a trip, but in the scheme of things has far more potential for people to save for and make happen.

 

Leaving Leh, we piled out gear into jeeps with drivers Luke knows from all the time he’s spent in the area. The drive was scenic to say the least, passing quaint villages and the lunar landscape of Ladakh before we arrived at a sumbo, which in Tibetan means junction. This was where the Indua and Zanskar rivers meet. Crossing the Indus, and following the Zanskar our travels took us deep into a gorgeous drainage before the road just stopped.

On the other side of the Zanskar I could see a group of men, and a dozen horses. We had been traveling into two 4×4 jeeps that carried ourselves as well as all our gear for the expedition. The only way to get across the river was this trolley type contraption the British call a flying fox. It’s essentially a small carriage attached to a metal wire operated by pulleys. We crossed in groups of two, intimately packing into the small carriage. Once we reached the other side of the river we greeted the people, said hi to the horses, and started walking.

 

To reach the Kang Yatze Massif we planned to trek for anywhere from 2-4 days depending on weather and how the team felt. On the one hand getting to basecamp sooner would allow us the potential for more skiing. On the other hand, this was where we were also going to build more red blood cells and continue our acclimating process. Slow is better when you’re at altitude, and our trek would bring us through an incredible landscape over the coming days.

Each day of our approach was different, although we settled into a leisurely routine of beautiful camps, tasty food, and inspiring alpine vistas as we gradually made our way to the Kang Yatze. Along the way were encountered several small outposts where guesthouses had popped up in recent years to support trekkers who have long visited the valley. What stood out to me the most here was every single space had a sign that spoke to how the residents were living as in tune with their environment as possible. Small gardens were cultivated for food production, solar water heaters were coupled with solar panels to generate electricity, and green building designs such as straw bale insulation and passive solar designs were found on most every building. This is ecotourism on the strongest level, self-determined by the people who live in the area, and made available to visitors in a way that is ecologically conscious, and economically supportive of the local area.

Make no mistake; our trek took place in a very undeveloped (from a Western perspective), and rural area. However, as we got closer to Kang Taze we arrived at a camp that was situated on the outskirts of a beautiful Buddhist temple. We were invited to visit that night, and there was a big celebration taking place the likes of which none of us had ever experienced before. It was an honor to join in ceremony that evening, and even with such a steep language barrier, the cross-cultural exchange and opportunity to interact with festival participants was a major highlight of the trip. I’ve often found that great ski trips go well beyond the scope of simply skiing, but experiences like this can never be planned. They just need to happen.

 

After three days of walking, and a few glimpses of tall mountains around bends in the meandering trail, our fourth day brought us to snow. A strenuous trek, due to the altitude, brought us to a picturesque plateau where we found our basecamp for the next several days. Everyone was gassed. The horses were stripped of their loads and taken back to a lower elevation pasture to rest. Our crew stayed put, erecting a cook tent and personal tents as the sun set against a glistening backdrop of poignant peaks. Finally, we had arrived.

 

Our approach days to basecamp showcased nothing short of perfect weather punctuated by sunny skies and high pressure. As we awoke on our first day from our high basecamp situated at about 17,000’ the weather showed signs of deterioration. Amanda and Amit needed to rest for the day, so they choose to hang at camp, hydrate, eat, and take in our peaceful surroundings with more rest. Luke and I decided we would go out for a tour to recon the snow in the area, and line up potential ski objectives for the next several days. We didn’t know it at the time, but this would end up being our most productive day of skiing from our high basecamp.

Weather is always an issue when ski traveling. You just never know, and often having patience and a solid window of time helps line up workable weather windows. We didn’t have extra time on this trip based on our guest’s schedules, but we made the most of it and found some exceptionally fun skiing. It’s always fun to lay tracks where none had ever been placed before, and our team felt good that we made the most of our window and saw the massive potential of the area. On that first recon day, Luke and I were able to ski a chute from the top on an unnamed peak from 20,084’ (6142 meters). The skiing was actually really good, just like the turns we had lower on the glacier back to basecamp. We didn’t necessarily ski the quantity we had hoped for on the trip, but we did experience high quality and can’t wait to get back in 2018.

We left the Kang Yatze Massif early as the weather was not cooperating with our plans. We turned what can be a multi-day walk out of the zone into a one day push with hopes to visit another high elevation pass before the trip was over. It was a gamble to stick around and hope for the weather to clear around Kang Yatze, and it was a gamble to leave early in hopes to nail a weather window in another corner of the Indian Himalaya. We went with the pass option, to explore the Taglung La as we know knew what could happen in the future from the Khardung La Pass, as well as the horse assisted basecamp style skiing in the Kang Yatze. Pass skiing in the Leh area is a major pull and holds loads of potential. Our session in the Taglung La was equally impressive with some of the other skiing we were able to experience, which gives Luke and I a lot to work with as we build trips for the future.

Back in Leh, I’m looking forward to coming home to the warm June rays of the California sun. But I’m easily brought back to the Himalaya after this trip. The vision Luke and I have worked on came to reality, and we saw many lifetimes worth of ski objectives in just a few short weeks. We have ample terrain to explore via horse support done in basecamp style, as well as high elevation pass skiing to work with out of Leh. The trip is relatively affordable, and the terrain can suit most levels of skiers and riders, from lower angled backcountry glacier runs, to more technical ski mountaineering objectives. Beyond the skiing, the cultural and ecotourism factors made this go above and beyond for me. Luke and I have plans to offer similar styled trips in Nepal during the autumn months, and go back to India in the spring. We’ve talked about Tibet, Pakistan, and Bhutan as well. Regardless of where we end up with the next HAGC, one thing for sure, we won’t be walking down perfect ski lines in the Himalaya anytime soon.

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Brennan Lagasse

Brennan Lagasse

What is a big issue your backcountry community is facing?

This season it's the slow start. We never really got a good plaster base going, which is crucial to for the High Sierra. But overall our issue remains adequate access to backcountry skiing parking and trailheads. Through the Tahoe Backcountry Alliance we're working on it, and slowly but surely establishing a community voice for advocation and policy.

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