The more difficult, rigorous and mad that it sounds, the more exciting it becomes. As a Biscoe Boy, I knew the legend Mahadev, the mountain, carried. I had summited this 13,013 feet tall peak at the age of 13, when life was simple and we had no tools of being smarter than nature. A backpack and a Sony Walkman in my ears, I climbed through unknown terrain to summit this beautiful peak which provides a unique view to the valley of Kashmir.
This time it was different than what it was 20 years ago. There were no teachers to guide, and no teenage energy left to walk at the same pace. There was one thing in common though – an utter madness to climb this peak once more, and ski it down.
It was raining that morning. And as I’m no more a free-soul teenager, I still had household chores to finish the day we decided to climb. I was out buying mutton and other items. All I could think about was the weather getting a little clearer, so that we have that window to climb.
Out of nowhere, the sun came out and my phone started ringing. the group was inquiring about the status of the expedition — whether we were going ahead or not. Finally, it was decided that we leave and climb, even if it’s raining. So, we did.
We were supposed to start at 9 am, but it was 11 am already. We reached upper Dhara around 12 am, started to unload our gear and take a stock of our supplies. We soon found ourselves surrounded by villagers, wondering about our gear.
They probably had seen skis or snowboards for the first time. And it was a different feeling how alien we seemed at our own place.
It hit me there that the sport should be taught on a mass scale as it belongs to the mountains. And we’re the people of the mountains.
I was 8-years-old, when I was first sent to learn this sport. I remember how much I cried the first night, for being away from my mother. But little did I know then, that this sport would stay with me as a passion for life.
Skiing for me is personal. Everything about it is liberating and soul seething. You get to see the mighty mountains, and run down their mighty white robes. I believe skiing is the best transportation to freedom.
You know there are still places that only the sun has touched; places where the snow spreads its quilt over mountains that appear ancient; places where the purity of the awe one can feel. Cheer on the drum in your chest, to echo beyond the limits you expect. Each peak living past the moment, crowned by time into a memory, one you can hold within yourself like a candle refusing to bend the beckoning wind.
Who are you in these mountains? Who will you see in these reflections? Standing at the bottom, we feel doubt when we look up! Every mountain gets bigger when you’re there comparing it to the size of your footprint, every challenge is made real, the instant you spend your breath on it.
We do not test ourselves because it’s easy — we test ourselves to know, who we are in the face of our triumph. Are we still who we wished to be when eclipsed by the shadows of these giants that time and nature sculpted, grasping for the sky. Are we prepared to satisfy the modern world and answer a different call — to walk again, and step into the wild? Who are we in the face of untouched majesty? Is the person who started at the foot of the mountain the same person who carried himself to the top of it? Is it the same person racing the rim back to the bottom, chasing their breath through the trees and catching it in splashes of powder?
The quiet here is loud enough to make space for asking these questions. The stillness here moves just enough to remind you the world is a living thing, the glory here is modest enough to live and communion with beasts through steps of thunder upon the ground. Here we are not any bigger, with a mountain beneath our feet, but we find in us the reasons to look up.
We had reached this place called Bubjan, a roaring hailstorm welcomed us. Mohammad Ali, our porter, looked at me and nodded, signalling for a halt under the mighty conifers surrounded by huge mountains in deep gorges.
Now that I’ve mentioned Mohammad Ali here, he was no less than what the name demands. I admire his strength and focus, and he reminds me of the sherpas we see in the Himalayan regions of Nepal. He had no Goretex shoes or rain gear. All he carried were rubber shoes and a pheran.
After the hailstorm paused, we continued our climb. We were still in the gorges and on an relatively easier terrain.
Around 6 pm, we reached the Lidwas base. Our eyes lit up when we saw that beautiful shining snow. We waited for the others to reach, it was dark already. I had no idea where I was climbing towards.
Every time I saw a turn or a descent, I would call out Ali, and every time, he would reply, “Seedhay, Sheedhay” (Keep it straight).
We kept walking in the dark, and the snow kept getting deeper and deeper. On radio, I was continuously asking about the team left behind and the status of their climb. Three hours later, I came to a huge snowfield, which had no horizon to it, glittering stars and the Milky Way above my head kept boosting my morale and my will to climb more.
Now as a skier, I was nervous about the snowpack beneath my feet. We lost 5 skiers this year in Gulmarg due to avalanches. I took the risk of walking in the front and then radio other members to follow. We didn’t want to put a lot of stress on that unknown snowpack. When at such altitude, with a lot of load on your back, having to deal with such kind of terrain, the mind plays games and tries to tell you that you can’t make it.
I looked back and saw glimmering torch headlights walking on this massive snowfield. There were owls hooting, the sound of falling snow from the tree branches, and the Milky Way above you, walking along you. Something which keeps you going is your own alter-ego. I’ve always found it in nature.
We reached the Nomadic Huts at 10.30pm. I looked at it from outside and tried to figure out which way the entrance was. the entire hut was buried under snow. I crawled through a small gap and rolled down to a dry surface, which looked like home for the rest of the night. The first thing that we did was light a fire and unburden ourselves of the weight we were carrying.
Ali brought some wood to burn, chopped it up and looked at me. “You guys are insane,” he smirked. “Who comes here in this snow and with this amount of gear?”
We prepared our dinner, beef and some Kashmiri bread with a cup of tea and late night talks. The U2 music and a soft sleep on a rugged unknown terrain to get going for the day to come.
Next morning, I woke up to the sound of crackling sound of fire. First thing that I did was run out and see where we were. I peeked through the gap between our roof and the snow outside and saw massive peaks and a wide forest. No morning had ever brought such a smile on my smoky face. All I could feel and see inside was smoke. A cup of tea and one mind session with my gear trying to absorb all the energy that place was giving me.
When you’re in the mountains, you should try and listen to what the surroundings tell you. Every peak, tree or stream has its own story.
Nevertheless, we packed our bags and started our climb immediately. We just had one last climb to make. After two hours of climb, we reached 11,877 feet. And as we climbed, clouds were shaping up — whistling, singing with the snow. We decided not to climb further and ski down from that point because of the winds and an imminent snowstorm.
So whilst we were getting all geared up, the porters were looking as if they had seen a group of ghosts. They were seeing a pair of skis for the first time and wondering how on earth would it transport us back to the bottom. The journey that took us 8 hours to climb, took us 18 minutes to finish. It was a crazy run, contrary to our expectations, the snow was wicked smooth and perfect for any skier or snowboarder out there.
When we ski, we all choose our different lines. By line, I mean the routes. But here we followed each other in a manner, so that we don’t get lost. We ran through these big massifs which still had fresh virgin snow attached.
We reached a place where we had to take our skis and snowboards off to cross a downhill stream. This was one terrifying moment. Ski boots are not meant to walk on, especially on boulders, which are covered with moss and running water. But it had to be done, so one by one we did. It was a daunting task which used every inch of my muscle to cross.
Next came the woods and trees. For me skiing in a tree line is always fun. You get to kiss needle leaves of the pines and break those snow eggs on the tree tops. The sky looks wonderful, even though there is no sky, but a huge cover of pines all around you. A deep gorge follows, and turning on every hump of the gorge is a delight.
We had finished the job and it was done. But this was something exceptionally great. Why? Because it involved a lot of hard work and dedication.
I reckon, the reason for us to live is to explore. We haven’t seen it all, if we haven’t stepped outside, into the wild. There are no endings to such journeys; we keep coming to these places – God’s own country.