Go, get cold feet
If Mumbai's recent cold spell only made you hungry for more, the slopes of Gulmarg are where you should head. Snow Stoked promises snowboarding lessons that'll have you whizzing confidently down a hill and provide opportunities for endless gazing at Himalayan vistas. Of course, there's always a chance to aim a snowball at an unsuspecting companion
For someone whose athletic experience is limited to a walk around the neighbourhood and whose only sighting of snow has been in the freezer of an ancient childhood refrigerator, snowboarding in Kashmir sounds overwhelmingly daunting. But 25 year-old Mohsin Memon, organiser of Snow Stoked — a snowboarding trip to Gulmarg — guarantees that the most athletically-challenged person can learn to handle the board in a week. “You don’t require any kind of prior training or experience to snowboard,” he reassures me. “The most important thing you need is the will to learn and try.”
Mumbai-based Memon grew up in the US, which is where his enthusiasm for snowboarding first took off. Memom’s first time on the board was in New Jersey, when he, along with his brother, randomly decided to go snowboarding and convinced their parents to take them to Blue Mountain in Pennsylvania.
Not knowing how to snowboard or even what to wear, the two siblings looked up some videos on YouTube, donned a pair of jeans — incidentally the worst type of clothing for snowboarding - rented a snowboard and hoped for the best. “We got onto a ski lift with everyone else,” remembers Memon. “It kept taking us higher and higher and we ended up at the highest point. We weren’t afraid because we thought it was completely normal.” The two ended up on a black diamond rated slope, a notoriously difficult level.Deciding to ask people in the vicinity for help wasn’t exactly useful. “We went up to a guy and asked him how to stop a snowboard,” laughs Memon. “He looked at us, said ‘You’re kidding right?’ and just walked off. We thought he was incredibly rude!” After getting a few pointers from more benevolent strangers, the two snowboarded down the nearly 85-degree slope full of steep turns and curves and fell the whole way down. “The next day, we were in great pain,” laughs Memon. “Every muscle of our body hurt.”
The less than perfect start didn’t deter Memon. Practice, he now believes, is key. “I love the incredible rush it gives me,” says Memon. Shifting base to India didn’t quell the spirits of this adventure junkie. He managed to sneak in snowboarding trips to Gulmarg and surfing trips to Manipal in the midst of founding Memcorp Learning & Performance Solutions, a corporate training company. Snow Stoked is the result of a combined effort of Memon’s organisation and White Collar Hippie, an offbeat travel company.
Snow Stoked’s previous avtar in early 2012 only had people from India’s corporate world learning to ride the board on the powdery slopes. “The experience was absolutely magnificent!” says Memon passionately. “So many of our family and friends wanted to come along that, this year, we decided to keep it open for everyone.” Registrations are open for weeklong trips that begin on February 2 and go on through March. They’ll be happy to extend your visit to two or even three weeks if you can’t bear saying goodbye to all that snow. During the week, professional trainers will teach you how to snowboard like a pro. At the end of the trip, you’ll even get professional certification, promises Memon.
Don’t let the thought of flying down a slope on a piece of wood make you queasy. “Last year, there were people who were so scared of falling down and even of getting on a board let alone riding it down,” recalls Memon. “And by the end of the week, they were going down the slopes flawlessly.” Four of the 12 group-members from last year even ended up becoming so good that Memon and the trainers took them higher up into the mountains to snowboard. The rush, he assures me, was indescribable.
The biggest issue a novice snowboarder has to deal with is demotivation. “The sport beats you up at first,” warns Memon. “You’ll fall down a lot. You might not be able to do it instantly. You might even feel like giving up.” But just when you reach that breaking point is the time for a resounding motivational speech and the need to push a little harder. “Because when you’re finally able to do it, the sense of accomplishment you feel is tremendous.”
What was a hill station popular among 19th century British colonialists that wanted to escape the Indian summer, Gulmarg now attracts winter sports junkies from around the world. It has also become increasingly popular among young Indians. “I think snowboarding is becoming more popular in India because of the rising popularity of board sports in general,” says Memon. “Many people, especially the younger crowd, are really into snowboarding, skating, surfing. It’s the in thing right now.”
The relative lack of crowds as compared to popular Alpine skiing destinations isn’t the only thing that attracts foreign visitors. “Last year, I was talking to a guy who had come all the way from Ohio,” says Memon. “We’ve been on some of the best snow slopes across the world but we both come to Gulmarg because it’s the most beautiful.”
Break the ice
The best time to enjoy winter sports is between January and March. For a visit to Gulmarg, all you need to be armed with is your basic winter attire — woolens, gloves and boots — everything else is available on location. If you need a break from all the vigorous exercise snowboarding is sure to subject you to, there’s the Gulmarg Gondola, one of the highest ski lifts in the world. The gorgeous locale offers opportunities for sightseeing and picturesque moments galore but what people most enjoy is just being in the snow, making snowmen and having snow fights.
Before packing your bags for Kashmir, however Memon has some words of advice. “Go with a credible source, someone who has been there before,” he cautions. “A trip to Gulmarg is not like going to Matheran. If you end up in a hotel that has no hot water, it could spell trouble. Someone who’s been there before will know what to look out for. Also, bringing your friends along can’t hurt.” If no friends want to head off to climes colder than Mumbai, however, Snow Stoked seems like a great way for solo travellers to make some friends on the slopes.
For more details, contact: +91 9930260748
Location: Gulmarg is 52 km away from Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir
Days needed: 7
Best time to travel: For winter sports, January to March
Reaching there: Srinagar is the closest airport with direct flights from Mumbai. Gulmarg is roughly an hour-and-a-half drive away. If you’re opting for Snow Stoked, they’ll take care of transportation to and from the airport.