Gulmarg and the only Big Lift in the Himalayas

Scroll down for our observations of past winters, gondola hours and prices.

Gulmarg is a mountain shelf which nestles under the protective 4124 metre height and five kilometre shoulders of Mt Apharwat. From here it overlooks the Vale of Kashmir to 8126 metre Nanga Parbat and other distant peaks.

Gulmarg is in the Pir Panjals, one of the six ranges which make up the Himalayas. Located at the western extremity of the world's highest peaks, the Pir Panjals are the first mountains hit by westerly and south westerly storms which roll in over Indus River flood plains each year, providing the greater part of the Himalayas' winter snowfalls.

Gulmarg's gondola, designed by France's Poma Group, ascends from the resort at 2650 metres, via a mid station and restaurant at 3050 metres, to an elevation of 3980 metres, providing lift served access to 1330 vertical metres of vast snowriding terrain.

Other winter sports infrastructure at Gulmarg includes road-clearers, Kassbohrer snow grooming machines, Poma surface lifts, hire equipment for a range of winter sports and an ice skating rink.

Gondola operations

Gulmarg’s gondola is operated by a state government body, the Jammu & Kashmir Cable Car Corporation. The gondola has been operated on a year round basis since May 2005 (with notable exceptions being a ten day closure for emergency repairs in early February 2007 and a three week closure in November 2007 for pre-winter maintenance).

The operational hours of the gondola for snowriders in the past three winters have reflected the following challenges: low visitor numbers; absence of guaranteed electricity supply; absence of access by the ski patrol to explosives for the control of avalanche risk; and the learning curve for Gulmarg’s indigenous management and staff as they pioneer development of winter sports tourism in the Himalayas. This learning curve extends to the private sector - winter visitors should be aware that few hotels in Gulmarg are yet adequately equipped to provide the same levels of comfort and convenience for winter guests that are available for Gulmarg’s traditional summer clientele.

What are our Observations of Gulmarg’s progress in the past three winters?

Road Access and Snow Clearance: During winter 2005-2006, despite valiant efforts by the operators of Gulmarg’s snow-clearers, most snowfalls were followed by lengthy delays in opening the access road from the Tangmarg valley up the mountain road to Gulmarg. Since 2005-2006 winter, additional investment in snow-clearers by the J&K Government has led to improvement in snow-clearing operations in parts of the Kashmir valley.

Winter delays on the access road between Tangmarg and Gulmarg are now more likely to be due to road blockages caused by marooned motor vehicles driven by day-trippers from Srinagar who have failed to attach snow-chains to their tires before beginning the ascent to Gulmarg.

Future enforcement by police of requirements for day visitors to Gulmarg to attach snow-chains to their tires before proceeding past the “gate” at the Baba Reshi corner would be a positive step in improving public safety, and in lowering winter congestion due to accidents, on the Tangmarg to Gulmarg access road.

Electricity Supply: In past winters back-up electricity supply for Gulmarg’s gondola has been limited to a single diesel-powered generator manufactured by USA’s Caterpillar Inc. The Gulmarg gondola is made up of two sections (below and above mid-station) which have separate motors. In past winters, if the main electricity supply for the gondola failed, the existing generator was only able to power either of the lower or upper sections (not both at the same time). Over the 2008 summer the Jammu & Kashmir Cable Car Corporation is finalising installation of a newly purchased Caterpillar generator which will facilitate simultaneous operation of both lower and upper sections of the gondolas as a back-up when the main electricity supply fails.

Water Supply: At the beginning of the immediately past 2007-2008 winter season, the authority that supplies water in Gulmarg announced an introduction of water rationing, disrupting service levels for guests at most hotels in Gulmarg - with only a couple of notable hotel exceptions. While the issue behind the need for water rationing last winter is expected to be addressed over the summer, visitors may wish to factor this consideration into their choice of hotel, when planning a visit to Gulmarg in the 2008-2009 winter.

Winter Operational Hours for Gondola

Prior to the 2007-2008 winter season, operational hours for the gondola, both lower and upper sections, were regularly described by many of our guests as “unpredictable”. In reality, operational hours were often poor, particularly for guests who were visiting during a week of snowy weather. A number of factors were involved, including one which should be borne in mind by all experienced snowriders who come to Gulmarg with the dream of experiencing the glorious and vast terrain which is accessible from the top of Mt Apharwhat: Closure of the gondola’s upper section during bad weather, and the possibility of extended delays due to avalanche risk in the opening of the gondola’s upper section, following either good snowfalls or rapidly fluctuating temperatures.

Our own observation is that the 2007-2008 winter season marked a number of positive milestones in the progress of the Gulmarg’s winter operations:

1. Closure of the gondola for pre-winter maintenance in November 2007;
2. Establishment of benchmark times for Gulmarg’s ski patrol team to access the gondola in advance of scheduled openings for the public;
3. Appointment, for the 1st time on a professional (salaried) basis, of overseas expertise to lead avalanche risk assessment and related safety protocols;
4. Establishment (with assistance from lead ski patrollers Brian Newman and James O’Brien) of a (relatively) reliable track record in punctual openings of the gondola’s lower section throughout the winter;
5. Securing (with assistance from lead ski patrollers Brian Newman and James O’Brien) of civilian-military co-operation in making available explosives for the control and abatement of avalanche risks in the patrolled areas of Mt Apharwhat’s high-alpine terrain (upper section of the gondola).

Despite these positive milestones, a number of our guests in the 2007-2008 winter, moreso those visiting during a week of snowy weather, were still disappointed with operational hours for the upper section of the gondola. Most but not all of these delays were weather related. Snowriders visiting Gulmarg should not expect the upper section of the gondola to open during bad weather, nor immediately following either good snowfalls or rapidly fluctuating temperatures.

Overall ski patrol resources at Gulmarg are limited, by global standards, relative to the enormity of the terrain which is accessible from the top of Mt Apharwhat - perhaps understandably limited, relative to very few indigenous snowriders who are sufficiently skilled to ski or snowboard from the gondola’s top station, and the still relatively few visitors from outside of Kashmir who travel to Gulmarg to ski or snowboard.

While explosives were introduced for the control of avalanche risk for the first time, during the 2007-2008 winter, the explosives program was on a trial basis only.

Whilst operations of the upper section of the gondola will always be weather dependent, and we would be reluctant to make any prediction as further improvements in the reliability of operational hours for the upper section of the gondola in the coming 2008-2009 winter, we are encouraged by our understanding that Kashmir Tourism is seeking continuity in the appointments of the overseas experts who led Gulmarg’s ski patrol during the immediately past winter, and the related prospect of the expansion of the explosives trials that Brian and James have already undertaken. Both factors, if implemented, bode well for earlier opening hours for the upper section of the gondola in the coming 2008-2009 winter, and for skiers and boarders who are hungry for fresh Himalayan powder-snow.

Please keep in mind that (1) the upper section of the gondola is only closed during times of avalanche risk for your personal safety and (2) the fact that the upper section of the gondola is open does NOT imply that “out-of-bounds” terrain is safe from avalanches.

Gondola Ticketing Operations and Prices

Gondola ticket prices for the 2007-2008 winter were:

1. Lower section = 100 INR per ride/500 INR per day/3000 INR weekly
2. Upper section = 250 INR per ride/1000 INR per day/5000 INR weekly

Most skiers and snowboarders choose to purchase “single ride” tickets for the lower section of the gondola and then purchase either “single ride” or “day” tickets for the upper section of the gondola. Ski Himalaya is unaware of any of our own guests who have purchased weekly passes for the gondola during past winters.

Most alpine resorts around the globe have dispensed with “single ride” tickets in favour of a range of flexible “multi-day tickets” which enhance (1) convenience guests in purchasing tickets and (2) financial accountability for management and staff in selling tickets.

Ski Himalaya believes that an adoption of a winter ticket pricing system by the Jammu & Kashmir Cable Car Corporation which encourages long stay guests (staying for six or more ski-days in Gulmarg) to purchase one comprehensive ticket for the full duration of their holiday in Gulmarg would (1) eliminate unnecessary inconvenience which many of our guests tell us they experience in the course in purchasing tickets (2) improve staff service standards in selling ticketing sales.

Gondola tickets prices for 2008-2009 will be posted on this webpage when known.

Gondola ticket prices do not cover Gulmarg’s beginner pomas which are operated by a separate arm of the J&K Government.

©Copyright, Peter Robinson, Ski Himalaya

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