The POWDER Library: The Hippy Trail
One ski bum, one pen, and 10,000 miles of Himalayan Peaks
Editor’s Note: Here at POWDER HQ, we’re sitting on a wealth of archive gold—more than 40 years of recorded skiing history. Rather than let those stories collect dust, we’ve decided to resurface our finest work from decades past. Here are transcribed words from stories published in past issues of POWDER. This story was published in January 2005 (Volume 33, Issue 5).
WORDS: Ptor Spricenieks PHOTOS: Greg Von Doersten
Forty years ago the Hippy Trail was a loose route that wound from the western shores of Europe into southeastern Asia. Freethinking nomads from around the world thumbed their way through India, the Middle East, and Katmandu, exploring their world view, if not their minds, with firsthand experience and secondhand clothes.
Last year , we sent ski mountaineer and alpine visionary Ptor Spricenieks to find a similar trail, this one in India, laden with icy Himalayan peaks instead of VW buses. The idea was to find enlightenment, and powder, in the tallest peaks in the world. His trail took him from the dusty streets of New Delhi to the embattled state of Kashmir to the forested slopes of Manali and back. After 20 years skiing on four continents, Ptor’s perspective on our sport and travel—the physical and psychological process of crossing boundaries with your boards—stands on its own. Which is exactly how this account should be read. Below are excerpts from Ptor’s correspondence to us throughout the trip: a tome for what it is to be a skier on the trail. —Porter Fox
February 27, 2004
New Delhi, India
As soon as I passed through the doors and out into the naked air, my nostrils told me I was really back. Smell is all the difference. It has been more than a decade since my last travels in India. The atmosphere was baking with the fertile compost of life, and all of a sudden, 12 years vanish and I am back on the other side of the planet.
March 3, 2004
New Delhi to Srinigar
Things find you when you relax, and this afternoon, Kashmir found me. “Life is like ice cream,” said our new Kashmiri buddy, Star. “You gotta enjoy it before it melts.” So then wouldn’t it make sense to keep it cold so you can enjoy it longer? It’s too warm here in the city. Isn’t this the mystical, where the light of consciousness meets the shadow of the unknown? This is a good reason to go skiing in India. To the north, to the mountains!
On the bus, I couldn’t stop thinking of the difference between begging on the streets of Delhi and going skiing. India just shoves you along in the current. The contrast was numbing, and so was the 27-hour bus ride. The difference between a $100 overweight charge on a plane trip that would’ve taken an hour and a half and the endless 27 hours of traffic noises, cramped seats, and chipmunk Hindu music of a $20 bus ride is relative. To me the ride was more enlightening than uncomfortable, having lots of time to converse and check out the rural scene.
As the day broke we had entered Jammu and the beginning of an intense military-soaked scenario. After researching satisfactorily in the city, we decided it would be safe enough to proceed into Kashmir, despite its reputation and political situation over the last 10 years. (The British made Kashmir a part of India in 1947, against the wishes of Pakistan. The two countries have been fighting over Kashmir, losing more than a million lives, ever since.) Times have changed for the better. And besides, our research has also revealed an excellent snowpack in Gulmarg, the local ski area. From Jammu onward we passed a machine gun nest on virtually every major highway curve. Convoys of hundreds of soldiers flowed past both ways as we climbed up the steep canyons to the snowy peaks above the Jawhar Tunnel. This looked like a great ski-touring zone for January/February if the seriousness around it ever lets off. On the other side of the tunnel, another world opened before us. The Kashmir valley! It is a great fertile plain encircled by walls of snowcapped mountains and stretched out into the hazy distance under a blue sky. The fact that I filled out “skier” as my occupation drew a few smiles out of the dusty regiment inside the official’s shack, and a couple rupees to The Man left everybody happy as we departed.
Now we prepare to leave for the legendary Gulmarg Ski Resort, another 50 miles up into the mountains. The Indian Winter Games are going on at the moment and we look forward to checking out the competition and going skiing.
March 9, 2004
Gulmars Ski Resort
The blossoms and buds have all appeared in the valleys since we’ve been up in Gulmarg. The high pressure that welcomed us just got higher and clearer, and every day we can see more of the great Himalayan chain that spreads out across from the Kashmir valley. Skiing with views of Nanga Parbat (26,778 feet) is breathtaking. Greg and I are exhausted from hiking Afarwhat to 13,776 feet from the terminus of the gondola– near the border between India and Pakistan. Remember Whitetooth before Kicking Horse? Deja vous! Meet Yaseen, the local ski guide, owner of Kashmir Alpine Ski Shop, and guru of ski love. At 45, he has spent 30 years at Gulmarg and all over the Himalaya, cultivating his passion and yearning to keep the Kashmiri ski tradition alive despite the draught of tourism. His prayers have been answered and the freaks have begun their return to Kashmir. The hospitality at Gulmarg was exceptional, especially with the Fourth Annual Indian Winter Games coinciding with our visit. I got rides to the ski hill, skis on hand, sitting amongst men with rifles in hand. We stayed in the same lodge as the Uttanachal Ski Team and got to know the Asian perspective on ski racing. Having to leave breakfast while Yaseen made fresh bread was like tearing an infant from her mother’s breast, but the hippy trail beckons.
March 9, 2004
Gulmars to Manali, India
Another bus ride through a night of bad roads– this time from Jammu to Manali. Our new third member of the mobile POWDER Ashram is Roderick, a young ski-freak from Vancouver Island who has spent the entire winter here in Manali, boot-packing everywhere in 10-year-old equipment. Manali is another world, full of tourists and businesses, but we escape to the side in the small town of Vashisht. After a soak in the hot springs, some Nepalese Momos for lunch, and some Vashisht cream, all is well. Sleep would be nice but we are invited to a wedding tonight. The valley stretches out below our balcony into orchards and peaks poking through clouds. These mountains are still a mystery to me. Though it’s been more than a dozen years, the original inspiration to ski the great Pir Panjal range, driven by the inspiration of legends, still remains.
March 19, 2004
The whole Valley of the Gods is going off. With the high pressure parked over the entire western Himalaya, the receding snowline forced us into the high alpine reaches. After one day of porter assistance and another day skinning with the full load on our backs, Greg, Roderick, and I set base camp at 13,448 feet. Spectacular! Above us stood the giant rock spires of the upper Jagatsukh Valley and 19,638-foot Deo Tibba. Our acclimatization from Gulmarg did us well and we were able to ski every day after reaching base camp. All around us was a freeski-mountaineer’s Sunshine Daydream. That weather was perfect. I open-bivvied every night under the stars. Fresh Himalayan mountain water ran a few paces away and the stability was incredible after more than two weeks of perfect melt-freeze cycle. In the afternoons, everything was soft and the high north steeps retained perfect steep conditions. I soloed two nice, north facing shots from 17,056 and 16,400 feet. Together, we skied long silky runs on glaciated terrain letting the imagination have its way with choice of lines. Roderick reached his highest elevation ever. He also hadn’t cooked for himself in five months, but that’s the way it goes here in India. Maka, a young Englishman on a temporary hermitage in the same valley came up from his Shiva-temple squat and brought a pack-load of wood so we even had a fire one night. Yes, that’s what hippies, or at least variations on the theme, are all about. We are on “the trail.” Connoisseurs already knew this place the world over when I first sipped chai here 13 years ago. Not even the flood of Hindi tourism has washed away the original attractions. Everyone has their reason to be here but there are only a few that would take their bodies along with their minds to the heights. Considering the kind of lifestyle that this culture can support, and the legendariness of skiing here, it is surprising that Roderick was the only non-Indian ski bum here this winter.
We have about-faced and are returning to Srinagar this evening. Too many invitations so we are going to go skiing with Taseen. Our plan here out of Manali is too technical for the present situation. Next time. Up north we will be in colder zones equally spectacular and no tourists. Yaseen is worth hanging with.
March 27, 2004
Kashmir Alpine Ski Shop
Roderick and I are getting back to some serious ski bumming. Our new pad, Yaseen’s room above the Kashmir Alpine Ski Shop, is perfect with simplicity. Classic Muslim style with nothing in it but the bedrolls and our piles of gear and clothes. The shop below, sill evolving since his old shop burned down two years ago, is also the kitchen and living room. Nobody that enters escapes without chai. Outside, the ravens and hawks swirl about endlessly in the twilight.
March 29, 2004
“Line of Control,” Kashmir
The Kashmiri women we have met have been very friendly and open– not the hardcore veiled-and repressed type people we usually associate with Muslim culture. One even gave Euro-style cheek kisses as a greeting. Considering a Kashmiri woman could be killed for being with a man outside her religion, we’ll just have to bring our own next time. But Amy and Sonia are here now. They are a duo of hardcore Canadian photojournalist gals who have come to chill out with us at the Kashmir Alpine Ski Shop. We listen wide-eyed and somewhat estrangely to their reluctant accounts of Afghanistan and Iraq, amongst other hotspots. We also learn about the realities of Kashmir, which they regularly witness but seem like another dimension to us. Not only have I been skiing beyond the “line of control” when traversing out to the back bowls, but also flying over it on my paraglider. From the air, I could scope the undulating steep valleys that I would have to cross in order to ski the mountains to the south. (Something we are still awaiting permission for from the Border Security Force.) Everybody says I am the only person to fly here besides Sylvain Saudan, the father of extreme skiing. There are still remains of his heli ski operation here from the 1980s, including a half dozen pairs of Sylvain Sudan skis in Yaseen’s shop that were recovered from a crashed and abandoned helicopter. (Strangely enough, everybody had walked out.)
As I came in for landing nearby the ski shop, a dozen eagles escorted my approach. The horizon is large. Allah o akbar (God is big). The war mind is small.
March 30, 2004
Apharwat Peak, Kashmir
Today, I revisited Apharwat Peak, behind the main ridge and now that I think of it, very close if not beyond the “line of control.” Alone again as Roderick is sick and struggles to regain his energy. After another lap on the steeps, some visiting pro snowboarders and I ride down the ridge crest, slide under the BSF outpost and drop yet another of those “lines we’ve been looking at” back down to the trees. Last month, a group of Swedes were arrested and temporarily taken into custody on suspicion of spying. Sonia and Amy have brought music. The first Western tunes in weeks. The words of Bob Dylan take on a whole new meaning here.
April 3, 2004
The mountain crumbles into a sagging mess. Now two nights of no freezing and the remaining snow on Apharway Ridge takes on the colors of the dusty Punjab plains beyond. Roderick finally regained his energy to enjoy one last ride with Firdous, the local snowboarder freak, and myself. Roderick’s satisfaction and Yaseen’s stories are both motivating. They make me want to get more organized and come back next winter.
April 4, 2004
Back in New Delhi
Delhi! So hot I can’t even fog up my sunglasses to clean them. I spent the extra money on the plane ride back and gained an extra day of skiing and an unforgettable view of the Himalayas. (Not to mention avoiding another beating of a 27-hour bus ride.) Roderick is now well on his way to Dharamsala to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It was ski bumming at its finest and I feel enlightened and privileged for having experience this most beautiful and untainted scene. In the West, we (glisse bums) are still outlaws in a system that demands conformity. The differences between the two perspectives are what divide a humanity that actually lives in “one world.” In that sense, religion is relegated to the weak, to those who will not take action and self-initiative to seek what unifies. Ski here now. We are needed. We are the proponents of future glisse. This year we were indeed special, a few who could ignore the paranoid media and stand tall alongside a crazy military presence to pursue our passion for skiing. Paul, an English snowboarder, had spent December to March riding non-stop powder in Gulmarg pretty much alone. Ironically, he was protected by the military conflict from hordes of other powder junkies. The virgin mountains beckoning in the distance still need permission to be accessed, but perhaps in the future a less-militarized presence will allow it.
Yaseen said he would be sad for three days after we leave and I believe him. I am sad too. Sad to leave new family and a lifestyle of youthful recline and mountain moments. But the bliss of arcing full speed turns in perfect corn are eternal– as are the new friendships. As cultures merge, let it be the beginning and not the end. For Yaseen and Hameed, they dream of the evolution of the Kashmir Alpine Ski Shop and the creation of a lodge to express and share their love for skiing. For myself and the other glisse hippies that have touched and been touched by the Himalaya, there are great horizons that we have seen and dream of exploring.
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