by Alex Magilton, The Telegraph, March 6, 2018
We were lost. Trudging through the woods in waist deep snow, it was dark, and bitterly cold. We were in Kashmir and edging closer to the disputed Indian and Pakistani Line of Control.
Earlier that day myself and four other ski and snowboard tourers had made our way up to 4,000 metres in the mountains above the town of Gulmarg in Northern India. Having arrived in the area the day before, the plan was to have a relaxed day skiing down a ridge, avoiding zones with the highest avalanche risks, before heading back to our basic accommodation.
How had we ended up skiing in India?
This question was the very reason the trip was so appealing. As soon as I heard that skiing was possible in Kashmir, I knew I had to experience it. The lesser-known ski village we’d tracked down was Gulmarg, 2,600 metres up on the lower slopes of Mount Afarwat. The closest city and airport was Srinagar, three hours drive west.
Though far from your average European-style resort, with just one gondola and a single "pisted" run, the area has attracted a fair few western ski adventurers. But, with the skiing technical and 95 per cent off piste, we were definitely in India.
For the record, Kashmir is firmly black-listed by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (it advises against all travel) due to the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan and high chance of terror attacks. For me, this made the area even more appealing - knowing the danger was heightened only increased my excitement.
That said, I had not expected my adventure to reach this level of severity quite so soon. After leading my four friends into a beautifully enticing snowy bowl, we had found ourselves descending further and further down a gully, in the wrong direction, heading into the unknown. No wonder we were making fresh lines in the deep powder, as no other skiers had taken this route.
We followed the gully but kept having to climb up ridges and hills to avoid impassable cliff faces, which the course of a river followed. We had long been out of food, and our energy levels were depleted after arduous hiking through the deep powder. At one point we came across the tracks of a bear and the elusive snow leopard trudging through the woods.
Darkness fell and the level of peril increased. Our torches had died from the cold and only one phone remained alive but with no signal. With the light gone, we were treated to an amazing, thick blanket of stars. The crisp and clear Milky Way was an incredible sight, but even that momentary escape couldn’t distract from our situation. Hearing gunfire echo round the valley was a stark reminder that we were not in the Swiss Alps.
Time passed as we slowly covered ground. We silently contemplated the prospect of spending a night in the woods, acknowledging that we were unlikely to all wake up in the morning.
Scrambling up a rocky face carrying our skis and snowboards, two lights appeared on a further ridge. Assuming they must be from an army base was hope, but not ideal. We trudged closer, shouting and trying to draw attention. Dogs could be heard barking from within the base.
As we moved towards the base, a miracle occured. The one phone with battery found signal. We hastily made contact with our hosts back in Gulmarg to let them know we were alive and that we were approaching the fence of an army outpost somewhere in the mountains. They were already in the local police station trying to organize a small search party and alerting the Indian army there were five lost foreign tourists in the area. Unbeknown to us, there had been an incident that very morning when Pakistani terrorists infiltrated an Indian base, killing four soldiers
There was yet further heightened security in an already twitchy area. The order given to soldiers who saw any persons near a base was “shoot to kill”. When our friends alerted the military to our potential presence in the area, this command was reduced to that of "regard with high suspicion". We later calculated there was a three to five minute window between the call from our friends and our approach to the base, during which the command was changed.
We made it to the perimeter fence of the base when we were lit up by search lights. From the darkness came shouts.
“Who are you?! Where are you from?! How did you get here?!”
Two soldiers walked towards us with flashlights, blinding our sight.
“Drop your bag, put your hands up!”
“We are English, we are very lost, we have come from Gulmarg, skiing, My name is Alex,” I said.
“How did you get here?! Why are you here!?” was the response from behind the lights.
“We are lost, we are from England.”
I approached the soldier, took off my glove and extended my hand.
“Salam, hello,” I clearly said.
“Give me your Identification!”
I happened to have my passport in my pocket and handed it over to the soldier, who studied it curiously.
Further questions were directed at me while the rest of the group waited a few steps behind. We were then ordered to follow the soldiers up a dirt track towards the barks of savage dogs. There was a shabby corrugated iron fence, heavily covered with razor wire. Armed soldiers appeared out of the darkness, surrounding us.
Ordered to sit down on the dirt, freezing, tired and hungry, our belongings dumped in a pile, we obediently did as we were told.
“Are you thirsty? Do you like wine and beer?” mocked the soldiers as if they were about to bring us cans of Kingfisher Lager.
“Do you know where you are?! You are on the Line of Control, you are two kilometers away from Pakistan. You are very lucky! If you went there you would be dead already! We are the Indian Army and at war with Pakistan.”
We had put ourselves in an extreme situation. We had almost been killed.
We were in various states of cold, hypothermia, shock and anxiety.
A soldier doused kindling and logs with kerosene and kindly made us a fire. We were surrounded by the armed soldiers who all wanted a look at their unexpected guests.
“It is not possible to get here from Gulmarg, it is too far,” said one of the soldiers, “you must have planned this.”
At this point I secretly removed the memory card from my camera and put it in a hidden pocket. I presumed we would be searched and cameras taken away and I certainly didn’t want to lose the footage of the day.
We were ordered to move from the dirt track into the base and entered what looked like a construction site, with small buildings scattered among diggers and piles of rubble. We were led into a bunker with two beds and a small heater, which didn’t seem to emit any heat, when the steel door was shut behind us and we were left alone, concerned with what might happen next.
Despite the danger, I cherished being part of an experience that few outsiders would ever see.
The door was suddenly pushed open.
“Alex, come with us.”
The order was given for me to follow soldiers down the yard to another building. As I had initially spoken to the soldiers on the road, I was the point of contact and became the representative for our group. I was shown to the window of a hut through which a phone receiver was handed to me.
On the other end of a faint line, a man introduced himself, explaining his high rank in the Indian Army. He went through all the questions we had already been asked, but in much greater detail. I was then taken back to the others.
We all remained calm, unsure of what was happening. It felt unreal.
A while later we were escorted back to the dirt road, where there was an army truck waiting to take us down the valley. I made sure to shake as many hands as possible, apologising for our actions and thanking them for treating us well.
After a long and bumpy ride down the mountain, we entered a larger military base and were shown into a room decorated with trophies and exotic animal skins hanging from the walls. A commander introduced himself and upon hearing that we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, treated us to a sit down meal in the officer’s mess.
It had been a remarkable day, one of my favourite. Adventure skiing at its finest.