A mountain changes many colours as it experiences spring, summer, monsoon and autumn. But in winter it changes shape. Snow – a rain of dazzling ice crystals – is what gives shape to the Himalayas – ‘him’ is the Sanskrit word for snow, which shapeshifts as it reacts to meteorological vagaries. It is soft and fluffy when it first hits the hard surface of a mountain, like powder, smoothing the jagged edges of the landscape. To glide on powder is to dance with gravity. For a modest but passionate community in the Kullu Valley of the Indian Himalayas, the arrival of this powder heralds the season to ski and snowboard down peaks above 4,000m.
This passion for powder revealed itself during my early visits to the valley. It popped up in political debates at the neighbourhood tea shop. It sneaked into conversations about rock climbing. During weddings, once the emotional dramatics were done with, people discussed winter games. On the road, I met motorcycle tour operators and cooks who bonded over favourite slopes to ski. I discovered the local taxi union accountant, the village electrician and the cyber cafe operator were ace skiers. The revelation seemed incongruous with the region’s lack of ski infrastructure and the fact that the sport doesn’t even make a blip on the map of national tourism. Evidently, while tourists bargained for handwoven shawls and slurped chowmein in the main bazaar, the mountains they photographed were alive with men blazing trails in the snow.
The skiers belong to a dozen odd villages on the alpine ascent that separates Manali – the valley’s prime holiday destination – and the mountain pass of Rohtang La. Of these, Solang is the only village with a basic cable car ropeway. The villages together – especially Solang, Palchan, Kothi, Burwa, Vashisht and Old Manali – boast over 100 national champions and are home to 70 per cent of the skiers representing India in international championships. In Palchan, nearly every one of the 80 local families owns at least one pair of skis. The village has produced 28 international ski champions in the last 25 years; its overall count is 38 international winter athletes, including five Olympians. There are 30 registered ski clubs in the state and the high level of local competition breeds better athletes.
I’d never met a ‘champion family’ before. But the mountains, despite their vastness, are a small place. I learnt that the motorcycle tour operator from Palchan is related to the road construction manager and an officer of the Public Works Department. Along with their extended family of 30 people, including housewives and schoolchildren, they own over a 100 pairs of skis. Everyone skis, everyone’s house has a storage corner stacked with medals, trophies and certificates, and everyone wishes these awards would translate into more tangible benefits like jobs or opportunities for sponsorship. They prefer somehow to send their progeny overseas for training, rather than wait for instructors to be flown to them.
But there are champions who are entirely self-taught. India being a cricket-obsessed nation, they have been left alone to raise funds – by selling their personal property at times – for each shot at qualifying for a championship or participating in a larger festival. Once there, they must reckon with the difference between their hard-earned one-month training stints and the year-long rigorous workouts that their international counterparts receive.
The valley is also home to another kind of skier, consciously removed from the mesh of championships and their surrounding politics. A close-knit community of travel agents, hoteliers, liquor shop owners, taxi drivers and adventure sports organisers all agree on one point – that to ski is divine. These skiers refuse to participate in bureaucratic roundabouts to reach the top and are undeterred by a lack of financial resources. Through six months of peak season they wait for powder while they watch, guide and ferry tourists from the plains to Himalayan slopes.
One such skier is Tashi Dorje – a friend who owns and manages a restaurant in Prini village. He took it upon himself to introduce me to the sport. He started the history lesson by playing high-adrenaline skiing videos on a laptop. Like cricket, football and hockey, skiing too was a colonial import. It arrived in the Indian Himalayas with the British. Children growing in the shadow of Rohtang watched early settlers like Jimmy Johnson (whose family still runs Manali’s plushest bar) take to the slopes on a pair of wooden boards, and were quick to join the fun.
They began with 3-ft rudimentary contraptions modelled out of plastic water pipes, wood, makeshift rubber straps and wax, Tashi tells me – much harder to balance than modern skis. On these they skied down from their villages to the highway, which was then a dirt path barely marking a way to Rohtang. The geography was right, the winters long and idle. They lugged bulky equipment up the slopes for hours, for runs that lasted precious minutes. The sport was made official in 1971 by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering & Allied Sports, Manali. Its demanding 21-day course saw less than 10 students at the time.
Tashi’s narrative was occasionally interrupted so he could attend to breakfast orders of a group of 23 who’d never seen snow and were waiting to do so at Rohtang. Once they’d settled the bill, he took me to his treasure room at the back. Blades suited to different types of skiing rested against white-washed walls. For an economy hinged on seasonal tourism and set in a fragile ecosystem, skiing is an expensive hobby. Tashi gets his gear from foreign clients kind enough to purchase good quality second-hand equipment and ship it to him; none of it is manufactured in India. He believes the future of skiing as a profession in the country is extremely bleak. Although he is a certified advanced level skier, he doesn’t plan to introduce his son to the sport as anything other than a hobby. He’s sceptical of the martyrdom and the resources required for championships. But he also attempts to save enough for at least two weeks of winter every year in Gulmarg, Kashmir, with gondola services that enable him to spend more time skiing than trekking uphill, as would be the case in Himachal.
Unlike the Alpine nations which receive the most ski visits in the world, boasting infrastructure that welcomes and nurtures urban holidaymakers, the Himachali equivalent is a niche pursuit with no emergency rescue helicopters on stand-by. Amongst the older adventure sports organisers in the area is Pintu, a self-taught, old school skier from Vashisht. He worked for many years with the only heli-skiing company in the state, and the exhaustive knowledge he gained there on the subject of snow, avalanches and all things skiing is reflected in his patient interactions with walk-in customers. They come to his travel agency looking for trekking, rafting, cycling and rarely for skiing. He describes the slopes around Rohtang as the best possible terrain for backcountry skiing. Off-piste and ungroomed, they offer virgin snow over vertical drops along the Pir Panjal range. “But every run here needs to be earned. There are no avalanche beacons – transceivers that are a lifeline taken for granted in the West but unaffordable for Indian skiers. We function on minimal gear.”
Pintu’s first pair of skis was created from steel blades and two pieces of wood. He smiles and admits to slipping these out of a saw mill and assembling the skis at home. His second pair was crafted out of walnut wood by a carpenter, and he got his third – actual skis – at the age of eight. The newer generation no longer ventures into saw mills; there are second-hand imported skis available in the market. They see maximum action during the two months of school holiday that are given on account of the sub-zero temperatures of winter. Once there is snow, the beginner’s slope in Solang is swarming with dozens of young figures, as young as four years old, out as early as 6 am.
Sahil, a 7-year-old from Vashisht, is learning to snowboard from his 27-year-old uncle Raju, who runs an adventure sports company in Vashisht in summer, and enjoys “four months of full power snowboarding” in winter. I met him the day he moved into a new office space, where his glossy black snowboard was parked – waxed, cleaned and ready in anticipation of powder. Money is secondary; the business is a necessity to sponsor an intoxicating hobby. He likes the occasional full moon night run on familiar slopes with music on his headphones, and sometimes organises torch descents for his clients. One day, he tells me, he’s going to ride the Alps in France on a brand new Burton snowboard. Seeing the sparkle in his eyes, I can’t help asking what he would do if global warming caught up with powder. “Then we’d sandboard. If glaciers melted we’d go surfing. If snow vanished we might even be insane enough to rock ski.”
One of Raju’s mentors is Arun, who has been snowboarding for 14 years. He believes the number of snowboarders is going up; there are around 60 of them in these mountains. With no official recognition or competition, the younger sport has emerged as a true subculture in the region. It is a more laidback scene, some snowboarders as grungy as their western prototypes of the ’60s, when the sport was invented as a countercultural movement to skiing. Arun manages a family hardware store in New Manali by the day and on some evenings spins deep house at Johnson’s or psy trance at outdoor parties. On a hungover morning, after Diwali festivities, he sat waiting behind the counter in the store, which is located in the busiest tourist area of town. The following day he was seen carrying a snowboard on his way uphill.
Ski culture in India comes without frills and is shaped by hard physical work on the part of the skiers. No curated ski swaps, no high-altitude exhibitions displaying vintage ski posters or rent-a-drone services for selfies. But the state of its evolution and the size of its community don’t affect its players’ passion. Last winter some of the skiers and snowboarders pooled their savings and rented a hut to set base camp below one of the more isolated peaks above Manali. This year the plan is to build igloos. It will probably be a stormy night that intimates to them there is impending snowfall, expected to arrive earlier than usual this season. Excited text messages will be exchanged before the boys gather to glide. Hiun laga, they’ll say. It’s snowing. It’s time.
All photographs by Parikshit Rao, www.parikshitrao.com
Simar Preet Kaur started out as a travel writer. Over a decade in Mumbai, she worked as the Editor of in-flight travel magazine JetWings, and wrote for a number of publications including National Geographic Traveler, COLORS and Papercuts. She moved to the mountains 3 years ago and is now working on a work of fiction set in the Himalayas.