“The wind longs to play with your hair”
When someone says let’s go skiing, more often than not you would think, an expensive trip! That’s because we’ve been accustomed to relate snow with Switzerland thanks to Yash Raj Films. That is far from reality. If you are ready to explore your own country, there’s skiing in India!
A few years ago, I got an opportunity to go skiing in Narkanda, Himachal Pradesh. In a fascinating search, I found that there are not one or two, but five locations across India that offer professional training: Gulmarg, Jammu & Kashmir; Auli, Uttarakhand; Manali, Narkanda, and Solang Himachal Pradesh. We chose to go to Narkanda, the least inhabited of the lot, for a 22-day basic skiing course.
In order to reach Narkanda in those days, we took a good three days: 36 hours train journey from Mumbai to Ambala, Haryana, followed by an overnight bus journey via Zirkapur crossing over to Kalka and finally Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. After a halt at Shimla, we resumed our journey uphill via Kufri where. Narkanda is just at a distance of 65 km from Shimla and yet the drop in temperature was easily 10 degrees in March, as we climbed an altitude of 2708m. Being a mountain road, the route was full of steep hairpin bends and breathtaking valleys, with glimpses of the snow peaked mountains of the Himalayas at a distance with every turn. At one of our halts, I touched my very first snow, which surprisingly wasn’t soft at all!
On our arrival at the Himachal Mountaineering Institute, Narkanda, we were greeted by the warmest smiles of the Pahadi community. The institute has an old world charm with its unmaintained yet sturdy structure of two floors. On the ground floor is a cosy kitchen and dining area with an old TV, where the instructors spend their free time. Upstairs are the dorms for students. Weather conditions are so severe that no water comes out of the tap and hot water is a luxury for us. We are welcomed, shown our rooms, given our sleeping bags and other winter clothing.
The next day morning at 6 am, they make us trek with our snow boots on the ski slopes about 5 km away. The skis weighing 6 kg each are strapped over our shoulders. The ski boots weigh 5 kgs each and have an inner shoe and outer shoe with a hard shell. To balance in them even on plain ground requires the skills of a ballerina dancer! Wearing them, along with all our windproof jackets, woollen sweaters and inners, we head to the slopes super excited to see and touch snow.
As we slip and tumble on our way towards the slopes, losing our enthusiasm initially, we are told that the snow must first be broken as it is frozen and not fit for skiing. The powdered first layer must be removed to make the snow more accident free. We clamp on our skis and start to bang the snow with it, much like our PT exercises at school. It is hard work we realize, far from what we’ve seen on TV and movies. The sun comes up overhead and the snow glistens like an ocean of diamonds. Total internal reflection, I recall with a smile as I put on my goggles.
This daily routine lasted 22 days, with more than eight hours of training each day on the snow. They taught us to side step, traverse, snow plough, keep our backs arched, the signals to be communicated to a far off skier, ways to break our fall, to ski among scrubs, to learn from a five year old son of an instructor ski fearlessly, fall even more fearlessly, the use of poles, the use of flags, the science behind an avalanche and finally the lunch at 2 o clock!
Hot parathas with achar and sabzi would be brought to our slopes. We ate like our stomachs knew no bottom and had the yummiest coffee on those slopes. By the end of training, we would be sweating despite the 10 degree Celsius temperature and be tanned black, yet our hearts would be singing as we trekked back to our institute. The evenings were spent bonding, watching TV, having Maggi noodles and the most amazing bread omelette sandwiches for just Rs. 20 nearby by the chulha. People from all walks of life and of all ages would gather there to discuss their one common love, mountains.
We had a test on the last day and we passed with good grades. We had become a family, we had three bonfires, we danced together, ate together, drank together. The Pahadi instructors never ever stop smiling. It is the way of the mountains.
When you return to the city, you are again overshadowed by mundane problems, water, electricity, traffic, deadlines, etc. But when you think of those mountain inhabitants who walk for miles together to collect firewood or groceries, live without running water, electricity and all the necessities that we are used to, you remember how they never forget to give a warm smile to make another person happy, you find your problems melting away and feel blessed that you got to cherish a few moments of your life with them.
This travelogue was first published by www.caleidoscope.in