Everybody knows about snowboarding, it’s speeding down a snow covered mountain on a thick board, trying not to fall. Everyone also knows it’s a high cost hobby, with basic gear not costing less than say, 1000 dollars, and ski centers being in far off locations like Vermont and Switzerland. Yet, few are aware of the bustling ski and snowboard scene in India, one that has great natural resources and low costs. Snow season stretches from December to the middle of March. All the areas mentioned in this article have Himalayan powder, and for good reason. India is lucky to be on the right side of the Himalayas when it comes to snow sports. Himalayan snow is like a pillow, a bottomless marshmallow, perfect for boarding. Little can compare with a perfectly executed vertical straight down a mountain face, through untracked whiteness.
My absolute favorite place to board in India, Gulmarg, has spectacular powder. This snow is freshly fallen and so, untouched. In India, it can be found on the Indian side of the Himalayas, where the monsoon clouds meet the mountains. Very smooth and soft, one must maintain speed to avoid getting stuck in this snow. During snow season in Gulmarg, slopes have thick layers of light, flaky snow on top which make crashing less painful. This is not to say powder is just for beginners; as with any type of snow one is unfamiliar with, it is advisable to go slow and take your time. It is preferred because it is easier to try tricks and racing, but often it can hide pits and large rocks, especially if one is off piste (off the marked course, less supervised), as most would be in Gulmarg.
It has a proper gondola service too, which takes you all the way to the summit of Apharwat (some 4,000 metres above sea level, the highest chairlift service in the world). It can drop you off at the top, from where you can choose your own way to the bottom, or choose to hike on further another couple hundred metres and then drop down. Mount Apharwat also has sheer drops, slides, bowls, and cornices which add to the riding experience. All of this to the backdrop of gorgeous peaks and forests. Off piste and backcountry riding is a lot of fun, but is not for the beginner rider. Also, Gulmarg isn’t just boarding in the purest sense, expect a lot of trekking and exploring.
Most boarders in Gulmarg are non-Indians. This means a night in the ski resort helps you meet many new people and learn a lot more about snowboarding. Since Gulmarg is not as well known as many other ski spots around the world, the boarders here are often regulars. There is a sense of familiarity, both with them and with the locals, one that might be harder to find in more famous locations. Expect lots of jokes about the heating situation in the poorly equipped hotel rooms and about the army presence on the slopes.
Learning is not a big problem here. There are many qualified instructors and a couple of decent ski schools who will teach you the basics at a fraction of the cost of an international ski school. Freeriding -simply boarding without any set course, in a completely natural terrain- is very popular in the region, simply because the quality of snow allows you to experiment. One big deterrent to people wanting to try out snowboarding is often the cost, but in Gulmarg, the shops allow you to rent everything- from boarding and bindings to boots and jackets and helmets. Renting all this comes to around 1000 rupees or so for a day, which is very reasonable for snow sports. This is definitely one of the more developed ski areas in India in terms of infrastructure (if not the most). You have lifts and a proper rescue service for backcountry boarding, and plenty of safety precautions. Yet, while Gulmarg seems like a natural ski spot, the accommodation facilities are subpar. Few are willing to put up with no hot water and interrupted electricity supply in the middle of a Kashmiri winter, even if it means unhindered access to snow rich bowls, amazing terrain and stunning scenery.
Gulmarg is closest in terrain type to resorts in Switzerland and Austria, especially St. Anton, Austria. Like its Indian counterpart, St. Anton is known for its great off piste boarding and backcountry, with plenty of trees and rock faces. While it might not have a traditional snowboarding vibe, the views are great and the people are friendly. Zermatt in Switzerland is also a wonderful location, with fantastic views of the mountains, plenty of snow and snow bowls, and quaint villages further down the hill. In terms of snow quality, Indian locations are similar to Les Arcs in France, with plenty of fresh, thick snow.
Apart from Gulmarg, there are a few other places one can snowboard in India, including Leh, Auli and Kufri. Manali has a few ski schools where you can rent all the essentials you need, and get lessons too. It sees a lot of tourists when the season is right, so a lot of amateurs on the slopes. Auli also has miles of decent piste, and good reliable snowfall. The prestigious Winter Games Federation of India has many events here, so there will be crowds here in the winter months.
Solang Nullah is another lesser explored option, at 6,000 metres above sea level. It has a single button ropeway, and has few on piste options. Again, a better option for more experienced riders, this area is great for the whole experience (small ski villages, horses, friendly locals).
Wherever you choose to go, make sure to check out the local snow sport scene when in a mountainous region. For those seriously interested, the Winter Games Federation announced a new set of Snowboarding and Skiing tournaments in the coming year, with additional focus on young beginners. While the history of snowboarding in India might not go back as far as it does in other locations, the sport is being picked up by natives and others. With better infrastructure attracting more foreign tourists too (providing a boost to the travel industry), the snowboarding scene in India is only just expanding.