Kishtwar Himalaya Expedition
By Nick Russell
Over the last twenty years, I have made sliding sideways down snowy slopes the sole priority in my life. Between working odd jobs in the off season and a bit of help from sponsors, I’ve been able to forge a path of fall line freedom. Upon the inception of this lifelong passion, a desire to seek and ride new peaks has been steadily growing. At first, rope tows in Connecticut were traded for Vermont’s icy halfpipes, and soon a migration west to the Wasatch Range in Utah provided stepping stones to splitboarding. With human powered freeriding comes a deep appreciation for the natural simplicity of the Wilderness. Riding a line for the first time bestows an unexplainable feeling of contentment and a desire to step foot on that next mountain over the ridge. This feeling has drove me all around the globe. From my new found home range of the Sierra Nevada, south to the Chilean Andes, over to Turkey’s Kackar Mountains and beyond, I have a personal bucket list spanning across all continents that would take several lifetimes to accomplish.
There is a constant lure to the Great Unknown for me. Places that hold tales of mysticism deeply rooted with an adventurous spirit appeal to me most. For a mountain enthusiast, there is no range more revered, respected and talked about than the mighty Himalaya.
However, for one reason or another, these mountains have always seemed somewhat unattainable to me. Preconceived notions of expensive permitting fees, debilitating altitude and an overall “extreme factor” maintained the elusiveness of the tallest mountains on earth. Yet all red tape aside, I knew that I’d someday I’d catch a glimpse of these giants and perhaps even get the chance to ride them… although I didn’t realize it would come with three weeks notice.
In early January, an opportunity arose for an expedition to Northwest India’s Kishtwar Himalaya that simply could not be passed up. At the last minute, I scrambled to find a crew of like minded optimistic snowboarders. At 4am on February 1st, Gray Thompson, Neil Provo and I found ourselves in New Delhi, India to link up with our logistical guru, Luke Smithwick of Himalayan Alpine Guides. My mid morning the next day, the city is waking up with fury. People, tuk tuks, cars and motorcycles weave in all directions with horns on full blast. Feeling jet lagged and overwhelmed, we return to the hotel to go over gear and rest before the next leg of our journey towards the mountains.
Taking a deep breath amidst the chaos of New Delhi. Photo: Gray Thompson
Awaiting the overnight train to take us on a 10 hour ride north to Jammu. The train station is full of life. Guys pushing carts full of crates, families huddled up in blankets and soldiers with tattered looking AK 47’s are spread out across the large parking lot and inside the building. Exiting the taxi we are greeted to a dozen porters all dressed in red rushing towards us. As fast as a Nascar pit crew, they grab duffles and board bags to hoist above their heads and carry them inside.
The train is unsurprisingly jam packed with small sleeper bunks barely large enough to fit our gear and bodies. After eating a characteristically delicious meal of paneer, rice and curry, I’m able to drift off to intermittent sleep for a few hours.
The more I travel overseas, the trips have become less about the end goal of snowboarding and more about the cultural experiences. Here we stop for lunch at a cafe on the side of the road in a Muslim dominant area. Jammu is directly on the front lines of the Kashmir conflict, where subjective border lines are blurred throughout each town. The Kashmiri people want independence from both India and Pakistan, although India technically controls the region.
The first of many military checkpoints. Before starting on the dangerous long and winding road to Paddar, we were required to check in and inform the military of our itinerary and intentions in the area.
Day one approach into the mountains with our fearless and stylish horse captain, Jaswant Singh. This day we'd walk over 5,000 feet from the village of Gulab Garh towards the alpine through a peaceful cedar forest alongside a gentle stream.
Prayer flags line the valley on the way up to the village of Kaban at 10,000 feet.
Life in Kaban is as simple as it gets. The homes are built into the mountainside, hosting families of people, sheep, dogs and cows alike. There is a small spring for drinking which runs off from the towering Agysol Peak above. The local grom squad with runny noses and dusty faces were enamored by just about everything we did. Once they discovered the selfie mode on the camera, there was no stopping the photoshoot.
This was one of the worst winters on record in the Himalaya. Once we arrived to Kishtwar, we learned that it hadn't snowed in 45 days. With weather forecasts basically non existent to stateside beta seekers, a flexible mindset is crucial for success on any overseas trip. Here is Neil Provo walking towards the unknown at 11,000ft.
After Jaswant decided that he didn't want to take his horses higher up into the snow, a local crew of guys wrangled up four donkeys for us to help carry loads to base camp.
Filling up my V10 bottle with pure glacial runoff. The trash scene throughout India was depressing to say the least. Without an adequate waste removal system in place, most garbage is simply thrown on the ground or into rivers. The evidence was seen along our entire journey until we got into the mountains. Lucky for us, this valley remained pristine and free from human impact.
Hydration is key at altitude, as is keeping liquid from freezing. I use my V5 for coffee and tea in the morning and the V10 to store hot water for others to use for drinks and oatmeal in the morning.
Gray Thompson slow steps his way up the line at 15,000ft.
Looking down from the top of the "Recycled Padder" couloir, topping out just above 16,000ft. This line is presumably a first descent, rising some 4,500 above our camp (out of sight on the left side of the valley). What looked like a quick "warmup" line from a far, soon revealed its scale as we begun climbing. The line had filled in over two meters deep of snow from small avalanches and spindrifts off the rocks above. This north facing line is sheltered from the sun and was full of stable knee deep unconsolidated powder.
After riding the line, a most glorious sunset ignited the headwall of the valley and further sparked a desire to return for unfinished business.