A Skier in the Border Zone

from Patagonia Heart of Winter Catalog, 2011


“Always have a cheerful attitude.” This is the first piece of advice offered by the roadside sign on the way up the Khardung La, a 17,582-foot pass in the northern Indian region of Ladakh. As I scan farther down the list, number four gives me pause: “Please don’t exert too much.” Opportunities for exertion are exactly what I’m after: My plan is to grab my telemark gear from under my bus seat and carve down the steep north face of the Khardung, which India claims is the highest motorable pass in the world.

Our bus – carrying a dozen high school students from Vermont on a study abroad program, our guide and good friend Tashi Wangchuk, our stoic driver, two fellow teachers and me – reaches the height of land. Sizing up my line from the edge of the road, I decide to drop into the untouched powder right behind the aromatic men’s latrines. (Ah, India, as the travel writers are wont to say, land of contrasts.)

Tashi, who’s normally a small, concentrated mass of resourceful calm, is radiating concern. But a recent spate of sunny weather, a quick pit, shear tests and a ski cut all suggest a stable snowpack. When I explain my risk analysis to him, he seems satisfied, even a little excited – he doesn’t think anyone has ever skied the Khardung.

By now a cluster of Indian soldiers has gathered outside their barrel-shaped tin hut. They’re here because we’re not far from disputed borders in multiple directions, and this road is the main supply route to the Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battleground, where India and Pakistan have been lobbing shells at each other for the past 20-odd years. I figure at some point they will come over to inspect me, but it’s fiercely cold and they keep their distance, shivering and staring.

Interpreting their reticence as a green light, I make my first jump turn into the unknown. After a few clumsy arcs in sloughing snow, I catch an edge and go head over tips. I get up, dust myself off, and plunge onward to dimly receding shouts from above. Powder smoke blows past my face, and my lungs scream for oxygen. Schizophrenically sitting back on my tails and then throwing my weight forward, I try to make peace with the gods of the snowpack, with their alternating drifts and breakable crust. My mind goes blank, my legs pump up and down in time with the terrain, the gears of the universe click briefly into sync. The peripheries of my awareness soak up the splendor of the towering Karakoram across the valley. I pull up at the base of the slope, lungs on fire, but all is right with the world.

Leaning over my poles, I hear muffled shouts between my gasps. Up on the pass, the tiny knot of soldiers is frantically waving and yelling in my direction. For a panicked moment I think, I’m in a minefield. I look around, half-expecting a helicopter to swoop down on me – the unidentified ski-mounted interloper in highly militarized terrain.

As my breathing slows, I listen more closely. “Wah! Wah!” the men bellow in the universal Indian cry of enthusiastic approval. Their shouts and wild gestures are expressions of excitement. Relieved, I wave and push off, gliding across plateaus, linking turns down intermittently steep pitches, all the way down to the next military camp, where I come to a stop behind some mud-stained tents, sweating buckets and grinning like a fool.

At the same moment my bus pulls up, and Tashi leaps out beaming. Three dozen perplexed-looking recruits, on their way to the perilous Siachen, stand in formation nearby. I simply point to the distant pass and then to my skis, and a few of them break into boyish smiles.