Words & photo by Kari Medig
I was crammed into a secondhand ’70s-era gondola, inching into the headache-inducing altitudes only found in the Himalayan massif. It was 2007. I was on my first ski assignment with an entourage of professional skiers in Gulmarg, Kashmir—a region fraught with political turmoil since Indian independence in 1947. This rickety lift was purchased from France and recently installed at the ski area, topping out just below the 4,000-metre summit of Mount Apharwat. The top was precariously close to the line of control: a no-man’s-land of glacial high country that separated the disputed border with Pakistan.
To step out the doors into the thin air of the summit was to enter a skier’s paradise, comparable in size and scope to resorts like Jackson Hole or Whistler Blackcomb. But one got the ominous sense that to drop into these unpatrolled ridges under the eye of distant behemoths like Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world, was not to be taken lightly. This was an international skiing experience at its finest.
Our team had been invited to Gulmarg by the Indian government to do a story for SBC Skier. The new gondola was the attraction, and a brash attempt to help secure India’s claim to Kashmir through tourism instead of war. It didn’t take long for rumours to spread in the lift line about the questionable reliability of the aging conveyance and its power supply. Our guide, Ptor Spricenieks, backed up these claims. In his months living in Gulmarg, the steep-skiing legend and international ski vagabond never got in the gondola without a rope and harness in his bag. We got comfortable shooting on multiple laps of the upper mountain for a couple days when, abruptly, the old gondola ground to a halt. It limped its last passenger to the summit under battery power. A new part would take weeks to arrive from France and it would be closed for the rest of our time there.
This worried me as a ski photographer on my first assignment. How would I get all of the action images I needed without a lift? After a listless morning, I digested the bad news and came to a sort of epiphany that would define my photography career: skiing is a sport that happens on a 30-45 degree slope with snow on it—that can be anywhere in the world. What makes a ski story unique isn’t only the images of athletes blowing through powder, but the context of what skiing looks like in a particular place.
In Gulmarg, it was about the Russian skier who got tangled with a snow leopard while jumping blindly off a pillow. The hand-written ski pass signed on a piece of scrap paper by the region’s military colonel. It was gliding under a tree full of howling monkeys on the way to the lift from the hotel, or the newlywed couple from Punjab on a honeymoon in the mountains trying skiing for the first time. I decided that these were the things I would focus my lens on.
And that’s how I came to meet Mr. Firouz, the skier in this photo. We met at a ski rental shop where Spricenieks was volunteering. I set up a time the next morning to meet, and Firouz, who turned out to be a local ski guide, showed up with his old wooden skis and a pair of sunglasses a pro skier had given him. I shot one frame with the glasses and one without, an encounter that wouldn’t have happened with a working lift. I like this one with the glasses best.
This image is special to me because it represents a shift in my photographic direction, where I realized the quiet impact that skiing has on people in cultures around the world. In a sense, it symbolizes the simple joy that we all get from sliding down snow.