Hearing gunfire echoing reminded us we weren't in the Alps...'
Cambridge carpenter goes on skiing break to Kashmir... and has a day he'll never forget
A Cambridge carpenter has told of the dramatic moment he was stopped at gunpoint on the disputed border between India and Pakistan.
Alex Magilton, an accomplished skier and experienced mountaineer, headed to the Kashmir for a skiing visit – undeterred by the region being a war zone and the potential for avalanches at this time of year.
Speaking exclusively to the Cambridge Independent from the region, Alex said the group of one Dutch, one American and three British tourists had gone to Kashmir “for the adventurous skiing potential”.
“We were like-minded wannabe adventurers with a wealth of travel experiences and stories behind us,” says Alex of the teammates he met there. “We had wound up in Kashmir to ski for the adventure potential of skiing in a dangerous place, the high avalanche risk, and the ongoing border conflict with Pakistan.”
While out scoping for fresh snow fields at 4,000 metres the group went on an epic ski run, becoming increasingly lost and frantic as dusk drew near. They alternately climbed to the top of ridges and skied down gullys, all the time being forced to move further away from Gulmarg (population 1,965). Then they couldn’t get a signal on their phones to call for help.
“As the level of peril increased our levels of energy were deteriorating,” Alex said. “Hearing gunfire echoing in the distance, it was a reminder that we were not in our usual ski setting of the Swiss Alps.”
Things got worse after dark, and weren’t helped by a lack of food or water. “With no signal and all of our phones being killed off by the cold, there was nothing we could do.”
Alex then reports one of those experiences people in danger sometimes report. “When pushed to the limits, one’s inner best or worst will be displayed... the whole group were displaying amazing positivity”.
“In perilous situations,” he adds, “there are still positives to be seen and had, and at this moment we were treated to God’s amazing creation display of the night sky – the most incredible I’d seen for many years, a true blanket of stars with no light pollution and in a bitterly cold clear sky.
“Completely lost, facing a night in the woods, the cold was our biggest danger, but we had also been following the paw prints of the elusive snow leopard alongside bear tracks, all adding to the danger of our precarious position.”
Eventually, they saw some lights in the distance, but the group were also aware that this is a war zone.
“There are never-resolved political border disputes which ensure daily gunfire across the border in the mountains. This is a real conflict zone, with no sign of peace: there is tension in the air, with both sides hating each other, trigger-happy, and keen to kill the opposition.”
Knowing that “the lights were our only option”, the five skiers headed towards them, not knowing if they were in the Indian or Pakistani zone.
They were heading to an Indian base on the Line of Control, the equivalent of the separation area between North and South Korea. The two sides are separated by a narrow strip of land and, unbeknownst to the group, there had been a Pakistani terrorist attack that morning on an Indian base nearby. Four soldiers had been killed, and all units were under orders to shoot to kill anyone seen in the area.
The group then unwittingly “walked up to the bank which the high razor wire-fenced base was situated on”. There were shouts in the darkness.
“We shouted up: ‘Help, we are from England, we are very lost!’
“‘Stay there! Do not move!’ was the reply.”
Alex assumed leadership of the group, partly because he had his passport on him and could prove his identity, and “walked towards the flashlight shining brightly in my face”.
He was told: “Drop your bag, put your hands up!”
Alex said: “I felt like I was in a movie scene. ‘I am actually in this position’, I clearly thought, ‘I am walking towards a soldier with a bright light in my face with my hands in the air, I’m in a military conflict zone on the front line, wow, what an experience!’
“‘We are English,’ I repeated. ‘We are very lost, we have come from Gulmarg skiing. My name is Alex.’
“I approached the soldier, took off my glove and extended my hand to shake.
“‘Salam, hello,’ I clearly said.
“It was greeted with a handshake.
“‘Give me your identification!’”
After some wary exchanges the group were told to wait in the freezing cold. After some calls and questions they were led on to the base. It was then that Alex did something that ensured their story would be handed down to posterity.
“At this point I slyly removed the memory card from my GoPro which I had been taking footage on and put it in a hidden pocket,” he said. “I presumed we would be searched and cameras taken away but I didn’t want to lose the footage of the day!”
Finally they were let on to the base.
“I felt privileged to be seeing inside this Indian army base on the Line of Control. Knowing that very few civilians will ever gain entry made every minute a moment to cherish.”
Some time later hotel staff from Gulmarg came to collect the five skiers who had got lost on the mountain and ended up on the Line of Control. Before they departed they were treated to dinner in the Officers’ Mess of the Indian Marta Army. Fourteen hours after they left, they were back in Gulmarg. “We were all exhausted and couldn’t sleep due to the adrenalin running all day,” Alex said. “It had been one of the best days of my life.”
He “had a day off” and has since continued his adventures on the slopes, rather more modestly, every day since. “It’s pretty epic up here,” he concluded.
The experience ended up being recorded in Indian newspapers, with one headline reading ‘Five foreign tourists rescued in Gulmarg’. Alex also recounted the tale for Cambridge105 radio, and you can read his full, in-depth account here.
It stated that “the Army rescued five foreign tourists who strayed from their route and lost their way at Gulmarg in northern Kashmir”.
The experience hasn’t put Alex off extreme adventures: next up is a trip to Jan Mayen island to replicate the University of Cambridge’s expedition of 1921. Fortunately it’s not a war zone, though it is home to the world’s northernmost active volcano...