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The day I didn't get shot on the Line of Control, Kashmir, India

On the slopes near Gulmarg with Joshua Smith, picture by Alex Magilton
On the slopes near Gulmarg with Joshua Smith, picture by Alex Magilton

How Cambridge carpenter Alex Magilton's ski break ended up on the disputed border in Kashmir

At altitude in Kashmir, picture by Alex Magilton
At altitude in Kashmir, picture by Alex Magilton

This is Alex Magilton’s account of the day a skiing adventure became a battle for survival. It was written on 11th February 2018.

Our gondola had arrived at the Phase 2 station, high above Gulmarg village in Kashmir, Inida. We were already at 3,920 meters and still had a 30-minute hike ahead of us to access the best of the Gulmarg area backcountry skiing.

There were six of us, brought together by the Raja hut, the basic accommodation in Gulmarg that we had wound up in.They imcluded Josh and Lydia, friends from back home, who had been here a week already and whom I had met up with two days previous. Plus David, Lydia’s brother, who had just arrived from his work place in China, and Tommy, an American, living in Inida and teaching.

Finally Shanti, from Amsterdam, who was on travels and had also come to Kashmir for the adventurous skiing potential.

Gulmarg ski shop in Kashmir. Picture: Alex Magilton
Gulmarg ski shop in Kashmir. Picture: Alex Magilton

We were like-minded wannabe adventurers with a wealth of travel experiences and stories behind us. 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.

Josh soon noticed a crack in his ski binding, so he headed back down while the five of us scoped for fresh snow fields while catching our breath from the ascent to 4,000 metres.

We thought an easy warm-up day would be idea as I had only had one ski day here and the three boys were experiencing the mountain for the first time.

We soon found a pitch that had a few tracks down it and was in the general direction we wanted to go. The snow was fair, variable, but we could still put some nice turns in. Letting ourselves get carried away by the snow field, we continued to descend and enjoy this untouched landscape of India.

Indian newspaper cutting shows how story was reported as a rescue which of course it technically wasnt. Picture: Alex Magilton
Indian newspaper cutting shows how story was reported as a rescue which of course it technically wasnt. Picture: Alex Magilton

Before long there were no other ski tracks and we had dropped into another lush natural bowl.

We had a choice, hike back up over a ridge in deep snow, at altitude, to the other tracks which would be a short run back to the main ski area, or drop down into an inviting natural gully run, tantilising us with the thrill of making fresh lines beyond anywhere we had already explored.

It wasn’t a hard choice, I was sure the gully would curve round and lead us back to the main, controlled ski area. I took the lead as I have some level of mountain experience and guiding in the relatively safe environment of a European ski resort. We were headed in a north-westerly direction.

We dropped in, one by one to reduce the risk of a snow slide. The gully was fantastic, a natural ‘half-pipe’, untouched and unridden.

The Kashmiri hut that was a home from home!
The Kashmiri hut that was a home from home!

“Why has nobody else skied down here?!”

We lost altitude and continued to ski down, exhilaration bringing with it whoops and shouts of joy.

I continued to trust that this gully would take us back to where we needed to go, besides, we were on our way now, there wasn’t much choice but to carry on.

The gully narrowed, with a stream exposed through the snow: we couldn’t continue to ride down so we had to hike/climb up a face to get over the ridge.

The back streets of Gulmarg. Picture: Alex Magilton
The back streets of Gulmarg. Picture: Alex Magilton

The altitude was crippling: using my snowboard as a wedge in front of me, I tried to discipline myself to take 5-10 steps before stopping for breath.

Lydia was a Trojan, trail-brazing with a determination to get to the top of the ridge to try and make out our whereabouts.

Looking around from our view point, the terrain wasn’t going in the direction we had hoped. The gorge continued to fall eastwards, while the village was to our west.

Knowing we didn’t really have much choice but to follow the terrain, I lead us down the next pitch, loving making fresh lines down an untouched snow field and without too much concern about where we were headed.

Hiking at 4,300 metres. Picture: Alex Magilton
Hiking at 4,300 metres. Picture: Alex Magilton

We met another natural dead end in the terrain. We couldn’t follow the stream we had got to, so we crossed it and climbed up the next ridge. Each step was uncertain, holding our snowboards, Lydia, Shanti and myself trudged through the deep snow. With one step we would sink to our knees, the next to our waist, and so on.

It was exhausting, we hadn’t eaten since a bowl of porridge at 8.30am and now it was gone 2pm.

We needed to climb over this buttress ridge. We trudged on.

The next point of reference was no better. A large steep ridge was blocking our hopes to traverse back to Gulmarg. We must follow the line of the stream and hope it ends up at a road.

Taking on a swig of chai tea from the flask and sharing a snack bar, there was more descent ahead.

The ridge we had climbed steepened to a cliff, but to a skier’s right there was a beautiful pitch down a steep slope through an opening in the trees. That was us, the only way down, this was a run of a lifetime. Given it was a terrain trap with high risk of sliding, but without any other options, I figured we might as well enjoy it while we were here!

Snaking turns in amazing fluffy snow through the birch forest, this was what a snowboarder dreams of.

We all made it down safely: in high spirits and morale-boosted, we were heading further into the unknown.

Back at the stream, and another crossing, along with a need to assess the situation. We all knew it was far from ideal. Gone 4pm with darkness due to arrive at 6pm, we had no idea where we were. We filled our bottles up with crystal clear mountain water, drank up and tramped up to another ridge, carrying our gear and hoping for the best.

As I looked over the ridge, my heart sank, but I didn’t allow myself to realise it.

The line of the river was messy, cutting a snaking path down a shallow valley, with the water having eroded itself into a steeper gorge.

We must continue. It was going to be tough, three of us were on snowboards which meant we couldn’t ride on level ground, we had to walk, which was extremely arduous. Tommy and Dave, both on skis, lead the group as they could ski-tour efficiently, spreading their weight over each ski to slide over the surface.

With strong minds and draining energy, we decided that we would make a call back to Raja hut at 6pm and not before, the time night would fall and the guys back at the hut would start to be concerned.

I have read that in expeditions facing troubled times, the individual’s mind can flip either way, positively or negatively. The strongest person in normal life can lose it when on the limits of their own life. They may become extremely selfish and only look for their own survival. On the other hand, the underconfident can shine when the edge is close, helping and spreading positivity and encouragement. When pushed to the limits, one’s inner best or worst will be displayed.

The whole group were displaying amazing positivity as the level of peril increased and our levels of energy was deteriorating - always encouraging each other and putting on brave faces. We hoped for the best, and prayed.

With fading light and no sign of getting out of this never-ending valley, we were all contemplating spending a night in the trees. With temperatures well below zero, we were unlikely to all make it through the night.

Unspoken thoughts and prayers were had, each of us pushing our physical and mental limits as we still had no choice but to follow the path of the stream.

Hearing gunfire echoing in the distance, it was a reminder that we were not in our usual ski setting of the Swiss Alps.

More river crossings were necessary. Snow bridges had been formed due to intensely cold conditions as the stream slowly froze.

While crossing one of these snow bridges, Dave hesitated and suddenly a circular cracking sound formed around him. Ditching the ski and jumping to the solid snow bank saved him from being waist deep in freezing mountain water, but meant he was down to one ski. This was pointless, so the remaining ski was left: this could probably be collected another day.

It had gone 6pm. The day had passed, the night had arrived. We called out to each other to determine where each member of the party was. It was time to call the Hut with Lydia’s Inidan phone. No signal. This was not good. We needed to make contact to let the others at the hut know we were alive and not killed in an avalanche, which we knew would be the obvious reason for us being missing on the mountain. With no signal and all of our phones being killed off by the cold, there was nothing we could do.

In perilous situations, there are still positives to be seen and had... at this moment we were treated to God’s amazing creation display of the night sky, the most incredible I had seen for many years - a true blanket of stars with no light pollution and in bitterly cold clear sky. This was God showing us what he is capable of. I prayed that we would find a path or road, knowing that our situation was in God’s hands, I felt content, pleased to be in this adventure, feeling alive, thankful for being in this place at this time.

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.

Scrambling in the pitch black up a steep bank, we needed height to try and find a path, or lights - anything to determine where on the earth we had gotten ourselves to.

Way down the mountain, a cluster of lights could be made out. It could be Gulmarg, home. Too far for us to hike, this would mean a certain night in the woods, and the strong possibility of not making it to the morning. We continued to climb and the faint sound of a generator could be made out, along with occasional dog barks.

Hope. Something was out there.

Gaining height, we could make out two bright floodlights up the hill.

We had to go there, shouting, whistling and howling, if there were dogs and lights, there must be people.

The state of Kashmir is on the Indian Pakistan border and has been in conflict for many years. Political border disputes, never resolved, 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.

The lights were our only option, but it wasn’t a safe one. We knew this must be an army base, but we didn’t know where we were. Was it Indian? Was it Pakistani? Either way, our perilous situation had now risen significantly.

As we continued to find our footings up the hill we came to a rough road. ‘Thank you Lord for answering prayer in bringing us to this road!’ Lydia checked her phone with fading battery and had signal! She managed to connect to Raja at the hut to let them know we were alive. At 7.45pm, we had made contact. She let them know we were making our way to some kind of military base and we would call back in 10 minutes.

Shouting out to the lights of the base, a searchlight surveyed the land as we walked towards it, carrying our ski equipment.

Unbeknown to us, at 9am that morning, there had been a Pakistani terrorist attack on a different military base further down the mountain. Four soldiers having been killed, the order was shoot to kill anyone seen in the area.

Of course, we didn’t know of this tense situation. We walked up to the bank which the high razor wire fenced base was situated on.

Shouts came from the darkness,

“Who are you?!, Where are you from?!”

We shouted up,

“Help, we are from England, we are very lost!”

“Stay there! Do not move!” was the reply.

Savage sounding dogs barked and growled, we were beyond caring about being mauled by a dog, but being shot was now a real possibility.

We waited on the road. Beams highlighted us from the base: two strong flashlights were coming towards us down the road.

Shouts from the soldiers with the lights repeated,

“Who are you?! Where are you from?! What are you doing here?!”

I assumed leadership of our party and walked towards the flashlight shining brightly in my face.

“Drop your bag, put your hands up!”

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, we are very lost, we have come from Gulmarg skiing, My name is Alex.”

“How did you get here?! Why are you here!?” was the response from the light.

“We are lost, we are from England.”

I approached the soldier, took off my glove and extended my hand to shake.

“Salam, hello,” I clearly said.

It was greeted with a hand shake.

“Give me your Identification!”

I had previously thought about the possibility of needing my ID to hand so I had my passport in my pocket.

I handed it over and he studied it. Having never seen a British passport, he made out the words and read aggressively,

“Ireland!? Are you from Ireland.”

“No, the United Kindgdom, includes Ireland, but I am from England”, I responded quickly to dispel the idea he didn’t seem to like.

Further questioning followed while our group waited a few steps behind. There were two soldiers on the road with us and we were being lit up from the high fence and could no doubt being seen through the scopes of many rifles.

We were ordered to follow the soldiers up the track briskly.

We followed on, into the darkness, towards the barks of savage dogs.

Up a small hill there was a shabby corregated iron fence, heavily covered with razor wire. A gate stood ajar and armed soldiers appeared around us.

To our right was a further track, some kind of outpost hut and another compound.

We were ordered to sit down, freezing tired and hungry, our belongings dumped in a pile as we were given two plastic chairs, with the others told to sit down on the floor.

“Are you thrsty? Do you like wine and beer?!”

The soldiers joked as if they were about to bring out cans of Kingfisher and India’s finest.

“Do you know where you are?! You are on the front line, the Line of Control, you are 2km away from Pakistan. You are very lucky! If you went there you would be dead already! We are the Indian Army, we are at war with Pakistan.”

We had got ourselves into an extreme situation. We could have been shot on sight if it was a Pakistani outpost, but we couldn’t afford much comfort from these words as we didn’t know our future, sitting on the dirt road of this military base.

Cold water in glasses was brought to us on a metal tray. We politely accepted as we clung on to the glasses of water shaking in our hands.

We were in various states of cold, hypothermia, shock and anxiety.

More questions were asked, we were surrounded by the armed soldiers, all wanting a look at this odd party who had effectively dug their own graves.

“Are you cold? Why are you here? How did you get here?”

“Yes we are very cold, we haven’t eaten since this morning, we are very lost, we are English, we are from Gulmarg phase 2,” we replied.

“It is not possible to get here from Gulmarg, it is too far,” said the soldier.

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. I presumed we would be searched and cameras taken away but I didn’t want to lose the footage of the day!

A soldier dumped some kindling and logs in front of us and doused them in petrol. They were making us a fire as were obviously freezing cold.

‘Is this what enemies do before interrogation?’ we each thought to ourselves. Were they softening us up before taking us to individual rooms for questioning, or worse?

“Alex, who is Alex?”

I stood up.

“Come with us now!”

Leaving the group and following twoi soldiers through the snow down the line of the corregated fence, we joined two more soldiers and dogs burrowing in the snow.

A soldier was on the phone, obviously coming to this outcrop to gain signal.

He asked me more of the same questions and information about each of the members of the group.

“What are their names, where are they from, how do you know them?!”

He relayed the information to whoever he was talking to.

When Lydia had managed to call the Raja hut and make contact, the guys in Gulmarg had contacted the police and a small search party was scouring the slopes. We had been walking towards the base. The order was at this point “shoot to kill”. The word that five skiers were lost on the mountain was immediately relayed to the military commander. The call from the base was that five suspected terrorists were making their way towards them on the mountain. The order to shoot on target was changed to ‘hold your fire’, for now.

The chain of timings was out of our knowledge and control. This was God’s work as the fact we only were able to call 3-5 minutes before walking to the fence of the base meant we were not shot and labeled as, ‘disappeared on the mountain, presumed killed in an avalanche’. The Indian army would have no benefit in making public the fact that they had killed five western tourists, our deaths would be unknown.

We were not safe, but we were not dead.

The phone call had been to the police and there was a vehicle with Raja and Josh driving up to the gate post to meet us.

We continued to sit obediently around the fire: reference photos were taken non-stop, capturing every moment.

The soldiers then decided that it was too cold for us to be outside on the dirt road and we were ordered to leave all our gear and follow them through the shabby corregated gates. Within the gates was a large muddy compound, rather like a building site. There were typical curved roof bunkers on our left and right and some other buildings further down the yard.

We were led into one of the white bunkers: after opening a heavy steel door, we were shown the room with two basic wooden beds and a small heater in the corner. More photographs were taken of each of us individually and then we were left to it, with the heavy door shutting us in.

I felt privleged 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.

Five minutes passed and the door was pushed open.

“Alex, come with us.”

The order was given for me to follow two soldiers out and down the yard to a building at the far end. As I had initially spoken to the soldiers on the road, I was the point of contact and information for everyone.

I was shown to a window on the outside of a wall and a phone receiver was handed to me.

On the other end of a faint line, a man introduced himself, telling me of his high rank in the Indian Army. He went through all the questions we had already been asked, but more detail was needed about the group members jobs, home, ages... He informed me that we are very lucky not to have ventured another 2km which would have meant certain death by the Pakistani Army.

He went on to say that we are in good hands, and ensured that we had been given a drink.

After a five-minute phone conversation I was taken back to the room with the others.

We all remained calm, unsure of what was happening. It seemed unreal, a dream-like experience.

A few more minutes passed and we were taken back outside to the fire, which had been put out.

A military truck was waiting on the track. The vehicle had a canvas roof and infantry sitting on either side.

This was our ride down the hill. I made sure to shake as many hands as possible, apologised for our actions and thanked them very much for treating us well. It was heartfelt, but I also felt I still needed to be as polite and friendly as I could.

We bundled into the back of the truck, us on one side, a row of armed soldiers in winter fatigues opposite.

It was dark in the back of the truck but the back door was left open and we could see the road behind us. It was a rough, bumpy track, and we had a 20-minute ride down the hill to another military checkpoint gate.

We were ordered to get out of the truck, and get into the back of a small van. Squeezing in, the driver’s rifle was leaned up pointing directly at us, which was disconcerting.

The ride took another 20 minutes or so, we couldn’t believe how far out the way we had got ourselves, and if we hadn’t gone towards the base, we would have had to spend a night in the woods.

There were lights below us and we presumed we were entering the town of Gulmarg where we were staying. Instead, we drew up at a larger military base with razor wire reeled across the road.

We stopped on the road and had to get out the van, a man was waiting to tell us more of what we had already heard - that there had been a terrorist attack that morning and everyone was on high alert. He made us very aware of just how lucky we were not to have ended up in Pakistan, then told us we must have a guide with us.

Back in the car and through the gates of the base. Josh and Raja were waiting for us and had been for some hours.

A soldier came out of the building we had pulled up next to and we followed him through the doors to an elaborate waiting room.

Carpeted and decorated with medals and trophies, we sat on the ornate sofas around the room. There was a tiger and leopard skin-plus-head adorning the wall.

A smart middle-aged man entered with other armed soldiers. He repeated what others had said and wanted us to know that the Indian Army are here to help us and assist, but we have also been very stupid. We agreed and thanked him for his kindness to us.

We were in the Officer’s Mess of the Indian Marta Army.

Suprisingly to us all, we were treated to a sit-down meal in the dining room. More photographs were taken and forms to fill in.

Having said goodbye, we were finally on our way back to Gulmarg, but not before a trip to the police station. It was gone 12 midnight as we went through the gates and were led into a small office. More details were taken, we thanked them and finally headed back to the Raja hut, which we had left 14 hours previous.

We were all exhausted and couldn’t sleep due to the adrenalin running all day.

It had been one of the best days of my life.

Over the following few days, we had become legends, without sense. The word had got around and people were talking about the five skiiers who went to the Line of Control.

Our story was written up in brief in the local newspaper and went online. Famous in Kasmir at last!

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