Matt Appleford, founder and owner of The Adventure Project was one of the very first Guides to hop on board with GuideHire and we couldn't be happier to have him on the team. The Adventure Project has been taking adventurous skiers on ski tours through the Himalayan mountains for nearly 10 years now. Matt is extremely passionate about backcountry and sidecountry skiing in exotic locations and he has put a lot of hard work into making The Adventure Project an awesome experience for everyone who is lucky enough to join him.
Matt and I recently linked up on the phone to talk in detail about what makes his trips so special. For those of you in the Boston area, Matt and I encourage you to come see us at the Boston.com Ski & Snowboard Expo (Thursday, November 12 - Sunday, November 15) at the Seaport World Trade Center. Enjoy, and see you out there!
JH: Where are you from originally? When and where was your first time sliding on snow?
MA: I was born and raised in England, on the Wirral, just across the river Mersey from Liverpool. I lived there for 18 years and then moved to Australia. I lived in Oz for 14 years and then settled in the US in 2009. I now reside in Denver, CO.
My first time sliding wasn't on real snow, it was on a dry (plastic!) ski slope up in Loch Rannoch, in the Scottish Highlands. I was 8 years old and I loved it! I learned to turn that first session and then the hook was set. The next year we went skiing to a proper ski area, the Cairngorms near Aviemore. I loved it, that was the start of skiing. We would go skiing to Scotland maybe once or twice a year and then go skiing on plastic ski slopes near our home, mainly Rossendale near Manchester and Llandudno in North Wales.
JH: What brought you to the states? Can you tell us a bit about the different jobs you have had in the ski industry over here?
MA: Ski instructing bought me to the States and that's also how I met my wife and settled down here. We met in Telluride in 2008 and we were married in 2010. Since then, I haven't been back to Australia, the US is my home now.
It all started in 2000 when I came to the US to do a summer camp. I was up in New York state, working as a water ski coach on Lake Champlain (I'd never even water skied before but it was really just boat driving for the summer). I had a blast and wanted to come back to the area for the winter, so I went back to Australia and applied online for ski area jobs in the winter that were close by. Killington in VT got back to me and asked me if I wanted to try out to be a ski instructor. It wasn't my original plan, but they said that they liked my skiing background from Scotland and if I made it through the hiring clinic, they would give me a job as an instructor.
Well, I must have told enough decent jokes that they liked me enough to offer me the job. That was back in Dec 2000. I did the season and really enjoyed it, so then I decided to apply for a job teaching back in Australia at Mt. Hotham, about 5 hours north of Melbourne. I had to do another hiring clinic there, but I got through that and they also took me on as a ski instructor. That was the start of 10 years of back-to-back winters. I ended up teaching at a bunch of different resorts: 3 seasons in Killington; 9 at Hotham; 1 in Europe (Switzerland, Italy and Austria); 1 in Squaw Valley and then 9 in Telluride, CO (where I met my wife).
I worked as a pro-rep, selling skis for lot's of different brands in the US and Australia (Kneissl, Stockli, Kastle and then Grace Skis) and then I started a distribution company in Australia, importing several snowsports brands from Europe and the US. That taught me a lot. I had a run selling a brand of climbing skins from Europe last year, but I only went with that for a year as it was not financially viable and it was taking away from running The Adventure Project.
JH: So, tell us a bit more about the genesis of The Adventure Project. When did you start the operation, and what was your inspiration?
MA: The idea for The Adventure Project came around 2006 when I was working with my distribution company. We had a ski shop at Mount Hotham that I was managing, so I was only teaching skiing part-time. We wanted to start up our own tour company and I came up with the idea of running tours that went off the beaten path, to ski areas that most people didn't know about. I loved watching ski movies and was always most inspired by segments that went to exotic locations that I hadn't heard of before. I wasn't interested in just going to places like the alps, or to the US or Canada, I wanted to go to the places that most people wouldn't even think about for powder and good skiing.
So, I started to do research for destinations and came up with Gulmarg and a host of other areas. I went on a recce (read: reconnaissance) trip to Gulmarg in 2008 and I loved it. It snowed all the time and we only did a couple of runs from the top of the mountain but I could see the potential. After I met my wife in 2008 and got married in 2010, I had to say goodbye to that business in Australia and left it to my former partner.
Then in the summer of 2010, after 10 years of teaching skiing full-time, I felt I was ready for a change and wanted to test the waters again with another business. I thought about running tours again, but this time focus on the US market. As I already had the contacts and experience with Gulmarg, I decided to start marketing trips to Gulmarg in 2011 for the US market. We did our first 2 week trip that winter, with a couple of ski instructor friends from Telluride coming along to look at the place as potential guides and a couple of friends to act as guinea pigs. We all had a great time and that was really the start of The Adventure Project. Now we get interest in our trips from people all over the world.
We've been running trips to Gulmarg ever since and have been running trips there for 5 years now. We're slowly moving in the right direction; we've added new guides to our roster and have been employing local Kashmiri guides as tail gunners. It's great to be employing local guides and giving back to the local community, that experience alone has been very rewarding. This summer I'm finally going to start exploring some new destinations in South America and then hopefully Japan in January. That would give us a viable year round program by 2017. That is an exciting prospect for me as I've finally realized after all this time, that this is what I want to do with my life.
JH: The Himalayas are clearly one of the most dramatic ranges in the world, what is it that makes skiing in the Himalayas so unique?
MA: Well, the Himalayas are in my mind, THE most dramatic mountain range in the world. They certainly have the highest mountains in the world, but what is surprising, is, they are relatively unskied. The problem is obviously the lack of access, they are very remote and only the extremely adventurous and skilled, choose to ski these areas. But, there is just so much terrain out there that can be explored. Just flying to Gulmarg and flying over the Himalayas, is amazing. I love looking at the mountains and dreaming about skiing a line on what could be, a peak that may have never been skied before. I like to dream.....
JH: Why Gulmarg? Tell us a bit about what makes the place special.
MA: Well, a lot of things really. First off, there's the mountain and the quality of the skiing and boarding. I've definitely had some of the best turns of my life (skiing the backcountry in Telluride is up there as well) in Gulmarg. Every year I go there, I know I'm going to ski some great powder, it's just a question of how hard I have to work. So, that means I don't have to stress about skiing back in Colorado, if it doesn't snow a lot, I know I will always have the quality turns to come in Kashmir.
Gulmarg is unique in that you have a massive mountain, it has one of the world's highest gondolas, they get a ton of snow, they have huge vertical and there is hardly anyone else there to compete with for fresh tracks (maybe 200 to 300 on a busy day). If you know where to go (depending on the stability), you can always get fresh tracks. I haven't skied everywhere in the world, but there's not many places you can go where you can say that, unless you have the money to go heli-skiing (which I don't, so for me, this is the next best thing). I think the closest place to that in the US would be in the SW of Colorado, at Silverton, but Gulmarg is a lot bigger than that.
So, the skiing is all time, but to me, it's not just that, it's the Kashmiri culture and the hospitality of the local people, that really makes me excited to come back year after year. The Kashmiri's are some of the most hospitable people in the world, they are genuinely warm and welcoming. They haven't met too many Westerners, especially those from the US and they love to talk to you and hear about your home. Traveling to India and then on to Kashmir, is a big adventure for most people. Going there for the first time can be a daunting experience for most, India can be an assault to the senses, it's so loud, colorful and vibrant. Once you get used to that, then you start to relax.
Another unique thing we do is finish our sessions back in Srinagar on the houseboats on Dal Lake. This is where the Beatles used to hang out in the early 1970's and I can see why. You have a beautiful big lake surrounded by the Himalayas and you are staying on these beautiful old barges that have been made into little floating hotels. All the woodwork is really ornate and has been hand-carved by local Kashmiri craftsmen and they are exquisite. You are waited on by the houseboat manager and he takes care of you by doing all the cooking and keeping the stoves burning in your bedroom. It's just such a great way to relax and unwind after a hard two week session.
Then there is the food (I love curry!) and all the wildlife; you'll see a lot of snow monkeys and if you are really lucky, then maybe a Eurasian Black Bear or even a Snow Leopard (ideally from a distance....). So all in all, you have an amazing trip, one that is unique and supremely rewarding. They say there is your life before Kashmir and then after Kashmir..... I believe in that saying. A lot of people come back saying they have had the best run of their lives, that can happen in a few ski areas maybe, but then a few people come back and say their life has been changed after going to Kashmir. It happened to me and now I run tours there because I know how good it can be.
JH: Tell me a bit about the snowpack in Gulmarg, and your experience with teaching clients backcountry safety and awareness techniques.
MA: Well, safety is our highest priority and so far, we have a 100% safety record so far and I definitely want to keep it that way. We do a lot of work with our clients through our avalanche safety training program. Gulmarg can have a touchy snowpack at times and there can be some big avalanches. We want to keep our clients and our guides, away from any slides like that. Even though there is a gondola, it's 95% backcountry and should be treated with a lot of respect. Sadly, since the gondola opened in 2005, 3 skiers have died in the backcountry in Gulmarg, but no one has died inbounds.
The inbounds terrain is only the main bowl underneath the gondola and this is a relatively small area. The patrol only controls and patrols in that area. In the event of an accident in the backcountry, officially you are on your own. That's why we train our groups to work independently and be capable of self-rescue. Whilst we never guarantee anyone's safety, there will always be risk when skiing in the backcountry, our job (guides and clients alike) is to work together to lower that risk as much as possible.
We do offer our trips to clients that are expert skiers or boarders, but they might not have been into the backcountry before. That's ok, as long as they turn up with the right gear, then we can show them how to use it properly (our #1 goal is to never get into a slide in the first place though.....). I would never go into the backcountry with someone that doesn't understand the risk and potential hazards and wouldn't know what to do in the event something went wrong. When I'm in the backcountry, I need to know that my team has got my back, should something go wrong.
So, we offer a comprehensive avalanche safety training program. This starts before the guests leave for Kashmir. Whenever it snows, our local guides are out there giving us reports of how much snow there has been and what the weather was doing at the time. We make a log of these storms and when the Gulmarg avalanche reports start up in early January, we add that information to the mix. We can then send regular updates to the clients, so we can start to gain an idea of how the snowpack is shaping up before we all get out there.
Gulmarg typically can have an early season snowpack similar to Colorado. They often get early snow in November or December and then, cold clear nights. That can lead to the formation of faceted snow grains and depth hoar early in the season. The main snowfalls don't tend to start until early January, then you can often get a large natural avalanche cycle when the snowpack adjusts, typically around mid-Jan. Now, that time can vary and is only a rough rule of thumb, but depth hoar can be an issue in Gulmarg, especially early season. Normally after that natural avi cycle and then consistent snowfalls that increase the depth of the snowpack, then the overall stability will improve greatly, localized factors not included. These are the things we like to keep the clients aware of as this will affect the decisions we make out on the mountain.
When the clients arrive, then we start a detailed safety training program. We kick off the night they arrive with an indoor presentation (covering all the theory that we are then going to cover out on the mountain) and then the next day, we are out on snow working with our beacons, covering single and multiple burials. We also cover probing and strategic shoveling principles. We start on easy terrain and then take it into more realistic terrain out on the mountain. The clients get a lot of practice and repetition with their beacons and beacon searching becomes intuitive and the process automatic. They learn a lot and it is a rewarding experience all round. Once that is over, we go and spend time digging pits and conducting stability tests, to try and analyze the snowpack and see how accurate our pre-arrival forecasting has been. So, by the time we have gone through all of this, the guests have decent beacon skills and an understanding of the current snow conditions.
We've been developing our guest training plan (in it's current format) for the last 4 years. I must thank Karl Welter (TAP guide, Telluride Ski Patrol and AIARE avi course conductor), as well as our other guides, for helping me to put our training plan together. It's an important part of our program and is also the basis that we've been training our local guides (although we train them to a much higher level). It's great to be able to give training to the locals (we offered free training to several local guides, not affiliated with The Adventure Project) and give back to the freeride community in Gulmarg.
JH: Favorite off snow activity in Gulmarg?
MA: Hmmm, there's a couple I can think of. Definitely having an end of the day beer at the Highlands Park Hotel, they have an amazing view of the entire mountain and the staff are very friendly. The bar is warm and cozy and a lot of guests from other groups stay there, so it's a good place to socialize. So, that's a favorite spot for sure.
I do like visiting Mr.Khan's clothing emporium near the market and talking with him. He always loves a chat and he has a few photo-worthy items in his shop that are fun to try on and model. He always offers you a cup of Kawah, the local spiced drink (I'm not a tea drinker but I really like the Kawah). Then a chat with Yasin at the Kashmir Alpine ski shop is always fun. He's a bit of a character and loves to talk about the history of skiing in Gulmarg. His son is an alpine skier on the Indian ski team. Just walking around town you are bound to see some Snow Monkey's, they are always interesting to watch.
It's always fun to go a hang out at the poma lifts and interact with the local beginner skiers. That's always fun, you normally will have a crowd of curious locals around you, wanting to know where you are from and why you are in Gulmarg. The locals are very friendly.
One other thing you need to do when visiting Gulmarg, is do the ski down to Drung. I have to mention this, I know it's ski related but it's something you have to do. It's a 6 mile off-piste run that takes you down into the valley, way past Gulmarg. You end up in a little village called Drung, they don't even have electricity in the village. When the local kids see you, they will try and mob you for chocolate and then they want to jump on the back of your skis and go for a ride through the village. It's a pretty fun time and just another example of how unique and rewarding a trip to Gulmarg can be.
JH: Where will your next adventure take you?
MA: Well, we have plans to go to South America this summer for 2 weeks and set up a program in Chile for the summer of 2016. That will be really fun. Then I want to go to Japan in January 2016, so we can have a January Japan program in 2017 and a Gulmarg program for February and March. I'll be offering an early August trip to Australia in 2016 as well, plus we want to get New Zealand (club field tours) up and running soon after. Then we can go crazy, Russia, Iceland, Greece, Spain, Greenland, Eastern Europe, you name it, if it's somewhere new and different, affordable, with good snow and mountains, we'll go there. I'm excited for the future, who's coming with us?!
So there you have it. You can use GuideHire to plan the backcountry trip of a lifetime in the Himalayas with The Adventure Project and soon enough you'll be able to book trips to Japan and Chile as well.
Click here to learn more about this years Gulmarg trip and get in contact with Matt!