Gulmarg Safety Considerations
Checklist for a Safe Ski Trip to Kashmir
During the past few months the number of cease fire violations along the “Line of Control” have increased again and there were also a few shoot outs between militants and security forces in some villages inside Kashmir. This resulted in certain changes in the travel advisories issued by various countries and requires an update on my safety assessment for ski trips to Kashmir which I published in July 2009. Skiers’ Safety in Kashmir.
Whereas most of what I wrote then is still valid today I would like to start by saying a few words about today’s situation in Kashmir but then also discuss two other important safety elements people should be aware of when planning and organizing a ski trip to Gulmarg, namely safety on the mountain and health issues.
Before going into more details about these safety considerations I would, however, like to point out that FSH has conducted its powder ski programs in Gulmarg since 2006 and during all these years we have fortunately never encountered any incidents that gave rise for concern nor did our guests become victims of any serious accidents on the mountain.
Safety in Kashmir
Kashmir has been a trouble spot for more than 60 years and during all these years there have always been periods of increased violence and also a few wars. Up to now approx. 60’000 people have died here as a result of clashes on the border or in the villages, the number of foreign tourists that were either kidnapped or killed during that period has fortunately been close to zero.
Of most interest to skiers is how these insurgencies have impacted Gulmarg in the past. From all the research I have done I can say that up to now there have been no significant acts of violence in this small settlement ever, furthermore the local “Pony Wallahs” describe the 90’ies, when the militancy was at its highest in the valley, as their best business period because only wealthy Indians and foreigners visited Gulmarg then.
I have started to write this blog on October 19th 2013 while sitting in the garden of our partner hotel in Gulmarg. During the few days I stayed in Kashmir I made a number of long walks alone in the areas surrounding the village and couldn’t identify any activity that gave rise to concern. Furthermore I talked to all my sources and from their feedback I feel confident that my 2009 assessment of skiers’ safety in Kashmir still holds today.
This doesn’t mean a trip to Kashmir should be planned and organised in the same manner as if going on a ski trip to the Alps. Therefore the recommendations made in my checklist below should be strictly observed if one wants to have a trouble free winter vacation in Gulmarg.
Safety on the Mountain
The biggest concern regarding safety on a ski trip to Gulmarg are not the acts of violence in Kashmir but rather the dangers that exist when skiing in avalanche prone terrain far away from civilisation and with no means of communication or access to competent rescue services and medical resources.
With the opening of the cable car to Mt. Apharwat in 2006 Gulmarg has become popular worldwide as powder ski destination in the Himalaya. Consequently more and more people visit this ski resort every winter, some with the needed experience and training to face the challenges the mountain presents but nowadays also more and more skiers who have only made a few turns outside groomed slopes in their home countries or even don’t have any backcountry skiing experience at all choose Gulmarg as their ski holiday spot!
With the popularity of Gulmarg as a ski resort an increased number of visitors assume that they will easely find the same resources here as in other well known powder ski destinations. Unfortunately this is far from reality, even today there are still only around 20 local ski guides who possess to some extent the training and experience as well as the skiing skills required to guide guests in complex, avalanche prone high alpine terrain. So far only 11 of them have completed the training courses required to be accredited by the Gulmarg Avalanche Center, by the end of this year I expect the number to reach around 20. However, most of these guides are working full time for the few powder ski program operators and the remaining few are usually booked well in advance. More on this subject you will find on my blog “Skiing in Gulmarg with a Guide”.
By looking at the various pictures of the Gulmarg ski area people may assume that it is straight forward and easy to ski terrain, however, they should be aware that the average steepness of the slopes is 35°, that most runs face north, that many ridges have overhanging snow cornices on the top that are created by the regular southerly winds and that only approx. 10% of the terrain is patrolled and safe to ski alone. A map of the avalanche danger zones is shown below and more information on the snow and avalanche situation you find on this website: Gulmarg Avalanche Center
For assessing the dangers and for overseeing the safety work on the mountain we could up to now count on the support of an experienced avalanche specialist with several years of working experience in Gulmarg, in the winter 2014 this will most likely change and we may suddenly be faced with newcomers who dispose of no avalanche forecasting experience in the Himalayas and who will also be confronted for the first time with the Kashmiri culture and the working methods of the local patrollers.
With over 100 people caught in avalanches over the past few years, thereof 45 saved burials and 20 dead skiers this intended change of staff is difficult to understand and shows a limited understanding of the people in charge about the dangers Mt. Apharwat presents in winter and how important qualified and experienced forecasters are to assure the best possible safety for unguided and inexperienced guests. For visitors it becomes therefore even more important to carefully select the approach they want to take for organising and booking their backcountry ski trip to the Himalayas.
Concerns on Health and Injuries on the Mountain
Living in clean and properly maintained quarters is of greatest importance when you make a ski trip to a remote area with limited medical resources and when you stay at altitudes that are above 2’500m and therefore in the zone where getting altitude sickness is a probability. When staying and sleeping above 2’500m the body recovers not as fast as in lower altitudes, its defence mechanisms are weakened especially as the physical effort of skiing in altitudes between 3’000m and 4’500m is considerable. Therefore special attention has to be paid on proper food preparation and staying in clean quarters if guests want to primarily enjoy powder runs instead of trying to get well again. Choosing they right hotel is therefore of outmost importance. Read more about hotel accommodation in my blog: Gulmarg Hotel Accommodation
At present, October 22, 2013 nearly all hotels in Gulmarg are closed, their doors were sealed by the high court and they will have to remain out of operation until they are compliant with some legally binding environmental norms. At the moment some of these hotels are in the process of doing the work to meet the set requirements, however, how many will succeed in completing the required work before the winter and be authorised by the court to reopen again remains to be seen. At the moment only the new 5 star hotel with 80 rooms and two other hotels with a limited number of winter suitable rooms are allowed to operate. For individual travellers a bleak outlook especially in a place where hotel overbooking is the norm.
A further aspect that people need to think about when planning their ski trip into the Himalayas is what happens in case of an accident. Contrary to ski resorts in most other parts of the world in Gulmarg there is no rescue service to be called upon when people get injured or need to be evacuated. When leaving the patrolled area (10% of the terrain) people are on their own and must rely on their proper skills and capabilities to provide first aid to the victim and to evacuate the person to Gulmarg where a first intervention by a medical doctor can be done. Depending on where in the terrain the incident happens the evacuation will take from two to several hours. When the heliski service is operational they can be booked to fly people out, however, you need to be able inform them which may prove difficult as “non Kashmiri” mobile phones don’t work and obtaining local SIM cards is more or less impossible.
After people have been transported to Gulmarg they may have to be driven to a hospital in Srinagar and from there flown out to Delhi or if possible to a hospital in their home country.
More information on health issues, evacuation process and altitude sickness you find here: FSH – Health and Altitude Sickness
As Gulmarg is still in its early stage of winter tourism development the following checklist should help interested skiers to plan and organise their trip:
Key Points for Making the Gulmarg Ski Trip a Safe and Enjoyable Experience
- Gather as much information as you can on the destination you plan to visit before you book the trip or chose a program operator;
- When you travel to an unfamiliar territory or to areas with potential dangers don’t do it alone but work with locally well established companies with a proven track record;
- Book your trip with a competent and professional organisation and you will be safe in 99% of all potential risk situations. For a risk free trip the company you chose must meet the following requirements:
- Several years of operational experience in the area;
- Dispose of a website that provides comprehensive and useful information on all aspects of the trip, not only costs, discounts and advertising slogans!
- Disclose who owns and runs the company including an overview of the experience and qualification of their managers in the respective field of activity;
- Besides a website address and an email contact a trustworthy company should also have published phone numbers and a full address of their company’s location;
- If the company works with local staff (guides, drivers, etc.) the qualifications of their team members preferably with names and even photos should easily be accessible on their website;
- Your potential booking partner should be able to provide you with comprehensive testimonials and trip reviews from at least 5 of their former program participants including their full names, their city and country of residence and if possible links to their facebook accounts, YouTube or blogs. Some examples you find here: FSH – Gulmarg Trip Reviews. Reference statements with one sentence of praise by a person with a surname and only a country of residence as address are mostly fakes!
- Verify the accuracy of the company’s information to find out if the proposed programs are part of their core business or if it is just opportunistic deal making; has their website been updated recently, are their trip dates accurate, do they have a blog or a facebook page, have they been publishing recently
- Assess the Risk-Relax Ratio of your trip. Whether people go on a normal holiday or travel to a not completely risk free area resp. engage in risk sports activities they all mainly want to enjoy their vacation and relax while doing what they like best so that they can return home with plenty of positive experiences and long lasting memories. In order for that to happen all known risk factors should be eliminated before they even leave on their trip and they should be able to embark on their journey with the feeling that they will be welcomed and looked after by professionals who care about their well-being and will do everything to make their trip a success.
Those who observe the above mentioned tips for planning and organising their ski trip to Gulmarg will find this information valuable and will have no bad surprises during their stay in Kashmir. They will certainly be able to make the most out of their winter holiday in the Himalayas and return home with plenty of positive experiences and long lasting memories. Further information on Gulmarg and additional travel tips you will find on our website: FSH – Travel Tips
For many people who plan a ski trip to Gulmarg the information provided in this blog will prove valuable in the preparation of their journey others may consider it primarily a “PR exercise with destabilizing effect” and as a means to position FSH as a professional guiding company. I don’t deny that the writings include some sales elements, however, these are valid arguments for any other professional company operating in Gulmarg too. Whatever people may think about this blog it cannot be denied that the described dangers are real and that the shortage of qualified winter sports service suppliers is a fact, the visitors have now two choices, come prepared and enjoy the stay or be surprised by what you find and live with it!
The only guarantee I can give to all Gulmarg visitors is this “Your ski trip to the Himalayas will become a life time experience, independently of booking it with a professional company or by doing it on your own!”
About the author: Chris Werren organises and guides adventure trips to remote areas in many different parts of the world and has been running the FSH powder ski programs in Gulmarg since the opening of the cable car in 2006. On his trips he has also visited a number of countries with known risk zones (e.g. Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Nepal and others).
Skiing and Trekking in the Himalayas: FSH – Free Ski Himalaya
Skiing in Gulmarg: FSH – The Gulmarg Snow Experts