Why Book with Us?
We are Partners for People looking for Safety and Quality
The exploration of powder snow terrains in the Himalaya Mountains is an adventurous and exciting outdoor activity with many positive experiences but also with a number of potential risks and inconveniences. The trip to Gulmarg is for many of our guests a “once in a life time” experience and often also their first encounter with the Kashmiri culture and life style. Below are 10 points former participants in our programs considered important to select us as competent and reliable freeriding program operator for their Gulmarg ski and snowboard vacations.
Himalaya Experience: The clock in the Himalayas is ticking differently than in the rest of the world. This can be quite a challenge for operators with no previous or little experience in this mountain region. Free Ski Himalaya has been organizing and leading trekking expeditions in India and Nepal since 2001 and started to run powder snow programs in Gulmarg in the winter 2005/2006. Over the past years we have been confronted with many unexpected challenges and have learned a lot from these. Today our guests can benefit from this experience and can rest assured of a trouble free and safe ski or snowboard trip to the Himalayas when booking with us.
Established local Contacts: Good contacts and strong friendships with the local population are key success factors for program operators in this part of the world. Only when they understand and respect the local people’s culture and their way of life they are accepted in the Himalaya Mountain community and taken seriously. Operators who arrive with their guests for brief periods only, complete their typical one or two week program and then return home will never have the same recognition in the local society as those who spend time with the locals before and after their guests have left. Especially when things go wrong strong relations and friendships with the local people are essential to assure the quality of the service and to guarantee the safety of the trip. Since the winter of 2005/2006 we had enough time to build our network in Kashmir and can now rely on many good friends in various places.
Sound Terrain Knowledge: Back country skiing and snowboarding always entail certain risks even in known terrain. Many guests only plan with one or two weeks for their Himalaya ski holiday and it is our job to make sure that they get the best out of it. For this we must know the freeriding terrain on Mt. Apharwat in all its details, we must be aware of the hidden spots, the safe runs and the risky zones. To offer exceptional runs in good and bad days we have explored the Mt. Apharwat powder terrain and the tree skiing areas of Tangmarg, Baba Reshi and Drang extensively and identified a number of runs for great powder skiing in all weathers. After several ski seasons in Gulmarg our program manager and our guides know the terrain and most of its challenges and joys from their own experience. Our guests can therefore count on us for exceptional and safe powder runs during their stay with us in Gulmarg.
Competent Guides: On the mountain your guide is more than just a companion, he is your leader, your pathfinder, your safety guarantor and your friend and coach. Guiding freeriding groups is a challenging and complex task with huge responsibilities, not only in Gulmarg. All guides working with Free Ski Himalaya must therefore fulfill the following requirements: they must be able to ski or snowboard with guests of all skill levels, they must speak good English, they must have strong interpersonal skills, they must have a minimum education level permitting them to converse with the guests on diverse subjects and finally they must be registered as official snow guides for Kashmir. Furthermore all our guides go through a personal screening by our Swiss program manager and are regularly trained according to the guidelines established by Swiss Snowsports for the training of back country guides. Our guests can therefore fully rely on our guides’ skills and knowhow whenever they ski on the mountain or in the trees.
Experienced and Capable Drivers: Traffic in Kashmir is wild and uncontrolled, the road conditions are far from perfect and in the winter the streets are often snow covered, especially on the part between Tangmarg and Gulmarg. Consequently travelling by road in Kashmir must be considered as dangerous as skiing on exposed terrains on the mountain. All of Free Ski Himalaya’s drivers have been working with us for the past years and demonstrated that they drive with care and can handle difficult traffic and road situations competently. In addition all our drivers understand English and speak it sufficiently well to have small talks with our guests; many visitors enjoy talking and joking with our jeep drivers and consider this a very enriching experience.
Reliable Vehicles: Clean and properly working jeeps with a complete set of chains are essential for safe trips from the airport to Gulmarg and also for the transports when skiing in the trees or for returns to Gulmarg after the long descents from Mt. Apharwat to Drang. There is nothing worse than being stuck in a broken down vehicle or being unable to move on snow covered roads due to missing chains especially when it is bitter cold (the jeeps have no heating!) and while all others are enjoying their powder runs. We check the vehicles of our drivers regularly and make sure that they have one full pair of chains with them. The drivers are aware that they have no right to fail if they want to continue working for us and therefore they keep their vehicles always in perfect order.
Avalanche Awareness Briefings: When skiing or snowboarding in the back country people are well advised to understand that being prepared is important to assure one’s own safety and also for quick and proper reaction to save others should avalanche accidents occur. Short avalanche awareness briefings on the first day are therefore included in all our programs and covers practice sessions for avalanche beacon handling, search of buried objects and rescue procedures. The guests are also taken on a terrain visitation and introduced to the different runs and made aware of the potential risk zones. The goal of our avalanche awareness briefing is to prepare guests for their freeriding adventures on Mt. Apharwat and also to provide them with an opportunity to practice the use of their avalanche beacons.
Quality Partner Hotels: A ski trip to the Himalaya Mountains cannot be compared with a ski vacation in a ski resort elsewhere. Many of our everyday conveniences are not available in Gulmarg and the service offering is quite basic, even in good hotels. In addition to this winter nights at 2’700m are freezing cold and regular power failures the norm. To assure a good comfort level for our guests we are working with two partner hotels that dispose of the necessary infrastructures for winter operations. Working generators, large water tanks, clean kitchens etc. and staff that is committed to make the stay of our guests as agreeable as possible are essential for our guests’ well being. After a day out in the cold there’s nothing better than returning to a warm room, having a hot shower and enjoying a good meal served by friendly waiters.
Small Group Sizes: Most program participants are enrolling in small groups and wish to ski or snowboard together. Individual skiers either form their own group or in some cases will be skiing with their “personal” guide. Our normal group size is 4 – 6 people plus one guide, if a group of friends is larger than 6 we provide a second guide. Group sizes of more than 8 skiers or snowboarders are not adequate for freeriding in this terrain, mainly because of safety concerns but also due to group dynamics. We have one guiding principle for group formation – maximizing skiing pleasure by matching skiers’ skiing skills and physical fitness. One of our key differentiators from other operators is our flexibility in group formation even if this means that sometimes we may have one guide skiing with just one guest.
Specialized Program Management: When visiting Kashmir most travelers are faced with an unfamiliar culture and a totally different life style. Time focus, service speed and reliability have another meaning here. Even though people are customer focused and service oriented they need a certain push to perform and to provide services that meet our guests’ expectations. Since the winter 2005/2006 our programs in Gulmarg are managed by a Swiss ski instructor and expedition leader with several years of guiding experience in the Himalayas and with a sound background in the hotel and catering industry. He is in Gulmarg usually 2 to 3 weeks before our guests arrive and will remain there until at least one week after the last guests have left. While he is in Gulmarg he monitors the performance of guides, drivers and hotel staff and checks service and food quality. If defined quality and safety standards are not respected he takes care of eventual problems the moment they arise and initiates corrective measures. Usually he is also personally guiding individual skiers or groups. However, his main goal is to assure that all guests enjoy an exceptional ski vacation in the Himalaya and leave fully satisfied with us and with a perfect Gulmarg holiday experience.
Many readers may be disappointed not find price as a key argument for people choosing us for their ski or snowboard vacation in the Himalayas. Our goal is to offer programs that are affordable but not cheap! To assure good quality and adequate safety standards we cannot compromise on our staffs’ skills and training nor can we work with hotels that offer lower quality rooms or accept the least comfortable rooms in our partner hotels. To make customers happy our working relationship with partners and employees must always result in a “win/win” situation, also in the Himalayas. Hotel owners want to be adequately compensated for their services, guides expect salaries that match their skills and experience, drivers hope that their daily income covers more than the costs for filling the tank of their jeep and the hotel staff appreciates if they don’t have to depend on tips only to make a decent income. If some Gulmarg visitors feel that a price gain of roughly 150 Swiss francs a week is worth the gamble on quality and safety it is their free choice – For us, however, quality of services and safety of our guests always come first and will never be compromised for the sake of price competitiveness.