Skiing in a land of fable and lore (clue, it’s not Russia)
The Winter Olympics are different. They’re different because winter sport isn’t just about scoring more goals than the opposition. Winter sport is spectacular. The fans and the athletes implicitly accept a fair amount of jeopardy. From the collisions on ice to the big airs and high speed crashes in the ski events.
And winter sport tends to be participative. Those who watch more often than not practise or play what they come to see.
Last week I spent a few days back-country ski-ing in India. Kashmir to be precise – for Kashmiris are a proudly independent bunch who are only just emerging from decades of secessionist violence that killed tens of thousands and injured many more.
Skiing in this land of fable and lore was an exhilarating and arresting thing indeed.
Up in the Pir Panjals, a mini range in the shadows of the mighty Himalayas, a small town called Gulmarg is buffeted every year by enough snow to bury a two storey house. Often, the houses are indeed buried. But this year things got off to a slow start. I arrived to rather sanguine-looking guides warning of hidden rocks, while also promising great adventures if we were prepared to hike well away from Gulmargs solitary gondola in search of still untracked snow.
Read more: Channel 4 News in Sochi
But the rocks weren’t the only danger that lurked beneath. The risk of avalanche has been foremost in many European skiers’ minds this winter, after early season snow across the Alps turned into a weak hidden layer called “hoar” that has the consistency of ball bearings. With over a metre of newer snow lying on top, it’s a potential death trap. Many have described the conditions in the Alps as the most dangerous for years.
It’s the same in Gulmarg. And what makes that game of jeopardy all the more real is that no-one comes skiing here for the pistes – after all, there’s only one groomed run. It’s all about the wild terrain accessible from the top of Mt Aparwhat – and what’s marketed as the world’s highest gondola. Gulmarg’s lift accessed ski area tops out at nearly 4000m.
Across the valley the looming shark fin of the worlds ninth highest mountain – Nanga Parbat – strafes the sky. And 8126m looks every bit as imposing as it should.
Nanga Parbat is one of only two 8000m plus peaks that have never been climbed in winter, such is it’s treachery. The other untameable winter ascent is the notorious K2. Which serves as a reminder that these mountains can be a devilish playground.
No sooner did we arrive in Gulmarg were we told of the highlight of the weeks social calendar. The Tuesday night public meeting with the head of the ski patrol, who delivers an in-depth slideshow on local snow conditions. Never have I been to a ski “resort” that offers this – never have I felt more knowledgeable about the risks beneath my feet that give so much pleasure but can yet cause so much destruction. Get caught in a “slab” avalanche lying on hoar and it’s likely to be large and inescapable. And consider this: the density of this snow on top is such that a square metre weighs in excess of 300kg. Imagine instant setting concrete enveloping your being from head to toe, grinding you across rock and ice, crushing into your mouth, ears and nose. Pinning limbs where they should not go. A dreadful way to go.
Gulmarg’s head patrolman is Colin Mitchell, a veteran ski safety expert of many seasons from North America’s famed Rocky Mountains. He did not mince his words. “We all come to Gulmarg to ski the back country. If you get in trouble out of bounds we will help you if we can. But I will not put my people at risk”. Yet it’s sobering what happens in an emergency.
For two days we hiked and skinned (strips of artificial fur attached to the bottom of skis for walking up hills that are smooth going forwards, but provide friction in the other direction to stop you sliding back down) to find fresh tracks well away from the beaten track. Then, midweek, Kashmir’s azure skies began to fold dense and opaque. Thick clods of snow soon thudded to the ground.
The next morning a metre of nature’s finest lay dolloped from treetop and balcony, spread thick atop road, path and field. But underneath – that deadly layer of crystalline hoar lay buried. As Gulmarg’s limited ski patrol made safe the limited “in bounds” domain, We waited patiently for the gondola to reopen.
The snow was soft and sweet. We hurtled, whooping, down first the main and then the adjacent bowl. As we went up again we noticed a small group straying to the left of the “safe” area, into a slightly steeper couloir overperched by a small cornice. It looked like fun. But our guides didn’t fancy it, didn’t think it was safe. So We traversed further in the opposite direction, this time picking out a fast and even spur some mile long. Untracked all the way down to a clump of open birch woodland. It was mesmerising.
We waited again, for the gondola. But something had caught the eye of one of our guides. “Look”, he motioned, pointing in the direction of the route the group of skiers we’d just seen had taken. A huge and silent plume of powder snow was mushrooming from behind the next ridge.
“Avalanche”, he said, simply.
The ride back up on the gondola was a silent affair.
The adjacent couloir had been razed of its fresh snowfall. Jagged ruts of ice and rock lay in angry furrows below a violent crack where once was the cornice.
A bloodwagon and rescue party was being organised as we got out of the lift.
Our other guide, Fayaz, former Indian ski champ, made his apologies.
“I’m sorry, but I have to help,” he said. And then he left.
We next saw him three hours later, back at the bottom of the lift.
But by they we already knew what had happened. Everyone on the mountain did.
The avalanche had caught three skiers. Two of them were badly shaken but alive. They’d been bounced around, had bones broken. But were alive.
The third had been trapped by the deadly cascade. Tumbled over a ridge into the next chute, and dragged and pummelled several hundred metres down the mountain underneath hundreds of tonnes of that awful concrete snow.
He didn’t stand a chance. His name, according to local reports, was Arno Roy, 59 years old. From Switzerland. Who, like everyone else who finds themselves in Gulmarg’s famed backcountry – was skiing because he loved it.
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