by Syed Shadab Ali Gillani

SRINAGAR: The unfortunate Russian skier who was killed by an avalanche in the Gulmarg backcountry was the victim of the mess he and his group had triggered, officials said. The group had gone against the advice of the ski petrol in the red-zone belt where skiing is restricted, the Jammu and Kashmir government officials said.

This photograph taken barely 10 minutes before the Russian skiers encountered an avalanche shows the dead skier (third from right). the photograph was taken by Mehrajuddin Dar, the captain of Ski Patrol.

“Avalanches don’t strike. Avalanches are triggered. Around 95 per cent of the time avalanches are triggered by the persons who are caught in the avalanche,” Brian Newman, Jammu and Kashmir’s Snow Safety Officer told reporters. An American, he was appointed by the government in 2017. He is now part of a 15-member ski patrol team that oversees the entire game throughout winter.

“What usually happens is that local skiers, who have become ski guides, and foreigners, who are experienced in the sport with many of them international ski guides, prefer backcountry areas for skiing,” Newman said. “They usually leave the ski area that is managed and go into the wild terrain. There is greater risk in these areas but they go there as they have skills to manage these risks responsibly.”

A Russian skier was killed on Thursday afternoon. Most of the skiers were rescued by ski patrol, the army and the local volunteers but one of them, identified as Ahtoh Bnktopobny Anton, 40, from Moscow, could not be saved.

The backcountry of Gulmarg where the foreign athletes ski in the wild. The snowpack is unbeaten on these ridges. KL Image: Special Arrangement

“They were a group of six skiers – five males and one female,” Mehrajuddin Dar, the ski patrol captain said. “They met me barely 10 minutes before and I routinely took a picture of them. They insisted they would ski on the other side and quickly left.”

Another officer told the newspaper that non-native skiers usually move out of the Green Zone ski area and get into the wild for a thrill. If they maintain a distance and ski down one by one, avalanches may not trigger at all. But they move in a group that adds load to the snowpack and an avalanche is triggered. The avalanche was triggered at a time when eight skiers were coming down the slopes.

In the green zone, the ski officials use snow beaters and then permit skiing for a better quality of the game. Usually, the green zone is only 10 per cent of the ski-ready area in Gulmarg. The rest is skiable but unsafe, officials said.

Sources in Gulmarg told this reporter that the group of four Russians who were caught in the avalanche had been to Kashmir earlier as well. “Then, they followed the rules,” one skier, who was around the spot when the tragedy took place, said. “This season, they moved to the Army Ridge which is a no-go area for skiers.”

Gulmarg and Sonmarg are prone to avalanches in late January. So are Tulail, Machil and vast belts down south including parts of Banihal and Kulgam. Sonamarg witnessed at least two major avalanches recently but it is not a ski zone, yet. One avalanche diverted the Sindh River for nearly 12 hours till the Border Roads Organisation unclogged the river. There was an effort to introduce extreme heli-skiing in the area but the idea did not take off.

This skier is using a slightly safe slope at Gulmarg. KL Image: Shuaib Wani

Gulmarg reports avalanches quite frequently during winter. The last avalanche in Gulmarg was reported from Afarwat Peaks on February 1, 2023, killing two Polish skiers as Krzysltof, 43, and Adam Grzech, 45.

In February 2010, 17 soldiers were killed and dozens injured after a massive avalanche ploughed into the army’s winter warfare school at Gulmarg.

The Thursday avalanche, however, had no impact on the Khelo India Winter Games 2024, which are being hosted by the beaten slopes along the cable car. “Around 60 foreigners are skiing in the area and these include the five members of the group who survived the avalanche,” one official, privy of the developments said. “The body of the dead skier has been handed over to the police and is currently in a mortuary at Srinagar. Efforts must be underway with the Russian embassy in Delhi to fly him home.”

Gulmarg Ski Resort, it may be recalled here is one of the world’s most famous ski resorts. It is the only resort outside the Alps which is famous for powder snow. It had a huge diversity of skiing slopes. One such bowl, earlier famous as Shinman Bowl (avalanche bowl) was renamed as Shaggys Bowl in memory of a ski adventurer from Australia who was washed away by one avalanche there in the first week of February 2007. His name was Shaun Kratzer and was popular as Shaggy. The Polish duo was killed in this bowl in 2023.


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