In the frustrating and boring winter, Gulmarg, Kashmir’s winter wonderland is the only actively bustling place, thanks to winter sports. As hundreds of skiers are readying to land around Christmas, Bilal Handoo interacts with the bowl’s stakeholders to reveal how a young man has emerged the main game-changer
He failed grasping the radical shift when his crowd-pulling home suddenly turned ghost lanes. Then he was too young to realise the rebel upshot. Gulmarg, his home, abruptly saw no foreigners turning up for golfing in summers, skiing in winters. The desolation was disturbing, so was the realisation that west had advised its residents against visiting Kashmir.
The only way to streamline his mental chaos was to turn up on snowy slopes with his skiing equipments and practice. Nobody foresaw the young skiing enthusiast would one day emerge Gulmarg’s poster boy and Kashmir’s global face in winter sports.
Billa Bakshi earned this title after passing through gruelling efforts. Growing up as a skier at a place where few officials would turn up only to lit a bonfire and beat a hasty retreat was difficult. Except for hotel employees and guests, everyone else was required to leave Gulmarg by sundown during nineties. Till 1995, Billa would see only foreigners associated with Uri Powerhouse camping in around on weekends. The usual rush was hauntingly missing.
Post-1996, crowds returned, and Billa began guiding in Himalayas. Then, there was no gondola, or a ski lift. His forte was his extensive terrain familiarity. Skiing from the age of 4, Billa knew the peaks at the back of his hand. Once knowledge and skill were enhanced by hard work, he eventually rose to become Kashmir’s first qualified ski guide. By 1998, the once solitary skier on snowy slopes of Gulmarg hit big by establishing his Gulmarg Powder Guides Tour Company, offering backcountry tours in peaks of Pir Panjal Range.
Things changed fast. Billa swiftly emerged Gulmarg’s new stakeholder. To swell his base, he hired local guides and focussed to diversify winter sports in his backyard. Given quality and quantity of snow that Gulmarg gets, the idea was to make it world’s best heli-skiing resort by attracting sizeable section of skiers from Alps. But before him, somebody had already dreamed the dream.
Thirty years ago, renowned French skier, Sylvain Saudan, the extreme skier who had skied down Japan’s Mount Fuji without snow to celebrate his 50th birthday was first to introduce heliskiing in Gulmarg. The set off came after a long pending nod from civil aviation ministry that took its time to approve the activity in the highly militarised zone. But once approval was granted, Saudan’s Himalaya Heli-Ski Club began airdropping skiers.
Back in eighties, heliskiing had turned Gulmarg a preferred winter destination, one of the best in Asia, because of its virgin peaks. It was later adjudged as second best heliskiing destination of world after Canada. Saudan, the ‘skier of the impossible’ for his dare-devil skiing feats in Alps, suspended heliskiing in Gulmarg for security reasons during nineties. By the time he thought to revive it, seventeen years had passed by.
In 2007 Saudan returned to Gulmarg to revive his service. The same year his chopper plunged into deep snow at Sonamarg. He survived miraculously, but his revival plans couldn’t be salvaged.
A year later, a New Zealand-based company tied up with a local Gulmarg Heli-Skiing to perk up the sport. Despite 200 foreign bookings, the company failed to get the clearances in time. To everyone’s surprise later, all these hiccups proved a launching pad for Billa.
But before arriving on heliskiing scene, the skier-turned-guide began throwing some high-end invitations. He invited lots of free riders like K2 pro riders Andy Maher, Pep Fujas, Warren Miller and other skiers to Gulmarg. Back in 2005, he had started a charity program with New Zealand K2 ski distributor Martin Jones, training hundreds of locals besides providing them ski equipment. Today, those trained youth are the main ski human resource. Billa thus became the main force to involve the whole Gulmarg community in the ski Industry. But after revamping Gulmarg for good, Billa silently walked out of the scene one day in 2010.
Later when he made a comeback, the locals learned that he was in New Zealand studying Snow Science in Otago Polytechnic College. But the revelation of sorts didn’t make him the talk of town. It was his initiative to kick-start Kashmir Heli-ski Operation—the heliskiing company providing professional heliskiing and heli-boarding in Gulmarg—making him the winter sports icon of Kashmir. His take off was literally from the ruins of earlier initiatives.
But Gulmarg named by Chak King Sultan Yusuf Shah as “Meadow of Flowers” is more than an individual success story. The cup-shaped hill station nestled in Pir Pinjal range, 56 km away from Srinagar, is packed with fascinating tales. Tucked in Line of Control, the meadow has attained a global fame for its winter sports activity, especially skiing carried out on Apharwat slopes at an elevation of 13,999 ft.
Individuals, identifying themselves as foot soldiers of Gulmarg’s fairytale, have witnessed the changing course of the meadow. Abdul Aziz Yatoo, a septuagenarian tea stall owner and head honcho of hutment union, has seen that change from the days when busload of tourists would arrive in droves at Tangmarg and then trek 12km terrain on mules to reach Gulmarg. Then, Aziz recalled, quite a few hotels were around. Since then, Gulmarg has become, what Omar Abdullah lately tweeted, a “concrete mess”. Now there are 100 hutments and 24 hotels.
But the evolution isn’t new—rather, has its roots in 19th century, when British began frequenting Gulmarg to hunt and golf. As interest heaved, three highest golf courses of the world cropped up, one exclusively for women. By 1927, British established a ski club in Gulmarg. Two annual ski events were hosted one each during Christmas and Easter. After Dogras fled, the invasion called Operation Gulmarg saw the tribals passing through Haji Pir pass to reach Gulmarg and subsequently to Srinagar before being pushed back in 1948 fall.
Soon after, army established a ski school in Gulmarg, later becoming the High Altitude Warfare School, specializing in snow-craft and winter warfare. In guise of establishing the school, army occupied total land measuring 305.64 acres at Gulmarg as well at Botapathri.
All these years, the tourism department played the host and facilitator. In 1960, the department with Delhi’s assistance invited the specialist Rudy Matt who zeroed in on Gulmarg as best spot for development of a Winter sports destination. Eight years later, Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering came up.
By 1971, the first batch of 60 Tangmarg boys received ski training. Among those boys was GM Dar, now the assistant tourism officer, the default watch and ward officer of the meadow for last four decades. Dar also was a Saudan disciple.
To boost the winter games, Dar said, the department made bulk purchase of skiing equipments in 1985. Twenty years later, in 2005, the department threw open Gulmarg’s first skiing shop for renting out the ski equipments.
“But after years of lull,” said Dar, sitting inside Gulmarg’s tourism club, “the big boost came in 1998 when Gulmarg hosted first National Winter Games.” In the run-up to games, Gulmarg had become a world class ski destination, vastly improved, upgraded. For preparing skiing slopes, modern equipment like snow beating machines, snowmobiles were imported.
In spring that year, phase 1 of Gondola between Gulmarg and Kongdori began its commercial operation. The work on cable car commenced in 1988 only to be abandoned shortly because of militancy. It was revived and completed in 1998. By May 2005, with the completion of phase 2 between Kongdori and Apharwat, Gulmarg’s Gondola became one of the longest, highest ropeways of Asia.
Cable car proved huge commercial success, recording a turnover of Rs 35 crore last fiscal.
Gondola improved Gulmarg ranking in world’s ski spots, stressed Dar. “Though the resort was already known as a skiing safe-haven of the world due to its powder snow and negligible avalanche occurrence rate, but Gondola was a game-changer.”
It improved footfalls. In 1998 when Gulmarg was formally thrown open for winter games after years of hush, 6140 foreigners were among 197928 tourists. Over the years, the number of foreigners oscillated between peaks and valleys. Last year, 5976 foreigners figured among 1718668 arrivals.
The tourist footfalls for winter games picks up late December and lasts till March. Even locals avail the tourism department’s 15 days skiing crash course. To keep sojourn of skiers, tourists’ safe, state regularly constitutes a 15-member ski patrol.
Although Gulmarg also offers ice-skating, ice-hockey, tobogganing and snowboarding, but the main attraction remains skiing. Heliskier spends around Rs 60,000 a day for the sports and those using lifts and cable cars also spend hugely. Now, tourism department is launching a campaign in Europe to woo skiers, especially heliskiers.
The icing on the cake seems the first helicopter service flagged off by state government to Gulmarg (and Pahalgam) from Srinagar. The chopper has reduced Gulmarg journey to mere 15 minutes flight. On ground, another face flip has appeared with a run of 24 all-terrain vehicles operating by former ponnywallas. But among all the initiatives done so far, even state seems following Billa’s project.
Quarter century later, Billa Bakshi, 35, is no more a solitary skier on slopes. Born in the modest Tangmarg family, Billa now employs six international guides to offer the best heliskiing experience in Pir Panjal Range. The skier-turned-poster boy has taken Gulmarg beyond Bollywood’s ‘background imagination’ to portray it on Beverley Hills’ canvas. Home has swung back to crowd-pulling from ghost lanes. And now, the radical shift makes a perfect sense.