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Adventure Unlimited
(Kashmir- the Future Global Hub)

 
 
The inaugural function of the year long Golden Jubilee Celebrations of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation was held in Srinagar on May 15. A galaxy of famous climbers attended the function. Kashmir was chosen as the venue because of the extensive possibilities of adventure which the state has to offer. Earlier in the first week of May a six member team of the Mountain Access and Conservation Commission of the International Union of Alpine Associations completed a week long tour of Kashmir Valley including a short trek to Mount Kolahoi in Pahalgam. The team was led by the Commission President Robert Pettigrew and included members from Britain, France, Spain, Italy, and Belgium. The Commission is engaged in ensuring access to mountaineers to different mountain ranges throughout the world. The mandate of the Access Commission also involves conservation of mountains and preservation of the ecology of the area. This is for the first time that such a foreign team involved in adventure activities has visited remote mountain areas of Kashmir in last two decades. It is significant in view of the adverse travel advisories on Kashmir issued by various foreign offices in Europe. When asked in a media interaction about these adverse travel advisories, Robert jokingly remarked that the mountaineers do not listen to their foreign offices and are great risk takers. The Valley has two distinct mountains, Haramukh which resembles Mount Kailash and is historically the most sacred mountain. The other is Kolahoi also called the Matterhorn of Kashmir which was once the favourite trek and climb for foreign climbers. Lord John Hunt the leader of the successful British Expedition to Mount Everest and Sir Edmund Hillary, the famous Climber had also been to Kolahoi before starting their world famous expedition. In fact Lord Hunt told me in London in mid seventies that he had failed to climb Kolahoi in his first attempt and made it a point to scale it before going to Everest. Sir Edmund Hillary had even visited it again with his wife for a nostalgic trek in mid eighties. According to Robert Pettigrew, Kashmir has extensive potential for development of adventure tourism like trekking and Alpine style climbing. There are hundreds of unnamed and unclimbed small peaks in the Pir Panjal Range of mountains in Kashmir. These could be home to thousands of adventure lovers from abroad who could live in traditional mountain huts built in environment friendly style. There is now a new trend to go for alpine style climbing on smaller peaks as Everest Climb has virtually become a commercial enterprise. Kashmir has a lot to offer in this regard. Robert was visualising the growth in next fifty years and thought of Pir Panjal Range as the most promising area for adventure tourism. He observed that the mountains of Kashmir were in a better shape environmentally compared to similar areas in other parts of the world. This was probably due to lesser number of visitors into these areas in last few years. Prior to 1990 Kashmir had developed into the most sought after destination for alpine type trekking. Almost all our famous trails like Lidderwat-Kolahoi, Kishensar-Gangabal were frequented by hundreds of back-packers as well as by organised groups of trekkers. Two of the most frequented areas for foreign trekkers and climbers were the Kishtwar and Suru-Zanskar valleys of Ladakh. Kishtwar was the most favourite destination for British climbers as it involved a week long trek to reach the base camp. The mountains in the group included Bramah, Shivling, Barnaj, Sickle Moon and many other unnamed peaks in the range of 5000 to 6000 metres which offer good alpine climbs. Similarly the Suru and ZanskarValleys in Kargil have Nun, Kun, White Needle, Pinnacle, Z-8 and a host of unnamed and unclimbed peaks. On an average there used to be 30 to 40 foreign climbing expeditions to this area every year. The number of trekkers was in hundreds. Towards late eighties some winter activity had also started in Lidderwatt area. A number of Australian groups would go far Ski mountaineering. In fact, Winter Climbing in Kashmir can be a formidable challenge. Some of the peaks may become as difficult as the highest Himalayan peaks in summer! Cross country skiing has unlimited possibilities in entire Kashmir valley. Most of these activities do not need elaborate infrastructure and if planned properly, these are environment friendly. The requirements are easy availability of standard equipment, good maps, some trained guides, arrangements for search and rescue in case of accidents. There is no need to construct ugly concrete structures in the form of hotels and huts. At the most one may need mountain shelters which can be in the form of Gujar huts with requisite facilities for food, medicine, and heating etc. The last few years of lull in tourism activity have preserved these areas. These are ideally suited for the development of adventure tourism. There are also some new areas like Gurais, Tulel, Wadwan, Bangus, which are proposed to be thrown open for tourism. It would be most useful as well as advisable to develop these areas for eco-friendly adventure tourism. Apart from mountaineering there are many other adventure related activities which have a vast untapped potential in Kashmir. These include white water rafting, kayaking, paragliding, mountain biking, and caving. The Tourism Department has already promoted organisation of short duration rafting trips by private agencies in Lidder and Sindh rivers. An International Rafting Competition called “Kashmir Challenge” is being organised on River Sindh during current season. Similar world class competitions are possible in other adventure sports also. In fact, with the revival of tourism which is at present restricted to leisure tourism, there is urgent need for the State Tourism Department to make development of adventure tourism as their main thrust area for future. Kashmir has the possibility of becoming the future hub for adventure tourism both in summer and winter. Adventure activities are not only an excellent possibility for boosting tourism but can play an important part in personality development of our youth. All adventure sports and especially mountaineering are supposed to be an ideal means of building character, the absence of which is our perennial problem in the valley. Unfortunately our sports authorities are paying least attention for the development of these activities among the youth at all levels. Normally development of sports should be in relation to the environment. Austria, France, and Switzerland have produced world’s best mountaineers and skiers. Kashmir could have done the same had our sports authorities paid attention to this aspect. The only institution which has pioneered these activities in Kashmir is the Tyndale Biscoe School. Not only was the School responsible for introducing modern education in Kashmir but also imparted leadership qualities among its students through various adventure activities. The State authorities should have followed the example of the school for introducing these activities throughout the state. On the contrary they are reported to have wound up the adventure sports wing in their Sports Directorate! In the Golden Jubilee Function the Chief Minister stressed the need for including mountaineering in the School Curriculum. Let us hope someone pays attention as there is still time to initiate the adventure movement. Incidentally, the present Union Minister of Youth and Sports has been the former President of the apex body of adventure in entire India, the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. His love for adventure will definitely motivate the local authorities also to follow the example of adventure sports to make Kashmir a destination for “Adventure Unlimited!”

 

 

Kashmir, the Ultimate Adventure
 

Generally Kashmir is taken as an enchanting and captivating luxury tourist destination where one can enjoy a leisurely holiday in the most wonderful climate surrounded by some of the world’s best scenery. Not many know that Kashmir is also probably the world’s most challenging destination for what is known as the “Adventure Tourism”. One can safely say that Kashmir is the “Ultimate Adventure”! For quite some time there has been an appreciable change in the pattern and type of holidays which people generally take and in particular the younger generation. It is the “Active or Adventure Tourism” which involves holidays with physical exercise. Some of the activities which are quite popular are mountaineering, rock climbing, trekking, hill walking, mountain biking, white water rafting and kayaking, Para-sailing, and hang gliding, hot air ballooning, and a number of other sports. In winter apart from piste skiing, people in large numbers go for cross-country skiing, ski-mountaineering, tobogganing, and winter climbing. Our state has some of the most challenging locations for undertaking all these activities. In fact, for a number of these adventure sports it can be the last frontier or the ultimate challenge. Let us analyse the various possibilities in this field of tourism. Firstly, the sport of mountaineering has extensive choice both in summer as well as winter. We have the Alpine Style Mountains surrounding the valley. We can term these the Alps of the good old days. Mostly unspoilt and unexploited to a great extent. The peaks range in altitude from 4000 metres to 5,000 metres with varying difficulty. Some known peaks are Tata Kutti, Sunset Peak, Harmukh, Tuliyan Peak, Shesh Nag Peaks, and Kolahoi popularly called the Matterhorn of Kashmir. Apart from these there are dozens of unnamed peaks all around the valley. Most of these peaks can be climbed in Alpine style in three days or in case of Kolahoi and Harmukh in a week or so. In some of the mountains there are harder north faces and rock walls which present a challenge to rock climbers. These mountain ranges are dotted with high altitude lakes. Some of the well known lakes are Gangabal, Nandakol, Kishensar, Vishensar, Gadsar, Yemsar, Sheshnag, and Kounsarnag. Across these mountains there are very enchanting treks varying in duration from two to three days to a week or ten days. Most frequented is the trek from Sonamarg to Naranag via high altitude lakes of Kishensar, Vishensar, and Gangabal. This is probably the most beautiful trek in the whole world. The lakes are full of trout fish and the mountain slopes are carpeted with a vast variety of wild flowers. The other treks are from Lidder valley to Sindh valley through Aru, Lidderwatt, and Tarsar. Kounsarnag via Aharabal and Kungwattan. A very interesting trek is from Lehinwan to Pahalgam across Margan and Golul passes via Wadhwan valley. Quite a few mountain trails are suitable for mountain biking. In early eighties a number of British tourists had been biking over these trails in summer. In winter the degree of difficulty of all these climbs gets very much elevated and some of these can compare in toughness to very high and difficult Himalayan peaks. All mountain trails become excellent ski mountaineering and cross country tracks. Next come the middle level challenges of Kishtwar and Zanskar mountains. These range in altitude between 6,000 metres and 7,000 metres and include Nun Kun, Pinnacle, White Needle, Brammah, Barnaj, Sickle Moon, and a number of other peaks some of which are still unnamed and unclimbed. Expeditions to these peaks involve few days of trekking and setting up of intermediate camps. Duration is usually two to three weeks. Kishtwar peaks are very popular with British climbers and even Chris Bonnington, the famous climber has been here with some expeditions. Lord John Hunt had attempted Kolahoi before proceeding to Everest. Sir Edmund Hillary has trekked in Lidderwatt area two decades back. Finally, we have the most challenging Karakoram peaks around Siachen glacier. These are the real tough ones and include Saser Kangri, Sia Kangri, Mamostang Kangri, and a vast number of unnamed peaks. There have been some joint expeditions with foreign parties in past few years. The expeditions here are of a longer duration. In fact, the Siachin problem was caused by Pakistanis allowing expeditions from their side to this hitherto unexplored and uncharted area in early eighties. The Indians took control of the area in the most difficult winter conditions giving Pakistanis a surprise in the following summer. There has been recently some talk about demilitarising the area and declaring it a “Peace Park” for adventure lovers.

Some of the most famous rivers flow through our mountains. The three major rivers are Indus, Jehlum, and Chenab. There are other mountain rivers like Suru, Drass, Zanskar, Nubra, and Shyok in Ladakh. In addition there are smaller ones like Sindh, Lidder, Veshav, Rembyara, and Kishenganga in the valley. Most of the rivers are suitable for white water sports of different levels and grades. For the beginners Lidder and Sindh are ideal. Some stretches of Jehlum ahead of Baramulla are also good. Indus and Chenab are the most challenging and demanding. Some stretches are impossible to navigate both in rafts as well as kayaks. Zanskar River is the most dramatic and exciting with its long and deep gorge which even seems a challenge for the rafters who have already done Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Indus near Leh, Lidder in Pahalgam, and Sindh in Sonamarg are being already used both for training as well as exciting pleasure rides for casual tourists. Zanskar from Padam to Nimu is a week long expedition very popular among foreign rafters. It is possible to not only arrange package tours on all these rivers but also to hold international competitions of the highest challenge and grade. In view of a very small number of people who have been frequenting these rivers, we can claim these to be more or less virgin especially some difficult and remote stretches. Even if we have dozens of groups and expeditions sometime in future, these will still constitute a small percentage compared to our vast potential in this field. The other adventure activities like Para sailing/gliding, Hang gliding, and hot air ballooning have unlimited possibility. There are numerous mountain ridges with meadows at the bottom which can be used for aero sports. Himachal has turned Billing into an international arena for these activities. In Kashmir we have dozens of sites better than Billing with very challenging thermals like the meadows of Kongdori and Khilanmarg below Apharwat which has Gondola lift to the top. Sanasar, Mantalai, and Natha top in Jammu have been tried earlier by foreign aero sports instructors. In fact almost all resorts have possibility of these sports. In addition, to have a tougher challenge one can go to different valleys in Ladakh.

In seventies and eighties the Adventure Tourism had really taken off in Kashmir and it was developing into a world class destination for this specialised sector of Tourism. Unfortunately the upheaval of 1990 and the kidnapping of five trekkers in Pahalgam area gave it a tremendous set back. In fact this activity completely vanished from the valley. Now that the situation is gradually easing out and tourism is on way to revival, it would be advisable to concentrate on this specialised sector of tourism. These activities do not require elaborate infrastructure and are more service oriented. Because of being hazardous in nature, one has to have an efficient organisation of search and rescue supported by a fool proof communication system. Most of the foreign tourists are insured for search and rescue in case of any problems but because of the absence of any reliable private organisation in Himalaya they are reluctant to come here. However, in early nineties we had established an excellent communications net of high frequency radios through tourism department with imported equipment. The link was established between Leh, Kargil, Padam, Srinagr, Kishtwar, Jammu, and Delhi. All expeditions were monitored, and a number of rescue missions were undertaken in collaboration with Air Force and Army. This helped in saving lives of many adventure sports enthusiasts all over the state. I had the opportunity of personally participating in a few rescue missions in Ladakh area. The system can be revived once it is decided to promote adventure tourism on a large scale. In fact, the Indian Mountaineering Foundation has adopted the J & K model and presently rescue and communication equipment is being imported to set up a similar system all over the Himalaya. Most of the Adventure Tourism activities are part of Eco-Tourism in the larger context but one has to regulate these very strictly to avoid damage to fragile mountain environment. One has to aim for sustainable tourism. We must determine the carrying capacity of our areas for these activities and then ensure that we do not exceed the optimum level as is being done in a number of countries. A typical example is Bhutan. The ideal way is to enforce a strict regulatory control over the entry of various expeditions and groups. These can be charged some environment levy to pay for keeping the mountains clean. Such a levy is already being charged by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) from foreign mountaineering expeditions, which gives a share of all these royalties to Himalayan states for undertaking cleaning expeditions. However, trekking groups and some other adventure activity participants are not obliged to go through IMF. These have to be controlled by the local authorities. All these regulatory activities concerning environment and management of different areas can generate appreciable employment. In addition one would need guides, high altitude porters, and trained instructors. These can be recruited from among the local youth in these remote mountain areas and trained in some of the mountaineering institutes already existing in the state such as the Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering in Pahalgam. Developing Adventure Tourism on a larger scale can also give boost to import and sale of some of the specialised equipments required for these activities. In view of these possibilities it would be useful for the State Tourism Authorities to make Adventure Tourism as an important thrust area for future development of tourism in the State. Kashmir, hopefully, would one day become the “Ultimate Destination” for all adventure lovers of the world!

The author is the former Director General Tourism, J&K, and the former Vice-President of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. He can be mailed at: ashrafmjk@gmail.com.

 

 

Heli-Skiing in Kashmir (A story of challenge and persistence)
 

Sylvain Saudan, the “Impossible Skier”, popularly known in France as “Le Skier d’Impossible” was again in international news regarding the narrow escape he and his group had while skiing in Gund area. His helicopter had crash landed due to snow dust which is very usual in powdery snow conditions in winter at such altitudes. The pilot had landed too fast and could not see the landing properly due to cloud of snow dust and this made the helicopter slip into a gorge. Unfortunately Sylvain did not carry his sat phone and could not convey the news of incident and his location to the support party in the hotel. They walked on foot for some distance and then skied down all the way to Dachigam across the ridge and the pilot who could not join them because he had not carried skis, stayed back, and was subsequently picked up by an Air Force helicopter. This is not the first time that he has faced such an ordeal. Earlier also some years back he had similar situation twice while skiing in the same area. In the 1999 crash he almost crushed his ribs. Sylvain’s relationship with Kashmir is a long one and is a story in persistence. It would be interesting to recount the story of this man with an indomitable spirit and a tremendous love for adventure. He is over 70 year old Swiss born skier who lives in Chamonix, France. He is considered to be the father of extreme skiing and that has given him the name of impossible skier. He has the most difficult 18 descents to his credit. In mountains people are usually known for first ascent of high and difficult peaks but he is famous for first descents. He has skied down Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America; Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe; Nun peak in Kargil; and a number of other peaks in Nepal and Karakorum. He has three entries in the Guinness book of records to his credit. Getting into and getting out of dangerous situations is the daily life style of Sylvain Saudan. He has faced worst episodes during his long and chequered life full of adventure. I have had the pleasure of flying with him to almost all possible skiing spots in the valley. It is a treat to watch him ski in deep powder snow with extreme agility even at this age. Person of his age in our part of the world usually stays home and prays for a peaceful end in his cosy home. Not Sylvain. He is always after adventure in almost every part of the world. Be it skiing down Grande Jorasse; heli-skiing in Himalaya; mountain biking in Switzerland; or going for high altitude marathon in the Karakorum. He is every where! His association with Kashmir is very fascinating. He came to Kashmir first time in 1976, more than 30 years back. I had the privilege of bringing him to Kashmir and that too was an interesting coincidence. In 1975 I had been invited to Chamonix in France by its mayor, Maurice Herzog, the most famous French climber who had made the first ascent of Annapurna. During my visit he introduced me to Sylvain Saudan as the most famous and crazy extreme skier of France. Sylvain was at that time looking for 7,000 metre peak in the Himalaya to ski down as he had already skied down the 6,000 metre Mount McKinley. I offered him 7,135 metre high Nun peak in the Suru valley of Kargil. Sylvain came to Srinagar in 1976 with a small team to climb and ski down Nun. However, he had under estimated Nun and had to turn back half way. There was extensive media coverage in Paris claiming that the impossible skier had been beaten for the first time by Nun peak. It gave worldwide publicity to Nun which has become one of the most well known peaks of Himalaya and is frequented by a large number of foreign expeditions every year. In his press conference in Paris on return from Nun after his first failure, Sylvain declared that Nun is a challenge to him and he will not rest until he climbs and skis down the mountain. He came again in 1977 but this time he was well prepared and determined. He successfully climbed and skied down the mountain. After that he went to Nepal and Pakistan and attempted the 8,000 metre mountains; Dhaulagiri and Broad peak. I was always in touch with him and met him a couple of times in Chamonix during my European visits. In 1986, I again met him in Chamonix and asked him about his latest adventure. He had started heli-skiing. This is a sport involving the use of a helicopter to reach high mountain ridges for skiing down virgin slopes. Some of the best skiers prefer to ski down in different unexplored areas as the traditional ski areas are very much crowded and the slopes are beaten up. They like to ski in new areas on powder snow. Kashmir has the world’s best ski slopes with ideal snow conditions. With the use of a helicopter one can ski every day on a new slope in totally different areas. I offered Sylvain the possibility of starting regular heli-skiing programme in Kashmir. He immediately accepted and started his project in 1987. Initially he used a hired helicopter of heli-union of France which he had brought to Kashmir. In spite of the difficult law and order conditions he continued his project through the worst years. It was a real challenge to bring European tourists to Kashmir against the most adverse travel advisories issued by almost all European countries. In a way, Sylvain kept the flag of foreign tourism flying in Kashmir against all odds. However, the hire of the European helicopter was too expensive and he did not find it viable. Subsequently he utilized the state helicopter for sometime. However, there were some problems with the state helicopter and he was forced to discontinue his project. It was a pity that the project was not discontinued because of the situation here but because of administrative problems between the local pilots and the organiser of the programme. He again approached the state government last year and informed that he had now purchased his own helicopter which he brought to Kashmir this winter after he was given permission to restart the programme. It is most unfortunate that his latest effort to revive heli-skiing in Kashmir has received a set back. But Sylvain is not the person who gives up easily. His friends from France had been requesting me for past few years to dissuade him from his heli-skiing project as he had incurred heavy losses. It was not money which was attracting him. He had been completely bewitched by the “Paradise on Earth”. He would always find an excuse to visit Kashmir. The tourism in Kashmir cannot dream of a better advocate in the face of adverse travel advice of European governments. We must appreciate his persistence in promoting Kashmir as an unmatched destination for adventure tourism. It is very rarely that one sees a person going to such extremes for the love of a place. In fact Kashmir tourism can use him as a brand for adventure. “Kashmir, the land of the ultimate adventure is the first love of the impossible skier”. The central as well as the state tourism departments and the tourism industry in general must honour the indomitable spirit and love for Kashmir of this world renowned adventure sportsman. It would be very useful if he is made a brand ambassador of adventure tourism in Kashmir. There is no better way to promote Kashmir among the various adventure tourism markets of the world than to send him on a series of road shows with his dramatic footage of heli-skiing in Kashmir. It is sure that in spite of the recent incident, Kashmir has not seen the last of Sylvain. He will keep on coming and bringing groups of heli-skiers and other adventure lovers here!

 
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