Heli-Skiing Makes a Comeback in Peaceful Kashmir

by Tanya Thomas on  March 14, 2010 at 8:18 AM Lifestyle News
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The awe-inspiring Himalayan slopes of war-torn Indian Kashmir represent one of the last frontiers for daredevil skiers.

Now, with violence on the wane and a new heli-skiing service offering access to incredible descents in virgin snow, the region is looking to attract the well-heeled practitioners of the extreme sport.

After securing government clearance, a Switzerland-based company started a heli-skiing service on Sunday, reviving a practice thwarted for years by violence and red tape that sees skiers taken by helicopter and dropped on remote peaks.

Priced at 9,000 euros (12,300 dollars) per person per week, trips will be available up to early April, forming part of a trend that has seen the violence-weary area revive its adventure sport industry as fighting declines.

The package includes flights from the client's country and also hotel and local transportation.

French skier Andre Bianchini, a 48-year-old mountain guide from the French Alps, was one of the first to head out this week and he plans to come back.

"I've fallen in love with the mountains here. Unlike Europe, they're mostly untouched and there are no crowds," he told AFP. "The view of the valley from a helicopter is out of this world."

Himalaya Heliski had been waiting for civil aviation ministry approval in the highly militarised zone since the start of the winter season.

More than 700,000 tourists, foreign and domestic, used to visit Kashmir annually before an insurgency against Indian rule erupted in 1989. Numbers are only now recovering after nosediving when the violence started.

"We are reviving heli-skiing as violence is declining," Nawang Rigzin Jora, the minister of tourism in Kashmir, told AFP.

Unrest has dropped sharply since India and Pakistan, which administer the region jointly but claim it in full, launched a peace process in January 2004.

The daily death toll has fallen from about ten in 2001 to less than two in 2009, according to police figures, though most Western countries still advise their citizens against visiting the Muslim-majority region.

Kashmir is host to Gulmarg, India's top ski resort, which has the highest ski lift in the world, climbing to more than 4,000 metres (13,100 feet).

It drew a few thrill-seeking foreigners even during the worst days of the insurgency and this season saw hundreds more skiers from Britain, Scandinavia, Australia and North America come to sample its powder.

The resort boasts thousands of metres of untracked vertical descent and virtually no restrictions on off-piste skiing.

Sylvian Sudan from Himalaya Heliski, which heads to isolated peaks in a different area from Gulmarg, said he had 30 clients booked for this year and expects "many more" next year.

"This is the revival year. It will send out a message that today Kashmir is safe and everything is normal," says Sudan.

The company started heli-skiing in Kashmir in 1988, a year before the eruption of an anti-India insurgency that has claimed 47,000 lives according to the official count.

It suspended its activities in 1990 and since then it has struggled to establish a permanent service. In 2007 its chopper plunged into deep snow -- fortunately without causing injuries.

Next year a New Zealand-based company in collaboration with Gulmarg Heli-Skiing, a local company, will also step in to offer a competing service.

It had bookings from 200 foreigners for trips this winter, but was unable to get the clearances in time, said Abdul Hameed, the owner of Gulmarg Heli-Skiing.

Other activities such as hiking, river rafting and snow-cycling are also undergoing a revival in Indian Kashmir, with both locals and foreigners taking part.

"Trekking and mountaineering has picked up over the years and many foreigners and Indians can be seen enjoying the treks alongside locals," said Farooq Shah, head of Kashmir's tourism ministry.

Source: AFP

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