by Col. Narinder Kumar, PVSM, AVSM
A Couple of years ago during Christmas, I stood at the bottom of St. Anton’s cable car station in Austria. I felt like a sheep herded together among thousands. The individual in this mass of humanity had hardly a square foot to stand upon. No individual movement was possible. It was the whole mass, which moved. I was so astonished by the ski explosion around me that I hardly felt that I had waited two hours there to get the cable car.
And then, 50 of us were packed in a 16 ft x 12 ft cable car hung by wire. Three men had to push the bulging door from outside with all their strength before it could be locked. If you are as short as I am, you will understand how important height is for survival. I could hardly get enough oxygen. I realized then why the shorter species of trees had so little chance to grow in a thick jungle.
After 15 minutes of ‘black hole’ experience, we got out into biting cold on the top of a mountain. It took a couple of minutes to fix skis and off went the humanity. There was not a soldier left on the spot except the cable car man. Everybody was rushing down on skis. After receiving direction from the cable car man regarding the 12 kms long run, which I wanted to do, I also set out. All problems seemed to be behind me. Then onwards it was just an ecstasy. Even floating on the clouds could not be as life – giving as running down on the soft snow. The wind cut into my skin as I went faster and faster, turns after turn, leaving behind mountains of snow.
Despite all these wonderful feelings, there was perhaps a little fear as to what would happen if I had a fall at 50 miles an hour. Skiers are afraid of falls not because they are afraid of getting hurt, but a fall means three months in plaster and the end of the season. I personally feel life would be not worth living if the elements of risk and speed were not there. Even when you get tired, the rhythm in you keeps you going.
And then the shock when you coverage on the mass of humanity which has collected around the down station of the cable car. I could hear some American condemn Austrians for publicizing their ski resorts without adequate arrangements. I agreed with them, especially when I had to wait for another two hours just to get my lunch.
But Austrians were really not to blame. How could they know that millions would be skiing in their resorts and where there were only 5,000 beds, 10,000 would coverage? The rates at which the ski population has been increasing is tremendous and unless there is a corresponding increase in the number of ski resorts there will always be unmanageable crowds on ski slopes. By the end of World War II, there were only five million skiers. Now there are some 100 million and they are increasing at the rate of 5 million a year. Every third Austrian, every fourth Swiss and many seventh Japanese ski.
What area the factors causing this ski explosion? Firstly, with the help of modern safety equipment, the number of accidents has been reduced considerably. When I learnt my skiing 20 years ago at Gulmarg, every second man broke his limb and most of the remainders had minor to severe sprains. I do not want to give a wrong impression that there are no accidents nowadays. Through about 1 percent of the people will still break their legs; the old saying – when your skis get struck in the snow, either your knees or your skis will break – is no truer. We have now safety devices, which release your skis from your feet as soon as you have a bed fall. During the Christmas week Jhunjhunwala, Managing Director 0of the Rajasthan Spinning Mills from Delhi, while enjoying his skiing had a bad fall and broke his leg at two places. Unlike other Indian families, his children took the tragedy in their stride and kept skiing unmindful of the consequences.
The second important factor in causing this ski explosion is ski lifts which are used to bring up skiers to the top of snow slopes. Skiing which sometime back used to be a tough mans sport, can now be enjoyed by anyone who can walk, even by those who can walk on crutches. The age limit of my students varied between seven and seventy. In fact, I am proud to have initiated a 62 year old retired Brigadier into skiing. My children started at the age of 30 months.
Thirdly, with new and more scientific ski teaching methods, one can now learn as much skiing in one week as one used to, previously in a month. Fourthly, in the developed countries, the common man now has more leisure and money can afford this expensive sport. Skiing, which was till recently an exclusive pastime for highly placed men and royalty, is now a common man’s sport in European countries. Now you can see kings and commoners rubbing shoulders on ski slopes. Last, but not the least is the après – skiing. There is no doubt that after the day’s hard work people are more relaxed to enjoy the hectic activities of the evenings. The atmosphere is just right and there are lots of people who go to a ski resort to participate in the après ski activities instead of skiing.
BOOM IN BUSINESS
The ski business has brought boom to many professions. In America alone the internal airlines make more than Rs. 10 crores annually by flying skiers to ski resorts. In St. Moritz in Switzerland, every winter 500,000 beds are booked for skiers. At Kufstein in Austria, a modest carpenter shop started making skis as a side business some time ago; now it employs over 1,000 men and makes 250,000 skis a year. The average price of the pair of skis is Rs. 800/-.
In Austria alone 200,000 enthusiasts learn skiing every year. There are more than 3,000 ski teachers who are kept busy. At Gulmarg there are 20 teachers of international standard. Some of them have had their advance training in Austria.
There is a ski artist in America who charges Rs. 30,000 for a ski drawing for ski magazines to charge Rs. 40,000 for a page of advertisement.
During my last visit to Davos Dorf the Swiss ski resort, I asked the manager of the parsen Bahn (the ski lift system) now much money he made in a day. He quickly calculated and quoted about Rs. 1 lakh. This is not much, by any standard, compared to more sophisticated ski resorts.
There is a success story that a tailor, at one of the ski resorts, became a millionaire just by stitching trousers which can be fit over the plastered legs. The story may or may not true but in Austria alone there were over 75,000 ski accidents in one winter and the Kitzbuhl hospital treated more than 500 broken legs. People do joke about booking their beds in hospital before they go skiing.
A good ski resort has a promise many things. Firstly, the resorts should have all types of slopes, easy one for beginners and more difficult one for others. For advanced skiers, not only should the slopes be sufficiently challenging but they should be long and manicured properly. In Europe there are hundreds of snow beating machines which play up and down the mountains to press the newly fallen snow. In Gulmarg we use human machines. We have issued skis to daily wage laborers who keep pressing the snow. It is a slow but good method. Gulmarg has potentialities of giving slopes 15 km long. It can boast of some of the best slopes in the world.
Once the slopes are ready, there should be sufficient means of transport system to take up the skiers. T- Bars are used where there is a gradual rise and a skier is hauled up while he is standing on his skis. This is the cheapest method. When there are ups and downs in the terrain, a chairlift is installed. This has the added advantage of being used in summer also. When it is not possible to follow the ground at all the plunging from one top to another is essential, cable cars are used. But these are most expensive to build. At Gulmarg we have a 500 meter chairlift and three T bars. Our longest prepared slope is 2 km long and natural slopes for summer skiing are more than 10 km long.
An efficient rescue system is a must for a ski resort. The work involves having a warning system locating accident spots and giving first aid to causalities and removing them to hospital. As the skiing grows and people go higher up in the mountains, new problems of protecting skiers from avalanches arise. Skiers in high altitude are in constant danger of avalanches which killed thousands of people in Europe in 1961.
Gulmarg is no exception so far as avalanches are concerned. I remember the first winter when I took over as principal of the Indian Institute of skiing and mountaineering and took my boys upto Kilanmarg (11,000 ft) for racing. We had a heavy snowfall at night and I smelt danger and brought down everybody. Within eight hours of pour vacating the Kilanmarg hut, a huge avalanche was let loose and no trace of the structure was left. The bigger avalanches can ruin entire villages. One of them is said to have killed 4,000 people in South America.
Another important component of a ski resort is a good ski school. Most of the tourists want ski lessons and competent ski teachers are a necessity. At Gulmarg, INDISAM which trained 19 ski teachers, has employed most of them. This institute, apart from giving hundreds of lessons to tourists, is also running ski courses of 21 days each. In about a years time, more than 160 students from all over India. Are benefited from the courses.
The most popular type of skiing is the downhill variety (see box on the changing turns), which is a kin to the earliest type of skiing where people just walked on snow from one point to another. It gives a very satisfying exercise to the elderly people without breaking their legs. Mountaineers have started ski mountaineering in which they carry their skis to the top of the mountain and ski down. The ski jumping is the most spectacular form of skiing in the World and has been gaining in popularity. A ski jumper can take a leap in the air over 500 ft.
Apart from skiing, ski resorts should be able to give higher snow fun to people who do not want to ski or are afraid of breaking their limbs. At Gulmarg we have facilities for sledging, ice skating and similar sport.
All these problems make a ski resort a difficult proposition, administratively and technically. But if we want to dig white gold, we have to work hard for it.