13 Aug Heli Skiing in Kashmir
Sylvain Saudan, the Impossible Skier , popularly known in France as Le Skier deImpossible 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!