Kashmir Heli Skiing
A Pilot‘s Story by Marcus Aulfinger
My Kashmir adventure started the way most of stories start. I was out with friends, one of whom is a flight attendant and she asked “Do you know anyone who is a mountain experienced H125 (actually she said AS 350 B3) pilot and wants to fly for 3 months in a heli-skiing operation in Kashmir?” Not understanding at all what that meant in detail, I answered “Off course. He is sitting right in front of you”. For the past years I had heli-skiing in Kashmir as a skier on my bucket list, but flying there seemed like an even better option. I have heard about Kashmir as being one of the most amazing skiing areas due to its extreme dry powder but at the same time, one of the most dangerous areas in the world.
After the division of British-India into Pakistan and India in 1947, the Maharadja of Kashmir decided Kashmir would become an independent country. This led to decades of fighting and war amongst the neighboring countries with different religious interests. In 1949 the United Nations established the 500 miles long ‘line of control’, a military controlled area between India and Pakistan that still exists today. The serious tensions between the nuclear powers India, Pakistan and China has military analysts seeing a high risk of a nuclear dispute between India and Pakistan starting over this mountainous region of little more than 7 million inhabitants. This tension led former US president Bill Clinton in 2000 to call Kashmir ‘the world’s most dangerous place'. Even though the situation has settled since 2004, Kashmir still belongs to one of the most troubled regions of the world.
Like most of his friends Billa Bakshi, a young Kashmir native in his mid-thirties has been skiing all his life. They used wooden skis to tour their mountains and with the first adventurers who came to Kashmir for skiing, he saw a chance to develop a guide business. While being In New Zealand to become a ski guide, he developed the idea to bring heliskiing to Kashmir. After years of convincing ministers from his idea and fighting his way through the Indian bureaucracy, he managed to get the necessary permission. Together with a partner from New Zealand they started to operate a helicopter out of the town of Gulmarg, in sight of the line of control.
Gulmarg was already a summer retreat for British civil servants in the 19th century. Indian planners realized the treasure of this place, at an altitude of 9.000ft, and developed a mountain resort with several hotels and a golf course. Still, overall infrastructure does not yet compare with western standards. Going up the pass road leading to Gulmarg is an adventure in itself. The government has built the highest cable car in the world here, carrying skiers to Mount Apharwat at 13.500ft. A chair lift was also installed in 2011 with a few slopes being prepared.
Skiing is legendary as the dry air that comes with altitude brings extremely powdery snow and unprepared slopes. It's usually in early January, when climatic conditions bring lots of moist air from the ocean and snowfall starts, bringing up to 50ft of snow within a week. Endless backcountry trails and wild terrain through forests, around trees and through powdery snow is what the adventure-seeking skiers are looking for.
After my spontaneous confession of interest, I sent my CV to Billa. Two phone calls later, I not only had the job, I was now the lead pilot with the mission to bring two more qualified pilots for the six-week peak season. I picked two good friends of mine, one a highly experienced Swiss pilot who also was my mountain flying instructor in Switzerland and the other being a longtime friend, with who I ferried helicopters through the US and whose passion is to land his private helicopter and fixed wing aircraft on Swiss glaciers every winter.
The H125 helicopters were to come from UTAir, a Russian company with a subsidiary in Delhi and one of the largest helicopter operators in the world. Despite being used to German bureaucracy, I was surprised by the even more thorough Indian administration. To get my European license validated, I had to go to Delhi for at least 5 days to get familiarized with UTAir's operation manuals, had to bring all kinds of confirmations from the European authorities, file tons of papers and finally pass an interview with the Indian DGCA. The day after the interview, I was on my way to Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir. My first impression was the heavily armored military presence on the airfield, at immigration and while exiting the airport. After a highly adventurous drive from the capital, I arrived in Gulmarg. It took another 10 days of waiting in a backpacker style hostel until the final permissions for the operation arrived and the two H125 helicopters (one B3+ and one B3e) were flown in by Indian pilots from Delhi. The next day, I passed my check ride with one of the few helicopter inspectors in India who happened to be extremely afraid of landing in loose snow. So finally I was holding my three-month validation in my hands and was legal to fly.
We didn’t have to wait long for the first famous snowfall. One of the next nights brought almost 10ft of powder and covered our two helicopters in snow. One of my biggest concerns was maintenance for the planned 100 flight-hours per helicopter but we had two awesome and extremely knowledgeable mechanics for each helicopter. They prepared the helicopters every morning and presented it ready with an open logbook for me to get the acceptance signature. Being used to do my own preflight check every morning, I had to be very careful the first days not to make my opening all cowlings again look as if I didn’t trust them.
The short and heavy snowfall creates one of the main hazards for skiers – avalanches! There is a non-profit organization that provides mountain safety and avalanche education with daily snow assessments and bulletins. But as there are no snow patrols and prepared slopes, the risk of being caught by an avalanche is very real. Skiers usually use avalanche air bags and transmission equipment but as insurance usually doesn’t cover rescue costs for backcountry skiers, Billa had made a decision to only do search and rescue if the costs were covered. Despite this, our chief guide from New Zealand used the first days to familiarize our mixed Kiwi and Kashmiri crew with avalanche rescue procedures, how to use our avalanche transceiver and how to get safely in and out of a toed-in helicopter.
Typical runs were three groups of usually one ski guide plus four skiers that had to be flown to a landing spot that was picked by the lead guide every day. The views over the Himalayan Mountains were breathtaking on every single run. With Gulmarg lying on the Pir Panjal range west of the capital Srinagar, our flights were overlooking the Kashmir valley towards the eastern Karakoram mountain range with the famous 28,000ft K2 or towards the 26,000ft Nanga Parbat. Every group went down the same run and our two helicopters picked them up 3,000ft lower and flew them to a different spot afterwards. Most of our endless landing spots were between 13,000 and 13,500ft altitude but some were as high as 15,000ft so weight and fuel calculation was crucial. Although we were only around five flight minutes away from our base most of the time, dispatch communication and emergency response in case of avalanches was very limited. We hardly had radio coverage due to the high mountains and the fact that the military jams all non-aviation radio frequencies due to Pakistan’s proximity. We were on a daily flight plan, that had to be released by the military every morning and make an, ‘operations normal’ call to ATC every 30 minutes. Some days a military ‘Cheetah’ (the Indian version of the Lama) or ‘Dhruv’ (similar in size to a BK 117 and developed by Airbus helicopters and built in India at HAL) that patrolled the ‘line of control’ or landed at the local High Mountain Warfare School crossed our flight path after being announced by air control.
Although there are a few Bell 407s in India, the H125 is the helicopter of choice in the Himalayas due to its power. Funnily enough, the B or B2 models are unknown in India and everybody just talks about the 'B3'. Due to the high density altitude, we were close to being maxed out on every flight so approaches and landings require a good understanding of winds and terrain to make good use of the limited power and always have a potential get-away strategy.
The biggest challenge however was the extremely light and dry powder that created heavy white out on nearly every landing and called for a special approach technique. Most landings were on mountain ridges so you always had one or more fly-away alternatives before making a final landing decision. Every landing spot was marked with a bamboo pole that stuck about 5 ft out of the snow. The limitation in power was not the problem as due to the heavy white out, hovering was not an option anyways. The approach needed to be perfect and after the final landing decision every landing had to go to the snow. With a faster than normal approach and always keeping the pole in sight, the skids are sinking into the top lawyer of 30 ft of powder simultaneously with the pole touching the nose right in front of your windshield. The bear paws on the skids were pretty much useless and every landing ended with the helicopter sitting on its belly. Sometimes, when I shut the helicopter down to wait for my group of skiers and got out of the helicopter, I fell into five-foot of snow. I basically had to hold on my skids and climb up to get back in the helicopter.
With Gulmarg lying on a high plateau around 3,000ft higher than the 135km long and 32km wide Kashmir valley, weather changes were pretty much foreseeable and gave enough warning to evacuate all groups of skiers, an exercise that took a total of about 30-40 min. Several times, the Kashmiri saying, 'all the bad comes from Pakistan', has proven to be right when the weather change came over the line of control mostly just before noon. The mountains were fogging in within 10 minutes so the only choice was to get down on one of our landing sites quickly and hope for the afternoon sun to burn off the fog again. We were lucky as we never had to stay overnight and our customers didn't have to ride down the valley and wade through water for about 3 hours to get to the next town where they could have been picked up by car. For us this would have meant using our overnight rescue bags that we carried in the baggage compartment for an unexpected lay over. Although the military has numerous protection shelters, considering the cold temperatures and the local snow leopards going on hunt at night, I preferred to not to be stuck outside the helicopter somewhere on the mountain.
You might wonder, as did I, why the company did not use Indian pilots? There is a good number of former military pilots that flew for the Indian Army in the Himalayas and they should be able to fly those missions. I talked to the Indian pilots who flew helicopters on daily basis in India and they are just not trained in such a way that suits heliskiing. Most of them flew on larger helicopters like Russian Mi-17 and not used to doing utility work. They were never trained and had no experience in external long line work or in landing at unprepared landing sites. Consequently it's the safer choice to bring in international pilots for these flights.
For me, flying the H125 for heliskiing in the Himalayas was definitely a challenge! About 1,000 landings on unprepared sites in high elevations requires full attention and leaves little room for errors. And that is just the flying aspect. The missing infrastructure (hardly any running water for showering, very limited phone and internet or other entertainment, simple food and poor hygiene, etc) and the Kashmiri way of life and work ethics demand a lot of personal tolerance. Although Kashmiri are very proud of their country and refer to it as 'paradise on earth' for the beauty of nature, it was not my idea of “paradise”.
Spending three months in Gulmarg was an amazing experience that I would not have wanted to miss. It is one of these lifelong memories to talk about around a bonfire or a dinner table. It's one of those “just do it” things and I am happy to be able to scratch it off my personal bucket list!