Wearing a red-and-silver ski suit, Kunwar Singh stands at the start of a snow-covered patch on this 3,200-metre-high mountainside in Uttarakhand’s Auli. A winter sun is shining brightly in the clear blue sky, and the 31-year-old, a havildar with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), places his goggles over his eyes before he sets off, tightening his ski gloves, checking his helmet, and clipping his boots onto his skis.
After about 150 metres of swishing and sliding down the slope, he makes a sharp U-turn and brings himself to a halt.
The patch he raced down is carved from artificial snow, laid out for the purpose of skiers such as Singh. But even the ITBP’s best efforts haven’t been able to provide a patch longer than these 150 metres, over a 1,300-metre-long, 30-metre-wide ski slope.
So Singh and six other ITBP skiers make do by doing a dozen odd such short ski runs over the day, climbing every time to the top of the patch. “The constant climb up the slope is more a physical exercise than training for an international race,” Singh sighs.
Thinking that its ski slopes would have enough snow by January, as was the case till about a decade ago, an international downhill skiing race was scheduled in Auli from January 15 to 21 — the first time this race, held under the banner of the Switzerland-based International Ski Federation (FIS), was to be organised in the country. Ninety-two Indian skiers and 21 foreign ones registered for participation.
Roshan Lal Thakur, the general secretary of the Winter Games Federation of India (WGFI), says that competing in the same could have provided the Indian and foreign participants enough FIS points to qualify for the Winter Olympics, being held from February 9 to 25 in South Korea.
However, due to the lack of snow, the race was put off till February 16-22. As a result, no Indian skier will be competing in the downhill ski race event at the Winter Olympics.
All the artificial snow that is available to Singh and the others for training in Auli now was created between December 21 and January 7 at night, when temperatures were below minus 3 degrees Celsius and humidity within the desirable 60 per cent limit. Between January 7 and 26, temperatures in Auli were so high that even making artificial snow was impossible.
On January 23 and 24, marking the season’s first snowfall and rains for Uttarakhand, there was a short spell of snow in Auli. However, says Gambhir Singh Chauhan, principal of the ITBP’s Auli-based Mountaineering and Skiing Institute (M&SI), “The snow was only 10-12 inches. We need at least 18-24 inches of compressed snow for skiing.” Plus, the temperatures started rising soon after, causing the snow to start melting almost immediately.
The countdown to the FIS race isn’t any brighter. This is the fourth January that it hasn’t snowed much in Auli, and the Dehradun Meteorological Centre has predicted “dry” days till February 8 in this high-altitude meadow located in the central Himalayas.
Admitting that the February 16-22 date for the FIS race is “tentative”, Uttarakhand Tourism Secretary Dilip Jawalkar says, “There’s hardly any snow across all the higher reaches.”
For days now, the mountains overlooking the ski slope have been on fire, sparked by the dry, hot conditions that prevail in the absence of both rain and snow. The smoke clouds block the view of the majestic Nanda Devi, India’s second highest peak at 7,815 metres.
Vinod Bhatt, 48, a resident dressed in a jacket and thin trousers, says he has never seen Auli this “sookha (dry)” in January. “We would wear gloves and caps in this month and Auli would be packed with tourists.”
Looking out at the mountain fires from his cabin is Dinesh Bhatt, Manager (Operations) of the chairlift ropeway that takes tourists from the bottom of the ski slope up 800 metres and back, for Rs 300 per ride. The chairlift broke down on December 30, and is yet to be fixed. Bhatt admits they are in no hurry. “Now that the FIS race is postponed, the repair work will take some time,” he says.
Explaining the significance of Auli, the M&SI’s Chauhan says, “It is the only ski slope in the country that qualifies for the FIS race (meeting the international standards of slope length and slope gradient).” The M&SI is the sole ITBP institute that provides training in skiing, mountaineering, and rafting, and most of the 200 skiers training here are its personnel.
It was in the early 1970s that Auli’s potential as a skiing paradise was first noticed, by then ITBP commandant Hukum Singh Pangtey. A skier himself, he felt that its snow-covered, well-structured slopes offered “great potential”. He started by setting up tents and training ITBP personnel, recalls former Garhwal commissioner
S S Pangtey, who would later play a key role too in developing the sport. By 1978, the tents Pangtey set up had grown into the M&SI. Spread over 30 acres now, it annually trains over 250 skiers.
About a decade ago, the slopes in Auli were further groomed, to match international ski standards. However, barring the South Asian Federation Winter Games held in January 2011, no international skiing competition has been held here, till now.
Chauhan frets at the lost training hours due to lack of snow. “In 2015, there was no snowfall so we had to cancel the skiing course. This year, a four-week course is beginning in February second week. But if there’s insufficient snow, we’ll cancel it.”
The lone snow gauge in Uttarakhand is located at Mukteshwar (2,250 metres). Quoting snowfall data from there for 17 years, Dehradun Meteorological Centre Director Bikram Singh says it is difficult to draw a pattern. He says there have been seasons such as between December 2013 and March 2014 when they received up to 57.5 inches of snow, and years like 2006 and 2010 when they struggled to get even 0.5 inches.
However, a study by the Meteorological Centre analysing variation in winter season rainfall and temperatures of Dehradun for December, January and February months over a 30-year period, between 1981 and 2010, concludes that “the winter season rainfall (in Dehradun) shows a decreasing trend”.
Singh attributes the “increasing winter temperatures” and “decreasing winter rains” shown by this study to global warming. And admits, “While there’s no similar study for any other region in Uttarakhand, the results of this study could show some indication for the entire state.”
S P Sati, of the geology department of the Srinagar Garhwal-based Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University, says the angular boulders of Auli are believed to be a result of deposits left by a receding glacier about 20,000 years ago. Given the young age of the Himalayas and that they are still being formed, Sati adds, “Its ecosystem is more sensitive to even slight changes in temperature or rainfall than any other region in the world. Global warming, therefore, is a major threat.”
Other than Auli, the two other popular skiing destinations in India, Gulmarg in J&K and Manali in Himachal Pradesh, too have received “insufficient” snow this season, the WGFI’s Thakur says.
Uttarakhand’s ski industry annually fetches the state government Rs 4-4.5 crore. While there are other skiing locations in the state (like Betuli Dhar) in Pithoragarh district, these are more for amateur skiing, and Tourism Secretary Jawalkar says “our focus is on Auli”. In the last two months, about
Rs 2.5 crore has been spent on preparing the ski slopes for the FIS race, he adds.
Over the past decade, says an official of the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN), responsible for tourism in the state’s Garhwal region, at least Rs 200 crore has been spent on developing Auli as a “world-class” ski destination.
Dilwar Singh Bhandari, a dhaba owner in his early 50s, sells tea, coffee and snacks to tourists at the small outlet in Auli that he has been running for 10 years. There are three other such dhabas here, all run by people whose agricultural land the government acquired in 2007 to develop Auli as a skiing destination.
“January is the peak tourist season, but this time there’s hardly any footfall,” says Bhandari. “Mushkil se 500 rupaye tak kama paata hoon aaj kal, aur usmein bhi tourist ko bula-bula ke apne dhabe par lana padta hai (Even earning Rs 500 a day is a task… I have to gather tourists myself to my dhaba).”
About 100 metres downhill from the dhabas, Shankar Goswami, the front office staff of a 38-room hotel, shows pages of the “bookings” register. “Last year we had 32 rooms booked on this day, this year we have only 10, and the bookings are getting cancelled since there’s no snow,” he says.
Pooja Daga, 28, says she came from Kolkata with an Italian friend, Luca Prete, expecting “lots of snow” in Auli. “I came to learn skiing from Luca, but it seems impossible,” she shrugs.
Other than the ITBP, the GMVN and a few private operators also run skiing courses in Auli. Kamal Kishore Dimri, 45, a ski instructor with the GMVN in Auli, expresses bafflement at “the little or no snow in January for three-four years”.
While 350 people took ski training at the institute between December 2016 and March 2017, this winter only six persons have enrolled with the GMVN so far.
Uttarakhand Tourism Minister Satpal Maharaj plays down apprehensions of changing climate hitting the business. “In the past too, there have been seasons with insufficient snowfall, but we are not sceptical about the future of the ski industry.”
Should the skies fail, all eyes are on the 22 ‘snow guns’ and two ‘snow groomers’, installed at Auli between 2008 and 2010, to whip up as much of the powdery stuff, and to cover as much of the slopes as possible, in time for the race.
Auli has 18 static ‘snow guns’, or snowmaking machines, and four mobile ones. However, the machines can only be used infrequently as each time, foreign engineers have to be brought to check on them, says an official who doesn’t want to be named.
When engineers from Italy first visited Auli in 2009-2010 to assemble and install the machines, Ramesh Kunwar, a GMVN employee, was the only local technician to accompany them. “I learned snowmaking and little bit about maintenance of the machines from them,” he says. However, he doesn’t have any of the required gear, from helmet to work boots.
To create the snow between December 21 and January 7, at night time, the snow guns were supplied with compressed air along with cooled water from Auli’s artificial lake. The lake was built a decade ago, with a storage capacity of 25,000 cubic metres, to supply water for snowmaking.
The mounds of snow created over these 18 nights were, however, not enough. The snow groomers require a certain amount of snow to tread across the slope, so as to compact, level and spread it. So ITBP skiers used shovels to cut through the mounds and lay the snow 1-2 ft high over the 150-metre patch where the skiers currently train.
Collecting some of this snow in his palm and squeezing it for water content, the GMVN’s Kunwar says that ironically, artificial snow can be better for skiing. “The powder is almost dry (drier than natural snow). It is perfect for skiing.” Adds Bhatt, “Artificial snow also stays longer than natural snow as temperatures increase.”
On January 26, a fresh attempt was made to make snow. Kunwar says he worked from 4.30 that evening to the next morning. With temperature at minus 9.5 degrees Celsius and humidity at 40 per cent at 1.30 in the night, Kunwar stepped out in snow shoes borrowed from an ITBP official to operate 11 of the snowmaking machines. As atomised water sprayed from the nozzles of the barrel-shaped machines into the air immediately froze into powdery, “icy snow”. Kunwar, who had been waiting for such ideal conditions for 20 days, felt “a moment of victory”.
By 8.20 am on January 27, the 11 snowmakers had each before them little mounds of artificial snow between 6 and 7 ft high, but with vast dry expanses in between — not enough to be spread out over the slope by even shovels.
Wait is now on for some more snow, natural or manmade, before the FIS race.