The sun is mild and Gulmarg has been seeing days of heavy snow and minus 10 degrees Celsius nights. It means busy hours for Brian Newman, the ‘Snow Safety Officer’ hired for three months every year by the J&K Tourism Department to ensure safe skiing on Gulmarg’s popular slopes.
Newman was up at 6.30 am today, and having checked the weather prediction and had a quick breakfast in front of his computer, reached the base office, located 3,000 metres above sea level, by 8.30 am. Today is ‘avalanche reduction day’, which means a team of 16 whom he supervises will carry out monitored blasting to rule out avalanches. The decision is taken depending on the previous day’s weather.
Newman briefs the men, who between themselves do everything from monitoring snow safety to patrolling and rescue, before they head out to the higher reaches for the blasting work. One can’t be too careful, Newman says. “There can be dire consequences. Recently, at a ski resort in France, two patrollers were killed during explosives work. My job as a leader is not to be a superstar, but ensure everything is done safely.”
Apart from ruling out avalanches, this entails issuing daily advisories to visitors. While the Met station in Srinagar provides tips, Newman creates his own weather data and also updates advisories on Facebook.
The alpine slopes of Gulmarg, considered among the best for skiing in the world, draw hundreds of visitors, including professionals. However, they are also prone to avalanches, which is where Newman comes in.
Says Nasir Mehmooh Khan, Assistant Director, J&K Tourism, and the department’s resort officer in Gulmarg, “We call for tenders from professionals and the one who is eligible and has the required expertise is finally selected. For three months, we pay around US $9,000 (Rs 6.39 lakh).”
Putting together a team has been difficult, Newman says. “They had no training in snow science, their rescue training also had to be refined,” he says. Another problem was sourcing the explosives. “We approached the military, but they didn’t have the ideal explosives,” smiles Newman, adding that what they need are mining-grade explosives.
Their blasting work done, most of the team returns to the base by 11 am. Two men continue to stay at the top for patrolling, as the slopes open for the day for visitors.
Newman explains that the main area that has been made free of avalanches by them is designated the ‘green zone’. Anything outside is called ‘back country’, meaning wild terrain, and it is up to a skier if he or she wants to venture into that area. “We issue international ratings for the back country and avalanche conditions so that a person coming from Switzerland or California can understand the risk involved.” The ratings are low, moderate, considerable, high and extreme.
At 12.15 pm, as his team is updating some records, Newman, gazing out of a window of the office, spots that the grooming machine that readies the snow for skiing and snowboarding isn’t working. A staff member who coordinates with the entire team, known as the dispatcher, tells him that the machine is being cleaned.
Around 1 pm, a teenager from a Srinagar school enters the room. As she takes a seat opposite Newman, he greets her with an As-salamu alaykum and asks in Kashmiri, “Warie chukka (Are you well)?” The girl is an avid skiier, he adds. “I want her in my ski patrol team. She is fantastic. There are no women here; it is a city of men. There should be women. It is a big lapse.”
During his frequent visits here, Newman adds, he has picked up Kashmiri words and can follow a conversation. Apart from that, he also knows basic Urdu. He again lapses into Kashmiri with an acquaintance at the small kitchen near the patrol base, asking him whether he has had lunch.
Newman is in the middle of a cup of tea, after having rice and vegetables, when a ski patroller comes to say two people have come to see him. They are from J&K State Cable Car Corporation Ltd, and are here for discussions on better coordination with his team.
Newman says his operations would come to a halt without the cable car staff. “I communicate to them our plans for the next day and what is needed. If we are going up in the morning, they are very important.”
At 4.15 pm, a group of skiers enter the base room. Among them is Javier E Santo, a PhD researcher on artificial intelligence from Mexico. This is his fourth time in Gulmarg and, Santo says, “definitely not my last”. “Gulmarg is great because Kashmiri people are very welcoming, the food is great and the nature spectacular. I especially like how they care about their natural resources.”
Newman says the number of guests varies from year to year. While funds from the government would help, the situation in Kashmir is definitely a factor, he says. “A lot of people coming here from outside the country check their government pages regarding what to do. Most such pages tell them not to go to Kashmir… There are other factors too, such as economic and the amount of snowfall the previous winter.” What Newman remains disappointed though about is the lack of enough Kashmiris on the ski slopes.
Still, things do go wrong for the skiers, and 90 per cent of the calls received at the patrol base are from people who have met with an accident. “We receive around two calls per week. When we come to know someone is injured, we rush rescue teams. In extreme cases, we use a private helicopter. Anyone can also contact us via the radio.”
Speaking about one of his most difficult rescue operations, Newman says, “We had a person from Norway in 2013. He was probably 150 kg. He broke his leg. We got the message around 5.30 pm, the rescue operation lasted till early morning.”
By 4.30 pm, Newman starts packing his bags to ski to his residence, which is located in main Gulmarg. “At home, I will check the weather again and plan for tomorrow. I also remain in touch with the senior patrollers. If there is any avalanche or any rescue, I have to come up.”
Every Tuesday, he also holds awareness talks. A day earlier, Newman had been called as chief guest to a Srinagar school where children had completed a skiing course in Gulmarg.
Originally from the US, Newman started out as a ski patroller in Colorado, back in 1990. Now settled in France, he says he came to the Valley the first time in 2007. “I was approached by an Australian attorney, who had business interests here, which included expanding this ski resort. I helped develop the resort.”
What keeps bringing him back is his relationship with the Kashmiri people, he adds, though there has been some bad blood with the Tourism Department over some salary cuts. “The people I work with are now a community which I am very close to. Kashmiri generosity and friendliness are also a part of me. Also, I am invested in this programme because I developed it,” he says.
As Newman straps on his skis and talks about surrendering to nature, it is evident the relationship may not end anytime soon. Ask him his age and Newman smiles: “Just say young and handsome.”