Gilgit-Baltistan:Heli-skiing in the Karakoram

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By Samyra Rashid

Standing on top of the Karakoram mountains for the first time at about 15,000 feet, looking out at what could only be described as a moonscape, miles of undulating snowfields ahead of me, pin-drop silence all around, I felt my heart pounding in my chest. It was the first time since discovering that I would have the opportunity to ski the highest mountain range in the world that I asked myself the question, “What the hell am I doing here?” It was a bit late for second thoughts, however, as the army helicopter that had dropped me off on top of the ridge was out of sight and there was now only one way down… On the two skis attached to my boots!

Two months earlier I had found out that the company I had recently joined, Walkabout Films, was not only active in the field of exceptional wildlife documentary filmmaking; they also organized events based on extreme sports. The CEO of Walkabout Films, Nisar Malik, is an extreme sports enthusiast: he is a former international rower, an expert windsurfer and an accomplished deep-sea diver. One of the first adventure films to come out of Pakistan was one he made for National Geographic called ‘Surfing the Northern Frontier,’ in which he windsurfed the three highest (freezing cold!) lakes of Pakistan for a program called ‘Adventure Challenge.’ So he had conceived of this skiing event several years before, and I just latched on to the opportunity and cajoled, wheedled and manipulated my heart out until he finally realized that there was no way of stopping me, short of chaining me to a large tree in Islamabad while they took off for Skardu.

This event was organized by Walkabout Films in partnership with ISPR (Inter Services Public Relations), so the Army also had to be on board with taking a woman along. I have to say that both Nisar and the ISPR could not have been more supportive. Once they realized I was serious about joining the team of crack international heli-skiers, and that I did indeed have 30 years of skiing experience, they went out of their way to facilitate my participation. Although I am sure they all collectively thought I was mad, they never voiced it and never made me feel anything less than a full and valued member of the ski team.

I first met the rest of the skiers at Islamabad Airport as we launched into a pre-event Press Conference. I wasn’t sure what they would make of me or how friendly they would be, and though we were all a little reserved initially, by the time we deplaned at Skardu after a hair-raising flight over the mountains surrounding the airport, we were already building the bonds of a team faced with adventure, and the excitement was palpable.

It took a couple of hours to get all our bags and equipment (ski and film) collected. I think we had over 100 pieces, and Skardu airport has a very unique baggage handling system. It has a luggage belt on which your bags enter the baggage hall, but it is not a circular belt. It runs in a straight line for about 5 or 6 meters into the hall and then just loops under itself and deposits your bags in a heap on the floor. Consequently, a large pile of bags collects at the end of the belt, crippling feet and bruising the legs of those trying to dig out their luggage from the pile. Needless to say, the foreigners among us found the system quite interesting!

We had a super-impressive army escort to take us from the airport to the Shangrila Resort (where we stayed courtesy of the owner, Arif Aslam Khan), with two jeep loads of highly armed and smart soldiers. They had been assigned to accompany us at all times and even to guard our cabins at night! I’m not sure that such a high level of security was needed as the people in Skardu, especially the locals, were so friendly, but at the end of the day, in the current climate, I can appreciate the Army’s tendency to err on the side of caution and we greatly appreciated their efforts on our behalf.

The skiing kicked off the next day with a trip to the 5 Aviation Squadron Airbase from where we boarded the Mi17, a big helicopter used to ferry us to a location at the base of the mountains. The army pilots, on seeing me jump into their helicopters, asked me how I came to know Urdu. They assumed only a foreign woman would be nuts enough to do this and were shocked to find out that I was a Pakistani.

We set up camp with the press and the army support team in a field near a small village at the base of the mountains. You can only imagine what the villagers thought had descended into their field as tall foreigners dressed in ski-gear and helmets mounted with small cameras, carrying skis and poles and snowboards and backpacks with airbags, now came down from the steps of that helicopter. The village children came running in droves to see what was going on. The looks on their faces were indescribable but swung between disbelief, fear and utter delight.

We got into the smaller Ecureuil Helicopters to take only the skiers up in twos and threes to the base of the runs that our lead guides had selected for the days skiing. Once we were all assembled at the base we would be ferried up again in twos and threes to the top of the runs to ski down.

I can say without reservation that all the foreigners who came (and they came from France, Russia, Serbia, Canada and Switzerland) were blown away and totally awed by what they saw in those mountains. Although they had skied the world over they had never seen anything that even came close to the Karakoram Mountains. The mountains are so big as to make the scale unimaginable till you are standing at the top. You can get an idea of the scale when you see the pictures with the helicopters looking like small gnats against each mountain peak. They are so majestic and forbidding that they make you quake with wonder, especially if you know you are about to be dropped off on top of one of them! To a man all the visitors commented that the trip had far exceeded their expectations, and they all wanted to come back and to bring friends and families to experience for themselves the extreme and unmatched beauty of the Karakorams and the friendliness of the Pakistani people.

For myself, I can only say that the 7 days I spent in Skardu were the most unforgettable days of my life. If I have one regret, it is that we didn’t make it to K2, as bad weather closed in on us the day we should have gone. But there is always next year…

Courtesy: Friday Times

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