Russian skiers triggered Gulmarg avalanche, paid no heed to advisory: avalanche centre

Gulmarg had witnessed an avalanche in a non-ski zone in 2023 too, which left two Polish skiers dead

February 23, 2024 08:02 pm | Updated February 24, 2024 11:12 am IST - SRINAGAR

Brian Newman, an American avalanche forecasted, heads the Gulmarg Avalanche Centre. 

Brian Newman, an American avalanche forecasted, heads the Gulmarg Avalanche Centre.  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The Russian group of skiers, caught in an avalanche including the one who lost her life on February 22, decided to ski in the avalanche-prone zone and triggered the avalanche with their body load in the non-ski zone in north Kashmir’s Gulmarg, according to the investigations carried out by the Gulmarg Avalanche Centre (GAC).

Speaking to The Hindu, Brian Newman, an American avalanche forecaster investigating Thursday’s incident, said the group of eight skiers, including a local guide, decided to ski down from the back country side, which is a non-ski zone where avalanche mitigation is not carried out. The investigation suggested that the group did not follow safety guidelines to ski in risk-prone areas and went ahead with “in spite of very poor visibility and advisory”.

“On Thursday, there were eight individuals on the slope, all at the same time. They exerted force enough to trigger an avalanche. This clearly was dangerous thing to do and asking for trouble,” Mr. Newman said.

The depth of Thursday’s avalanche was around three meters and covered a large distance on the slopes till it hit the ground. One Russian skier got buried and died in the incident.

“Snowpack dynamic is similar to a windowpane. It fractures and propagates out and comes down the mountain. Time is an asset in such cases and the rescue teams do not have more than ten minutes. The fellow skiers could become the first rescuers, if they go one by one on such slopes rather than a group,” Mr. Newman said.

The GAC had identified the size of the avalanche that could hit the area well in advance. “It’s either ignorance or a mistake made by one group that makes skiing in Gulmarg look dangerous, which is not the case,” he added.

Mr. Newman said only skiers with good skills could manage to ski in backcountry zones and incorporate the terrain risks, including of avalanches. “They need to stay above on the ridge. They will trigger an avalanche but will not get pulled away by it, which was not the case on Thursday. If one person triggered an avalanche all the other group members should have affected a rescue operation quickly, as goes with responsible travelling,” he added.

Gulmarg witnessed an avalanche in a non-ski zone in 2023 too, which left two Polish skiers dead.  

“Avalanches don’t strike. Avalanches are triggered and over 90 percent of those avalanches are triggered by skiers or snowboarders. Avalanches don’t strike inadvertently except during heavy storm or due to a lot of winds gathering to create a force,” Mr. Newman said.

According to the records of the GAC, a centre set up in 2007, no skier has died due to an avalanche in the ski zone or green zone in Gulmarg in many years. “The ski area is managed by the ski patrols. Avalanche mitigation is very successful to achieve safety in the skiing area,” Mr. Newman said.

Skiers are drawn into back country slopes for a thrill. “It’s almost like a drug, the passion for powder skiing or snowboarding is a thrill,” Mr. Newman.

In a fresh advisory for Friday, the GAC warned that North and Northeast aspects above 3000 meters have a persistent deep slab risk. “Avalanches triggered will be large, destructive and contain the entire seasonal snowpack down to the ground,” it reads.

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