Dreaming about making Kashmir a great ski destination: Billa Majeed Bakshi

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Billa Majeed Bakshi started guiding in 1996 when there was no gondola or ski lift in Gulmarg, Kashmir. He is the first qualified ski guide in India and was the first guide to introduce freeride in Gulmarg. He is also the founder and main guide of Kashmir Heli ski.

He started a charity program with New Zeal and K2 ski distributor Martin Jones in 2006 in Gulmarg, trained hundreds of locals and provided them with free ski equipment, who now work as ski guides and instructors with many tour operators in Gulmarg.

Now the whole community of Gulmarg is involved in the ski industry. It is Billa’s dream to make Kashmir a great ski destination.

Over the past eight years, Billa has rescued nearly 30 off-piste skiers and snowboarders in Gulmarg who have been caught in avalanches or become lost.

It has transported skiers and snowboarders nearly 15,000 feet across the Himalayas by helicopter to Kashmir since 2011.

The helicopter used for ski touring is also put into service for rescue operations while Billa and her colleagues are part of the rescue operations that require highly skilled skiers.

In conversation with Rising Kashmir’s Misabah Bhat, Billa Majeed Bakshi talks about her work and the potential of heliskiing in Kashmir.

How and when did you start heliskiing?

I was born and raised in Gulmarg and have been skiing since I was four years old. It is my passion for skiing that kept me going.

In 2010, I went to New Zealand to study Snow Science at Otago Polytechnic College after completing my first avalanche course at Temple Basin. I was very keen to become a Heli ski guide and joined Alpine Heli ski in Queenstown, New Zealand. After completing my heli-skiing guide course, I came to Kashmir and in 2011 started heli-skiing in Gulmarg.

Do you collaborate with foreigners in heliskiing?

I don’t have any overseas business partner, but I employ many very experienced foreign ski pilots and guides, some of them have climbed Mount Everest ten times like Dean Stables, Woody, Adrian etc.

How long have you been a heliski guide?

From 2010, I started doing heli-skiing guidance. I did my first season in New Zealand.

Apart from Gulmarg, where else do you organize heli-skiing?

I only heli ski in Gulmarg, the rest of the nine months I live in Canada where I run a hotel with my family.

How many groups do you organize in a season in Gulmarg?

We bring nearly 200 to 300 foreign skiers every season.

What is the quality of the infrastructure for such an extreme ski touring?

We have one of the best mountains for skiing. The high elevation keeps the snow fluffy due to the cold temperature and the mountains are quite steep, making them ideal for skiing.

Do you have a ski school?

I only do Kashmir Heli ski, but my younger brother Rayees runs a Kashmir ski school.

What are the current rates to enjoy heliskiing in Gulmarg and how affordable is it compared to other places inside and outside India?

Heliskiing has always been quite expensive. We charge Rs 95,000 per day for 9 races, so each race costs Rs 10,000. It is cheaper than in Europe.

Other than Gulmarg, where do you think heli-skiing can be done in the Kashmir Valley?

Kashmir has huge potential for heli skiing, you can heli ski in Sonamarg, Pahalgam, Shopian and I think almost in every corner of the valley.

Why don’t the locals go heli-skiing?

For heliskiing you must be an advanced skier and have good skiing skills. For 4 to 5 years some local skiers have been doing heli-skiing which will hopefully increase in the future.

What level of training is required to become a heliski guide?

First of all you need to be a strong and advanced skier and at least you should be 12th with good grades in physics and math.

You must complete a 3-year course, avalanche level 1,2,3 plus some backcountry guide experience.

What is the most difficult situation you have encountered as a heli-skiing guide?

In February 2019, we were heli skiing near the Poonch area called Sunshine Mountain. The snow was superb and the sky was blue. Suddenly we heard a big boom, and we thought it was normal and the Army Jets were training. Our helicopter returned to Gulmarg for refueling.

While waiting for a long time, I contacted my foreign pilot; he was confused, and he said air traffic control won’t let me fly. It was nothing more than a disaster when we heard about the Balakot strike. It took us 8 hours on skis to get back to Gulmarg through the avalanche areas. It was one of the worst situations we have ever faced.

How many people have you saved so far who got caught in avalanches or got lost?

Every year, we rescue many foreign skiers who are lost or caught in avalanches, we have rescued nearly 30 people over the past ten years and most of them have survived.

Most people would describe being a heli-ski guide as a dream job, do you think it is?

Being a Heli ski guide is a dream job for many, you still ski and earn money skiing. It’s a fun job, every day you discover different mountains, and you meet different people around the world. You also learn a lot from their skiing experience.

I will advise all young skiers in Kashmir that you can also become a heliski guide. It has enormous potential in the world, not just in Kashmir. All you have to do is focus and keep going.


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