Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Gulmarg Nostalgia-XII (First National Winter Games-II)

Once the ski equipment was in Gulmarg, the next task was to fit the skis with bindings. We chose hut 182 as our ski shop and job was given to Asaf and Farid. Asaf apart from being a technical genius had all the requisite equipments. We had also included some fitting tools and equipments in the import. These could be handled by Asaf only.
Going full steam ahead, they had over 100 skis fitted in just couple of weeks. Now we had to take care of the logistics. General Prem Hoon, ordered the Srinagar corps to help. The Chief of Staff held a meeting in High Altitude Warfare School where all requirements like preparation of slopes, rescue measures including a helicopter were finalised. General Hoon had ordered temporary transfer of two snow machines from Siachin to Gulmarg for the Games. These were given to Brigadier Pant, the Commandant of HAWS to prepare route to Khilanmarg and beyond. In the meantime, the advance course of the School was given the task of preparing the racing slopes. The representative of the French equipment supplier was scheduled to come few days before the games to assist in setting up and operation of electronic start and finish gates. These were being used in Gulmarg for the first time. So far we had been using manually operated stop watches which involved human errors. The new system was fool-proof. It was decided to hold four events. Downhill, Giant Slalom, Slalom, and Cross Country Race. Committees were set up to lay the courses. Invitations had already been sent by the Winter Games Federation and almost 200 competitors were expected.
Two days before the competition, General Hoon flew in a helicopter to Gulmarg. He went straight to Hotel Highland Park where a meeting was held to review the arrangements. The meeting looked like an Army Operations Conference. There were over 30 officers present and from the civilian side there were hardly 4 to 5 persons including me. The first question General asked was about the route to Khilanmarg. Brigadier Pant said that their troops had made a very good track to Khilanmarg and beyond. The slopes had been continuously beaten and prepared. All rescue arrangements like the helipad etc were completed. The only problem was that the snow machines had not been able to go up the nose dive obstacle near Khilanmarg and they were trying to go ahead. General Hoon ordered immediate transfer of the two machines to Colonel Bhattacharya of the Mountain Division and told him that he would be going to Khilanmarg next morning at 0600 hours accompanied by me. General was really a go getter. Next morning at exact 0600 hours the machines came to Hotel to pick up General and me and in just half an hour we were in Khilanmarg.
On the day of the competition, we had brilliant sunshine. It was very warm and one could just go in a sweat shirt only. The races started on time. The Frenchman Perino was operating the electronic gate at the finish. We were getting times up to hundredth of a second. Competitors were taken to the start gate in snow machines. These were also on stand by for any rescue. Races carried on smoothly. There were many surprises. Local boys from Gulmarg did very well. Ghulam Mohammad Hajam, a local boy from Gulmarg area won the race with flying colours. During the course of these races which continued for three days, the Winter Games Federation was also selecting probable competitors for participation in the Asian Winter Games at Sapporo, Japan. For this trials were held for two days. There was only one accident during the races and it resulted in a dramatic rescue. One local girl from Srinagar while participating in Slalom Race hit a gate pole and fell. She had fractured her leg. As soon as the girl fell and did not get up, the doctor in a snow machine reached the spot in less than a minute. He radioed that the girl has a fracture and needs evacuation. The helicopter started its engines and the girl was carried in the snow machine to the helipad. We saw the helicopter taking off within just 10 minutes of the accident. She was taken straight to Srinagar hospital were she received immediate treatment. The whole process seemed like a scene from a Hollywood movie. Perino, the French expert told me that they did not have such quick rescues in their country!
At the end of the event medals were conferred on the winners and a dinner was hosted by the Tourism Department. The team for Sapporo ultimately had almost all the players from J & K. Among the men, Hajam and Shabir were selected. In the women category Lorita, wife of Freddie the son of Highland Park Hotel owner Colonel Benjie Nedou and Hafiza from the Youth Services Department were selected. In the cross country section, two army players from the High Altitude School were selected. K K Sharma of the Youth Services was detailed as the official coach. I was selected to be the Manager of the team and General Hoon as the Chef de Mission. The final departure of the team had an interesting sidelight. The Sports Ministry refused to allow two people to accompany the team as officials. We were told that the Manager can also act as Chef de Mission. I offered to stay back as I had to leave for an official eight week tour to French Alps arranged by the French Government. There was a Bengali deputy secretary, Bhattacharya, who told me not to drop out as they wanted to eliminate the General. They were not very fond of Army Officers! However, I conceded my place to General Hoon and he led the team. It did very well there. Among men Hajam secured sixth position and among women, Lorita got the fifth position. They were both awarded diplomas for being among the first six winners of the races. It was really commendable to have secured such positions in the very first attempt of participation in an international event. Subsequently, one of the skiers from Gulmarg, Gul Mustafa Dev participated in Winter Olympics at Calgary, Canada. These National Games and subsequent events showed that Gulmarg had the potential to produce international level skiers. Only requirement was encouragement and patronage which has been mostly missing. G M Hajam who had secured a position in the Asian Winter Games at Sapporo has not till date been given encouragement or an award by the State Government. One would have expected Omar Abdullah who has himself been skiing at Gulmarg from early childhood to be too keen to encourage the local people! Somehow, due to his over busy schedule such things seem to slip from his mind. Let us hope he remembers these people in Gulmarg who can be the real backbone of the future development of the resort! I nostalgically remember these people and would describe some of these in more detail in next few episodes.

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