Features Editor Bronwen Gora checked out the World’s highest hell experience, Himachal, at Manali, India.
A small, dusty, deserted aerodrome in a far-flung part of northern India is not the kind of place where the ski trip of a lifetime normally starts. But when the clatter of helicopters filled the sky before the machines landed at Pinjore Flying Club with a cargo of smiling skiers, it started to sink in that a long-held dream was about to come true.
What truly made it hit home though was seeing the helicopters. Their sides were emblazoned with the words “Himachal – Ski the Himalayas”. Goosebumps ran down my spine.
Before long our small group of skiers hailing from Australia, America and Austria took off on a 40 minute flight over the Himalayan foothills, above an amazing landscape of mountainsides covered in terraced farms, villages and winding roads.
The Himalaya’s snow-covered peaks eventually appeared and below us the town of Manali, spread out along the Kullu Valley. Just as amazing was landing right behind our luxury accommodation, the Manuallaya Resort & Spa, where the helipad is just metres from the back door.
So began the adventure of a lifetime skiing the “roof of the world”, literally skiing’s highest experience where descents can be 5km long and the views just as distracting as the skiing.
Our host for the week was Himalayan Heli Adventures, commonly referred to as Himachal. Right from the start we knew that we were in good hands. On arrival the ever-smiling and gracious staff welcomed us on the helipad, handing out woven hats made by local craftsmen and proffering trays of drinks and Indian sweets. We instantly felt right at home.
The first afternoon after the long trip from Australia (Sydney-Singapore, Singapore-Delhi, overnight stay in Delhi before flying Delhi-Chandigarh and then from the nearby Pinjore Flying Cub to Manali) was spent enjoying our first Indian/European style buffet lunch before relaxing and readying ourselves for dinner. Six days of fairly stable weather lay ahead we learned. Although in a place like the Himalayas, where the mountains have a mind of their own, we soon learned each day involved deciding when to fly simply by looking out the window.
HHA was established just over 20 years ago after maverick Melbournian Roddy Mackenzie took it upon himself to spend two seasons studying the terrain around Manali. With an Everest climb under his belt, nothing was going to stop him establishing what is still the one and only helicopter skiing operation in the world’s highest and largest mountain range.
While Roddy is still heavily involved in the running of HHA, the operation was recently sold to Indian and Swiss interests and the new operators are again spreading the word about the wonders of helicopter skiing the Himalayas.
After 30-plus years of skiing around the world this particular trip stands apart from all others. For a start, once dropped with your guide atop one of hundreds of peaks available to HHA, the enormity of the surroundings is breath taking both literally and figuratively. The landscape is astonishly beautiful.
Most difficult at times is keeping your eyes on the run ahead. Every few metres is the temptation to stop, whip out the camera and also catch your breath. The Himalaya are rugged and beautiful. Enormous glaciers sweep down valleys, huge cornices hang over dramatic slopes and rock formations are like none this well-travelled skier had ever seen anywhere in the world. Nature’s magnificence is everywhere you turn.
HHA heli ski guides are highly experienced, hailing from such countries as New Zealand, Switzerland and Russia, so they know how to ease guests into the altitude. Our first few days were spent enjoying runs at lower heights, with the aim of acclimatising our bodies, and most importantly our lungs, to the thinner air. It was surprisingly easy to fly from the 2000m high Manali and land a few thousand metres higher as we would descend immediately. By the end of the week we were starting our runs from a whopping 5200m (a tad over 16,000ft), the highest most of us had ever been in our lives.
By this stage you probably think this particular ski holiday is experts only. Not true. HHA caters for ability levels from intermediate and above. During our particular week one couple aged in their 80s spent the days with their own guide landing on only gentle slopes with easy snow conditions.
Meanwhile our more advanced group were taken to long, steep runs that seemed to go forever – easily some of the longest runs any of us had ever done in our lives, some covering almost a couple of kilometres vertical or more.
Yes, snow conditions were changeable.
Our first day was spent in sunshine and skiing light powder in the trees before a storm suddenly descended from nowhere and chased us off the mountain. The next day was fine, while the following day we woke up to a previously spring-like Manali completely blanketed in fresh snow. Within hours however the clouds had parted to make way for blue sky and sunshine. What had looked like a day spent wandering around town or playing cards ended with us skiing on a deep covering of fresh dry powder. The following few days brought a mix of wind-affected snow, powder and creamy spring snow.
The wonderful skiing is matched by the level of HHA’s service, too. As one would expect with a five star operation, HHA prides itself on delivering luxury and comfort. Our rooms were enormous, with four-poster beds, plush lounges and large picture windows overlooking Manali and surrounding peaks. Meals were buffets of Indian, Asian and European cuisine. Lunch was either flown onto the mountain if the weather lent itself to an alpine picnic, or guests were flown back to Manuallaya for a midday treat. The dinner service began each evening at 7pm with drinks and delicious canapés before we grazed over generous offerings of irresistible dishes cooked by HHA’s British chef.
There was plenty to do on down days or afternoons as well. While we never had a down day enforced by weather, we were driven back to the hotel on a few afternoons by the cloud cover and flat light that is part and parcel of the early days of spring. This however was not unwelcome, giving us a chance to rest and enjoy the delights of Manali and the surrounding villages.
Indeed there is so much to do in Manali that many guests bring non-skiing partners or friends. We spent time exploring the pedestrian mall in Manali as well as its alley ways and smaller streets filled with hawkers of all sorts, buying jewellery, Tibetan wares, fresh produce including the biggest, freshest mandarins and oranges I’ve ever seen, freshly cooked gulab jamon (delicious donut-type morsels soaked in honey syrup) and chemist goods from face cream to hair oil at a fraction of the price paid at home. HHA always send a guide with guests as well, if they wish, to ensure they find what they need and are not taken advantage of by any unscrupulous operators.
HHA also offers a large array of trips to local attractions. We managed to squeeze in a trip to the authentic Indian village of Rumsu, home to exquisite architecture and a way of life far removed from modern day norms.
But easily our most fascinating day trip was to the local ski field of Solang, about half an hour away from Manali. Ever wondered where all the colourful one piece suits from the 1980s ended up? The answer is here, or more correctly in the dozens of ski hire outlets lining the road to the ski field.
Arriving at Solang is to witness what could easily rank as the world’s biggest retro ski party.
Even more curious is the fact that the hundreds of Indian tourists who pour into Solang each day do virtually anything but ski.
On a snowy expanse about the size of two football fields, they ride yaks, snowmobiles, tandem parapente, go zorbing and ride ponies. When they break from all this activity they populate the food stalls lining the exterior. It is absolutely astonishing. Not one person is skiing off the modern gondola which seems to exsist only for tourists to go see the view. There is even a tobogganing slope at the top which is more popular than the skifield – although this offers excellent runs which HHA takes advantage of when the helicopters can’t fly yet fresh powder snow is blanketing the field.
Undoubtedly skiing in the Himalayas is a real-life fantasy – one that should be added to any skier’s or boarder’s bucket list. This is our Shangri-La, a skier’s heaven atop a snowy faraway mountain, and one that is impossible to forget.
The 2016 Himalayan Heli Adventures season runs from January to the first week of April. Cost per skier $USD 8,950. This includes all meals accommodation and six days of helicopter skiing. HHA uses Eurocopter Ecureuil B3s – the same high-altitude helicopters used to land on Mt Everest.
More info & bookings www.himachal.com