Snowed under in Gulmarg

It's snowing hard in the Valley. For the last few days, a thick blanket of snow has enveloped the countryside, highways and the mountains. The Central Snow Control Room, on the outskirts of Srinagar, has started issuing alerts to other control rooms, warning them of moderate to heavy snowfall, especially at Gulmarg, a popular skiing resort. With more than six feet of snow, the view from the control room is spectacular for tourists but daunting for the men deployed at the control room. Heavy sheets of snow cover the four-lane Srinagar-Gulmarg highway, halting all traffic. One of the busiest roads in the Valley, this highway takes a snow-break till late noon every day, when the snow is cleared out by the men from the control room.

At 5 am, as the snow trickles down, 41-year-old Mohammad Ismail Chechi, an Assistant Executive Engineer, leaves the control room at Tangmarg in Baramulla district to start snow-clearing operations on the 11-km hilly track leading to Gulmarg. When Rolba, the newly acquired snow cutter, roars to life, Chechi and his machine operator breathe a collective sigh of relief. At sub-zero temperatures, machines often refuse to start up. In Gulmarg, temperatures nosedive even to minus 12 degree Celsius.

The graceful alpine slopes of Gulmarg are considered among the best skiing slopes in the world. Every winter, after militancy began to recede, hundreds of skiers—professionals as well as first-timers—and other tourists throng the resort for adventures that bloom only in winters. For Chechi and his team, the task is at once simple and formidable—to make Gulmarg even more popular by making it accessible. Chechi, who is in-charge of the Tangmarg control room, says, "We can't wait for the snow to accumulate. Up to eight feet of snow can gather in a few hours. We have to keep clearing it."

Over the next five hours at 8,825 feet, Chechi guides the operator on a road that snakes through snow-covered trees. "When it starts to snow, everyone's focus is on Gulmarg," he says.

Chechi, who holds an engineering degree from the National Institute of Technology, Srinagar, is considered an expert in snow clearing by his colleagues in the mechanical engineering department. Chechi, who joined the department 17 years ago, has always headed snow-clearing operations.

He has guided operations in the hilly regions of Kashmir where the snow depth plunges to more than six feet in winters. "From November 15, the control room becomes operational. For us, it's 24x7 duty for the next four months," he says.

For four months, he remains stationed at the Tangmarg control room, at times even driving the snow-cutter himself so that his operator could rest. "This is one of the latest snow-clearing machines we have acquired and it works well in hostile and freezing conditions. Whenever we go for clearing operations, I have to be there," he says.

At 11 am, Rolba has managed to clear one side of the road. But that's not enough to allow traffic. Sipping hot tea, Chechi says that the road needs to be opened by afternoon. "This time, the snow is more than five feet deep, and it's very difficult to clear the road. A small error can lead to a machine breakdown, even a fatal accident." He gets messages from the control room constantly. "Everyone wants to know when the road will be open," he says.

Even after hours of ploughing the snow-clad roads, Chechi and his men are still hard at work, with no time to rest. "There is no rest when the road is still closed," says a young officer who was posted here four months ago. "I have served in Gurez and Tanghdar areas of the Valley, but clearing the snow in Gulmarg is always a challenge," he says.

Around noon, the team rests for half an hour. When they resume, the machine fails to respond. Chechi examines the machine and delivers his verdict: "A minor fault. It should take half an hour to mend." The officers are trained to operate the machine as well as repair minor faults. "This is a costly machine, and our department has six of these," says Chechi. Dozens of vertical-blade, straight-blade and indigenously developed snow-cat machines have also been deployed in

the Valley.

At 2 pm, Chechi sends the control room and Gulmarg Development Authority officials the message—the road is clear for one-way traffic. In no time, traffic is restored. Among the first to arrive are skiing enthusiasts in complete gear and honeymoon couples.

"It's a big relief that the road is open. But it will take us another four hours for two-way traffic to start," Chechi says. As dusk sets in, he is on his way back to Tangmarg, clearing the road slowly. "From now on, this is our routine as the Met office has issued a snow-rich forecast for days to come," he says, as the Rolba plods on.

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