Avalanche takes a big toll

Sad news from Gulmarg – there are reports of 5 to 17 Army personnel, including an officer getting killed when a snow avalanche struck Khilanmarg, at an altitude of more than 2,700 meters at 11am (0530 GMT).

A group of 350 armymen were setting up a winter warfare camp at Khilanmarg near Gulmarg, when the snow avalanche struck the region. 70 of them were rescued, while some others could be still trapped there.

The officer, who was killed, was identified as Lt. Prateek. The army personnel were from an advance camp of the Army’s prestigious High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS). Some of those seriously injured are in a critical condition in a hospital in Gulmarg.

An Indian soldier makes his way by truck towards the site of an avalanche which engulfed a military school in Kashmir, killing at least 17 people Photograph: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images

Indian ski guides, who normally are hired by the burgeoning numbers of foreign skiers, worked into the evening to help with rescue efforts, according to local ski outfitter Yasin Khan. No tourists were hurt.

A combined rescue team composed of military personnel, police and tourism officials, working in fog and snowfall more than two meters deep, took several hours to recover the bodies of those killed.

Officials said there was little chance of any tourist being trapped as the avalanche was triggered at an altitude higher than the popular skiing slopes. About 400 tourists skiing in the area were safe.

Heavy snow blocked Kashmir’s main highway, the only road link to the rest of the country, for the third day Monday.

Over the weekend, skiers in Gulmarg had expressed concerns that days of intense snow were creating risky avalanche conditions.
The website gulmargsnowsafety.com warned Friday of “HIGH potential for climax avalanches,” adding: “when strong winds on Sunday and Monday create slab conditions, expect widespread natural avalanches from this weak interface throughout the alpine region.”

Authorities say an avalanche warning had been issued after several days of heavy snowfall.

It’s not clear yet what precautions, if any, the military took in the face of the warnings. The avalanche was triggered when 70 troops were taking a skiing test.

A vehicle carrying Indian Army rescue team is on its way to Gulmarg, via Tangmarg, northwest of Srinagar, 08 Feb 2010 (AP)

The Army produces skilled alpinists who occasionally trade potshots with the Pakistanis in the nearby Siachen glacier region, dubbed “the world’s highest battlefield.”

They also are sending India’s only two Olympic skiers to Vancouver.

The High Altitude Warfare School is the Indian Army’s primary institute for such training and was set up more than 60 years ago initially to teach skiing to front-line infantry troops.

In April last year, another avalanche hit an Indian army post close to the de facto border, killing seven soldiers and injuring at least eight others.

About 400 people, including 30 civilian workers, were at the training centre, but the avalanche hit only one part of the facility.

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