Himalayan Ski Resort: The Gods Must Be Crazy

Himalayan Ski Resort: The Gods Must Be Crazy: A Himalayan Luxury ski resort promises adventure and prosperity for all — But does it have a prayer?
By Cynthia Psarakis

gods_mountainThe Kullu Valley is a ruggedly beautiful pocket of land, all mountains and forests and rivers and lakes, jumbled together in a place once known as Kulantpitha, “the end of the habitable world.” To the devout Hindus who live here it is the Valley of the Gods, for this is where Parvati, Lord Shiva’s consort, accidentally dropped a basket carrying hundreds of lesser deities, allowing them to spill out and populate the area.

The valley, in turn, lies in the center of the Land of the Gods — the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, which sits on the roof of the world in the extreme north of the country in the western Himalayas. The Himalayas are the world’s youngest mountains, and also its highest, with elevations that peak somewhere around 29,000 feet and valleys that plunge to 1,050 feet.

The proper translation of Himachal is “land of snowy mountains,” and the name is apt: In the lower — for the Himalayas — elevations, around 9,000 feet, snow falls feet at a time as fine, dry powder that begs to be skied. And you can ski here, if you have the means and fortitude to do so. There are a handful of heli-ski operations, as well as a few conventional slopes for those with smaller budgets, lower expectations, and the willingness to trudge uphill for each run. But what you can’t do is enjoy the luxury of skiing the Himalayas in a luxurious setting.

That may be about to change. Or it may not. This is India, after all, a land where the bureaucracy is as mysterious and impenetrable as the culture.

gods_sledIn 2004, a team of international developers — led by managing director John Sims and his longtime friend Alfred Brush Ford — launched an ambitious project to “build prosperity through sustainable tourism in the Himalaya” by creating the Himalayan Ski Village(HSV). They made detailed plans for a luxe complex of 700 rooms and 300 villas, an environmentally friendly, state-of-the-art mountain resort with a world-class spa and impeccable skiing facilities at elevations from 7,500 feet up to a lung-busting 14,000 feet. Their pitch sounded good to the Himachal Pradesh state government, and so a Memorandum of Understanding was signed;the principals scouted locations, submitted plans, and contracted architects and designers. The local papers buzzed about “Alfred Ford’s $250 million ski resort.” Then the gods got involved, and all hell broke loose.

John Sims may be a strange man in a strange land, but he is no stranger to India.

An expat American who describes himself as a “robust 57,” Sims is a rare breed:a descendant of Daniel Boone, a hotel entrepreneur and mountain sports enthusiast, a successful capitalist who fell in love with the country’s culture as a child and never fell out. He finally gave in to his infatuation in 1992 (“I am a Hindu at heart”) and moved to the other side of the world to make money, yes, but also to make a difference. “You can’t be in India and ignore the problems of India,” he says. “You have to participate. I try to be part of the solution.”

gods_templeThe HSV is his solution for the Kullu Valley, which — wildly scenic and largely undeveloped — is particularly ripe for just such an opportunity. The people here cling to their ancient life ways: farming, shepherding, living off the land. But India’s march of progress will not stop at the foot of the mountains, and even the remotest villages are feeling the push of the modern world: Global warming is melting the glaciers, the young are leaving to find better jobs, commercial timber is elbowing out the apple farms. The future, some believe, lies in new industries that can adapt to the area’s unique topography and climate.

Tourism, say. For among the orchards and the shops selling Kullu’s famous handcrafted shawls, there area handful of adventure-travel operations catering to thrill-seekers: heli-skiing, whitewater rafting, trekking. And the region has long been popular with vacationers from the south escaping India’s brutally hot summers and hippies seeking spiritual enlightenment among the hundreds of temples — a sort of subsistence tourism that holds the promise of fueling a thriving economic engine. John Sims thinks he can make that happen.

In fact, it was during a 1994 trek to sacred Bhrigu Lake in the northern end of the valley that Sims first envisioned the resort. One night he found himself trapped in a snowstorm at 14,000 feet with Iqbal Sharma, a native son and founder of adventure-travel outfitter Himalayan Journeys. Sharma had long felt the area’s path to prosperity could be paved by adventure-sports tourism, and as the two men talked the blustery night away, Sharma expanding on his dream of transforming the valley into a snow-sports mecca, Sims had a eureka moment. Why not build a ski resort here, in the Himalayas? In fact, why not build the world’s highest — and India’s first — luxury ski resort?gods_ski

Sims had a eureka moment. Why not build a ski resort here, in the Himalayas? In fact, why not build the world’s highest — and India’s first — luxury ski resort?

It took 10 years before Sims was ready to act on the idea, but when he did, he resolved to do it right. This would not be some fake Swiss chalet plopped into sacred Hindu lands, with an American sensibility and a staff imported from Courchevel or Beaver Creek. Instead, the resort would reflect his own reverence for this place and its culture: Thanks to meticulous research by HSV master planner Jack Zehren, building plans mirror the area’s distinctive kathkuni architectural style, while locals are already being trained — not just for menial and low-level service jobs, but as instructors and guides. A handicraft village will keep local artisans busy, and because the resort will cater primarily to the very wealthy (rates will start at $500/night), Sims believes the project can help support local tour operators and hoteliers serving the lower end of the market. Plans even include a clinic with obstetric services for local women as well as a trauma center and a medevac helicopter for skiing injuries.

But although the governing agencies of Himachal Pradesh were impressed with Sims’ plans, not everyone was. Which brings us back to the gods.

gods_cowThe villages of the Kullu valley are blessed with their very own deities, each channeled through a gur, or local elder. In February 2006, as the HSV was gathering steam, Maheshwar Singh, representative of the valley’s most powerful family as well as Raghunath, its chief deity,called for a Jagati Puch — a “grand convention” of the gods — to decide whether the project was acceptable. (Though it may seem like the Hindu version of a filibuster, these are quite rare, typically called only when some kind of disaster poses a threat to the area: The 2006 meeting was the first one since 1970,  when the valley was in the midst of a severe drought.) Prognosis: Negative.

The offcial god-given reason was that it was “environmentally unsound,”  but Sims and other HSV proponents suspected that the motivation was not so much religious as political — at the time, Singh was also a chief of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which subscribes to the philosophy of Hindutva, a vigorous form of Indian nationalism that takes a dim view of foreign investment. The BJP claimed the HSV management team had not been transparent enough in their planning; Sims counters that the presentation to the Jagati Puch had been manipulated to produce an unfavorable result (“ask wrong questions, get wrong answers”).
gods_leapordDespite the much-publicized outcome, the project forged ahead, and so did the opposition. The HSV sent 40 young Himachalis to Finland for intensive training and prepared a 500-page environmental impact assessment for governmental review. Meanwhile, its opponents publicly questioned whether foreign investors would really protect the welfare of the villagers, and environmentalists jumped into the fray, claiming that the development would have devastating consequences for the area’s flora and fauna, such as the endangered snow leopard, which, in an unhelpful turn of events, had been newly minted as the official state animal.

By January 2008, when state elections resulted in a transfer of power from the foreigner-friendly Congress Party to the HSV’s old nemesis, the BJP, the whole thing seemed doomed. Two separate public-interest litigation suits were winding through the Himachali courts, seeking to block the project on environmental grounds, while the newly installed government sounded vague threats about submitting the whole thing to a formal bidding process and requiring approval from federal defense offcials, citing the state’s proximity to international borders and the volatile state of Kashmir.

But this is India, and though the gods may be crazy, they’re not stupid. The question of development here is not if, but when and how — and ski tourism can be lucrative. The lawsuits were dismissed; the BJP came around. In Sims’  view, it came down to the players finding a point of balance. “In a country where a lot of things aren’t settled, each issue becomes a proxy war for other issues. Just giving everybody a chance to hear from us, to voice their concerns, to discuss it — it was just the process of dialogue and communication. It’s not pretty and it takes time, but it’s democracy.”

The fate of the HSV was again placed in the hands of the gods in November, this time in a ritual in which three balls of cow dung were mixed with rice and flowers and then submerged in water;

whichever surfaced first would signal the deities’ intent. The results were somehow inconclusive, but since the gods did not object outright — and, more importantly, neither did the BJP— the project will continue to move forward. For how long, only the gods of the Kullu Valley know. And they’re not telling.gods_glacier