Entrepreneurs aiming to set up Nepal’s first ski resort are undeterred by difficult terrain and lack of state support
Along the single icy road leading through the village of Kuri, high in the hills of eastern Nepal, tourists stop to stare at a pair of skis. “Is it a skateboard?” asks one. “Maybe they are ice skates,” suggests another. “No idea,” they agree, before walking off gingerly along the slippery track.
Nepal may have the highest mountains in the world, but you are about as likely to see a skier here as you are a yeti. Nepal sent no athletes to the Winter Olympics last year, and there is not a single ski resort in the country.
All that is set to change, if a group of young Nepalese entrepreneurs get their way. Shacked up in a tiny hotel in the village, members of the Ski and Snowboarding Foundation Nepal are on a mission to build the country’s first ski resort in Kuri.
“We are starting with one slope but we want to build a ski resort, with a gondola from Europe and a snow machine,” says Utsav Pathak, 24, the foundation’s president.
They have a long way to go. All that exists at present is a gentle 50-metre slope and a stunning view. This year the foundation built Nepal’s first ski lift, a homemade contraption consisting of a generator and a collection of wheels and levers, but it stands unused at the top of the slope. “It stopped working because it was too cold,” says Pathak.
At the top of a slope, a group of beginners gather nervously. “It’s all about balance,” shouts the instructor. “Balance is my worst quality,” replies one woman as she slides away unsteadily down the slope before collapsing in a heap.
Pathak and his team are undeterred by the challenges. In the past three years, they claim to have given a thousand Nepalis a taste of skiing. The second national ski and snowboard championships was held this month and an embryonic ski touring and heli-ski industry has emerged.
Pathak has chosen a good spot to launch his ski venture. Kuri, in the rural municipality of Kalinchowk, can be reached in a day from the capital, Kathmandu. “People think skiing is time consuming and very expensive, but in Kuri they can come to ski quickly and cheaply,” says local hotelier, Bijay Shrestha.
Kuri is already a popular tourist destination. On a ridge high above the village sits a revered temple, which attracts thousands of worshippers each weekend. Three months ago, a cable car was built to ferry pilgrims to the top, boosting tourist numbers further.
Others come to get a rare taste of snow and have fun. In the evenings, they gather around campfires – there is no indoor heating – to drink and dance to unrelenting Nepalese pop songs. “We are here to enjoy,” shouts one tipsy visitor as he heads off, struggling to stay upright on an icy path.
But few tourists have come to ski. An hour on the slope costs £10, which visitor Hemant Budhatoki thinks is too expensive. “We can’t do it because of our economic condition,” he says. Jhuma Thapa, who works in one of the local hotels, has never skied. “I’m too afraid,” he explains.
Another hotel worker, Ram Kumar Khadka, walks past the ski lift but has no idea what it is. “I’m not interested in skiing,” he says.
Lack of interest is not the only problem facing Pathak and his team. The only way to reach Kuri is up a treacherous 20km mountain track, which in winter has to be navigated by four-wheel drive jeeps that slip and slide their way to the top. The roadside is dotted with abandoned vehicles that have got stuck in the slush and mud.
The number of hotels in the village has soared in the past two years, but the only source of water is a small stream, so locals have turned to melting snow or ferrying water up from the valley in trucks that inevitably get stuck en route.
The service culture has not kept up with the building. “Some people who run the hotels are not so interested in hospitality because they know that whatever they do, people will come to visit the temple,” says Pathak.
The visitors are almost exclusively Nepalese. A rare group of Chinese tourists give the place a mixed review. “It’s cool. It’s awesome … but if you want to attract more foreign tourists you need to improve the road and provide wifi,” says one, who goes by the name Giovanni.
The challenges of establishing a ski resort in Kuri are repeated across the country: inaccessible snow, poor infrastructure and a lack of government support.
“Geography holds us back. Apart from Kuri, the snowy places are far from Kathmandu. They are out of reach and expensive to get to. If they were easily accessible, Nepalese people would not hesitate to go skiing,” says Anil Upreti, another member of the foundation.
Local and central government have shown little interest in supporting the development of skiing, says Pathak. “To be honest, the authorities have not been so helpful. We have asked them for funds, but it takes so long, the season finishes before anything is agreed.”
Deepak Joshi, head of the Nepal Tourism Board, says the potential for skiing in Nepal is huge. Nonetheless, he cannot point to any examples where his organisation has supported the sport’s growth. “It is a totally untapped and unexplored area, but once some activities have started we will be very happy to promote them,” he says.
Shrestha, for one, remains optimistic. “Skiing is a new idea in Nepal. But it will become a popular place to ski. Slowly the ski craze will come. For sure.”