Crossing through Rohtang Pass – the most trecherous road in the world

By Tushar

A drive through the rugged terrains of Lahaul and Spiti valley in the mighty Himalayan Mountains of Himachal Pradesh is not for the faint hearted. You have to negotiate hair pin bends, drive on gravel and dusty roads on high altitudes; and if it starts to rain then you have to face the risk of getting stuck in landslides. Not just that, you also have to drive through ”˜Shooting Stones Zone’, which as the name implies, is an area full of loose stones which come down like ”˜bullets’ at even the slightest hint of wind. And then there is the drive through the ”˜World’s Most Treacherous Road’, which does complete justice to its name. Driving through this road will make you feel like you are approaching the ”˜End of the World’. You will see no sign of humans, animals or birds for hours; you will have intimidating dry mountains for company all around you and a muddy Baspa river flowing down the valley; dusty roads full of gravel, dry climate, scorching sunlight and no one except your own self in the name of a riding buddy. The most sensible thing to do is to keep driving and pray to God to help you reach an area of civilization before it gets dark, or before your car breaks down. An even more sensible thing to do will be to carry enough stock of food and water”¦just in case.

I started visiting the Himalayas since my childhood when my dad would pack us all in his Maruti 800 and take us to high altitudes of Uttarakhand. I would bury my head in my mother’s lap and not look out of the window till we were back in the plains. Mountains and I were not friends back then. But what I didn’t realise was that slowly and steadily we were getting to know each other. I grew up and the same mountains became my ”˜best friends’. I have driven numerous times through the mighty Himalayas in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. On one of my expeditions, I even drove for 9 days (and nights), 6 hours and 15 minutes ”˜non stop’ from Khardung La Pass (18,380 feet altitude) in Ladakh to Tezu (Eastern most point of India) in Arunachal Pradesh covering 5,500 km. But none of my experiences or expeditions or ”˜friendly relationship’ with the mountains prepared me for the night that I have in mind as I pen this account.

In July 2015, Sanjay and I organized our first expedition to Lahaul and Spiti Valley. We managed to put together a group of 10 cars and 25 people from all over the country. The 8 day long journey began in Delhi and ended in Manali. Sanjay and I lead the expedition from ”˜Car number 1’, while the other cars followed us. We gave instructions on the radio sets installed in all vehicles and did our best to keep the convoy together as we drove through the mighty mountains of Lahaul and Spiti. During this journey, we all experienced everything that the mountains had to offer – landslides, shooting stones, floods, river crossings etc. Finally, the last driving day of the journey dawned upon us as we drove 200 km from Kaza to Manali – the toughest terrain that we were going to face during the entire journey. The drive was smooth, the convoy was tight and we were on schedule. After a few hours, Sanjay noticed a trail of oil leaking from the car in front of us. “The chamber has leaked and this car cannot go any further,” Sanjay declared. It was quickly decided that I would take the 9 cars and continue towards Manali, while Sanjay will stay back with the broken down vehicle and its driver, get it fixed and come to Manali later. We wished each other good luck and went on with our respective tasks. From the point where we parted ways till the time we reached Rohtang Pass, there would be no phone signals. It was a distance of a meagre 150 km, but a drive that would last at least 10 hours.

I have experienced the above conditions many times during my drives through the Himalayas. I have been stuck in landslides for days, run out of fuel, run out of food and even run out of water! I have had stones hit my car and pierce through the door of my Toyota Fortuner, and I am okay with that too. “Experience makes a man wiser,” and in my case, it took a lot of experience. (I am not claiming that I am wise enough now!) But, no matter how much experience you have, there is nothing, just nothing that you can do if Mother Nature has something else in store for you.

The convoy of 9 cars with me continued as swiftly as we could while driving through the ”˜worst road conditions’ you can ever imagine. We drove on rocks, through rivers and waterfalls, on steep inclines and hair pin bends and finally after 14 hours reached Manali at 9 PM. The journey had been completed successfully, and everyone was elated. The next morning everyone would bid their goodbyes and drive back home on their own. All this while I was only thinking about Sanjay. He had stayed back with the driver of the broken down vehicle and I had no way of contacting him. Were they okay? Did they find help? Did they manage to get the car fixed? Are they on their way to Manali now? These and other questions crowded my head. Driving with a convoy of 9 cars from Kaza to Manali is sure difficult, but driving alone from Kaza to Manali can be suicidal. The only thing I could do was just wait for my phone to ring. I somehow managed to get some sleep and woke up early in the morning to bid farewell to the group. Out of the 9 cars, 7 cars said goodbye and left. Three people stayed back with me; my cousin Saurabh, my uncle Kailash Jindal and his son Shivanshu.

“We are not going back without you” they said.
“I cannot go back till Sanjay doesn’t reach Manali” I told them
“We will stay back no matter how long it takes for Sanjay to join us in Manali,” they insisted.

Here we were. Four of us, sitting in our hotel in Manali and hoping that Sanjay will call soon. Every few minutes, I would pick up my phone and dial his number but it wouldn’t connect. “He will call us as soon as he reaches Rohtang Pass,” Kailash uncle said to reassure me.
“If the car got fixed yesterday then they would have started early today, and should reach Rohtang Pass by 5 PM,” I estimated. It was still morning and somehow we kept ourselves occupied but at the back of our minds, we were all eagerly waiting for the phone to ring. At 4:30 PM, the phone rang. It was Sanjay. Phewww!

“We have reached Rohtang Pass, everything is fine, we will reach the hotel in 2 hours,” he declared
A collective sigh of relief ensued as we all smiled and hugged each other. Everything was fine and we were on track to leave for Delhi the next morning.

It was 5 PM, and the phone rang again.

“The car broke down again, we are still at Rohtang Pass but…” Sanjay could not complete his message as the signal was lost. I stared at my phone in silence. But what? But we are coming down? But we have help? But you don’t need to worry? I tried calling back many times but the line just wouldn’t connect.

“I think we should find a mechanic and go back to Rohtang Pass,” I said.
“We will all come with you,” my uncle and cousins replied
“All of us cannot go, we need to keep space in the car to bring them back in case their car is not fixed,” I said.

It was thus decided that Kailash Uncle and I will go back to Rohtang Pass and ”˜look for’ our friends along the way. Without wasting any time, we went to town searching for a mechanic. We were lucky enough to find one fairly quickly who agreed to go to Rohtang Pass with us. We packed some food and water and were on our way soon after. It was already getting dark but we were on a mission now. The drive from our hotel in Manali to the top of Rohtang Pass was approximately 2 hours. After driving for 1.5 hours, as we were nearing the top, we saw Sanjay and the driver sitting in a truck waving at us from the opposite direction. We stopped and got out to greet each other. I was extremely relieved to see that they were okay and still smiling!

“The car broke down again just before we reached the top of Rohtang Pass. I was calling you to inform that the car has broken down but no need to worry. We will leave the car there and send a mechanic tomorrow,” Sanjay said. Well, it was too late now.

Fate beckons
“No problem. Now that we are already here, you go back to the hotel and rest. Kailash Uncle, mechanic, the driver and I will go back to the vehicle, have it fixed and will come to the hotel later,“ I said to him. We hugged and said goodbye. Sanjay took a lift and went to Manali and we continued in the direction of the broken vehicle which was parked on the ”˜other side’ of Rohtang Top. We continued driving, reached the top of Rohtang Pass, and started driving downhill. About 20 minutes after crossing Rohtang Top, the driver pointed at the vehicle parked in a corner near a hair pin bend.

We parked our car and the mechanic got to work. It took him an hour to seal the leaked chamber and he managed to fix the car; well, at least for the time being. “I have fixed the chamber but we need to wait for at least an hour for the sealant to dry before we can start driving again,” he told us. By the time we started to drive again, it was 10 PM. We had no clue what was in store for us. Kailash Uncle and I started to lead in our car, while the driver and the mechanic followed us. As our 2 cars started driving towards Manali, the nightmare began. Five minutes into the drive, we heard a loud thunder. Without any warning it started pouring down heavily, and in no time the broken tarmac and gravel became slush. We were climbing up towards Rohtang Top and the road conditions had become extremely slippery. Visibility was becoming poorer by the minute, and we had to drive for at least 60 km before we reached our hotel. Since we were climbing up, we couldn’t even drive slowly as we had to accelerate on steep inclines. We continued driving through heavy rainfall but I was able to see for a few meters ahead so I wasn’t too worried.

I was unaware that my ”˜friendly mountains’ had decided to ”˜test me’ tonight. As we approached Rohtang Top, we got engulfed in a blanket of fog and clouds so thick that visibility became zero.
“Tushar, I cannot see anything. Nothing,” said Kailash uncle.
It was like we were driving through a vacuum. It was a complete whiteout. It was suffocating and scary. It was disorienting. “Kailash uncle, I don’t know where to drive. I don’t know on which side is the mountain and on which side is the valley,” I had to declare to him. I knew that we had crossed Rohtang Top because I could ”˜feel’ we were going downhill. But we couldn’t see anything. We had covered a distance of 10 km in the last 5 hours. It was 3 AM now. We had not made much progress.

“Let me hang outside the window and reach out my hands to feel the mountain,” Kailash uncle offered.
What else can you do? With all our years of experience of driving in the mountains, we found ourselves caught up in a nightmare of a situation which could very well end our lives at any moment. One wrong move could prove fatal. I admit that we were taking a risk; we could have simply waited by the side of the highway till visibility was better, but we didn’t.

Kailash uncle was hanging outside the window and was reaching out to touch the mountain. “Yes, yes, I can touch it. Drive on the left side, the mountain is on the left side,” he exclaimed hysterically.
The rain was not slowing down, the clouds and fog were simply not giving way and the whiteout was suffocating us even more. It was a cold, dark night but I could feel sweat trickle down my forehead.
“Please God, help us. Let us through this night; please let us reach our hotel safely,” I prayed secretly.

“Tushar, you are doing a great job. Don’t worry, we will make it. Nothing is going to happen. We will make it,” Kailash uncle kept my spirits high. “Uncle, come inside, you are completely drenched. I will manage,” I said, as I was getting worried about him. In the last 5 hours, we had not spotted a single vehicle in either direction. It seemed like ours were the last 2 vehicles left in the world. It seemed like Mother Nature was angry with us. No matter how much experience you have and how great a driver you think you are, you can never, ever underestimate the power of nature.

It was at 4 AM when the weather opened up again and it finally stopped raining. We could see the road ahead! We could breathe again. We stopped the car, got out and had a smoke. Kailash Uncle and I hugged tightly. We knew the storm had passed and we had survived it. We sat in the car, both of us exhausted, drenched, sleepy and hungry. But we were smiling. We knew this was going to be a night that we will remember for the rest of our lives. We started the ignition and continued driving towards Manali.

The phone rang.

“Guys, how are you doing?” Sanjay asked.
“Everything is perfect, we will see you soon,” I smiled as I replied.

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