36 to minus 22 and Back to Mumbai

Swanand

Member
36 TO MINUS 22 AND BACK

Not a new Idea
Spiti Valley, a place not so far away was beckoning me for years. I had travelled upto Kalpa and Sangla in May 2016, The place in summer is fantastic and looks like this.


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Ever since this visit, I was excited to know, what lies beyond. The plan was to visit Spiti valley in winter, when the valley almost goes into hibernation. After having made the trip to Spiti in the winters, I can confidently say that there is perhaps nothing that compares to this kind of an experience. Everything about this place, will just make you go clicking.

Dive in for a true roller coaster ride, we had in January 2020. Judge for yourself, whether to plan a trip like this.


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The way it got planned


A year back I was introduced to the 4x4 India FB page by Gajanan Chitale and I realised that the inaccessible was actually accessible, but in a 4x4 vehicle. Almost everyone knows what is “4x4”. In brief, it’s a system where all the wheels of the car receive power directly from the engine. Vehicles with 4x4 capabilities are better equipped to traverse treacherous surfaces, such as snow, ice, slush, sand.
4x4 India, a FB page run by Shibu Varghese, a.k.a. Jeep Captain is a mecca for likeminded 4x4 vehicle aficionados and Shibu runs expeditions in Winter to the Spiti Valley. These expeditions are run by him together with Puneet Sharma of La Himalaya, a boutique travel company, run with passion. After a year of chasing convenient dates, it was settled that I would be in the legendary Isuzu V-cross of Captain Shibu, for the one January 2020 Expedition. I was to be accompanied by another friend from Mumbai. The expedition would take us from Chandigarh to Kaza via a small detour to Chitkul and then back to Chandigarh. This journey would not be complete without Captain and Puneet. These two, need no plugging.



The Execution

Day 0


The Captain picked us up from Chandigarh and we managed to reach the first night halt at Narkanda. If luxury had a definition for Himachal, one of it would be the Tethy’s Resort . The resort is situated off the road at Narkanda. At Narkanda we met Puneet Sharma who was to accompany us on the expedition in a V-cross. The expedition was supported by Shibu handling the technical side, and Puneet handling the logistics, assisted by Goldie, a fun loving orchard owner from near Narkanda.

Day 1
The expedition began with a small briefing by Puneet and Shibu and we met the third V-cross, which carried the four Bangalore boys. This convoy of three ‘clean’ V-Cross vehicles – comprising 8 boys in total left for Sangla valley. The snow covered peaks were at a distance, but closer to the vehicle was the snaking road and the steep valley below, with the gurgling river constantly providing company. The apple orchards down below were missing their leaves with the snow kissing the soil. The sights left us, pinching ourselves, seeking only one question, are we in India ?
The Sangla stay was at the Banjara Camps property, nestled inside an apple orchard. Post a sumptuous dinner and dance, we set off on a midnight walk to the river. Temperature was about minus 10. The orchard was leafless, but not lifeless. Snow had a new name – “white grass”. Picked on a few apples from the dry trees, which exploded with apple nectar- almost like a liquer, but unfermented. We were at Sangla on the Captain’s birthday and it was indeed a great celebration. Puneet had arranged a pineapple cake and the monk in the bottle was willing to bless those who prayed. Banjara Camps, an uber luxury resort, had opened up for the expedition, thanks to La Himalaya. There were no other other guests, but just the 8 of us. We had the place to ourselves with the staff doing all they could to please the off season, off road tourists.
A few pics of and from the Banjara Camp property

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Day 2
We were off for a short drive on the road to Chitkul. Blue skies and the white snow on the road and the mountains were our companions for about 3 hours, as we explored the region, passing tiny metal bridges, small streams. The villages were all silent, and not a soul on the road. The views we saw could rival any other tourist destination in the world which offers snow. Choose Chitkul and Sangla in any season and there is no way you can regret it.

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Winter drive to Spiti, is almost like a private holiday destination. During the entire expedition drive which was for 8-9 days, apart from our three car convoy, we hardly came across a total of 50 other moving vehicles.

The drive from Chitkul to Nako, was the plan and was executed with timely precision. The blacktop road had no snow, and we had no occasion to even engage the 4x4 system. Having said that, the tarmac was non-existent in places, and the cars ambled their way through mud, water, a mix of both, and following the tracks of vehicles which had travelled previously (which are invaluable, as we realised a little later in the expedition).
While reaching Nako, we pass the villages of Spello, Pooh and Khab and the mighty confluence point, where the Sutlej from China meets the Spiti. The Sutlej all along remains with you. The road is under widening operations and repair. A unique aspect here is the rocky canopy under which the highway passes. The bridges across the river, some still in wood, appear strong and inspire confidence. Five feet away from the car was the valley and the tall mountain on the other side. The mountains in fair weather days, throw out a water stream which lands directly in the middle of the road. During the winter, water trickles through the mountain and forms a frozen waterfall. Fragile and white, the icicles from the waterfall, invite you to play with them. At places where the stream has not frozen, we drive very near to these waterfalls and the cars get a lovely wash in the process.
Some of the frozen waterfalls we encountered in the expedition.

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The expertise of the convoy drivers throughout, ensure our progress is smooth and without a hiccup. The V-cross is like a raging bull on the flat roads, and a mountain goat on the inclines, not a slip or a moment of hesitation to ascend or descend.
Nako was a sleeping town with our cars being the only disturbance around, that night. We experienced our first snowfall and owing to the frigid weather, we were in no mood to actually enjoy it or play in it.
Puneet had arranged for accommodation with a willing homestay partner. A large hall, which could accommodate about 40 people to sleep, was at our disposal. There were no other guests. A bukhari and a few heaters provided warmth in the room. The temperature outside was minus 22 degrees Celsius but indoors it was comfortable at about 15 degrees. The momos and the thukpa dinner that night was the tastiest food we had during the expedition. With no centralised heating or electric blankets, we slept the night, after a music session. As we realised later, this would not be the toughest night on the expedition.
Day 3
Waking up to a gorgeous snow fall, we left for a small walk which took us to a frozen lake. As I sit to write this story today, I realise the dangers at the lake site. However, in that moment, we just walked, just jumped and just ran on the massive icy lake. The sky that day was menacing grey, and visibility was probably about 200 metres or so. On our way to Kaza, we were to cross the infamous Malling Nala. Though called a nala, it was an icy patch of about 75 metres, where we would be passing a stream which cuts the road. The stream originates from the waterfalls on the mountain side and disappears to form another waterfall off the sheer vertical drop after crossing the road. To add to the difficulty level, the stream and the waterfall was completely frozen. Half a mistake by any driver and the expedition would end by death. Maintaining a distance of about 150 metres or so, cars drivers are instructed not to press the brake or change gears. They can barely move the steering wheel, but not with a jerk. The cars in 4x4 H mode, crawl through this landscape in about 40-50 seconds and that is when we realise what a 4x4 system can do for you.
The road eases out a little though the sharp hair pins continue. We now have now descended from Nako to Sumdo. The car trail, abruptly stops next to a temple. Without stepping outside the car, the smell of fresh jalebis and samosas wafts in the crisp mountain air. The vapour from our mouth (and those Samosas) contrasts the cold weather outside. From Sumdo we travel to Gue, to see one of India’s only preserved mummy in a sitting posture.
Gue Monastery is nestled about 10 km from the highway. Single lane road, prayers on our lips and snow below the car and river below. Gue presents us with our first 360 degree view of the snow clad surroundings. Nothing, but white meets the eye, except the colourful monastery which is still in the making.
These mountain roads are made using tar like others, but unlike others these have to face rain, snow, rocks and sometimes all of these together. Loose rock, gravel fall off the mountain slopes and need to be physically moved and brushed off the road. This painful task is done by gangs or teams of road clearance personnel all round the year. (including in negative temperatures) These teams comprise of about 3-4 men and women, walking a stretch of road assigned to them. Armed with shovels, a broom, a stick and a smile on their face, they always cheer at you as you pass by. Being Tibetan Buddhists, some of the older members carry a prayer wheel while some smoke tobacco. Being a regular in these areas, Jeep Captain’s Isuzu is recognised by all. We greet one such team, exchange pleasantries, handover some banana chips, oranges and click snaps with them. We travel along the Spiti river which gives us constant company, sometimes frozen, sometimes gushing in blue, god knows what shade to call it. We leave Gue in the afternoon and still have to travel about 80 kms until Kaza. The snowfall has been constant ever since leaving Gue and continues till we reach Tabo. The Tabo monastery, built in 996 AD and substantially preserved till date is a must visit. However since the weather is looking menacing, we take a quick look at this wooden structure with mud walls and fantastic artwork inside.
Tabo to Kaza is not a steep climb, but the road is not for the faint hearted in winter. The snow is intense and quite high. One cannot identify where the road ends and the steep fall begins, for the entire side of the road is covered in deep snow. It’s like opening the freezer section of a refrigerator from the 90s. The span of the Spiti river is huge and almost the entire of it is frozen. All the settlements along the river, depend on it for survival and carry the water on their shoulders in the harshest of Spiti valley weather.
The visibility is getting poorer by the minute and the snowfall has become more intense. We are the only vehicle making our way to Kaza. We cross frozen streams, frozen waterfalls and all this while driving on the snow covered road. This is going to be our new normal for a couple of days. On the highway, by the roadside, chortens are constructed, in memory of the dead. As is mandated by Tibetan culture, Shibu goes from the left of these chortens and does a circumambulation around them. This is done for retaining good luck and we are by the looks of the weather, going to need a lot of it. Finally we make it to Kaza (approx. about 3800 msl) with negative 10 on the temperature gauge.
We are welcomed by Mr. Tsering, a close friend of Puneet and a homestay owner in Kaza. By the time, we reach the homestay, we have waded through a foot of snow. It is dark and eerily quiet and the Bhotia dogs (Himalayan Sheep dog) can be heard nearby . Tsering commands upto about 70-80 rooms in Kaza. Our homestay is cozy with 6 bedrooms. The large dining hall is converted into a meeting place to chat and relax. This time, we have individual rooms, with a bukhari inside the room to keep the room warm. One wishes to take a warm water to ease off the drudgery of the long drive. Demanding water for a bath, however, was out of question since the homestay staff trudge along 3-4 kms in snow to bring water from the Spiti river, to the guest houses for drinking. The homestay is equipped with a dry toilet and also a wet toilet, but no tap water.
The setting around us in Kaza is stunning with snow on the road side, on the roof, the barren trees. The winter glow in the sky is now grey, black but no cloud for company. An occasional Alto slipping and sliding on the snowy road defines the words ‘brave’ and ‘helpless’ in this region. The stories around the Bukharis, as we sip on the warm ginger water, are veering out from the weather topic and onto more adventurous times being narrated by Mr. Tsering, during his snow leopard expeditions, or waterfall climbing expeditions. Joining us in the discussion are a professional mountain climber, a university professor from USA and one Brigadier from the Indian Army, who are also the guests at the home stay with us. A crowd from such diverse backgrounds makes the evening interesting and more so if the people are affable. If not more, it keeps the mood cheerful and takes away any gloomy feeling, due to lack of oxygen, insufficient sunlight and an approaching snow storm.

Some pictures of the day - from Gue Monastery, Nako Lake,passing the Spiti and approaching Kaza.



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Day 4
None of the expedition mornings are early. Given the effort of putting the winter layers and the shoes one keeps postponing it. All departures are around 10 a.m. when the snow may have melted, despite the cars running through the night. We make our way to the car, scoop off the snow and get into the vehicle for a drive to Chicham Bridge. Situate at a staggering height of 13,600 ft. The bridge connects the remove villages nearby and is an essential link . Constructed over a fifteen year period and opened for traffic in 2017, the bridge is an imposing structure. On the way, we hope to catch a glimpse of the famous monastery in Kibber village and Key village.
An integral part of the expedition such as this winter expedition is the pair of snow chains. Each car in the convoy is equipped with two chains, to be put up on the rear wheels. Shibu is the master in this department. The cars reach the Rangrik bridge nearby and it takes about 50 minutes to put on these chains. Shibu darts under the car with bare hands, not bothered about the powered snow entering his clothes, hair and does not stop, though the temperature is ten below zero.
All around us, there is not a patch of brown or green or blue. Just grey, white and black and of course the fresh snow falling all throughout. The road line is not visible and instead of a black tar road, we are driving on almost a foot of snow. Progress is slow and the cars routinely engage 4x4 L or H, depending on the terrain. Heavy snow – 4H, ensures extreme slow progress and 4L is used where the wheels may touch snow and tarmac, and the road will be slippery. Surprising as it may sound, the progress in fresh snow is faster, because the wheels are able to get traction from the soft snow.
We pass by the Key monastery route and learn that due to excessive snow fall the village is cut-off. Same story a little ahead for the Kibber monastery. Honestly put, there was no mood to see a monastery. We were there for a snow drive, for a feel of the flakes on our face. The visits to nearby places of Key, Kibber, Langza, Pin Valley, Hikkim, Koumik are all pending which means, we will come again.

The road to Chicham and back, is no less an adventure in itself. The driver needs active assistance of spotting the road line, to keep the car on the road. Every convoy has a lead car and a sweep car. This is to ensure that none of the cars on the road lag behind. However, the three cars were gently making their way to Chicham, undaunted by the weather which was now bad to worse. We were in the middle of a snow storm and the frequency of the snowfall had increased drastically. The valley was absolutely not visible and all one could see was snow, and more snow. The wiper struggled to keep the glass clean and needed frequent cleaning. A look in all directions was just white. Signboards came and went, announcing tiny hamlets, with a population of 50-60 people. The truth be told, for six hours we did not see another person, apart from the 8 members of the expedition. At Chicham Bridge, we gobbled up a lunch of packed parathas, boiled eggs, banana chips, tea, biscuits, nuts. We spend almost an hour there, gawking at the view around us, peering over the bridge and looking into the sheer drop below. Memories are made through snow ball fights, and one of us running on the bridge, exposing his bare torso, in negative 10-12 degrees. The snowfall continued all day. Having reached Chicham, the mind begins to now think of the return journey. On the way from the bridge, we tried a different route to get to Kibber, but after 30 minutes of driving about three kms, we learnt that even the other route was shut owing to snow. Imagine the plight of the drivers, for they had to turn around the vehicles between the cliff and the valley, while the passengers cheered. In this Spiti winter wilderness, not an animal moves without reason, except people like us, who are unnaturally there.
During the entire day we must have stepped out of the car, atleast 20 times, bringing back snow into the vehicle, alongwith mud and water. The borrowed Columbia shoes, do their duty well and despite all the snow walking, not once did I fall or slip.
After a day of driving, we reach the homestay and are back to the warmth near the Bukhari.

The mesmerising drive to and around Chicham Bridge

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Day 5
Next day we say good bye to Mr. Tsering and to Kaza. We reach the Kaza helipad and we enjoy ourselves thoroughly as the Captain shows us how to do donuts in the Isuzu, with snow chains on them. Post a mandatory photo shot with the all the vehicles, we head for the destination of the day, Kalpa. For the first time, the “Fuel Freeze” indicator lights up but quickly disappears as the engine warms up due to the car’s pace. The oncoming snow and the wind is going to truly test the vehicle and the drivers for today.

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This was our third consecutive day in snow and the going is slow in 4L or H with the chains, still strapped on. On the return, we notice, that the patches of brown are no longer the same, but are now white. The trees have more snow and the brown Tabo we had seen is now a white Tabo. On the way to Tabo, we rescued a Santro by pulling it behind us in those treacherous conditions, snow and our chains notwithstanding. The experience of the towing, left us skidding off our tracks on numerous occasions. This is despite the vehicle being loaded and having a Santro being towed. Those skids and wheel spins were a normal affair, by this time.
I did not mention earlier, that we were riding the entire expedition with the front left tyre punctured. In the entire snow experience at Chicham, we had forgotten to top up the tyre pressure and had left Kaza in the almost blizzard like situation with the tyre going flat. In the snow, we had not realised this because a deflated tyre gives better traction. We had just crossed Tabo, and were stopped in our tracks by a gang of road cleaners. They pointed out that the tyre was now almost flat. This was the same gang we had met near Gue a few days earlier and they recognised us. A smile by us then, had fetched us this result in return and we picked up invaluable lessons on the expedition and said a few juleys to this team.

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A little after Tabo, we undid the chains since the tar on the road was now visible. Since this was at a slightly lesser altitude the snow was not on the two lines cut out by the cars which had been there earlier. As long as we kept to these lines, we were safe without the chains. The unchaining process on the three vehicles took another half an hour and we proceeded towards Sumdo and Nako with some speed. Stopping just a few 100 metres from Malling Nala, the Captain signalled on the car radio, to stop the convoy so that the chains could be put back on. The re-chaining took almost one hour, as the cars were now in significant high snow and there was no faster way of doing this. Shibu had to physically go below each car and do this task, which is immensely difficult. The chains weight almost 15 kgs each and are to be tied up tight, lest they come loose and give way. There is also the fear of the chains brushing and damaging the underbody. With the temperature still in double digit negative, snow increasing every minute, it was for the first time, that we felt the dangers of a winter expedition, if one was unprepared or worse, if under prepared. An unprepared person would just stop, but an under-prepared would not recognise his mistakes and become a victim of the biting cold and the valley, in the false belief that he is somewhat prepared.

Moments after re-chaining, we cross the Malling Nala and now head for Nako and then onwards ahead. We cross the nala in extreme conditions, with not a piece of tar on the road visible and not a portion of it, brown. Heaving a sigh of relief, we move on, and go through the hairpins near Nako and put that behind us. We are now descending to the confluence of the Spiti and the Sutlej. The rocky canopy before the confluence point arrives after about 2 hours of driving through this fierce snow storm. Only after returning, do we learn that it had snowed the heaviest in Spiti in a few seasons, while we were there. On our way back, we could barely see the valley, and the mountains near us. With no traffic to guide us, the faint tracks left by Puneet, who was in the lead vehicle were our only source of ‘information’ on the road. After reaching the lower altitude, we unchain again and proceed further, in the direction of Pooh.

Crossing the Malling Nala and beyond that

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A crackle on the walkie and Puneet conveyed to us that there had been a few landslides on the national highway and nearest blockage, for us, was at a place, affectionately called as Tinku nalla. By this time, it is almost 8 p.m. and plans to reach Kalpa, were shelved. The snow removal operations were also suspended owing to weather conditions. The entire of Himachal is snow struck and several roads and villages are blocked. News of this has reached Mumbai and the family is now concerned.
The true character of Puneet was now put to test and he absolutely excelled at it, despite the weather and the road blocks. Without any bookings to support him, Puneet managed to secure accommodation for us and we were state guests for the night. Thanks to this we did not have to sleep in the car in the biting cold and could also enjoy a warm full meal in separate rooms at one of the safest places near Tinku nalla.

Day 6


The day we were stranded began with these sights. The beauty of the view and the reality of the roadblock are such a contrast for the spirit.

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The day break brought bright sunshine into our rooms. This was coupled with blue skies which we saw for the first time in one week. This sunshine is actually not suitable for snow removal operations and the snow begins to melt and causes more landslides.
The day went by getting news concerning snow removal. The administration had reportedly cleared a couple of road blocks by 6 p.m. and Tinku nalla was the only pending one. The work was on continuous and we got a call from Puneet, who was waiting at the road block site, that the road would hopefully open by 8:00 p.m. Though the snow was not falling, the weather was extremely cold and temperature was almost minus five. The three expedition vehicles reached the landslide spot and we saw the operations in full swing. I expected a traffic jam, but we saw that we were the only three vehicles which were prepared to cross the landslide spot and proceed ahead.
The landslide removal work, was progressing on both sides of the slide, and the moment when the cranes from either side met arrived at about 10:15 p.m. The deft handling of the machines and the synchronisation of the able men and their machine was possible post sunset, because of the coaxing by Puneet. It was possible only because one of the expedition vehicle provided bright LED lights to the landslide spot, Puneet provided about 50 litres of diesel for the JCBs. Care was taken to ensure that the labour had warm pockets and the throats. The job was tough and it was done by 10:15 p.m. After a session of photos with the clearance team, we began the unthinkable - a journey through the treacherous mountains in the dead of the night. As the journey began into the night, we realised that the expedition and the adventure was not over.
The cleared roadblock
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After about 2 hours of driving in the dead of the night, munching on chips, biscuits and chocolates, as our dinner, we heard the jarring crackle on the radio. Puneet again conveyed to us that a portion of the mountain had fallen and broken itself into two-three giant rocks on the road just ahead. Each rock was the size of a Maruti 800. Our vehicle reached the spot and we realised that this fall was very recent and no BRO team or official or labour was around. No other car, vehicle or truck was at the site as well. The crazy idea of removing the rock boulders was discussed by us. With our bare hands, we moved the rocks together, a few feet, just enough so that the Isuzu could pass between those rocks and the mountain on the right. Moving those rocks we broke a steady sweat despite wearing five layers. The tension was mounting and the escape from this spot was to be executed quickly before any of the loose rock would fall again and reduce us to smithereens. Captain’s vehicle had a stronger foot board and was therefore selected to be the lead vehicle, to take us via this make believe road, while the rest of the team guided the Captain on foot. Due to Captain’s steady determination to put the car before his life (a quality very few possess), the car passed the site, without a scratch on us. Those moments were not for the faint hearted. You’d think that the rest of the night would be smooth. That was not to be.

Munching miles, we made progress, to realise a few kilometres ahead that our Captain’s ship had unfortunately developed its second puncture, this time the rear left tyre was hissing out warm air. God knows, where we were, for we could see nothing else, but the mountain and the mighty Sutlej river. In the full moon night and the clear skies, we saw a board “SBI welcomes you to Ribba” in the background of this well-lit night. We were determined not to perish at Ribba in the biting cold. The compressor kit was out again and we fed the two punctured tyres, some warm air.

With two punctures and with destination not in sight, the low fuel indicator showed up. A few kilometres into the night we proceeded with that indicator light, being a constant looming spectre. A petrol bunk provided us with an opportunity for a bio break as the vehicle tanked up. My heart still goes out to the lone operator of that petrol pump, who was on duty, while only three cars were moving on the national highway that night. The snow now behind us, we made our way through the Karcham-Wangtu dam region and sped on towards Rampur. As we climbed a steep ascent, the road was slippery, which was an indicator of black ice on the road. Black ice, is the biggest enemy in slippery conditions. It remains hidden from plain sight during the day and at night, is entirely invisible. The first victim of this black ice we saw that night, was a truck, which had parked itself in the middle of the national highway, with no road to pass on either side. The truck driver said that the wheels were spinning with zero traction and no motion. Having moved mountains earlier (albeit fallen), the Captain with no hesitation put the vehicle into the gutter on the side of the road, shifted to 4L and the Isuzu just about crossed the spot with both mirrors folded.

Post the truck incident, around a sharp bend, we witnessed a giant Himalayan black bear scampering on the road and it climbed the mountain right in front of our eyes. In the dead of the night, all dhabas, restaurants were shut. Despite the weather and night driving, Captain’s mood was always upbeat and not once did he even mention that he needed rest. Hats off to him for maintaining energy levels. By about 4 a.m., Puneet coaxed a dhaba owner to serve us some Maggi and parathas. Post the Maggi stop, we learnt had 3-4 feet of snow had accumulated near Narkanda and the road had been cleared sometime in the night and it was a single pass road. This meant that only one vehicle could travel on the cleared road. A single mistake and the car would get lodged in the snow on the road side. Praying that no vehicle approaches us from the front, we continued our journey. Apart from an occasional cow on this single lane road, no vehicle came head on.

Day 7

Faced with all these difficulties we reach Narkanda and park by the roadside at about 6 a.m. We bid farwell to Puneet who left for Delhi the same day from the parking spot. Thanking him profusely for all that he had done, to make the expedition a success, would have taken a long time and delayed him. No one is interested in long speeches after a full night drive. A wave of the hand and a wink at one another, was sufficient. We still are in touch.

Tethy’s resort where we are staying is about 1 km, off road from where we were parked. With no means to get there by car, we trudged there walking in 1-2 feet snow, leaving all our bags in the car and still decked in five layers of winter clothing. The sunrise slowed us down and we were relieved that the risks of the night on the road, were now behind us. As we made our way to the gate of the resort, we had a snow shower on us. This snow was from the deodar, which had woken from its slumber and was pushing off the white baggage, and preparing itself to sway in the cool morning breeze.

The morning at Narkanda
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Back in the rooms, we crashed on the beds. The Bangalore boys (in the third Isuzu) left the hotel by 1 p.m and we promised to stay in touch.
Shibu was to drop us to Chandigarh and we decided to leave by 3 p.m. It was difficult saying bye to Goldie, the unseen hand behind the expedition and the man who dared to bare himself at Chicham . Without Goldie, the cars on the expedition would not have cranked up, for he was keeping the cars running all through the night in Kaza and Nako. We promise to visit his apple orchard, the next time we are near Narkanda.
One thing led to another and we left Narkanda at 5 p.m for Chandigarh. The route selected was not the national highway, but a backroad, where we were again the only car on the road. The uniqueness of this expedition was the drives we had, where the traffic was non-existent. The sunset through the vehicle was glorious and the orange and red hues signaled that the expedition had drawn to a close. We left the snow line at about 9 p.m. and thereafter sped on to Chandigarh, eventually reaching there at about 1:00 a.m. Time had come to say good bye to Shibu Varghese a.k.a our Jeep Captain. A man so jovial and camera friendly, that not a moment in the expedition was dull or stressful despite having faced many challenges. Our long conversations in the car covered various aspects of travel, friendship and stories from each other’s life. With a heavy heart we saw the Captain, one last time next to his Isuzu and unloaded our bags from the giant trunk of the Isuzu.
The Final Mile
My friend from Mumbai and I hopped into a cab which was waiting for us to take us to Delhi Airport in the middle of the night. A sedan seemed tremendously small, after having spent 8 days and almost two nights inside the giant Isuzu. The plan was to take the earliest flight from Delhi and reach Mumbai. One more night was spent in the car, when we finally reached Delhi Airport at about 4 a.m. This journey was a challenge, more so, because the driver was a Formula One aspirant and a reject and also because he ensured that the loud Punjabi pop songs kept us awake.
Boarding the flight for Mumbai, our family was shocked to know that we were reaching Mumbai, one day earlier than our scheduled arrival date, despite the landslide. We had not informed them at all about our whereabouts and how the nights were spent Waiting for the flight we were shocked that we were boarding a plane without having had a bath for 5-6 days. The Spiti winter was to be thanked for that.
The curtains to the expedition were drawn after I washed off the mud from the shoes. The stunning views and the experiences we had in white Spiti are still as fresh as the waters of the Spiti river. The snow will melt in the summer, but the memory of that snow will never go away.
Exploring our country, it led me here. Why go elsewhere.

Post Trip Analysis

1. Go Prepared and select your Team wisely.
2. Read on the weather and pack. Carrying spare batteries and a stylus for touch screen phones is invaluable.
3. Don't expect anything and Spiti will give you everything.
4. Meet the local people with a smile and you will 'see' (into) them
 

Attachments

36 TO MINUS 22 AND BACK

Not a new Idea
Spiti Valley, a place not so far away was beckoning me for years. I had travelled upto Kalpa and Sangla in May 2016, The place in summer is fantastic and looks like this.


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Ever since this visit, I was excited to know, what lies beyond. The plan was to visit Spiti valley in winter, when the valley almost goes into hibernation. After having made the trip to Spiti in the winters, I can confidently say that there is perhaps nothing that compares to this kind of an experience. Everything about this place, will just make you go clicking.

Dive in for a true roller coaster ride, we had in January 2020. Judge for yourself, whether to plan a trip like this.


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The way it got planned


A year back I was introduced to the 4x4 India FB page by Gajanan Chitale and I realised that the inaccessible was actually accessible, but in a 4x4 vehicle. Almost everyone knows what is “4x4”. In brief, it’s a system where all the wheels of the car receive power directly from the engine. Vehicles with 4x4 capabilities are better equipped to traverse treacherous surfaces, such as snow, ice, slush, sand.
4x4 India, a FB page run by Shibu Varghese, a.k.a. Jeep Captain is a mecca for likeminded 4x4 vehicle aficionados and Shibu runs expeditions in Winter to the Spiti Valley. These expeditions are run by him together with Puneet Sharma of La Himalaya, a boutique travel company, run with passion. After a year of chasing convenient dates, it was settled that I would be in the legendary Isuzu V-cross of Captain Shibu, for the one January 2020 Expedition. I was to be accompanied by another friend from Mumbai. The expedition would take us from Chandigarh to Kaza via a small detour to Chitkul and then back to Chandigarh. This journey would not be complete without Captain and Puneet. These two, need no plugging.



The Execution

Day 0


The Captain picked us up from Chandigarh and we managed to reach the first night halt at Narkanda. If luxury had a definition for Himachal, one of it would be the Tethy’s Resort . The resort is situated off the road at Narkanda. At Narkanda we met Puneet Sharma who was to accompany us on the expedition in a V-cross. The expedition was supported by Shibu handling the technical side, and Puneet handling the logistics, assisted by Goldie, a fun loving orchard owner from near Narkanda.

Day 1
The expedition began with a small briefing by Puneet and Shibu and we met the third V-cross, which carried the four Bangalore boys. This convoy of three ‘clean’ V-Cross vehicles – comprising 8 boys in total left for Sangla valley. The snow covered peaks were at a distance, but closer to the vehicle was the snaking road and the steep valley below, with the gurgling river constantly providing company. The apple orchards down below were missing their leaves with the snow kissing the soil. The sights left us, pinching ourselves, seeking only one question, are we in India ?
The Sangla stay was at the Banjara Camps property, nestled inside an apple orchard. Post a sumptuous dinner and dance, we set off on a midnight walk to the river. Temperature was about minus 10. The orchard was leafless, but not lifeless. Snow had a new name – “white grass”. Picked on a few apples from the dry trees, which exploded with apple nectar- almost like a liquer, but unfermented. We were at Sangla on the Captain’s birthday and it was indeed a great celebration. Puneet had arranged a pineapple cake and the monk in the bottle was willing to bless those who prayed. Banjara Camps, an uber luxury resort, had opened up for the expedition, thanks to La Himalaya. There were no other other guests, but just the 8 of us. We had the place to ourselves with the staff doing all they could to please the off season, off road tourists.
A few pics of and from the Banjara Camp property

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Day 2
We were off for a short drive on the road to Chitkul. Blue skies and the white snow on the road and the mountains were our companions for about 3 hours, as we explored the region, passing tiny metal bridges, small streams. The villages were all silent, and not a soul on the road. The views we saw could rival any other tourist destination in the world which offers snow. Choose Chitkul and Sangla in any season and there is no way you can regret it.

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Winter drive to Spiti, is almost like a private holiday destination. During the entire expedition drive which was for 8-9 days, apart from our three car convoy, we hardly came across a total of 50 other moving vehicles.

The drive from Chitkul to Nako, was the plan and was executed with timely precision. The blacktop road had no snow, and we had no occasion to even engage the 4x4 system. Having said that, the tarmac was non-existent in places, and the cars ambled their way through mud, water, a mix of both, and following the tracks of vehicles which had travelled previously (which are invaluable, as we realised a little later in the expedition).
While reaching Nako, we pass the villages of Spello, Pooh and Khab and the mighty confluence point, where the Sutlej from China meets the Spiti. The Sutlej all along remains with you. The road is under widening operations and repair. A unique aspect here is the rocky canopy under which the highway passes. The bridges across the river, some still in wood, appear strong and inspire confidence. Five feet away from the car was the valley and the tall mountain on the other side. The mountains in fair weather days, throw out a water stream which lands directly in the middle of the road. During the winter, water trickles through the mountain and forms a frozen waterfall. Fragile and white, the icicles from the waterfall, invite you to play with them. At places where the stream has not frozen, we drive very near to these waterfalls and the cars get a lovely wash in the process.
Some of the frozen waterfalls we encountered in the expedition.

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The expertise of the convoy drivers throughout, ensure our progress is smooth and without a hiccup. The V-cross is like a raging bull on the flat roads, and a mountain goat on the inclines, not a slip or a moment of hesitation to ascend or descend.
Nako was a sleeping town with our cars being the only disturbance around, that night. We experienced our first snowfall and owing to the frigid weather, we were in no mood to actually enjoy it or play in it.
Puneet had arranged for accommodation with a willing homestay partner. A large hall, which could accommodate about 40 people to sleep, was at our disposal. There were no other guests. A bukhari and a few heaters provided warmth in the room. The temperature outside was minus 22 degrees Celsius but indoors it was comfortable at about 15 degrees. The momos and the thukpa dinner that night was the tastiest food we had during the expedition. With no centralised heating or electric blankets, we slept the night, after a music session. As we realised later, this would not be the toughest night on the expedition.
Day 3
Waking up to a gorgeous snow fall, we left for a small walk which took us to a frozen lake. As I sit to write this story today, I realise the dangers at the lake site. However, in that moment, we just walked, just jumped and just ran on the massive icy lake. The sky that day was menacing grey, and visibility was probably about 200 metres or so. On our way to Kaza, we were to cross the infamous Malling Nala. Though called a nala, it was an icy patch of about 75 metres, where we would be passing a stream which cuts the road. The stream originates from the waterfalls on the mountain side and disappears to form another waterfall off the sheer vertical drop after crossing the road. To add to the difficulty level, the stream and the waterfall was completely frozen. Half a mistake by any driver and the expedition would end by death. Maintaining a distance of about 150 metres or so, cars drivers are instructed not to press the brake or change gears. They can barely move the steering wheel, but not with a jerk. The cars in 4x4 H mode, crawl through this landscape in about 40-50 seconds and that is when we realise what a 4x4 system can do for you.
The road eases out a little though the sharp hair pins continue. We now have now descended from Nako to Sumdo. The car trail, abruptly stops next to a temple. Without stepping outside the car, the smell of fresh jalebis and samosas wafts in the crisp mountain air. The vapour from our mouth (and those Samosas) contrasts the cold weather outside. From Sumdo we travel to Gue, to see one of India’s only preserved mummy in a sitting posture.
Gue Monastery is nestled about 10 km from the highway. Single lane road, prayers on our lips and snow below the car and river below. Gue presents us with our first 360 degree view of the snow clad surroundings. Nothing, but white meets the eye, except the colourful monastery which is still in the making.
These mountain roads are made using tar like others, but unlike others these have to face rain, snow, rocks and sometimes all of these together. Loose rock, gravel fall off the mountain slopes and need to be physically moved and brushed off the road. This painful task is done by gangs or teams of road clearance personnel all round the year. (including in negative temperatures) These teams comprise of about 3-4 men and women, walking a stretch of road assigned to them. Armed with shovels, a broom, a stick and a smile on their face, they always cheer at you as you pass by. Being Tibetan Buddhists, some of the older members carry a prayer wheel while some smoke tobacco. Being a regular in these areas, Jeep Captain’s Isuzu is recognised by all. We greet one such team, exchange pleasantries, handover some banana chips, oranges and click snaps with them. We travel along the Spiti river which gives us constant company, sometimes frozen, sometimes gushing in blue, god knows what shade to call it. We leave Gue in the afternoon and still have to travel about 80 kms until Kaza. The snowfall has been constant ever since leaving Gue and continues till we reach Tabo. The Tabo monastery, built in 996 AD and substantially preserved till date is a must visit. However since the weather is looking menacing, we take a quick look at this wooden structure with mud walls and fantastic artwork inside.
Tabo to Kaza is not a steep climb, but the road is not for the faint hearted in winter. The snow is intense and quite high. One cannot identify where the road ends and the steep fall begins, for the entire side of the road is covered in deep snow. It’s like opening the freezer section of a refrigerator from the 90s. The span of the Spiti river is huge and almost the entire of it is frozen. All the settlements along the river, depend on it for survival and carry the water on their shoulders in the harshest of Spiti valley weather.
The visibility is getting poorer by the minute and the snowfall has become more intense. We are the only vehicle making our way to Kaza. We cross frozen streams, frozen waterfalls and all this while driving on the snow covered road. This is going to be our new normal for a couple of days. On the highway, by the roadside, chortens are constructed, in memory of the dead. As is mandated by Tibetan culture, Shibu goes from the left of these chortens and does a circumambulation around them. This is done for retaining good luck and we are by the looks of the weather, going to need a lot of it. Finally we make it to Kaza (approx. about 3800 msl) with negative 10 on the temperature gauge.
We are welcomed by Mr. Tsering, a close friend of Puneet and a homestay owner in Kaza. By the time, we reach the homestay, we have waded through a foot of snow. It is dark and eerily quiet and the Bhotia dogs (Himalayan Sheep dog) can be heard nearby . Tsering commands upto about 70-80 rooms in Kaza. Our homestay is cozy with 6 bedrooms. The large dining hall is converted into a meeting place to chat and relax. This time, we have individual rooms, with a bukhari inside the room to keep the room warm. One wishes to take a warm water to ease off the drudgery of the long drive. Demanding water for a bath, however, was out of question since the homestay staff trudge along 3-4 kms in snow to bring water from the Spiti river, to the guest houses for drinking. The homestay is equipped with a dry toilet and also a wet toilet, but no tap water.
The setting around us in Kaza is stunning with snow on the road side, on the roof, the barren trees. The winter glow in the sky is now grey, black but no cloud for company. An occasional Alto slipping and sliding on the snowy road defines the words ‘brave’ and ‘helpless’ in this region. The stories around the Bukharis, as we sip on the warm ginger water, are veering out from the weather topic and onto more adventurous times being narrated by Mr. Tsering, during his snow leopard expeditions, or waterfall climbing expeditions. Joining us in the discussion are a professional mountain climber, a university professor from USA and one Brigadier from the Indian Army, who are also the guests at the home stay with us. A crowd from such diverse backgrounds makes the evening interesting and more so if the people are affable. If not more, it keeps the mood cheerful and takes away any gloomy feeling, due to lack of oxygen, insufficient sunlight and an approaching snow storm.

Some pictures of the day - from Gue Monastery, Nako Lake,passing the Spiti and approaching Kaza.



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Day 4
None of the expedition mornings are early. Given the effort of putting the winter layers and the shoes one keeps postponing it. All departures are around 10 a.m. when the snow may have melted, despite the cars running through the night. We make our way to the car, scoop off the snow and get into the vehicle for a drive to Chicham Bridge. Situate at a staggering height of 13,600 ft. The bridge connects the remove villages nearby and is an essential link . Constructed over a fifteen year period and opened for traffic in 2017, the bridge is an imposing structure. On the way, we hope to catch a glimpse of the famous monastery in Kibber village and Key village.
An integral part of the expedition such as this winter expedition is the pair of snow chains. Each car in the convoy is equipped with two chains, to be put up on the rear wheels. Shibu is the master in this department. The cars reach the Rangrik bridge nearby and it takes about 50 minutes to put on these chains. Shibu darts under the car with bare hands, not bothered about the powered snow entering his clothes, hair and does not stop, though the temperature is ten below zero.
All around us, there is not a patch of brown or green or blue. Just grey, white and black and of course the fresh snow falling all throughout. The road line is not visible and instead of a black tar road, we are driving on almost a foot of snow. Progress is slow and the cars routinely engage 4x4 L or H, depending on the terrain. Heavy snow – 4H, ensures extreme slow progress and 4L is used where the wheels may touch snow and tarmac, and the road will be slippery. Surprising as it may sound, the progress in fresh snow is faster, because the wheels are able to get traction from the soft snow.
We pass by the Key monastery route and learn that due to excessive snow fall the village is cut-off. Same story a little ahead for the Kibber monastery. Honestly put, there was no mood to see a monastery. We were there for a snow drive, for a feel of the flakes on our face. The visits to nearby places of Key, Kibber, Langza, Pin Valley, Hikkim, Koumik are all pending which means, we will come again.

The road to Chicham and back, is no less an adventure in itself. The driver needs active assistance of spotting the road line, to keep the car on the road. Every convoy has a lead car and a sweep car. This is to ensure that none of the cars on the road lag behind. However, the three cars were gently making their way to Chicham, undaunted by the weather which was now bad to worse. We were in the middle of a snow storm and the frequency of the snowfall had increased drastically. The valley was absolutely not visible and all one could see was snow, and more snow. The wiper struggled to keep the glass clean and needed frequent cleaning. A look in all directions was just white. Signboards came and went, announcing tiny hamlets, with a population of 50-60 people. The truth be told, for six hours we did not see another person, apart from the 8 members of the expedition. At Chicham Bridge, we gobbled up a lunch of packed parathas, boiled eggs, banana chips, tea, biscuits, nuts. We spend almost an hour there, gawking at the view around us, peering over the bridge and looking into the sheer drop below. Memories are made through snow ball fights, and one of us running on the bridge, exposing his bare torso, in negative 10-12 degrees. The snowfall continued all day. Having reached Chicham, the mind begins to now think of the return journey. On the way from the bridge, we tried a different route to get to Kibber, but after 30 minutes of driving about three kms, we learnt that even the other route was shut owing to snow. Imagine the plight of the drivers, for they had to turn around the vehicles between the cliff and the valley, while the passengers cheered. In this Spiti winter wilderness, not an animal moves without reason, except people like us, who are unnaturally there.
During the entire day we must have stepped out of the car, atleast 20 times, bringing back snow into the vehicle, alongwith mud and water. The borrowed Columbia shoes, do their duty well and despite all the snow walking, not once did I fall or slip.
After a day of driving, we reach the homestay and are back to the warmth near the Bukhari.

The mesmerising drive to and around Chicham Bridge

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Day 5
Next day we say good bye to Mr. Tsering and to Kaza. We reach the Kaza helipad and we enjoy ourselves thoroughly as the Captain shows us how to do donuts in the Isuzu, with snow chains on them. Post a mandatory photo shot with the all the vehicles, we head for the destination of the day, Kalpa. For the first time, the “Fuel Freeze” indicator lights up but quickly disappears as the engine warms up due to the car’s pace. The oncoming snow and the wind is going to truly test the vehicle and the drivers for today.

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This was our third consecutive day in snow and the going is slow in 4L or H with the chains, still strapped on. On the return, we notice, that the patches of brown are no longer the same, but are now white. The trees have more snow and the brown Tabo we had seen is now a white Tabo. On the way to Tabo, we rescued a Santro by pulling it behind us in those treacherous conditions, snow and our chains notwithstanding. The experience of the towing, left us skidding off our tracks on numerous occasions. This is despite the vehicle being loaded and having a Santro being towed. Those skids and wheel spins were a normal affair, by this time.
I did not mention earlier, that we were riding the entire expedition with the front left tyre punctured. In the entire snow experience at Chicham, we had forgotten to top up the tyre pressure and had left Kaza in the almost blizzard like situation with the tyre going flat. In the snow, we had not realised this because a deflated tyre gives better traction. We had just crossed Tabo, and were stopped in our tracks by a gang of road cleaners. They pointed out that the tyre was now almost flat. This was the same gang we had met near Gue a few days earlier and they recognised us. A smile by us then, had fetched us this result in return and we picked up invaluable lessons on the expedition and said a few juleys to this team.

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A little after Tabo, we undid the chains since the tar on the road was now visible. Since this was at a slightly lesser altitude the snow was not on the two lines cut out by the cars which had been there earlier. As long as we kept to these lines, we were safe without the chains. The unchaining process on the three vehicles took another half an hour and we proceeded towards Sumdo and Nako with some speed. Stopping just a few 100 metres from Malling Nala, the Captain signalled on the car radio, to stop the convoy so that the chains could be put back on. The re-chaining took almost one hour, as the cars were now in significant high snow and there was no faster way of doing this. Shibu had to physically go below each car and do this task, which is immensely difficult. The chains weight almost 15 kgs each and are to be tied up tight, lest they come loose and give way. There is also the fear of the chains brushing and damaging the underbody. With the temperature still in double digit negative, snow increasing every minute, it was for the first time, that we felt the dangers of a winter expedition, if one was unprepared or worse, if under prepared. An unprepared person would just stop, but an under-prepared would not recognise his mistakes and become a victim of the biting cold and the valley, in the false belief that he is somewhat prepared.

Moments after re-chaining, we cross the Malling Nala and now head for Nako and then onwards ahead. We cross the nala in extreme conditions, with not a piece of tar on the road visible and not a portion of it, brown. Heaving a sigh of relief, we move on, and go through the hairpins near Nako and put that behind us. We are now descending to the confluence of the Spiti and the Sutlej. The rocky canopy before the confluence point arrives after about 2 hours of driving through this fierce snow storm. Only after returning, do we learn that it had snowed the heaviest in Spiti in a few seasons, while we were there. On our way back, we could barely see the valley, and the mountains near us. With no traffic to guide us, the faint tracks left by Puneet, who was in the lead vehicle were our only source of ‘information’ on the road. After reaching the lower altitude, we unchain again and proceed further, in the direction of Pooh.

Crossing the Malling Nala and beyond that

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A crackle on the walkie and Puneet conveyed to us that there had been a few landslides on the national highway and nearest blockage, for us, was at a place, affectionately called as Tinku nalla. By this time, it is almost 8 p.m. and plans to reach Kalpa, were shelved. The snow removal operations were also suspended owing to weather conditions. The entire of Himachal is snow struck and several roads and villages are blocked. News of this has reached Mumbai and the family is now concerned.
The true character of Puneet was now put to test and he absolutely excelled at it, despite the weather and the road blocks. Without any bookings to support him, Puneet managed to secure accommodation for us and we were state guests for the night. Thanks to this we did not have to sleep in the car in the biting cold and could also enjoy a warm full meal in separate rooms at one of the safest places near Tinku nalla.

Day 6


The day we were stranded began with these sights. The beauty of the view and the reality of the roadblock are such a contrast for the spirit.

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The day break brought bright sunshine into our rooms. This was coupled with blue skies which we saw for the first time in one week. This sunshine is actually not suitable for snow removal operations and the snow begins to melt and causes more landslides.
The day went by getting news concerning snow removal. The administration had reportedly cleared a couple of road blocks by 6 p.m. and Tinku nalla was the only pending one. The work was on continuous and we got a call from Puneet, who was waiting at the road block site, that the road would hopefully open by 8:00 p.m. Though the snow was not falling, the weather was extremely cold and temperature was almost minus five. The three expedition vehicles reached the landslide spot and we saw the operations in full swing. I expected a traffic jam, but we saw that we were the only three vehicles which were prepared to cross the landslide spot and proceed ahead.
The landslide removal work, was progressing on both sides of the slide, and the moment when the cranes from either side met arrived at about 10:15 p.m. The deft handling of the machines and the synchronisation of the able men and their machine was possible post sunset, because of the coaxing by Puneet. It was possible only because one of the expedition vehicle provided bright LED lights to the landslide spot, Puneet provided about 50 litres of diesel for the JCBs. Care was taken to ensure that the labour had warm pockets and the throats. The job was tough and it was done by 10:15 p.m. After a session of photos with the clearance team, we began the unthinkable - a journey through the treacherous mountains in the dead of the night. As the journey began into the night, we realised that the expedition and the adventure was not over.
The cleared roadblock
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After about 2 hours of driving in the dead of the night, munching on chips, biscuits and chocolates, as our dinner, we heard the jarring crackle on the radio. Puneet again conveyed to us that a portion of the mountain had fallen and broken itself into two-three giant rocks on the road just ahead. Each rock was the size of a Maruti 800. Our vehicle reached the spot and we realised that this fall was very recent and no BRO team or official or labour was around. No other car, vehicle or truck was at the site as well. The crazy idea of removing the rock boulders was discussed by us. With our bare hands, we moved the rocks together, a few feet, just enough so that the Isuzu could pass between those rocks and the mountain on the right. Moving those rocks we broke a steady sweat despite wearing five layers. The tension was mounting and the escape from this spot was to be executed quickly before any of the loose rock would fall again and reduce us to smithereens. Captain’s vehicle had a stronger foot board and was therefore selected to be the lead vehicle, to take us via this make believe road, while the rest of the team guided the Captain on foot. Due to Captain’s steady determination to put the car before his life (a quality very few possess), the car passed the site, without a scratch on us. Those moments were not for the faint hearted. You’d think that the rest of the night would be smooth. That was not to be.

Munching miles, we made progress, to realise a few kilometres ahead that our Captain’s ship had unfortunately developed its second puncture, this time the rear left tyre was hissing out warm air. God knows, where we were, for we could see nothing else, but the mountain and the mighty Sutlej river. In the full moon night and the clear skies, we saw a board “SBI welcomes you to Ribba” in the background of this well-lit night. We were determined not to perish at Ribba in the biting cold. The compressor kit was out again and we fed the two punctured tyres, some warm air.

With two punctures and with destination not in sight, the low fuel indicator showed up. A few kilometres into the night we proceeded with that indicator light, being a constant looming spectre. A petrol bunk provided us with an opportunity for a bio break as the vehicle tanked up. My heart still goes out to the lone operator of that petrol pump, who was on duty, while only three cars were moving on the national highway that night. The snow now behind us, we made our way through the Karcham-Wangtu dam region and sped on towards Rampur. As we climbed a steep ascent, the road was slippery, which was an indicator of black ice on the road. Black ice, is the biggest enemy in slippery conditions. It remains hidden from plain sight during the day and at night, is entirely invisible. The first victim of this black ice we saw that night, was a truck, which had parked itself in the middle of the national highway, with no road to pass on either side. The truck driver said that the wheels were spinning with zero traction and no motion. Having moved mountains earlier (albeit fallen), the Captain with no hesitation put the vehicle into the gutter on the side of the road, shifted to 4L and the Isuzu just about crossed the spot with both mirrors folded.

Post the truck incident, around a sharp bend, we witnessed a giant Himalayan black bear scampering on the road and it climbed the mountain right in front of our eyes. In the dead of the night, all dhabas, restaurants were shut. Despite the weather and night driving, Captain’s mood was always upbeat and not once did he even mention that he needed rest. Hats off to him for maintaining energy levels. By about 4 a.m., Puneet coaxed a dhaba owner to serve us some Maggi and parathas. Post the Maggi stop, we learnt had 3-4 feet of snow had accumulated near Narkanda and the road had been cleared sometime in the night and it was a single pass road. This meant that only one vehicle could travel on the cleared road. A single mistake and the car would get lodged in the snow on the road side. Praying that no vehicle approaches us from the front, we continued our journey. Apart from an occasional cow on this single lane road, no vehicle came head on.

Day 7

Faced with all these difficulties we reach Narkanda and park by the roadside at about 6 a.m. We bid farwell to Puneet who left for Delhi the same day from the parking spot. Thanking him profusely for all that he had done, to make the expedition a success, would have taken a long time and delayed him. No one is interested in long speeches after a full night drive. A wave of the hand and a wink at one another, was sufficient. We still are in touch.

Tethy’s resort where we are staying is about 1 km, off road from where we were parked. With no means to get there by car, we trudged there walking in 1-2 feet snow, leaving all our bags in the car and still decked in five layers of winter clothing. The sunrise slowed us down and we were relieved that the risks of the night on the road, were now behind us. As we made our way to the gate of the resort, we had a snow shower on us. This snow was from the deodar, which had woken from its slumber and was pushing off the white baggage, and preparing itself to sway in the cool morning breeze.

The morning at Narkanda
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Back in the rooms, we crashed on the beds. The Bangalore boys (in the third Isuzu) left the hotel by 1 p.m and we promised to stay in touch.
Shibu was to drop us to Chandigarh and we decided to leave by 3 p.m. It was difficult saying bye to Goldie, the unseen hand behind the expedition and the man who dared to bare himself at Chicham . Without Goldie, the cars on the expedition would not have cranked up, for he was keeping the cars running all through the night in Kaza and Nako. We promise to visit his apple orchard, the next time we are near Narkanda.
One thing led to another and we left Narkanda at 5 p.m for Chandigarh. The route selected was not the national highway, but a backroad, where we were again the only car on the road. The uniqueness of this expedition was the drives we had, where the traffic was non-existent. The sunset through the vehicle was glorious and the orange and red hues signaled that the expedition had drawn to a close. We left the snow line at about 9 p.m. and thereafter sped on to Chandigarh, eventually reaching there at about 1:00 a.m. Time had come to say good bye to Shibu Varghese a.k.a our Jeep Captain. A man so jovial and camera friendly, that not a moment in the expedition was dull or stressful despite having faced many challenges. Our long conversations in the car covered various aspects of travel, friendship and stories from each other’s life. With a heavy heart we saw the Captain, one last time next to his Isuzu and unloaded our bags from the giant trunk of the Isuzu.
The Final Mile
My friend from Mumbai and I hopped into a cab which was waiting for us to take us to Delhi Airport in the middle of the night. A sedan seemed tremendously small, after having spent 8 days and almost two nights inside the giant Isuzu. The plan was to take the earliest flight from Delhi and reach Mumbai. One more night was spent in the car, when we finally reached Delhi Airport at about 4 a.m. This journey was a challenge, more so, because the driver was a Formula One aspirant and a reject and also because he ensured that the loud Punjabi pop songs kept us awake.
Boarding the flight for Mumbai, our family was shocked to know that we were reaching Mumbai, one day earlier than our scheduled arrival date, despite the landslide. We had not informed them at all about our whereabouts and how the nights were spent Waiting for the flight we were shocked that we were boarding a plane without having had a bath for 5-6 days. The Spiti winter was to be thanked for that.
The curtains to the expedition were drawn after I washed off the mud from the shoes. The stunning views and the experiences we had in white Spiti are still as fresh as the waters of the Spiti river. The snow will melt in the summer, but the memory of that snow will never go away.
Exploring our country, it led me here. Why go elsewhere.

Post Trip Analysis

1. Go Prepared and select your Team wisely.
2. Read on the weather and pack. Carrying spare batteries and a stylus for touch screen phones is invaluable.
3. Don't expect anything and Spiti will give you everything.
4. Meet the local people with a smile and you will 'see' (into) them
Fantastic stuff!
 
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