We woke up to the fresh morning air and sounds of the rushing Pabbar River. After a quick breakfast, we repacked the Jeep and got ready to start. The snow chains were ready by Aadi’s feet and we were all excited and eager to start. Soon the convoy pulled out of the basecamp and we started towards our destination of the day – Chanshal Pass.
The first few kilometres were uneventful and soon we got on a dirt track with occasional hints of asphalt to go up the Chanshal Pass. There were half-melted snow on the roadsides with some puddles having remnants of ice still in them. As we climbed higher, the snow started to become thicker. There were some hairpin bends to navigate and I vividly remember thinking that these were a piece of cake after the drives I had done in South India. I would later in the day end up eating those words. The track started getting more and more slushier due to the snowmelt and I had engaged 4H by now. Slush soon started giving way to a mix of black ice and slush and the going started to be trickier. Soon the slush gave in to depths of white powdery snow, deep enough for half the tyre to sink into. I was fully alert watching and trying to learn how the vehicles in front were managing. I was keeping to the trough made by the vehicles ahead of me, trough with packed snow which I felt was safer than the soft snow elsewhere.
In no short time my nightmare came true. On a particular stretch of the road my vehicle went out of control and I veered off the beaten path and got stuck on snowy embankment with no traction. I tried revving it forward and backward and merely generated black smoke. I did notice one thing though, Diesel does not really get burnt fully from the engine – there were a lot of particulate matter on the snow where the exhaust pipe belched out smoke. Now with the vehicle skidding wildly on the snow and threatening to go over into the valley just a few feet away I realised I was dangerously out of depth and needed help.
Help that was promptly at hand. Jeep Captain, Punit and all the experts raced ahead to help me. While I got out the shovel and gunny bags for traction more experienced jeepers got behind the wheel to get the Ancalagon. I watched with no small measure of shame as others “rescued” my damsel in despair. It was a humbling realisation that I was grossly under prepared for the expedition. Once back on to the beaten track snow chains were fixed on my wheels, one on Front Right and the other on Rear Left. With much better traction and 4WD firmly in 4L I plodded on carefully.
Snowfall had started now in earnest and the whole countryside came under a silent blanket. As I pitched, rolled and yawed on my way the low growl of the engine was matched only with the distinctive clang of two sets of snow chains crushing through the snow. The whole countryside was getting a powder coat of silvery white, vistas of unbelievable beauty were being created around me but I could not focus much on that as my heart was still slowly making its way back to chest cavity from my mouth.
It was a slow progress until we finally stopped in the middle of road. Sam Dogra and Jeep Captain were there along with the other scouts. The road ahead to Chanshal Pass was fully blocked with at least 4 feet of snow just a few hundred meters ahead of us – basically impassable. So we basically had to turn around in our tracks. Easier said than done, at least in my case. In my highly deflated condition there was no way I had confidence to make such a U Turn on such narrow snowed down roads. So I asked Sam Dogra for help and he obliged. Before Aadi even realised what was happening I got down, Sam got on and a few whirls and the jeep was reversed and the front wheel’s snow chain came off. It was so crazy and so fast I thought the jeep would go over the edge for certain. But then such are the driving skills of Pahadis. Sam Dogra did not even use snow chains on his V-Cross. I saw videos of his driving, more sailing through snow rather than straight line driving as we warmer climate people are aware of. While even the most experienced off roaders in our expedition ( except for the Jeep Captain and Puneet) could barely do 10 mph here he was driving at 40-50 kmph as if it was just another road!!
Having decided to return for the day the entire convoy formed up for lunch and break in a small knuckle in the mountain. Snow was falling in earnest and we were all huddled in our warmest snow gear. I was well past the Santa Claus look, white snow in my hair, beard and moustache giving men the classic Coca Cola look. In her black jacket and mufflers Aadi was looking like a Jamun fruit. Shibu Varghese was fully in his elements now as he opened the doors of his V-Cross and the mountain was transformed into a dance floor. Thumping music was danced to and snow fights were obligingly had! And all this while savouring some hot puris and curry. It has been almost a year since that snowy day in the mountains and I can still remember the effect of that song – Infinity Ink.
Soon we started to pack up and the convoy started to ready to descent. As one of the least experienced I was asked to stay to the back of the convoy. I asked for and received instructions on how to descent in the snow. No brakes, no clutch, no sudden movements at all. Descent on 4L, 2nd gear only on engine power. All controls purely using steering wheel only. Thus started a nightmare descent. Portents were ominous enough as I watched Sam’s V-Cross coasting uncontrollably to crash into the back of a Pajero, there was no traction for any braking. Everyone else in the expedition had either vehicles with traction control or were driven by jeepers with years of off-roading experience.
A few minutes after we started I watched in horror as the Mitsubishi Pajero infant of skidded right off the track and crashed into the embankment on its right. The heavy vehicle was completely stuck and would need winching to be recovered. I got off with my tiny spare shovel to help in whatever way I could but was waved off and asked to continue by Sam Dogra. He and Shibu would stay with him to recover the vehicle by towing and winching. If an experienced driver like he could get imagine the plight of an absolute novice like me.
The progress was painfully slow. On 4Low and 2Gear I was crawling at barely 3 kmph. Besides I only had the rear left snow chain remaining. The snow had increased on the roads we drove up and the going was getting tougher. Sun had set, light was fading and I was driving with utmost concentration when I neared the first hairpin when with a sickening feeling I realised that the clanging of snow chains had stopped. I managed to stop the vehicle before the hairpin, got down and went back and true, the last snow chain had come off at the worst possible time. My jeep was stopped on a downward slope and any attempt at putting the snow chains back on in such a tight setting was doomed to fail. So bracing myself and calling up on all my Gods I entered the hairpin. I was sticking to the boundary between packed snow where wheels had been before and the wall of powdery snow lining it as I was getting better traction in that tight border and I crossed the first hairpin. But then it was merely the first of many hairpins to come. The second hairpin as I was making the curve the vehicle started to skid off to the valley and I just throttled it. Luck held and I got a bit of traction and I recovered from the skid and continued on. It was not only the hairpin, every curve was a possibility for a skid. As time went on I realised that there is only so much control I could actually do. I had to live with the skid and hope to recover before I crashed anywhere.
Kilometres progressed with me making constant adjustments on steering wheel to navigate the 4 wheels exactly on various points on the turf where I determined the best traction to be. My focus was only on the immediate few feet. If even a Yeti was there 10 meters ahead I would not have cared, after all I had to cross the 1 meter ahead to reach Yeti who is 10 meters away. At that time I noticed that for the past several minutes there was a change in the growl of the engine. There was another harmonic sound that I had not heard before. I started to panic in a controlled fashion and looked to Aadi and understood the source of the sound. Aadi was chanting furiously. She was praying for both of us. Her murmur was so intense I confused it with the low growl of the engine.
Dusk gave way to night and soon we left the thicker snow to the land of slush. After all that snow the slush was a piece of cake for me and I was starting to use throttle now. But all was done in caution. Finally slush gave way to mud and finally tarmac. The relief I felt on reaching tarmac was indescribable. I stopped for a breather after hours of intense slow speed driving and gave thanks to all the Gods and fellow drivers who helped me out.
As we reached back to the base camp at Rohru we were so glad for our survival we just wanted to rest. We even started to feel a bit adventurous and we decided to swap our room for a tent. What was the point of lugging our sleeping bags and all the camping gear if we can’t use it. So that night was our first camping experience. Cocooned in our sleeping bags it was the sleep of a lifetime after the horrors of the day.