The Snow Drive organized by 4×4 India and Tethys Ski Resort was to start officially on the evening of 19th so we had two days to kill and get ourselves acclimatized. We introduced ourselves to the hosts at the hotel and decided to do a little sightseeing. We were informed about the nearby Hatu Peak, which would give us a good experience at snow drive and was promised to be only a light off road track. Though I was a little apprehensive about venturing on off road activity without a buddy vehicle but embark on we did regardless.
The road to Hatu peak is just a few hundred meters away from the road leading to Tethys Ski Resort. While initially, it was only a light smattering of snow on the bushes at the side of the roads soon there was snow on the road. It was still comfortable enough for me to navigate on 2H itself, the normal road setting. Soon the snow got thicker as we went higher and higher. I was able to manage vehicle and myself comfortably so I carried on.
Finally, we reached a bend in the road. This was kind of a shoulder between two hills, we climbed up one had to cross a narrow curving shoulder and drive up an incline to start on the next hill. In addition, the terrain was completely white with snow and ice. I was immediately apprehensive about making it up in 2H so I stopped and engaged 4H. I crossed the shoulder and was driving up the ramp when I suddenly lost traction. The powder snow had given way on that shoulder to smooth ice formed when snow melted under sun and vehicle lost traction and was falling victim to gravity and going backwards. I had to react quickly as there were shallow valleys on both sides of the narrow shoulder and our vehicle may become disabled if I lost control. Somehow, I managed to recover the vehicle into a spin and finally spun myself to a stop in the middle of the shoulder.
I needed a minute to recover my wits at the near miss and when I alighted from the jeep realized the extent of my folly in coming here unprepared. I could barely stand on that sheet of ice, no wonder the jeep lost traction. Holding on to the sides of the jeep and trying to pick out scant rocks protruding out for grip finally I made it over to the edge of the road, which had grass and soft snow and took in the majesty of the whole setting.
Beauty and Danger often go together. The most beautiful places in the world are also the most dangerous. The most beautiful things in the world are also often the most dangerous. The vibrant colors of a tree frog, the spectacled hood of a cobra, the shimmering veneer of a tiger, all these things that mesmerize our eyes can also kill us in the blink of an eye. So I believe is nature. Here we just had a near death experience and it was one of the most mesmerizing sights that we had ever seen. Snow clad mountains as far as the eye could see, the whole landscape covered in white, air so fresh you got a high just by breathing it. Though I attempt I must admit words do not do justice to that moment, neither do the photos above.
Finally with much increased appreciation for off roading as a discipline I drove back now firmly on 4L. It was trickier in the descent than in the ascent as while going up I had throttle power to help me, now it was only brakes and steering. We breathed a sigh of relief on hitting the tarmac but this was a much needed reality check for me to grasp the enormity of the challenges we had in front of us.
The roads around Narkhanda were snowy with sand and gravel thrown on top for traction. It is a nice crunchy feeling to drive on these graveled roads. We decided to continue sightseeing and followed the advice of “Our Lady of Misdirections” Google to recommend a few places around. We went to Tanjubbar Lake, a surprisingly tiny lake with a tiny park nearby. Sufficiently disappointed we decided to check out a café nearby promised by the Google but ended up on a dead end in front of some random hut at the end of a bone-shatteringly bad road. We decided to stop for the day and reached back to Tethys.
The Tethys Ski Resort is a staging ground for several expeditions to Spiti and surrounding regions. The owner of the establishment Mr. Sanjeev Dogra has been organizing unique expeditions for past several decades all over the Himalayas. He had organized expeditions exclusively on Ambassador cars and Bullets for some groups. I was most surprised to see two Royal Enfield Bullets from Calicut at the premises, remnant of some past expedition. That evening there were some off roaders who had come to do some snow bashing around Narkhanda. These were all serious off roaders who had done expeditions all over the world. I just watched and learnt how they went about their things. Of particular interest for me was in watching how they tried to fix their snow chains.
The morning of 19th saw us chomping at our bits and raring to go. We finally get to meet the rest of the expedition, especially the Jeep Captain, Shibu Varghese. My association with the Jeep Captain goes back several years ago when I bought a tire inflator from HV Kumar and picked it up from his home in Bangalore. I had known him and had talked to him several times but this was the first time I get to meet him. I had coordinated with him a lot during the Kerala floods of 2018 too.
After the delectable breakfast, we drove to the Narkhanda village for some last minute shopping. The village marketplace was all of about 400 meters long. First, I topped the tank with a few liters of diesel, just in case. We bought several rolls of heavy-duty rope, heavy-duty gloves to handle snow chains, lots of instant coffee powder and a wonderful Tata Steel shovel. We were disappointed in our hunt for a jacket in Chandigarh so on a lark we decided to look here in Narkhanda too. We went down a slippery and icy alley to a tiny garment shop run by an elderly gentleman. As he was showing us his wares, he was trying to fetch goods from the surprisingly deep bowels of his tiny shop and we were embarrassed that we were troubling him for what might turn out to be nothing more than window-shopping. However, he reassured us that unlike us city folks he was in no hurry and had all the time in the world. Reassured we relaxed ourselves and immersed ourselves into the moment.
See, that is the true beauty of mountains. It drives in perspective to people about their true relevance. We in our urban jungle, racing around in our rat race, have a stilted notion of time and exalted impression of our relevance and importance in the world. We get annoyed when the Swiggy delivery person is late by a few minutes, we get annoyed when the Ola charges surge charges, and we get annoyed at the lines at Airport security check. In short, we are wedded to the notions of instant gratification. We believe we deserve instant gratification and we believe our jobs depend on delivering instant gratification to our paymasters. True it is required in the highly competitive world we live in but then bring in a dose of reality in the form of a true adversity and we see the true perspective. During the 2015 Chennai floods when I went for the relief effort I saw how a real adversity brought people together. People similar to me, professionals engaged in the corporate rat race, reduced to seeking shelter and help when a natural adversity destroyed their secure life. Make no mistake I have no illusions. Tomorrow if a tragedy strikes Bangalore and my life is affected similarly I would be in the same boat as them.
The people in the mountains however have no such pretensions. Every day they live their lives knowing fully well that their lives are at the mercy of the elements. For them the concept of time is different. For them time is not a deadline you need to accomplish so that your performance metrics are not impacted. For them time is something to be enjoyed in the present as you have no guarantee what is ahead. We would see more examples of this principle in the days ahead.
By evening members of our expedition started arriving and soon the parking lot was filling to its capacity. Over the past few days, I had got into the discipline of warming up the engine every day morning and night to prevent the engine from freezing. Having completed the routine for yet another day, I retired for the night. The next day we finally start on the Snow Drive expedition.