6 July 2012 – Reaching the Base Camp for Leh
Incessant rains had rendered a portion of the road close to the Rohtang Pass virtually unusable. To rectify the situation the BRO/GREF had closed the road in the night from 8 pm resulting in a huge pile up on either sides of the bad patch of about a km.Most of the vehicles held up were cargo trucks. Work was on the entire night with 4 JCBs to improve the road condition and facilitate unhindered movement. My early morning start – 2.45 am – helped me to join the ‘queue’ about 10 kms short of Rohtang Pass at 3.45 am. Estimates varied about the time of opening of the road. While waiting for the road opening I took a short nap and when I woke up I found people curiously going around the car. A couple of them even suggested that I should not attempt the crossing as the low hung suspension would not withstand the poor road condition. I was alarmed, to say the least. But I was not going to give up without a try.
By 7 am the barrier was lifted and there was a mad rush to get to the front of the queue. It was 8 am by the time I got to the bad stretch. What I saw there almost made me reverse the car and take flight. As I was waiting for my turn to attempt the bad stretch of about 50 metres I met Gopi Pillai, a resident of Kullu. Originally hailing from Kerala and with business interests in Mumbai and Kullu he was going on a holiday to Leh with his family. He told me that if I get stuck in the morass I would, in all probability, even lose my car. This interaction put more butterflies in the stomach but more faith in the heart and prayers on my lips. I put my car in first gear and raced to the slush filled trough and steep slope. I heard a grating sound as a huge stone hit the car underneath. The engine sputtered and died. There were about 50 laborers and many supervisors under GREF control working at the spot to ‘push’ the vehicles through. One of the supervisors asked me to disengage the gears and summoned a few workers to lift the car out of the spot. The supervisor then came to me and gave me elaborate directions to negotiate the tough spot. Most importantly, he reassured me that I could do it. He asked me to throttle up on first gear and drive in a zigzag manner up the slope. Two attempts and I was through it. Unfortunately I could not go back to thank the guardian angel for the next vehicle was already attempting to negotiate the slope and I had to move the car away. In a short while thereafter, by 9.30 am, I passed the Rohtang Pass. What needs to be appreciated here is that it took me nearly 7 hours to traverse 50 kms. I had another 170 kms for the night halt location at the Adventure Camp in Sarchu.
The most challenging road was behind me and hence, made good time to reach the Padma Lodge in Jispa by 12.30 pm. The road was good only in short stretches – some places it was outrageously bad. Vikram was the Manager of the Lodge and he was to certify the log sheet. The Lodge is almost always fully booked out during the season time between June and October. The winter months see nearly 20 feet of snow in Jispa and the surrounding areas. All life forms migrate out of the place by end October and return to get ready for the season by mid-May. Vikram moves to Goa during the off-season in search of employment. The well appointed rooms and tents of the Padma Lodge are set in a ‘bowl’ of huge mountains and nursed by the river. Vikram offered me lunch – I tucked into an omlette of 4 eggs, toast and a paratta. Vikram refused to take any payment for them.
After a few snaps I hit the road on the last stretch for the day to Sarchu. I stopped at many places en route to take in the scenic beauty and commit some to camera. Vikram had warned me that mobile phones would be useless after Darcha. Apparently there are no towers between Darcha and Upshi, due to absence of human habitation, which meant that I would be incommunicado for almost 24 hours. I informed friends, family and Harish of Muthoot Finance, Cochin.
I reached the Adventure Camp at Sarchu just after 4 pm. The 30 residential tents and other utility tents are located adjacent to the highway surrounded by mountains. The air is extremely rarified and breathing was difficult. At 4200 meters, even getting out of the car was onerous. Ajay, the Manger of the Camp certified the arrival at Sarchu and made me comfortable with hot tea and biscuits. A short while later Mr. Shyam Chand Azad, the PTI correspondent and editor of the Tribal Toady magazine arrived at the camp and we had a long chat about the trip.
After settling into the tent I tried to take a short nap before dinner. Despite being tired I could not nap. I reported to the dining tent by 7 pm for an early dinner so that I could get some extra rest for an early morning start. Soup, pasta, rice and curry made for a nutritious meal. I turned in by 8 pm with the excitement of doing the left over 257 kms the next day to set a new timing for the North South Expedition. Though the bed was comfortable I found sleep in short supply due to the dry environment of the Camp