• Not the hill climb you’d picture a Lamborghini doing. Gra...
    Not the hill climb you’d picture a Lamborghini doing. Gravel roads? Done and dusted.
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  • Snow adds its own challenges towards the top.
    Snow adds its own challenges towards the top.
  • Khardung La is also the gateway to the Siachen Glacier.
    Khardung La is also the gateway to the Siachen Glacier.
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Lamborghini to Khardungla: A long way to the top

28th Dec 2015 8:00 am

A Lamborghini Huracan takes on the world’s highest motorable road. Nikhil Bhatia gives you a cliff-side view.


I believe I’m somewhere around 17,000 feet above sea level. On my left is a drop that would bring a smile to a base jumper’s face. On my right is a snow bank and the rocky façade of a daunting mountain in the Karakoram range. Blue skies meet white peaks in the horizon. The view is breathtaking as is, but seen through the raked windscreen of the Lamborghini Huracán I’m in, the experience is just off the scale. What in the world is a Huracán doing here, you will ask? Well, we’re out to set a record. A world record. We want to take the Huracán where no Lambo’s gone before; in fact, where no supercar has gone before. That place is in Jammu and Kashmir, and it’s called Khardung La, better known as the highest point on the highest motorable road in the world. The catch is, ‘motorable’ and ‘road’ are very subjective terms when talking of the route up. In the best of times, it looks like a post-apocalyptic mess from a sci-fi movie. But we’re mad enough to give it a go. And the good folk at Lamborghini India are indulgent enough to lend us a car for the job. What follows is the journey up to a driver’s Everest.

Leh-ing low

Leh city is base camp for us. We’ve spent the past day and a half doing absolutely nothing. We are about 11,500 feet higher than home in Mumbai, so exerting ourselves in this rarified air would have taken the wind out of our sails even before the adventure began. All of us seem to be doing well, because today there are no complaints of headaches or any shortness of breath. And this means we can get to business with a clear head. So straight after breakfast, we set off to the iconic Thiksey Monastery on the outskirts of Leh, where we will meet the Huracán. 

As we get there, the sight of the cutting-edge 21st century Lamborghini standing amidst the majestic 15th century monastery blows us away. Things get even crazier a few moments later, when I’m handed the keys to the Huracán. At Thiksey Monastery. In Ladakh. Un-freaking-believable. The sound of that 5.2-litre V10 shatters the calm of the place. Oh man, the next few days are going to be crazy.  

The ceremonial flag-off is at the hands of T Gyalpo, Additional SP, Leh and Hemant Arora, Business Head, Lamborghini Delhi. But I’m not charging to Khardung La just as yet. It’s a day of further acclimatisation for all of us and also a day for me to re-acquaint myself with the Huracán. I’ve driven the Lambo before and, among other things, I’m a fan of its almighty exhaust note, how relaxed its engine, gearbox, steering and suspension feel in Strada mode and how user-friendly (as supercars go) its cabin is. How the hulking Lambo will take to the dust, altitude and, of course, the occasional bad stretch of road is something I’ll have to find out. So, I will be taking it easy. Straight off, I press the toggle that raises the Lambo’s front suspension by a crucial four centimetres – I need all the ground clearance I can get.

Wide roads and narrow bridges are part of the ice-breaking route through Leh.

The drive into Leh is uneventful, which is a good thing. The mild-mannered locals are genteel in their appreciation of the Lambo. People do crane their necks and hurriedly pull out their camera phones to capture the Huracán, but no one’s putting life or limb at risk for a closer look. Even the roads don’t pose much of a problem. I do have to approach the really bad sections with care, but still far less than I’d originally expected. With this new-found confidence, I go ahead with an impromptu plan to do a bit of sightseeing in the Lambo. I’m most keen to see the gleaming Shanti Stupa; it’s a structure white enough to feature in one of those paint commercials. Interestingly, this Japanese-style stupa was built to promote world peace. Ironically, I visit it in one of the loudest cars on earth. I promise to behave myself up the short hill climb to it. The remainder of the day goes in seeing more of the city, munching on some delightful momos and experiencing first-hand the positivity associated with the word ‘Julley!’, the all-encompassing Ladakhi greeting. 

The big day

The weather in the region has been unpredictable over the past week, so we’ve been advised to be flexible with our schedule. If it’s snowing at Khardung La, as it was just days before, the road up would be shut. But luck is on our side! We’ve been told it’s as bright and sunny up there as it is in Leh just now. Today’s the day to drive to the highest road in the world.

Based on local intelligence, we opt to make a reasonably late departure. We’re told this should help us miss the bulk of early-bird tourists headed to and from Khardung La. On the flip side, we’ll also have a smaller window of opportunity. It’s really like climbing Everest! A little about the drive first. The journey from hotel to summit is about 40-odd kilometres. But it’s not the distance, it’s the change in elevation that will make this drive a challenge – we’ll be climbing about 7,000 feet in those 40km. With every few hundred feet ascended, the air will get noticeably thinner and the temperature will drop. Then there’s the road. We are told the road is awash with pebbles, rocks, sand and mud… and that’s the good section. The bad bits are pure hell. There’s effectively no road.

Fluttering prayer flags welcome the Lambo up the climb to Khardung La.

But before I get psyched out, I take stock. The standard Huracán makes 602bhp. This one has Lamborghini’s optional (and might I add, LOUD) racing exhaust, so power is now in the region of 640bhp. At sea level, that is. Even if the engine can make just 50 percent power at the altitude we’ll be climbing to, I’ll still have over 300bhp under my right foot. So, power or the lack of it won’t be a problem. Mechanical grip should be taken care of too, thanks to the Huracán’s sophisticated all-wheel-drive system. Under normal conditions, it channels 30 per cent of engine torque to the front wheels, but when needed, it can send as much as 50 per cent to the front wheels or a full 100 per cent to the rear. Also onboard are ceramic disc brakes that are probably strong enough to stop the earth’s rotation. Of course, the suspension lift system is a vital part of the Huracán’s arsenal. At full extension, ground clearance is a commendable 175mm! For reference, a Hyundai i20’s got 170mm. And, ahem, I must bring in the carbon-fibre reinforced polymer passenger cell too. It’s light and what not, but today I’m most interested in how strong it is. Should I make a career- and life-threatening error at the wheel and somehow drive off a mountain side, the high-strength structure will be my last line of defense.

Not the hill climb you’d picture a Lamborghini doing. Gravel roads? Done and dusted. 

I carry out a last systems’ check before we roll. Suspension set to lift, Anima switch set to Strada (I need the Lambo to be more docile calf and less raging bull today), Diamox tablet in tummy, heavy-duty jacket zipped up and prayer flags in pocket. Show time. We’re already well into the day, but few people seem headed our way. The Lambo is feeling nice and surprisingly comfortable – I’m at home on the sport seats and the optional magnetorheological dampers are a good buffer between the road and my backside.

The first few kilometres don’t seem half as bad as we were warned they’d be. In fact, they are rather smooth and allow me to open the Lambo in bursts on the short, clear stretches. I don’t dare to take my eyes off the road to look at the speedo, but I know I’ve breached 70kph at some point; the front suspension lowers to normal height at this speed, and with it, the ‘lift’ icon on the digital instrument cluster also dims. The speeds I manage may be nothing for the Lambo, but when you are driving a four-crore rupee car on a road that’s narrower than your average supermodel’s waist, you tend to be a bit restrained and extra cautious. Pretty much why I approach the many blind turns that make up the route by honking well in advance. Seeing a regular Innova or Bolero at the nth second around a corner here is scary enough. Seeing a Lambo around one? The sight is enough to convince oncoming motorists they’re hallucinating. Anyway, the tactic works because no vehicles were harmed in the making of this story. Not to say there aren’t any close encounters. At one point, I have to get to the outermost inch of the road and hope the electric folding mirrors tuck in enough to make space for a convoy of army trucks that pass by. Heart is firmly in mouth. Thank God we’re not here in peak tourist season.

As the climb gets more serious, the road starts showing its devilish side. It really is full of stones, sand and mud. The vertigo-inducing drops on the sides also have me on edge. I baby the Lambo over the really terrible sections and work out alternative approaches where needed. Incredibly, the Huracán has not bottomed out so far. There’s still a long way to go though.

But it’s not all bad road. An empty stretch here, a clean hairpin there give me the opportunity to have some unadulterated fun. First note? There’s seemingly no drop in performance. True, I’m not summoning most of the horses under the Lambo’s slatted engine cover, but the smallest of throttle inputs remind me they are all alive and kicking. Oh, and special mention to the all-wheel-drive system. I don’t know if it’s even come into play today, but the fact that it’s there has let me take a few liberties with the car. The steering? On terra firma, I’d say it could do with a little bit more connection. But up here, I can’t complain. The evasive manoeuvres to avoid those lone pointy rocks on the road wouldn’t have been quite as successful were the steering not as quick and sharp as it is. 

Work stops, jaws drop and eyes are rubbed in disbelief. The first sight of a Lambo in person has that effect. 

The check post at South Pullu breaks the ascent. We have to get the necessary permits before we can proceed to the treacherous last few kilometres of the climb. It’s a welcome break.

Fight to the finish

Up ahead, all I can see is a gravelly route that’s started rising rather sharply. This is the highway to the danger zone. Well, there’s not much I can do but stay calm and drive. Throttle and brake inputs are really measured. Jerky movements compromise traction and I just don’t want the gravel to dictate where the car moves. Slow and steady does win the race here. And it does feel like a long-distance race. The cheering audience comprises excited high-altitude road workers who give a double thumbs-up to the dust-covered Lambo. Seriously, hats off to the men and women who keep this route functional.

As the slow waltz up to Khardung La continues, the path progressively deteriorates. The extremes of weather and heavy traffic (by volume and weight) have taken their toll. There’s slush, puddles and exposed rock that need to be tackled, which we do. Then, just around a corner, I spot our support crew waiting on one of the few shoulders en route. They’ve recced the route ahead and inform me of an absolutely undriveable stretch. Their suggestion is to put the Lambo on the flatbed that’s following us in the distance and off-load it once the worst bit is over. I’d like to drive on, but decide to take their word for it. Seeing how the Innova rocks and rolls over the next 3km or so convinces me we did the right thing by letting the Huracán sit this stretch out. But with the first appearance of car-friendly path, I get back into the heated seat of the Lambo.

We’re really high up now, amidst the ice-capped peaks that seemed a safe distance away not too long ago. Up here, our Lambo looks just as white and sharp-edged as the surrounding mountains. It’s a striking sight. The drive, though, is hard. In addition to the slush and pools of water that litter the path, there’s now also snow on the roadside! If I don’t chart my course carefully, the low front spoiler will double as a snow plough. Ouch. Another worry is the tyres. The Pirelli P Zeros on the Lambo are thinner than the local noodles I’ve been craving and are no match for the rocks strewn across the path. A puncture here would be a tragedy. The next bit of driving requires 100 percent concentration, divine intervention even. The Lambo is way out of its comfort zone, so it’s stop-look-go all the way. Full lock-to-lock inputs become the norm as I weave my way past the high-altitude obstacle course. The Huracán’s 325kph top speed seems merely theoretical here. I’m doing barely 3kph.

I take it one rock at a time. It’s tough, but there’s a certain thrill too. Eventually, I start to see people in the distance, so Khardung La can’t be far. A corner later, the entry point to the highest point on the route comes in sight. News of a Lambo headed up seems to have spread among the tourists there. The crowd has swelled up and from what I see, it looks like a welcome party. I make the last turn, get onto something that finally resembles a road and roll towards the yellow board that claims we are at 18,380 feet. We’ve done it! We’ve driven up to Khardung La in a Lamborghini, of all cars! In the process, we’ve also set a high-altitude world record for Lamborghini. But amidst the festivities, I realise I’m operating at half capacity. Opening the door requires serious effort and I find myself breathing heavily. We have to start moving down within 20 minutes, before the altitude and frigid cold (it’s 2deg Celsius) gets to us, but I just have to check the car one last time. Nothing’s hanging off, no fluids are leaking and there’s not a ding of my doing. Supercar? The Huracán’s been that in more ways than I can imagine.

Before heading out to what is the world’s highest café for that comforting cup of black tea, I celebrate our feat in the most apt manner. That is, by flipping the Anima switch to hardcore Corsa mode (the first time I do so on this trip), giving a bootful of throttle and revving the daylights out of the engine. I’m sure they hear us all the way down in Leh and probably even at the Siachen base camp a couple of hours further down the road.

The high-pitched wail of the V10 may have died down, but the high of having driven up to Khardung La in a Lamborghini is something I won’t forget. Ever. Nor will I forget the next day, where I got to drive it the way it’s meant to be driven. But that’s a story for the next issue! 

The Grand Dragon Ladakh

The Grand Dragon Ladakh hotel is where we stayed in Leh. Done in the traditional Ladakhi style of architecture, it’s a beautifully turned out complex that has lots to offer. The rooms are welcoming, the staff warm and the food just delicious; you can sample everything from thukpa and Kashmiri wazwan to dosa and Chinese cuisine without leaving the comfort of the premises. It’s also close to all the landmarks of Leh, but should you wish to lounge back, there’s plenty to do at the hotel itself. Taking in the sights of the glorious Stok Kangri mountains around over a cup of chai is what we’d recommend. And if you are lucky, maybe you’d even see an Indian Air Force Sukhoi SU-30 MKI flying overhead. Perfect.

The takeaway

If there’s one thing this crazy drive has established, it’s that the supercar of today isn’t fragile. We used the support flatbed truck far less than we had originally planned to. Modern-day supercars have the electronics, the trick suspensions and a degree of day-to-day usability that guarantees they won’t wince at the first sign of imperfect conditions, essentially in our country that is the global home of bad roads. I can only hope our crazy adventure inspires owners to use their supercars more frequently in and out of town. It would be rude not to.

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