Allow me to give you a quick prelude to what happened a few weeks ago. Our Plan A was to head to Kaza in Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh. Now, lots of people undertake this arduous journey but few do it in the winter, as the dangers that lie on the road to Kaza when temperatures head south are very real, particularly formidable and force you to come up with Plan B, and sometimes Plan Z.
Since I didn’t have any of those plans in place, I just put my faith in Mahindra Adventure and five-time rally champ Hari Singh’s Team Drivetech India.
Very soon into our trip though, Plan A got shot down like an F16 on the wrong side of the line. A massive avalanche that washed away an excavator and trapped a few army men was joined by six more of its buddies further down the road to Kaza, making the road impassable.
This then is the story of Plan B, the unpredictability of bad weather and mountain roads and, of course, a crash course on what it takes to drive through snow.
The whole place turns into a winter wonderland.
The first rule is to not head out alone. Take a few friends along in another vehicle so that when you do get stuck, you will have assistance. Convince them that the vehicle they bring needs to be equipped with a winch (like yours does) and make sure they carry rated tow straps and D-shackles (like you are). Once you’ve sorted this bit out, get into the details.
The first detail you need to pay attention to is that, during these first few months of the year, temperatures in Himachal Pradesh regularly drop below zero at night. So, before you start your trip, make sure your diesel car starts in the morning. We added 300ml of anti-freeze diesel mix every time we filled up the Thars and Scorpios we had with us, to make sure fuel didn’t freeze in the tank, fuel lines or filter.
Snow chains are a must but also a pain to fit. Especially when it’s so bloody cold.
The next essential you need is four-wheel drive because, believe me, deep snow, ice and two-wheel drive are not warm friends by any stretch. You will also need tyre-specific snow chains – they are a real pain in your numb bum to mount but they give you a lot of traction, especially on hard-packed snow and ice.
All of the above will only help get you so far, and once you’ve got that far, you need to put on your work gloves, step out in your warm (and hopefully waterproof) snow shoes, grab a shovel and start, well, shovelling. I say this because you will always get to a point where your vehicle will meet its match in deep snow and that’s exactly when manual labour kicks in.
The thumb rule to remember here is – the better prepped your vehicle is to tackle deep snow, the further from civilisation you will be when you finally get stuck, and then it all depends on how much you are prepared to roll your sleeves up and get a shoulder into it.
Plan B is Chanshal Pass or rather, how far we can get up to Chanshal Pass. The 12,300ft pass links the remote villages of Dodra and Kwar to the relative civilisation of our starting point, the town of Rohru. Sixteen kilometres before the top of Chanshal Pass is the village of Larot, the residents of which owe us for an entire day of entertainment. Their initial curiosity at so many vehicles arriving there at a time when no one does gives way to dropped jaws when we start putting on the snow chains and make our first forays into deep snow and hard-packed ice.
There is a method to the madness and it involves sending the Thar in first. The logic is that the locking differential on the rear axle of the Thar, along with the snow chains on all wheels, will give it a bit more push when it encounters many feet of snow.
We went looking for snow, we found plenty of it.
That got us far. It got us exactly 30 metres before the Thar dug in and had to be winched back out. From then on, the process was to charge at the snow and stop just before the Thar got beached. Reverse and repeat. Progress is painfully slow but then I must say the Thar can take a beating. We are using it like a battering ram. We are also shovelling, winching and towing at the same time – driving on ice is a physical experience.
It also demands a lot of technique and a shovel load of patience because eight hours and hundreds of metres later, the sun begins its journey to the other side of the world. Now, anyone with any sense in them knows it is not a wise idea to spend a night on a mountain pass and, therefore, we wisely decide to head back to the warmth of our campsite at Rohru. Progress today has been slow but the learning has been much. We now need to beat a retreat and come up with the next plan.
That’s what happens when you don’t put a blanket on the Thar.
There is something fairy tale-like about driving through coniferous forests when it snows heavily. It reminds me of wolves and Robert Frost, for some reason. Today, Mahindra’s Snow Escape (the drive we are on), definitely lives up to its name. The woods are dark and deep as our convoy of vehicles cuts its way through the powdery fresh snow on the road to Gumma. The continuous radio chatter that was on the past few days has come down to only what’s necessary; co-drivers seem lost in the magic, while drivers concentrate on not getting stuck and/or sliding off the
Today, the group reached an unspoken agreement – we will see how far we can get before we need to get down and fit the snow chains. Lucky for us, with a bit of clever driving, our standard road tyres work reasonably well because what is coming down now is fresh, powdery snow. That clever driving includes starting off from a standstill in four-wheel-drive low and as high a gear as possible, not coming to a stop on an uphill slope and, using the resistance of the snow to come to a halt rather than stomping on the brakes. We drive through this enchanted forest for nearly six hours, get back on the main road to Narkanda and drive straight onto a highway covered in black ice and snow. Lots of drivers have already called it quits after close shaves and parked on the sides but we carry on – the last few days have given us tremendous confidence in how to handle a Scorpio when it starts to behave like a slippery eel; and I think that is one of the aims of these Mahindra Escapes – to give you new experiences and make you a better driver by getting you to drive in difficult conditions with full backup.
We carried anti-freeze diesel treatment because temperatures regularly dropped below zero.
PREDICTABLE IS BORING…
…and that is exactly what made this trip so much fun — the unpredictability of it all. See, I’ve learnt this the hard way – no matter how meticulously you plan a trip to the mountains, you can always expect Murphy to swoop in and throw your plans off the edge; more so if you’ve chose to go when the weather is at its hairiest white.
Lucky for us then that we had Hari’s superb team organise this trip, along with a bunch of very capable Mahindras to get around in, and that meant only one thing – we could leave the unpredictable bit to Mother Nature. The fun bit? Oh, that was all for us.