Whisky, brandy and sub-zero temperatures

One of the participants raises dust!-UTHRA GANESAN

On the lip of Rohtang Pass that marks our entry into the Lahaul Valley, at 5.50 a.m., the barometer reads 0 degrees and the darkness makes the mountains appear even more mysterious and menacing. But it’s the clear sky with millions of scattered stars interspersed with a shooting star every few seconds that takes the breath away… Uthra Ganesan gets saturated in the atmosphere of the Himalayan Raid.

“Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but you really climb for the hell of it.”

Standing in -21 degrees at 6 a.m. on a narrow bend of a gravel path, slapped around by a shrieking wind seemingly upset by human transgression into its space and surrounded by snow that never melts, Sir Edmund Hillary’s words make a lot more sense than they ever did in books.

Wari-La, at a height of 17,300 feet, is no-man’s land round the year, barring the occasional army convoy passing through — except for a couple of days in October, when the annual Maruti-Suzuki Raid de Himalaya sees grown men and women on four-wheelers and motorcycles attempting to race through the area. They haven’t always succeeded. This year, they did.

Starting from the lush surroundings of Shimla and ending at Leh, covering almost 1800 kilometres over six days, the cross-country rally is a week-long trip through the mountains that would qualify as insanity, testing man and machine to the limit against the might of the Himalayas.

Manali resident Suresh Rana has overcome the perils to win the race an unprecedented nine times. Every conquest, he says, only makes you feel more insignificant. “Being from the hills, I feel I have an advantage in terms of acclimatisation. But more importantly, I understand the respect that every bend in the road deserves. Even though you have to go fast, you need to keep a cool head,” says Rana.

This year, the number of entries went up from 129 last year to 153 — an indication of the growing attraction of the mountains since the Raid started 15 years ago. And, for the first time, there were five scooters participating in the Raid. Impressively, all five managed to complete the entire course, something that only 24 of the 70 cars and bikes in the competitive section managed. The high rate of attrition only adds to its enigma.

A view of the Spiti Valley on route to Leh.-UTHRA GANESAN

The Raid is one of only two Indian off-road rallies certified by the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile). The media contingent gets the ‘real’ rally experience, traversing the same route as the racers. Once out of the tourist retreat of Manali, it is all moonscape. Post Chatru, where one of the Raid stages ends, desolation gets a new meaning.

Vegetation is an alien idea, the merciless sun beats down incessantly and the bones rattle on the narrow, crumbling rough hewn trail, left by all the previous travellers, masquerading as road. Our driver Vijay Kumar says the route is closed for seven months a year and opens to vehicles for only three. The bleakness would be the only constant on the journey from here on till Leh.

“It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” — Edmund Hillary. Not everyone is strong and crazy enough like Rana to turn up every year unfailingly, hoping to take on the mighty Himalayas. Shuchi Thakur is one of the few women who do. “The terrain is really challenging. You have to take each day, each stage as it comes and not push your vehicle, or your luck,” says the eight-time veteran.

Stephan Rousch from Germany is another. “The terrain and the challenge is what brings you back repeatedly. Even if the route is the same, the race is different. It’s a new battle every time. The mountains just don’t stand there lifeless. They change,” says the biker.

And Helmut Frauwallner, a 55-year-old Austrian who participates in 3-4 cross-country rallies every year across the world, feels most at home in the barren landscape.

On the lip of Rohtang Pass that marks our entry into the Lahaul Valley, at 5.50 a.m., the barometer reads 0 degrees and the darkness makes the mountains appear even more mysterious and menacing. But it’s the clear sky with millions of scattered stars interspersed with a shooting star every few seconds that takes the breath away.

Kyoto village in the Spiti valley is the first sight of habitation. It has a total population of around 150. Small hamlets keep popping up till Kaza. But the outside world doesn’t know about them. There is no communication post Manali — there are still places where 24x7 connectivity is unheard of.

A view of Komic village, the highest permanent settlement in the world.-UTHRA GANESAN

Things get slightly better as we move on to Keylong and Jispa before entering Leh. We also cross the 75km long Morey Plains, bisected neatly by a single tarmac road, snaking through. This year, for only the second time, the Raid successfully took on both Wari La and Khardung La (18,380 ft), the highest motorable roads in the world.

The six-day Raid passes through villages, one with a population of 104, the highest permanent settlement in the world at Komic (with only a monastery and a few monks) and crosses small bridges named Whisky and Brandy (which are removed once snow sets in). The weather this year has been unusually warm and at every place we stop, the locals claim they don’t remember such high temperatures in October ever. Still, our night halts are at places that consistently record sub-zero temperatures and have stayed open only for the Raid, boarding up the moment we move out.

Our return to the plains ends our mountain odyssey but the surreal experience remains. As does the realisation that the mountains remain unconquered, after all.