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Trapped on ice; saved by our wits

health-and-fitness Updated: Nov 16, 2009 21:04 IST
Mike Pandey
Mike Pandey
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Some of the finest all weather mountain roads in India are built by the Border Roads Organisation. A hard working team risks their lives to build roads in impossible conditions — to open up remote areas.

Thanks to them, we can travel in the Himalayan ranges that are easily amongst some of the most beautiful places on our planet. Travelling in these mountain ranges can be a great adventure provided you are well prepared. But sometimes, even the most prepared can get caught off guard. We were once filming road building in a remote part of Lahaul Spiti. The worksite was 5 km away from the base camp and the drive there through the thick snowbound road was slow and exacting.

Border road workers held by ropes, hung down sheer rock faces, drilling the mountain side. The sun was harsh that day and was melting the snow rapidly, turning the road into a liquid mirror.

In the mountains, night falls early. The workers had left by 4 pm and it was six by the time we started back. It was freezing cold, and the jeep wouldn’t start. High altitude and rarified air affect vehicle performance. The battery was almost dead. Even fully charged batteries lose charge in cold conditions.

The diesel had thickened and would not ignite. I tried rolling the jeep downhill. It rolled a few feet and suddenly slithered out of control and crashed into the mountain side.

We were very lucky; we could have slithered the other way, off the escarpment into the river a thousand feet below. We were safe but stuck and with no help for miles.

Our portable gas and the spare can of engine oil we carry helped us to fashion two crude oil lamps. We placed them under the bonnet and the fuel tank. We covered the jeep in a plastic sheet to keep it warm.

Early morning, I walked to the base camp. I wrapped a copper wire around my boots to stop myself from slithering on the slippery icy surface. The local cycle shop provided me with what I needed the most — bicycle chains. I gathered all the used chains he had.

Back at the site I joined the cycle chains and wrapped them criss-cross around the tyres. The lamps were still burning away and the heat generated by the lamps had warmed the jeep. I turned the ignition and the faithful old engine kicked in.

I eased away from the mountain face supported by the BRO team. The improvised snow chains dug into the surface of the slippery ice and held. The four-wheel drive was magical; we finally arrived at base camp two hours later.

Many lessons were learnt. Lamps are a must for keeping the fuel tank from freezing in a diesel vehicle. Tyre chains can save a life. Snow can turn into treacherous black ice with no road grip. But never lose your cool, solutions are always there.