As with every soul with an adventurous streak I too have a string of experiences that can be termed extreme to say the least. The most audacious plan was hatched in sheer desperation or you can say out of fear.
It was mid October almost eight years ago and as documentary maker I was parked in Ladakh district headquarters Leh. Night was young and unusually warm for that height (twelve thousand feet). We were lying in the hammock and listening to the music when the hotel owner came with a grim face and asked us a pointed question, "Sir for how long do you think you would be here?" We were in no mood to leave the place so we told him that we intend to stay here some more time. He didn't look happy and shook his head and we inquired why he was so grim. He said the next day was the last day to cross the passes as officially all the passes between Leh and Manali would be closed. The news landed as a bombshell. We knew closing the pass didn't mean there would be barricading at that height but something far worse. From the time they would be officially closed no army unit or state administration would come to your help if you are stuck on the 475 kilometres long desolate road. Another problem was that the first petrol pump after leaving Leh was 365 kilometres away at Tandi and it would either stop giving diesel to outsiders like us or act pricy, literally.
We had only a day to reach Manali from Leh, a journey that takes at least two days. Faced with a daunting task of crossing five major passes, three of them higher than most of the peaks in Europe, we were tense to say the least. It was decided between me and my driver that we would make a dash the next day at the crack of dawn. We began at 5.00 am sharp. Initial journey was a breeze. We reached our first hurdle Tang Lang La pass (!7300 ft) without any problem. We offered prayers at the Devi temple hoping that our already adventurous journey at the roof of the world wouldn't become more difficult. But the journey after that was an indication that goddess had other plans. She was in a mood to test us.
The moment we came down from the pass we were ordered to halt as an army convoy was coming from the opposite direction. After losing precious two hours we resumed our journey and made a dash to the next human settlement at Pang. It's an army acclimatizing camp and few Tibetan families also live close by in tents. They told us that a day before there was a huge land slide and the road till the other human settlement Sarchu was barely motorable. Thanking them for tea and the advanced encouraging information we left to negotiate the second leg. The road was actually non-existent. Till three days ago it was smooth and brilliant and now there wasn't a trace of coal tar on the road. It seemed like a river bed with lots of boulders. Twice the car veered dangerously towards the edge. The second time we were staring a steep fall of more than 200 hundred feet. Just before Sarchu at a place called Gata Loop a road has been carved on vertical rock face. With the road turning into a boulder pit with traces of snow left behind due to snowfall a couple of days ago it was a death trap we were entering into. Initially the driver used a tactics of driving slightly fast to get over the torture as fast as he could. But at a particularly sharp turn the big Tata Sumo started veering off due to snow and it took all the skills he must have learnt to control the big vehicle. Though we didn't jump off the cliff but the experience shattered our collective confidence. Yet when we reached Sarchu, out of sheer stress we were hungry and the only thing available with the already winding up make shift restaurant was maggi.
We were unwinding and generally chatting outside the tent restaurant when we saw clouds gathering at our next big hurdle Baralacha la (The second highest pass in our journey at more than 16000 feet). We were debating what it was when strong breeze and soft snow hit us clearing any confusion we had about what was happening at the top. We were heading straight into a snow storm. Slowly and surely we reached the top only to find that we were caught not only in a snow storm but also in a traffic jam as all the truck that were trying to escape were stuck at the top. Making our way through those trucks as the darkness fell was a taxing experience.
The driver was hurrying as he wanted to reach the only petrol pump in the entire stretch, Tandi. But we were really short on luck. We reached the petrol pump only to find it was locked securely with a board - Petrol khatm ho gaya hai (There is not petrol or diesel). Situation was grim and the panic had set in as the sign on fuel tank wasn't encouraging at all.
From now on it was a desperate bid to reach Manali and we had to cross the last pass Rohtang. Though comparatively it's not very high but it's equally treacherous. While we were ascending the pass dense fog descended and we were caught in a blizzard that we had left behind at Barlacha la. Last 40 kilometres took three and a half agonizing hours to complete.
Just when we thought the journey will never end we saw a carpet of light in the valley just before us. All the tension, stress, desperation, loss of confidence of the last 22 and a-half hours vanished. There was a faint smile on our faces. Our bodies were tired but mind was relieved. The ordeal, though now a fond memory, was finally over.