Atal Tunnel: How winter sports athletes saved lives of construction workers during avalanches
At 0800 hours on February 24, 2018, the avalanche rescue team of the Strabag-Afcons Joint Venture (SAJV)—the company that was constructing the Atal Tunnel, one of the world’s longest high-altitude road tunnels—released an alert message. The tunnel runs 9.02km from Solang Valley near Manali to Sissu in Lahaul, cutting across a mountain to the west of the Rohtang Pass.
The message said that no one should move out of the under-construction tunnel from the Lahaul NP, or north portal, the term for the tunnel mouth that opens at Sissu.
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A heavy avalanche was expected. The guard stationed at NP was instructed to not let anyone step out. After speaking to the guard, the team moved towards the South Portal (SP) the tunnel mouth near Manali.
Unaware of the alert, three jawans from the engineering wing of 70 Road construction company of Border Road Organisation (BRO), were travelling down towards Sissu from Keylong, 30km to the north. It was the first day of a month-long leave for them. An army vehicle dropped them off near the NP at 1015 hours. They were to cross the tunnel on foot to reach Manali.
Two of the jawans entered the tunnel. The third, Naik Satnam Singh, a few steps behind them, was metres away from the mouth when the avalanche struck. The two watched in horror as Satnam vanished under a mountain of white.
When the message about the incident reached the rescue team, they were busy clearing an alternate route for near on the Manali-Leh highway near SP, in case the road towards the tunnel got snowed in. They dropped everything and rushed towards the tunnel. Half an hour after Satnam was buried by the avalanche, the rescue operation began.
With the help of avalanche rods—long, collapsible carbon sticks—the seven-member team started probing the area on the left side of the road, where the other jawans last saw Satnam. Thirty minutes passed. No luck.
The rescue team began probing the entire area, point to point, sweeping in pre-determined arcs from the left of the snow-drowned highway to the right. They were running out of time. It had been an hour since Satnam disappeared. Unless there was a large air pocked around him, he would be running out of oxygen.
At 1130 hours, Lal Chand, a national-level skier and at 36, the youngest of the rescuers, struck something to the far right of the road.
“Here!” He shouted out. The other rescuers scrambled and began digging furiously. Five minutes later, Chuni Lal Thakur, an Olympic skier, could see Satnam’s head.
“He’s alive, he’s breathing,” he said.
“Jai ho maharaj!” said another member of the team. The digging continued with urgency. Fifteen minutes later, having dug more than six feet into the snow, they had the barely-conscious jawan out and into an ambulance.
“It was my second birth,” said Satnam, now 35 and posted at Manali since the incident. “When I got trapped under the snow, in the very first minute I was able to move around one or one-and-a-half feet, but then I got buried deep. I was completely stuck and couldn’t move an inch. After five-six minutes of struggling, I lost all hope and thought my game was over. After that I don’t remember anything till I woke up in the ambulance.
“Whenever I cross the point at NP where I was rescued, I pay my homage,” he said over the phone. “Had the rescue team didn’t not shown their alertness and quickness, I wouldn’t be talking to you.”
The horse-shoe shaped Atal Tunnel, which was inaugurated on October 3, is situated in an extremely avalanche-prone area, 3,000 metres above sea-level. On an average, 200 avalanches hit the stretch every year.
For the ten years that it took for the tunnel to be built, the seven members of the rescue team, all of them winter sports athletes, including an Olympian, acted as the lifeline for the construction workers.
“These are moments that define your life,” said Chuni Lal, referring to Satnam’s rescue, “a moment of great pride.”
Chuni Lal, who headed the team from 2010 till 2019, was one of the first from the villages near Manali to make it big in skiing. He competed in the 1992 Winter Olympics, two Winter Asian Games, and was a coach for the Indian ski team for the 2007 Asian Games. Both his son and his daughter are national skiers. Mountain rescue is a part of life for him.
“During my skiing days, and even later as a coach, there were many occasions when we skiers had to rescue stranded tourists near Rohtang,” he said.
Three of the seven rescuers, including Chuni Lal, come from Palchan, a stunningly picturesque village with a population of around 2,000, nestled among the snow-covered mountains of the Pir Panjal range.
The rescue team comprises Chuni Lal Thakur (49), Kewal Ram (39), Raj Kumar Thakur (43), Duni Chand (38), Joginder Paul (38), Gautam Beas (36) and Lal Chand (36). The members hail from a cluster of nine villages—Palchan, Ruwar, Kothi, Kulang, Solang, Burwa, Majhach, Shanag and Goshal —located on the rugged terrain between Manali and Rohtang.
Over the years, the area has developed into the country’s ski nursery, producing over 50 internationals, including five winter Olympians—four in skiing and one, Shiva Keshavan, in luge.
Since 1992, when Chuni Lal and Nanak Chand from Palchan competed in the Winter Olympics for the first time, there has been an Olympian from these villages in each edition except the 1994 Games.
Despite their expertise on the mountain and their deep knowledge of the terrain, the rescue team was put through a series of workshops soon after the team was formed on November 1, 2010. They learnt everything from how to “read” mountains and predict avalanches, to how to put a person on a stretcher without aggravating the neck or the spine.
“During our training, when we used to sit in the car, one of our instructors told us that the driver in the rescue vehicle keeps his eye on the road,” said Gautam, 36, a trained mountaineer. “The rest of us are supposed to watch the slopes throughout, looking at angles, snow, observing wind speed…now when I am in a car, I scan automatically.”
With 45 avalanche prone spots along the tunnel’s route, carrying out construction work through the year was a major challenge.
January to May are the avalanche months—between November 2018 and March 2019, there were 288 avalanches in the area.
In their decade at work, the rescue team was involved in six major operations and responded to at least 500 calls, but their primary, and most critical function, was to try and ensure there were no incidents at all. Every day for 10 years, it was their duty to forecast avalanches and frame safe timings for the work.
“Every day, we used to recce the snow clad mountains, trekking to avalanche formation zones and carrying out snow testing for forecast,” said Lal Chand. “The workforce at the construction site had to carry avalanche beacons every time and the rescue team had detectors, so, in case anyone got buried inside the avalanche, that person could be tracked.”
Chuni Lal recalls a day in April in 2016 when an Army vehicle got buried in an avalanche and the team had to rescue six army personnel.
“There was heavy snowfall, and the main threat while carrying out the rescue operation was the risk of another avalanche,” he said.
As the team became better known in the area for their work, they were sometimes called in at other rescue operations as well.
In September 2018, when over 300 of tourists were stranded for days due to heavy snowfall near the Kunzum Pass at 4551m, 122km from Manali and Baralacha Pass at 4890m, 191km from Manali. The Indian Air Force (IAF) conducted a five-day rescue, airlifting the tourists—all except five people, who were stuck inside their vehicle in a place where the IAF’s rescue choppers could not reach.
Instead, the IAF picked up the avalanche rescue team from Manali and airdropped them at the Baralacha Pass, from where they skied to the location and brought back the stranded group, which included a seven-year-old child.
“After being part of the rescue team of the tunnel, we were sought after rescuers,” said Joginder Paul, a former mountaineering instructor who was one of the rescuers in that operation. Paul is well known in the area for volunteering for rescue operations. His drive to help was born out of a tragedy. In 2004, when he was an instructor at the Atal Bihari Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports in Manali, the deputy director of the institute asked him to join him on a rescue mission.
A car had fallen into a deep gorge; what Paul did not know was that all three occupants in the car—a newlywed couple and their driver—were dead.
“When we trekked inside the gorge and reached the body, I realised they were dead,” Paul said. “There were lots of injuries; I had never seen a body in that condition. For a moment, I completely blanked out. Ever since then, I have been volunteering for rescues.”
Like Paul, Raj Kumar, 43, also compulsively volunteers for rescue work after experiencing great loss. He was just three days old when he lost his mother, and was in his late teens, making a name as a junior skier, when he lost his father. It necessitated a scramble for survival, and for years, Raj did odd jobs to make ends meet—sometimes he was a shepherd, sometimes a porter, sometimes a tourist photographer at Rohtang.
“I have seen the worst in my life,” he said. “I feel easily the pain of losing loved ones. I have never seen my mother, so by helping someone I remember her presence. As part of the rescue team, we remained at the forefront of danger for the entire duration of the construction.”
Though the avalanche team enjoyed great success in their work, there is one tragedy that still haunts them—March 22, 2011, was the first and last incident that caused a casualty in the 10 years of the construction of the tunnel.
On that day too, forecasting a heavy avalanche, the rescue team had flashed a message to stop work. But two unlucky construction workers—a local from Kullu and one from Odisha—missed the warning and continued moving in their vehicle towards Manali before they were struck by the avalanche. Though the rescue team was on the spot in 15 minutes and both workers were pulled out in another ten minutes, neither survived.
“Their death still haunts us. Though it’s been more than nine years, the entire episode is fresh in our memories,” said Chuni Lal.
The Olympian fell out with the company last year over a pay dispute and filed a case against them with the Central Government Industrial Tribunal cum Labour Court in Chandigarh.
Now, as the tunnel has opened to traffic, the rescue team has been disbanded—only two of the seven continue to work as rescuers for the company.
“Though our stint here has ended, the things we have learned about forecasting avalanches and rescue will always be a great use for us to help the people in need,” said Lal Chand.
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