Mission Marsimik—The Death Trap
Conquering the Death Trap
I started collecting information on Marsimik. What came out was a very different picture from what I had imagined. First, of course, Marsimik did not have roads. It had a few unusable dirt tracks at some places and no tracks at all at others. It was a cross-terrain climb and the last 35 kilometers of the cross-terrain climb was considered the toughest challenge for all terrain driving anywhere in the world.
The few people who had driven up to Marsimik were considered ‘the elite’ in the world of adventure driving anywhere in the world. That too when they had done so with adequate preparation and rest and recovery breaks along the way. Even the best of vehicles were reported to have broken down in climbing this mountain pass despite having started from the base of the last climb. I was expected to reach the top of Marsimik La, driving non-stop from New Delhi. I was expected to cross over 1,000 kilometers of the treacherous and torturous route and the seven highest motorable mountain passes of the world on the way and then go on to climb the Marsimik La, non-stop.
Oh my God! What had I got myself into? I began to wonder if this was really possible. Would I be able to achieve such a feat? This was a pass even now people do not think of attempting to go to. Given my limitations, how could I think of agreeing to this? The weather could play havoc with the expeditionat any time. The torturous route could break the vehicle at any point of time. The change in altitude and the extreme change in temperatures from +40°C in New Delhi to -40°C at Marsimik and the fall in oxygen level in the air by 25 per cent could prove fatal for anyone.
Would I have the energy to last this route? Could my vehicle take this challenge? I did not even have a good vehicle till then. All I had was a small diesel car. Above all, I tried finding the Tibetan meaning of the word ‘Marsimik’ and surely I found it! Marsimik in Tibetan meant the death trap.
I called up the Limca Book of Records and told them that the expedition was on and that I was going to do it. A distance of approximately 1,100 kilometers, out of which the last 800 kilometers would be through the perfidious mountain passes of the Himalayas— streams flowing over the road, landslides, snow, sub-zero night temperatures and extremely steep climbs. There were seven mountain passes on the way—Rohtang Jot, Baralach La, Lachlang La, Nakee La, Taglang La, Chang La, and Marsimik La. La means ‘mountain pass’ in Tibetan language.
New Delhi (at near sea level) * Panipat, Karnal * Ambala * Chandigarh * Ropar * Kiratpur Sahib * Mandi * Kullu * Manali * Rohtang Jot (15,000 feet) * Khoksar * Darcha * Baralach La (16,500 feet) * Sarchu * Taglang La (17,582 feet) * Pang * Karu * Chang La (17,800 feet) * Marsimik La (18,632 feet, World’s Highest Motorable Mountain Pass)
- The expedition involved a non-stop drive from Delhi to Marsimik La (about 1,110 kms).
- At 18,632 feet, Marsimik La is the highest motorable mountain pass in the world.
- It is 1,232 feet higher than the base camp of Mount Everest, which is at 17,400 feet.
- To reach Marsimik, one has to cross seven of the world’s highest motorable mountain passes with broken or missing roads, streams flowing over the road, extremely steep climbs and sub-zero temperatures.
The Build-up to the Mission Marsimik
As soon as word came out about the expedition, it spread like wildfire. The media coverage got me sponsors. TATA Motors offered to provide me their sports utility vehicle (SUV), the TATA Safari. The tag line of this SUV was ‘Make your own roads’, a very apt expression for my expedition. I would be making my own roads. In addition to providing the SUV, TATA Motors offered to take care of the cost of the modification of the SUV for me and extend technical support for the expedition. Indian Oil Corporation offered to bear the fuel expense for the entire expedition.
Now, a lot of other media channels and brands started getting involved in the expedition. An unknown ‘me’ was now on the national news and in some quarters on the international news. It was turning out to be the biggest expedition for me, the biggest battle I ever fought, the biggest game I thought I would ever play and the biggest competition I would ever participate in. I was competing with myself on one side and all the external odds on the other side. Would I, who had failed every time; would I, who had lost at the last moment every time; would I, whom fate had got to every time at the final moment; would I, the lesser child, be able to succeed now when the odds against me were higher than ever in the biggest playing field? Who would even want to answer this question?
My expedition was to be flagged off from my school in the national capital where I had been an underperformer and from where my battle to get better had started. From there I would go to India Gate, a national memorial in front of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official home of the President of India, and there I was to be given the ceremonial send-off for the expedition. People prayed for my safety and the success of the expedition. I received letters and cards with prayers and wishes written in them.
My story got linked with the hopes of a lot of other people. No one except me knew what a colossal task I had taken upon myself. Only the few who had climbed up to Marsimik or had attempted it would have an idea about the enormousness of the expedition. I hadn’t even seen Marsimik and it seemed like the whole world was now looking at me, following my expedition. It was very difficult to remain calm and focused under such pressure and conditions but I also understood that I had to remain calm if I wanted to succeed. When I take on a challenge of this level, I tell myself ‘I would rather die than turn back’. Such a resolve is necessary because otherwise there will be no dearth of reasons or excuses that will discourage any one from achieving their bigger dreams. I do not consider this a negative statement. It is symbolic of the determination required.
So, come what may, I was going to accomplish it. I would also like to quote Martin Luther King here, ‘If in your life you have not discovered something you could die for, your life is not worth living’. As I say and believe, ‘Life is nothing without passion’. And my passion was life itself; I wanted to live every bit of it. Before the expedition, a lot of people would ask me; ‘Excited?’ and I would smile in response to that question. But in my mind the answer was a big ‘No’. I did not feel any enthusiasm or excitement; I could not afford to be excited. What I felt inside was silence, a tremendous calm. Toughest situations need the maximum calm. The ability to remain calm in tough situations is my biggest asset. Excitement drains out one’s mental energy and I needed every bit of my energy on this expedition.
Patience and resilience were going to be the key factors which could give me any semblance of a chance at success. Before the expedition began, a number of reasons had come up to discourage me and to make me change my mind but I pushed all those reasons out of my mind. One of the reasons was that I got the vehicle just two weeks before the expedition. Just two weeks! I had received a new vehicle, which needed a complete hand control modification. Besides, I had to get used to driving this vehicle because on this vehicle I was supposed to set out on an endeavour to create a new world record, which was no less than a ‘Mission Impossible’. But my resolve for this extraordinary achievement was so strong that even if I had got the vehicle just 24 hours before the expedition, I would have gone ahead with the expedition.
Ankush (my navigator), Ajay (my engineer who used to fabricate the hand control designs for me) and I were determined to modify the vehicle within 24 hours. We had done our homework and had the equipment ready. The moment we got the vehicle, we headed to Ajay’s workshop and got started on the modifications. I specified the requirements and Ajay designed the parts to meet my needs. We took measurements and prepared a solid bracket to attach the ready apparatus to the steering rod. It was done by the end of the day and was ready for trial. But I had learnt from my past experiences at modifications and fabrications that the probability of the first trial to succeed is nearly zero. This trial too did not work. The bracket frame was obstructing the breaking rod. OH MY GOD! We were back to square one at the end of day one. A cool head was an impossible condition to have. But I did not have a choice.
We continued to work into the night. We couldn’t sleep over this failure. I couldn’t. Ajay couldn’t. By midnight another prototype was ready. The next morning at nine, we were at it again. By late afternoon, the prototype had been installed for trials. This time the trial was somewhat satisfactory. I could not be fussy. Rather than working more on the controls, I had to enhance my efforts to manage with the same set of controls. I approved the controls and the controls were removed for final welding and painting. The controls were finally installed by afternoon of the next day and I immediately took off to take the test drive. It was a big SUV and all that I had driven till then were small cars. I had to adapt to its feel at the earliest as I had to take it over the toughest roads ever.
After about 100 kilometers of trial driving, we made three more adjustments. The brake rod was still rubbing slightly against the bracket. We corrected it by filing off that part and putting a little lubricant. The whole bracket was moving with the pressing of the brake. We made a third attachment in the middle to make the apparatus firm. And finally we installed the horn at my elbow, so I could blow the horn without taking off my right hand from the steering wheel. The next few days were spent in practising driving the vehicle and getting adjusted to its bigger size and the new set of controls. This involved long drives to Delhi and also to my favourite evening drives from Gurgaon to Farukhnagar, passing through some villages and vast open fields. We would have dinner at some dhaba (local roadside restaurants) and come back. We would play some good melodious music during the drive.
Driving had become like Zen to me; it was like yoga. When people ask me, ‘Do you meditate?’ I answer, ‘For me, every minute of life is meditation’. The heat of summer, the chill of winter, the rains, the aching of muscles, the sleepy eyes and the coziness of a bed, everything is meditation. The rhythm of beats, the music of sound and the beauty of silence... the hungry stomach, the thirsty lips and the tearful eyes... the sweet smile, the carefree laughter and the dance of joy... . From falling in love to breaking of the heart, from pain to pleasure, from success to failure, from victory to defeat, life is beautiful, a miracle of wonder and joy. It has been a pleasure to have lived.
The date to set off on the expedition was approaching and there were so many preparations to be made. The equipment and the kit which would be the lifeline of the expedition were to be arranged. We had to be extremely careful about packing everything we could possibly need during the expedition, because missing out on any item could make things difficult and could even sabotage the expedition. Therefore, the first priority was to list and obtain all basic requirements, including vehicle spare parts, handy oxygen cylinders (the kind used by high-altitude trekkers) and medicines. I planned for every possible contingency. I might have even prepared for a back-up vehicle but we did not have the resources or funds for that.
I had to prepare my best within the means if the expedition was to succeed. The hype was building up. Everybody’s expectations from me and hopes from the expedition were high. This time, it was not just me; others too were involved. There were my sponsors, the War Wounded Foundation (I had undertaken the expedition to get support for the war-disabled soldiers), the media, and of course my well-wishers. This fact began to build pressure on me. At times, I became apprehensive thinking of the possible difficulties or failures, or of letting down every one’s expectations but I pushed away the feeling of such fears. I was aware of the daunting task I was to embark on and therefore I had to remain calm and focused. My future life depended upon the success of this expedition.
Only two days were left for the expedition to begin and I had not been able to find any time for rest. Preparations took up all the time and energy. Spare parts for the vehicles were yet to be arranged. We had to get the tyres changed to new radial tyres. With these, we also arranged for two spare wheels and got a carrier fitted on the roof for the luggage. It had been one tiring day. The following day was going to be a day of functions and then the expedition would commence. And then, I had to be ready for at least 40 hours of no sleep. I knew that I had to have a good sleep before I started on the expedition. For the first time in my life I took a sleeping pill and had eight hours of sound sleep. The next day, I went for the function organized for the event. The function got over late in the afternoon and by the time I came back home, it was 4 p.m. I gave instructions to Keshav (my assistant) and Ankush to put the complete luggage on the carrier, pack up and wake me up at midnight. I went to sleep while they packed and prepared. I woke up at quarter past midnight. Good, at least I had enough sleep before setting off for the expedition.
Mission Marsimik Begins
Finally the day of the expedition had arrived. It was a battle on hands. It was a test of my existence. It was a moment of truth. In all probability life would not give me this chance again. After waking up at quarter past midnight, I went through the basic routine of getting ready and got into the vehicle. I checked the controls and the equipment. I kept it in mind to check the most important things first— things that could, if not in order, jeopardize the expedition. My crew included Ankush, my navigator and the companion of my previous expeditions, and my assistant of the past six years, ‘Keshav’. Both of them had accompanied me on my expedition to Khardung.
Apart from them, this time we had with us one technician from TATA Motors. He was appointed by the company to help us in case of a vehicle breakdown. No, I could not have had a better crew. Seeing the popularity of the expedition, a lot of other people had wanted to be part of the crew but I stuck to my time-tested companions. I had a great crew; one, because they were experienced and, two, because they never doubted and wavered over ‘whether to do or not to do’. This is the quality that I think is the most important factor for success in any venture.
We were all ready now. I turned on the ignition and the engine purred to life. The sound was smooth from a well-serviced engine. I pressed the clutch and released, the clutch release lock was working fine. I gave high acceleration, took off and applied sudden brakes. The brakes were working fine. I felt reassured by the good condition I found the vehicle in. I analyzed my posture. A slight adjustment was needed and I did it. Once again I checked if all necessary things— spare parts, documents and equipment—were there. Once the final checks were done, we were ready to go.
My parents and Ankush’s parents were the only ones there to see us off at this early hour. My mind was well aware of the task ahead and very comfortable with it. I just focused on being comfortable and on driving safely. The night was dark and silent. The sound of the engine was echoing into the night and the headlights were showing the way as we moved. It was dark inside except for the light coming from the instrument panels. We started with the chant of Jai Shri Ram from me and Jai Mata Di (victory to God) from my navigator. It was an old ritual that we had come to follow. With the headlights illuminating the way, I calmly drove out of the lanes on to Mehrauli Road and headed towards India Gate. It was dark, and there were very few odd vehicles on the road moving in a hurried way, trying to reach somewhere at the earliest. I was not racing with any of them. I was in a world of my own.
When I drive, my body and the vehicle become extensions of each other. Our frequencies create a resonance resulting in near perfect harmony. ‘Harmony’ is something I believe in. When I drive, it is in harmony with my mood, my ability, the ability of my vehicle, the traffic, the weather and the road conditions. Problems arise when the harmony is broken. It is true for life as well. Most of our problems arise when our actions are not in harmony with our thoughts and vice versa.
I reached the majestic front of the Rashtrapati Bhavan (the President’s House) and turned towards India Gate. It was a great feeling! As I approached the India Gate at quarter past two (2.15 a.m.), I saw a white Ambassador car parked on the side of the road. The NDTV crew Robert and Vinod were waiting there for us with their set of camera equipment and baggage, which was quite a bit. They were to travel with us to cover the expedition and report on it. Their baggage was hauled into the carrier on the roof of the car. We took a couple of photographs of my vehicle near India Gate. Ankush made the first log book entry: India Gate, 3 a.m. He noted down the odometer reading. The next stop would be the first mountain pass, Rohtang, about 600 kilometers away. The log book entry was signed and verified by Robert.
I took off as Ankush gave me the directions to join the Karnal highway at the earliest. There were a lot of trucks and the speed was not exactly fast but I was getting into a rhythm. I had to spend the next two-and-a-half days in this rhythm. Vinod was hanging out of the window, taking some shots of the ‘Destination Signs’ passing overhead and the traffic. Finally we reached the overhead sign board which pointed right to Karnal Highway. I got on to the Karnal highway and speeded up. After some time, I realized that all my crew members had fallen asleep.
I judiciously kept increasing the speed. There were crossings and cuts in the divider and my eyes had to be wide open. At high speed even small mistakes can be catastrophic. A little jerk to the steering wheel can send the vehicle rolling. It was still pitch dark outside. From time to time I kept looking towards the sky for any hint of light. The first hint of light came around 5.15 a.m. With the daylight to help my view, I increased the speed a little more.
Gradually the day broke and the sun came up. One after the other, we crossed through the towns of Sonepat, Panipat, Karnal, Kurukshetra and Ambala, and neared Chandigarh. Inside the vehicle some members were asleep, some awake. Ankush, sitting next to me, was awake. ‘Six crossings and then left’ were the instructions from him and we had crossed the city of Chandigarh and were heading towards Ropar. Till now I was specifically concentrating on maintaining a good speed, practicing safe driving and not getting a stiff neck. I kept exercising my neck by moving it left and right from time to time. My experience of travelling a million kilometers on the road had taught me one thing. There is nothing more stupid than unsafe driving. Safe driving is a thumb rule I try to follow to the core.
We were only a little distance out of Chandigarh when the accelerator wire of my hand controls broke. I had four spare wires. We stopped and Ankush got into action, assisted by Keshav and Vinod; he replaced the wire within ten minutes. It was a welcome break for the team after six hours in the car. (If one stays in a car for six hours one would understand.) We headed towards Ropar, which was still 40 kilometers away. Ropar came and went. It was mostly plain roads except for a little climb. Beyond Ropar our next destination was Kiratpur Sahib. Somewhere between Ropar and Kiratpur Sahib started the climb, which was to continue for the next 290 kilometers till Rohtang Jot, the first mountain pass. Till Manali the drive was continuously uphill but it was not very tiring. The only breaks we took were for re-fuelling.
We reached Manali around 5.30 p.m. We were welcomed at the Indian Oil petrol pump in Manali with some soft drinks and snacks while the vehicle was refuelled. Indian Oil was one of the sponsors of the expedition. We also took 60 liters of fuel in cans as we would cross the next petrol pump at night and there was no petrol pump on our route after that.
As I crossed Manali and started climbing up the narrow roads I encountered my first setback. A small tractor trolley coming down at high speed ripped off my right rear view mirror scattering shattered glass pieces all over the car. Everyone in the car was shaken by this minor accident when we had just started climbing into the night. Everyone was silent. We continued up. After nearly 16 hours of driving from Delhi and 10 kilometers distance out of Manali, I drove to the Army Transit Camp at Palchan. Soldiers heading towards high altitude stop here for some acclimatization and rest. But for us, there was to be no acclimatization or rest. We were to continue on our journey. At Palchan, we were welcomed by the Commanding Officer Colonel Raizada and cheered by a group of soldiers shouting Bharat Mata ki Jai (Victory to mother India). Mogliswaran, our Liaison Officer from the army, joined us. He was to coordinate our clearance at all checkpoints on the way and also coordinate our requirements for food and fuel. He was a very enthusiastic person and proved to be an asset during the expedition. We always found hot tea, food and fuel waiting for us at every checkpoint. It is a different matter that we couldn’t stop for the food and tea.
I started driving up Rohtang, the first mountain pass. The roads were much more broken than they were when we had visited last. Hence, they had become narrow. The turns had become steeper and the maneuvering difficult. There were steep U turns on the climb and we were rapidly gaining altitude. We would be doing so till we reached about 15,000 feet.
A few kilometers from the Rohtang top, I encountered clouds. The clouds and the precipitation added to the darkness of the night, reducing the visibility to almost zero. I could not see an inch of the road. All the crew members were out of their seats and hanging out of the vehicle trying to peep into the mist to figure out the path ahead. They were all telling me which way they thought the road was possibly going. We had nearly gone blind. I literally drove on instinct and at 9 p.m. (18 hours after the start) we reached Rohtang Jot. Everybody breathed a sigh of relief as I slowly drove out of the clouds and descended into the valley of Lahauland Spiti, reaching the second Army Transit Camp at Khoksar. Late in the night and in such cold weather, the soldiers were waiting for us on the road. They cheered us on.
My companions went off to sleep again while I made my way through horribly broken roads with streams, stones and rocks. I did not wake up Ankush because I would need him on the next mountain pass of Baralach La. A couple of hours of sleep would be good for him. I reached the town of Keylang (the last real habitation) and headed towards the beautiful riverside village of Darcha. There were a lot of spots known for frequent landslides on this road and spots where loose mud and rocks fall onto the road from the mountain face often blocking the road. The road was bad but luckily there were no roadblocks from landslides or rocks. I reached Darcha after crossing the river and drove into the hills. At 3 a.m. (24 hours after the start) I reached plain ground at the third Army Transit Camp at Patseo where we had a refuelling break and I decided on a nap for 15 minutes. I had been driving for 24 hours now. I woke up in five minutes. From there began the climb to Baralach La, the second mountain pass at 16,500 feet. The roads here were as horrible as always. The mountains were rocky and a lot of rocks and stones had found their way to the ‘so called’ road.
Ankush was awake as there could be a contingency any time. The speed was slow. We reached ‘Zing Zing Bar’ (a few empty huts, no habitation) and continued the gruelling drive to reach the Baralach La top. A lot of rocks, boulders and mud found their way to the road. Luckily, none blocked our way that day. However, there was no relief from the bad road till I had sufficiently climbed down and reached the plains where the fourth Army Transit Camp of Sarchu was located. I crossed these badly broken roads of Baralach la and reached Sarchu around 8 a.m., after 29 hours of driving. The roads were full of humps (crests and troughs) in these plains as I reached the check post. We were welcomed by the soldiers again. The breakfast was ready and waiting for us. I said ‘No’; we could not afford the time. We were already running late. We asked for hot drinking water and immediately got a few bottles. Drinking warm water keeps high-altitude sickness at bay.
An officer who was taking a halt here approached me. ‘Where to?’ he enquired.
As I started telling him he cut me short ‘Hey Gulia, you don’t recognize me!’
I said, ‘Take off your sunglasses’. He did. ‘Imtiaz Hussein! How are you buddy?’
He was my course mate from the Defence Academy. We could just exchange a few words as we received the filled water bottles and moved on. Down the slope for about five kilometers and a temporary metal bridge followed by some steep turns around a mountain, and we reached the masterpiece of mountain roads. These were the 21 ‘Gata Loops’.
This is the steepest climb anywhere in the world with the ‘U’ turns off steep edges. The progress was slow and the state of mind careful. This happens to me every time. After climbing three or four loops I missed the count, and by the time I reached the top I felt I had crossed 100 loops. Somewhere on the way, my assistant Keshav, looking over a steep edge, said, ‘Look, there is a truck lying there at the bottom’. I said, ‘If I look there then you will be lying where that truck is’. Finally, the signboard I had been waiting for appeared. It read ‘Gata Loops End’. A little more climb and we reached ‘Nakee La’, the third mountain pass. After climbing down for about 25 odd kilometers over ordinary mountain roads the climb started again. The climb was to the fourth mountain pass of Lachlang La. As we were going up the seemingly never-ending climb of Lachlang La, the monotony of continuous acceleration and slow climb was taking its toll on Ankush. This slow climb along with the moaning of the engine was frustrating. We were all wondering ‘when the hell will the top come’ and Ankush said it aloud. Trying to comfort him, I said to him (as much as to myself), ‘Don’t worry, the top is near’. But it was not.
In some time, we reached the fourth mountain pass of Lachlang La. Down Lachlang La, the roads were bad and broken again and this time the factors of ‘very narrow roads’ and ‘blind turns’ were included. I had to keep a good second sight ahead for any signs of an approaching vehicle because there were hardly any spots on this stretch of road where two vehicles could cross each other. I was scared to even think about the prospect of driving in reverse gear on this road had a truck blocked my path. There was a narrow stream flowing with a set of steep dry mountains on either side. After driving for some time, just before reaching Pang, the narrow gap between the two rows of mountains opened up a little and now we could see what can be called ‘____’! I don’t know what to call them. I am always short of words. It is nature’s art. One needs to see them to believe and to feel the wonder. A row of mountain faces with beautiful shapes carved out by wind erosion. They are simply unbelievable. It was Mother Nature’s art at its best. At places, they look like castles with smoothest possible shapes, and at some places they look like human forms, and at some other places they are just beautiful shapes. It is a classical example of what I call ‘The creation of the impossible from the infinity of space and time’. Just like life itself.
Passing through this narrow passage between the mountains we crossed a causeway and reached the open ‘bowl’ of a place with mountains on all sides. This place is called Pang. This was the fifth Army Transit Camp. It was 1.30 p.m. and a little over 34 hours of driving. Lunch was ready and waiting for us. Had I said no to food this time again, I am sure, my crew would have killed me and buried me somewhere there itself. My crew had their first proper meal in two days. I could manage a few spoonfuls while re-fuelling of the vehicle was being done. We were running late. Another night was approaching and our target was still three mountain passes away. Things were appearing to get very difficult. Would we be able to make it? With nearly two days without sleep how much longer would I be able to go on now. Things, as expected, were getting from difficult to impossible now.
We started from Pang after the food and refuelling. A few kilo-meters of climb, then a few kilometers of descent, and we reached ‘More’ plains (pronounced ‘moray’). These were 40 kilometers of plains surrounded by small hills with gentle slopes. At high altitude they are so beautiful that I have always wanted to spend a couple of lifetimes there. As I drove on that straight road I kept looking to the right at the open ground and the hills beyond. I have always wanted to drive cross-country through the plains to these hills but had never got the spare time so far. I was sure one day I would. How can my limited knowledge of words and the limitation of language do justice to the beauty of this region? This place, like so many other beautiful places, needs to be seen to be experienced.
I drove on and at the end of the plains started the climb to the fifth mountain pass of Taglang La, the second highest motorable road in the world at 17,582 feet. On this climb, only the high altitude or the sub-zero temperature could be a problem because my memory told me that the roads and the turns were easier than any I had faced till then. And I was going to be right. Ankush was exhausted from the previous three climbs and he went back for some sleep. Mogliswaran joined me in the co-driver’s seat. We started climbing and, as I had imagined, the turns were comparatively gentler and the road comparatively better. After a few climbing turns the sun started coming in my eyes. This high-altitude sun is horribly bright and it made me nearly blind when it did fall into my eyes. Robert lent me his cap and it provided some desperately needed relief. I was exhausted mentally and had to remain focused.
Mogliswaran kept encouraging me, ‘Saab don’t worry, hoega, aap bus chalaateraho’ (Sir, don’t worry, you will make it. Just keep driving). This encouragement worked wonders for me, as this was the first that I received from a crew member. Robert and Vinod started cracking some jokes and the whole crew joined in. I also shared a few jokes. This enlivened everyone. We kept moving and reached the Taglang La top around 4.30 p.m., (it was 37½ hours now). As I opened the door, a chilling ice cold breeze cut into me. The crew got out of the car for a few snaps with the stone marking of Taglang La depicting its altitude. It was a mistake because the crew was not acclimatized and the low temperature and oxygen level could cause health problems.
Our technician Vinod started coughing and also complained of chest pains. I immediately ordered everyone inside the vehicle. I knew such a thing could happen and I was prepared. We had carried a handy oxygen cylinder. However, since medical attention was necessary, we decided to drive down into the Leh valley for help at the nearest Army medical unit. We started descending the slopes as it started getting dark. We were running behind schedule. This was the beginning of my third night on the road. I was like a man drunk. I felt exhausted and after some time I was hallucinating. I was seeing people standing by the road when there was nobody. At times, I would see a white ambassador car moving in front of me and I would brake just to see the car suddenly disappear. I shared this with my companions and Robert said, ‘That’s happening to me also, I am also seeing people’. It was exhaustion. The exhaustion was taking its toll on us and we still had two more mountain passes to climb. The real challenge was yet to come. I wondered ‘could we possibly do it?’
Concentrating on safe driving we reached an Army MI Room (medical unit). Vinod got the much needed medical attention. The doctor said that by morning he might recover enough to move on with us. But it was decided in advance that in case of any medical problem, the person will have to stop there. I had decided this as the thumb rule. No playing around with lives. The real battle was ahead. I told the doctor that Vinod would then have to stay back. We would have to manage the toughest part of the challenge that lay ahead without our technician. In case of a vehicle breakdown we were to ourselves. So we left Vinod in the care of the medical staff and moved on.
It was still dark when we started from there. As I wheel-chaired myself to the Safari, Vinod (the cameraman) was shooting. Robert remarked ‘We are running behind schedule. Do you feel the timing has not been good?’ I said, ‘No, we are doing good. We have already crossed five mountain passes. Two more are left and we will do that now. Let’s go’.
The Final Stage
To begin with, it was a gradual climb on good roads to reach the Army camp at Shakti. We reached there as the day broke. From Shakti, there was a steeper climb to the Army checkpoint at Zingraal. With a green valley on the left and a mountain on the right, the roads were comparatively better. As we started gaining altitude, I started feeling nausea and breathlessness. I had not expected this. I nearly shut my eyes, switched off my brain and kept driving, looking only at the patch of road in front of me.
My mind calculated … I had never had any problem with high altitude so it could not be an altitude related issue. Why was I having shallow breathing and nausea then? Then I realized that the morning empty stomach had caused acidity, which was pressing against my diaphragm, compressing my lungs in the process, and making my breathing shallow. If it was so it would go in about half an hour. I took a digestive tablet to neutralize the acidity in my stomach. Soon the problem was gone.
We reached Zingraal and headed towards Chang La. It is the third highest motorable road in the world at 17,350 feet. We made it to Chang La in good time and down its slopes to the checkpoint at Tang Tse. A soldier joined us here. He had been to Marsimik La in patrolling on foot and could guide us on the route. This was important because Marsimik La doesn’t have a road and we could get lost in the climb. I thought this soldier would be a good asset for our climb on Marsimik.
After a drive of another 30 kilometers, we reached Pangong Tso (Tso means Lake in Tibetan), a 250 kilometers long crystal clear lake. I could write a book on its beauty alone and still end up failing to describe it appropriately. It is like a painting on a canvas. It is like a heaven on earth. Its beauty makes the sky and the mountains fade away. The complete crew was hanging out of the Safari windows to look at the lake. The lake changes its colours continuously throughout the day as the Sun moves across the sky. The few people who have seen Pangong Tso say ‘Agar tumne Pangong Tso dekhliya to tumhari zindagi safal ho gayi’. (If you have seen Pangong Tso, your life has been successful.)
Of course we couldn’t stop there. From Pangong Tso there were a few dirt tracks going up the climb in different directions. I looked back at our guide for directions. He looked a little to the left and a little to the right and said ‘Saab, isi pahaadi pechadhna hai. Kahin se bhi chadh jao’. (Sir, we have to climb this mountain, you can start climbing from anywhere.) Now that was a great help. Fortunately, he was able to point out the exact top of Marsimik from among the many mountain tops that we could see. I chose one of the dirt tracks and started driving up. To reach the dirt track I had to travel over a stretch of very uneven and soft ground. I would have preferred to avoid driving on such a bad patch of ground but I did not have many choices and the time was running out.
I got my vehicle down into the patch. I could not slow down on this patch as it would mean running the risk of the vehicle getting stuck in the soft sand. I had to maintain speed despite the uneven ground and everyone was being thrown around the vehicle as we moved over this patch. Then suddenly there was a loud sound as some rock hit the bottom of the vehicle. We hoped there was no major damage, especially to the cooling mechanism of the vehicle which could get damaged in case of such a hit. We crossed that stretch but did not get too much time to be happy about the same.
Within a few 100 meters, I encountered a horribly steep climb on loose sand. I couldn’t imagine any vehicle going up a climb like that and that too on loose sand. There was no scope of turning around and searching some other way to climb. For the first time on this journey I chose to drive my vehicle on 4×4 (called ‘four by four’), that is, all the four wheels would be giving power to the vehicle. In normal driving, only two wheels power the vehicle. I had the option of 4×4 lower and higher. I chose 4×4 lower (lower gear means higher power). This was the maximum power my vehicle had. Slipping and gripping on the loose sand on the vertical climb, the vehicle managed to climb up and we continued. It was an unbelievable climb; I still cannot believe that we actually climbed that slope.
These dirt tracks had been made by the Army’s special vehicles (Stallion all-terrain trucks) and the two tracks had a foot of loose sand. Moving on them would take a lot of power and the vehicle could get stuck. The gap between the tracks was raised high and could hit the radiator of the vehicle. I chose to drive slightly left or right of the track so that my wheels were on hard ground. At times I moved totally away from tracks but the path here was full of stones and rocks and I had to watch out for them. The climb continued to be steep and I was not able to switch to normal gear. It struck me that this continuous over-acceleration could make the vehicle heat up. I glanced at the temperature indicator. The needle was about to reach the danger mark. Had I been a little late in spotting it, the engine would have got seized and our vehicle would have been permanently stuck.
We then took a short break. And when we started again, I chose to drive on 4×4 higher. The climb was steep and to manage that I had to constantly scan the landscape and choose to climb at an angle to the left and right alternately. Often, the vehicle would tilt badly to one side and I would have to hang on to the steering wheel. I had to select the best possible path to drive up, as choosing even the second best path could mean getting stuck in the loose sand, bursting the radiator over a rock or rolling down the mountain. With the extreme tilt, it was becoming more and more difficult to manoeuvre the vehicle. The vehicle was getting heated every few minutes. The radiator had probably taken a hit. What I had hoped against had happened.
In the plains the vehicle would have got stuck immediately but here the sub-zero temperature air could keep the engine cool. I kept the hood open to cool the engine. The progress was very slow. We were averaging only a few kilometers per hour. We couldn’t spend the whole day just climbing. We were in an uncharted territory. We had to find our way and reach a safe point before sunset. We had to reach the top soon or it would be all over for us and the expedition. But the situation was beyond control. We had to stop every few minutes because of the vehicle heating up. The vehicle was our lifeline. If it broke beyond repair we would be stuck on this mountain pass. Any error here could be fatal to all of us.
The conditions were taking a toll. As the speed was very slow, the probability that we might not be able to reach the top was gaining strength in everyone’s mind with every passing minute. I was a man possessed. I was not thinking about anything anymore. We had to stop every few minutes. Initially I had about two to three volunteers from the crew who were willing to get down and put a stone behind the rear wheel to prevent the vehicle from sliding back. This could save the time required in removing the hand break after turning on the ignition. It was just a few seconds saved but now every second mattered. Every bit of our vehicle’s capability and our own capability was at test. Gradually the number of volunteers dwindled and finally I had only one volunteer to get down and put the stone behind the rear wheel. Then after some more time I had none. No volunteer to get down. I had to per force resort to the hand break again.
Mogliswaran looked up and said, ‘Saab, time ho raha hai, hamko waapis mudna padega’ (Sir, it’s time; we will have to turn back). Night on that mountain in all probability could mean death for all of us. Even the people of this region would not contemplate spending a night high up in the mountain. Keshav was seriously ill but he hadn’t complained, lest our expedition failed. He had remained silent. We had to reach back at Tang Tse before dark. I looked at the watch. It was 2.55 p.m. I looked in the rear view mirror; everybody’s face was down. I said, ‘If we don’t make it by 4 p.m., we will turn back.’ I could not risk seven lives and I thought my saying this would make everyone feel better. It did not. There was pin-drop silence inside the vehicle. No one spoke. I could hear the haunting moan of the mountain wind outside.
Had we lost?
Had we failed?
Was it all over?
Maybe she’ll never get to know. Maybe I’ll never be able to pursue my dream of working for the welfare of needy children.
I turned back and looked at everyone again. Everyone’s face was down. No one looked at me. Maybe it was a silent disapproval of what I had said. I put my window down and tried to gauge the situation outside. We were stuck at the base of a very steep climb. The steep climb in front of us prevented me from seeing further up. I had no idea how much more we would have to go after this immediate steep climb. There were times during the climb when we had been able to catch a glimpse of the top but from here I had no idea how much further it lay. I could not go on without the consent and support of the crew. The vehicle was nearly gone. The support was nearly gone too. I closed my eyes. I could hear the breath moving in and out of my lungs. I looked left at Ankush. He was in the co-driver’s seat with his head in his hands.
‘Ankush’, I said and he looked up at me. ‘Last attempt? Ab upar jaake hi rukenge’ (‘now we will stop only after reaching the top’), I said.
‘Theek hai, sir, ab upar hi rukenge’ (‘Ok Sir, we will now stop only at the top’), he replied.
We had decided to go for it. We were taking our vehicle to its breaking point. Either we would reach the top or the vehicle would break down. I accelerated to 5000 RPM (the maximum possible) and on my gesture Ankush released the hand brake. The vehicle started inching up the climb. To cut the vertical climb I drove at an angle to the left of the climb, then after climbing a distance, I turned and started climbing to the right and then after some distance to the left again. Even the few minutes of climb appeared to be infinitely long with the groaning of the engine. Every second was a torture on the vehicle and every second mattered. The temperature needle started shooting up, going to the danger mark. The temperature needle was in the danger mark now and the vehicle could break down any moment from an engine seizure.
The patch of steep climb was not yet over and we couldn’t stop midway. The vehicle rose over the last bit of this steep climb as I turned right. My sight and the vehicle came over the climb and suddenly we could see the stone marking ‘Marsimik La’ right in front of us at twenty yards.
There was a shriek of sheer joy from Ankush ‘Sir, pahunch gae (we have reached)’. The vehicle was suddenly full of life with everyone out of their seats, looking at the stone marking the top of Marsimik. Vinod started shooting with his camera as we came to a halt. I did not want to reach the stone immediately. I stopped five yards short of it. This was as a mark of respect for all my earlier failures. Then I got down in my wheelchair and with the help of Mogliswaran moved over and around the rocks to the stone marking the top of Marsimik La. Victory at last!
It was the 12th of September 2004. We had finally made it. This victory was not just the victory over the odds encountered on the way to reach the top of Marsimik. It was a victory over the limitations of the mind and the spirit; it was a victory of self-belief over self-doubt. As I sat next to that stone enjoying my success, Robert asked me, ‘How do you feel?’ Inspired by Martin Luther King’s famous quote, I replied, ‘If in your life you have not found something you could die for, your life isn’t worth living. Life has been wonderful; it will be even more beautiful after today.’
Sitting on the top of that mountain pass, I stood humbled by the enormity of life, its vastness and its beauty, a beauty that remains undiminished despite its pains, trials and tribulations. I would not need to compete with anyone anymore, not even with myself. I think we all have a Marsimik within us, which needs to be conquered. Once this is achieved, we can live at peace with ourselves thereafter!