Mission ‘Marsimik La’ – the highest vehicle mountain pass in the world. At 18,632 feet, it is 1,232 feet higher than the base camp of Everest, which is 17,400 feet. It is at a distance of nearly 1200 kms from New Delhi, the Indian capital. To reach it you have to cross 7 of the world’s highest vehicle mountain passes with broken or missing roads, streams flowing over the road, extremely steep climbs and sub zero temperatures. It was going to take me 55 hrs of near non-stop driving.
What is the big deal?
1. In mountaineering Jargon, an altitude beyond 18,000 feet is referred to as death zone because a human body can never permanently acclimatize to that altitude. The body starts degenerating and one can at the best spend some time there and return back to recover.
2. One usually requires four stages of acclimatization to reach that altitude. I was not going to get any time to acclimatize.
3. There is about 20-25% less oxygen at that altitude.
4. I am C5-6 quadriplegic, medically termed 100% disabled with a 90% paralyzed body. My fingers don’t work and of course my legs don’t work.
5. I was going to drive a manual transmission SUV, using gadgets designed by myself. I would be controlling 5 controls (gear, break, accelerator, clutch, clutch lock) with my left hand and the steering, horn and indicators with my right.
When I take on an expedition of this standard I tell myself “I would rather die than turn back”. Such resolve is required or else a million excuses will come up to prevent and discourage me. It’s not a negative statement. It is symbolic of the determination required.
Let me also state a saying I heard long back “If death comes before I prove my blood, I promise I will kill death”. So, come what may, I was going to accomplish it. I would also like to quote Martin Luther King’s statement “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 is life itself, I want to live every bit of it.
A lot of people were asking me before the expedition “Excited?” and my answer to them was a smile but inside my mind the answer was a big “NO”. There was no enthusiasm or excitement about the expedition (I could not afford to be excited). There was a silence, a tremendous calm. I believe a calm and cool mind is the biggest asset.
Excitement drains out ones mental energy and I would need every bit of it on this expedition. Without getting out of the driver’s seat, I would be driving without sleep for 47 hours. Besides myself, there would be the responsibility of the safety of 6 of my crew members on me. Therefore, the order for my mind was ‘Be cool’ and ‘Only basics’.
A lot of reasons had come up prior to the expedition to discourage me but I pushed them out of my mind. I got the vehicle just two weeks before the expedition. So let me begin from there. Just two weeks! A new vehicle, complete hand control modification required and a world record and first to attempt. It was a ‘Mission Impossible’. The resolve was so strong in my mind that even if I had got the vehicle 24 hours before the expedition, I would still have attempted it and made it.
Me, Ankush (my navigator) and Ajay (my engineer who fabricates the hand control designs for me) were determined that we would modify the vehicle within 24 hours. We had done our homework and had an apparatus ready. The moment we got the vehicle, we headed to Ajay’s workshop and got working. The controls were finally installed by next day afternoon. I took off and started the trials.
After about 100 kms of driving we made three adjustments. The brake rod was still rubbing slightly against the bracket. The whole bracket was moving with the pressing of the brake 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.
Driving has become Zen to me, it is like yoga. When someone asks me “Do you meditate?” I answer, “For me every minute of life is meditation”. The heat of summers, the chill of winters, the wetness of rain, the aching of muscles, the sleepy eyes and the coziness of a bed, everything is meditation. The list just goes on. Life is beautiful, a miracle of wonder and joy.
The expedition started approaching and there were so many preparations to be made. The equipment and the kit to be carried, was to be our lifeline for the expedition. While going into detailed preparations could make things easier on the expedition, missing out on any of the basics could be difficult to handle and could even sabotage the expedition. Therefore, the first priority was the basics. Vehicle spares, oxygen cylinder and medicines.
The hype was building up. Everybody’s expectations and hopes were high. The sponsors involved, the War Wounded Foundation (I had undertaken the expedition to get support for the war disabled), the media.
The final day of the expedition was here. It was a battle on hands, a test of my existence and a moment of truth. I have always believed in infinite ability and this was to be the first demonstration of my beliefs. After waking up at 12.15am, I went through the basic routine of getting ready, got into the vehicle, checked the controls, the equipment.
I had a great crew because they never had a doubt ‘whether to or not to’ about anything. Something, I consider as the most important factor.
I turned the ignition and the engine purred smoothly to life. All checks done and ready to go. My parents and Ankush’s parents were there to see us off with best wishes. My mind was well aware of the task ahead and very comfortable with it. The night was dark and silent. The sound of the engine was echoing into the night. It was dark inside except for the light coming from the instrument panel.
We started with chant of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ from me and ‘Jai Mata di’ (victory to God) from my navigator, an old ritual with us. With the headlights lighting the way, I calmly drove out of the lanes on to the Mehrauli Road towards India Gate. It was dark, a few odd vehicles moving up and down in a hurried way, trying to reach somewhere at the earliest. I wasn’t 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, my vehicles ability, the traffic, the weather, the road.
Problems arise when harmony is broken. It is true for life as well. Most problems arise when our actions are not in harmony with our thoughts and vice-a-versa.
I reached the majestic front of Raj Bhavan (Presidents House) and turned towards India Gate. Feeling great. As I approached India Gate (2.15 am), I saw a white Ambassador Car parked on the side. The NDTV crew ‘Robert and Vinod’ were there with their set of equipment and baggage (quiet a bit of it). They were to travel with us. Their baggage joined ours on the roof.
We took a couple of shots of my vehicle moving with the background of India Gate. Ankush made the first log book entry- India Gate, 3 am, odometer reading, next bound was to be the first mountain pass Rohtang (about 600km), signed and verified by Robert. I took off as Ankush gave me the directions to join the Karnal highway at the earliest.
There were lot of trucks and speed wasn’t 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 one that pointed right to Karnal Highway. I joined the Karnal Highway and sped up. Gradually everyone went to sleep.
Because of the varying speeds of different vehicles, the vehicles opened out till the highway became nearly empty. I judiciously kept increasing the speed. There were crossings and cuts in the divider and my eyes had to be wide open. At high speeds 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. It came around 5.15am. The speed increased a little more.
Gradually the day broke and the sun came up. One after the other, we crossed through Sonepat, Panipat, Karnal, Kurukshetra and Ambala and neared Chandigarh. Some were asleep, some awake. Ankush was awake next to me. Six roundels (crossings) and then left were the instructions and we had crossed Chandigarh and were heading towards Ropar. Till now I was specifically concentrating on good speed and not getting a stiff neck.
A little distance out of Chandigarh and the accelerator wire of my hand controls broke. I had 4 spare. We stopped and Ankush got into action, assisted by Keshav and Vinod and the wire was replaced within 10 minutes. It was a welcome break for the team after 6 hours in the car. (Get yourself into a car for 6 hrs and you will know why.) We headed to Ropar, still 40 kms away. Ropar came and went, mostly plain roads, a little climb. Beyond Ropar, it was Kiratpur Sahib. Somewhere between Ropar and Kiratpur Sahib started a climb, which was to continue for the next 290 kms till Rohtang Jot, the first mountain pass.
Till Manali the drive was continuously uphill but ok and we stopped only for two refilling of fuel. I reached Manali around 5.30 pm. We were welcomed at the Indian Oil petrol pump in Manali with soft drinks and snacks while the vehicle was refilled. We also took 60 litres 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. ‘Cool head’. We continued up. Nearly 16hrs from the start and 10kms out of Manali, I drove to the Army Transit camp at Palchan. Soldiers heading towards high altitude stop here for some acclimatization. There was to be no acclimatization for us. I was welcomed by the Commanding Officer Colonel Raizada and cheered by a group of soldiers shouting ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ (Victory to mother India).
Here our Liaison Officer, Mogli Swaran 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 an asset for 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 my last visit and hence the turns had become steeper and maneuvering difficult. There were steep U turns and we were constantly gaining altitude. We would be doing so till about 15,000 feet. A few kilometers from Rohtang top I encountered clouds. Along with the darkness of night it meant zero visibility. I could not see an inch and all the crew was out of their seats trying to peep forward into the mist. 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 9pm (18hrs after the start) reached Rohtang Jot. Everybody breathed a sigh of relief as slowly I drove out of the clouds and descended into the valley of Lahol and Spiti reaching the second Army Transit Camp at Khoksar. Late into the night and in the cold weather the soldiers were waiting for me on the road. They cheered me on. Most of the crew went off to sleep as I encountered horribly broken roads with streams, stones and rocks. I did not wake Ankush because I would need him on the next mountain pass of Baralach La. A couple of hours of rest would be good for him.
I reached the town Keylang (the last real habitation) and headed towards the beautiful riverside village of Darcha. There are a lot of spots of 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 is BAD. But luckily there were no roadblocks. I reached Darcha after crossing the river and drove into the hills. At 3 am (24 hrs after the start) I reached plain ground at the third Army Transit Camp at Patseo where we had a refilling of fuel and I decided on a nap of 15 minutes. I woke up in 5 minutes.
From here begins the climb to Baralach La, the second mountain pass at 16,500 feet. The roads here were horrible, where horrible is an understatement. The mountains are rocky and a lot of those rocks and stones find their way to the ‘so called’ road. Ankush was awake by my side 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 grueling drive to Baralach La top.
But 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 most broken roads of Baralach la and reached Sarchu around 8am (29 hours of driving). The roads were humpy (crests and troughs) in these plains as I reached the check post.
A welcome by the soldiers again! The breakfast was ready and waiting for us. I said ‘No’; we could not afford the time. We asked for water and immediately got two bottles.
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 two filled water bottles and moved on our route.
Down slope for about 5kms and a bridge followed by some curves around a mountain and we reached the masterpiece of mountain roads ‘The 21 Gata Loops’. This is the steepest climb anywhere in the world with the ‘U’ turns off steep edges.
The progress was slow, the state of mind careful. This happened the last time also. After 3 or 4 loops I missed the count and by the time I reached the top I felt I had crossed a 100 loops.
Somewhere in between my assistant Keshav, looking over a steep edge, said, “Look, there is a truck lying at the bottom”. I said, “If I look there then you will be lying where that truck is”. Finally, finally the signboard I had been waiting for, appeared ‘Gata Loops End’. A little more climb and we reached ‘Nakee La’, the third mountain pass. A little climbing down for 25 odd kilometers over ordinary mountain roads and the climb starts again, this time to the fourth Mountain pass of Lachlang La.
As we are going up the seemingly never ending climb the monotony of continuous acceleration and slow climb is having its toll on Ankush (this slow climb is frustrating). We both are thinking in our mind “When the hell will the top come”. Ankush says it aloud and I tell him (as much as I tell myself)”Don’t worry, the top is near.” It was. We reach it, the fourth mountain pass of Lachlang La.
Down Lachlang La are bad broken roads again and this time the factors of ‘very narrow roads’ and ‘blind turns’ are included. You have to keep a good second sight ahead for any signs of an approaching vehicle because there are hardly any spots where two vehicles can cross each other. I am scared to even think about the prospect of driving in reverse gear had a truck blocked my path. There is a narrow stream flowing with a set of steep dry mountains on either side.
After driving for some time the narrow gap between the two rows of mountains opens up a little and now we can see what I call ‘____’, I don’t know, I am short of words. It is nature’s art. One needs to see it to believe it and to feel the wonder. A row of mountain faces having beautiful shapes carved out by wind erosion. They are simply unbelievable. It is Mother Nature’s artistic sense at its best. At places they look like castles with smoothest possible shapes and at places they look like human forms and at places they are just beautiful shapes. It is a classical example of what I call ‘The creation of the impossible from an infinity of space and time’. Just like life itself.
Passing through this narrow passage between the mountains we cross a causeway and reach an open ‘bowl’ with mountains on all sides, a place called Pang (pronounced ‘paang’). The fifth Army transit camp. It was 1.30pm (34 ½ hrs since the start). Lunch was ready and waiting for us. If I had said ‘No’, I am sure my crew would have killed me and buried me somewhere there only. My crew had their first proper meal in two days. I could manage a few spoonfuls while getting fuel refilling.
We started from Pang, a few kilometers of climb, a few kilometers of descent and we reach ‘More’ plains (pronounced ‘moray’), 40kms of plains surrounded by small hills with gentle slopes. At high altitude they are so beautiful I want to spend a couple of lifetimes there. As I drive on that straight road I keep 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 never got the spare time to. One day I will.
How can my limited knowledge of words and the limitation of words itself do justice to the beauty of this region! I drove on and at the end of the plains started the climb to my fifth Mountain pass of Tanglang La, the second highest motor able 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 the roads and the curves were easier than any I had faced till now. And I was going to be right.
Ankush was exhausted from the previous three climbs and he went back for a rest. Mogli Swaran joined me in the co-drivers seat. We started climbing and I was right that the curves 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 chalaate raho”(keep going). This encouragement worked wonders for me, as this was the first I was receiving from a crew- member. Robert and Vinod started with jokes and the whole crew joined in. I also told a few.
The mood lightened up. We kept moving and reached Tanglang La top around 4.30pm (37 ½ hrs). As I opened the door, a chilling cold breeze cut into me.
The crew got out for a few snaps with the stone marking of Tanglang 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 complaining of chest pain (not severe). I knew it could or would happen and I was prepared.
We had a handy oxygen cylinder and the plan was to drive down ahead into the Leh valley and get him medical attention at the nearest Army medical unit. We started descending the slopes as it started getting dark. I was like a man drunk. I was 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 moving slowly in front of me and I would break. Following which the car would disappear. I said it aloud and Robert immediately said, “That’s happening to me also, I am also seeing people”. Now don’t cook up ghost stories on it. It WAS exhaustion.
Concentrating on safe driving we reached an Army MI Room (medical unit). He got medical attention. The doctor said that he might be Ok by morning to move with us. I had decided this to be thumb rule: Any medical problem, the person will have to stop there. The real battle was ahead. No playing around with lives. I told the doctor that he was staying here.
That morning it was dark when we started. As I wheel chaired myself to the Safari, Vinod, the cameraman, was shooting. A gradual climb on good roads to reach the Army camp at Shakti as the day broke. From Shakti, there is a steeper climb to the Army checkpoint at Zingraal. A green valley on left and the mountain on right, the roads are comparatively good.
As we started gaining altitude, I started feeling nausea and breathlessness. 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. The morning empty stomach had caused an acidity, which was pressing against my diaphragm, which was compressing my lungs and making my breathing shallow. It would go in about half an hour. It did. We reached Zingraal and headed towards Chang La (Third highest vehicle 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. Here we had to accommodate a soldier who had been to Marsimik La in patrolling and could guide us. This was important because Marsimik La doesn’t have a road and it would be easy to get lost in the climb. Thirty kilometers and we were at Pangong Tso (Tso means Lake in Tibetan).
90kms long crystal clear lake, I could write a book on its beauty alone and still end up failing to describe its beauty. It is like a painting on a canvas. 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 colors continuously throughout the day as the Sun moves across the sky. The few people who have seen Pangong Tso say “Agar tumne Pangong Tso dekh liya to tumhari zindagi safal ho gayi” (If you have seen Pangong Tso, your life has been successful).
We couldn’t stop here. 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 left and right and said “Saab, isi pahaadi pe chadhna hai. Kahin se bhi chadh jao”(Sir, we have to climb this mountain, you can start climbing from anywhere).
I chose one of the dirt tracks and started driving up. Within a few hundred meters I encountered a horribly steep climb on loose sand. I doubted if any vehicle could possibly climb that. For the first time on this journey I chose 4×4. I had the option of 4×4 lower and higher. I chose 4×4 lower (lower gear means higher power). We made it up this climb and continued.
These dirt tracks had been made by Army’s heavy vehicles (Stalin trucks) and the two tracks had a foot of loose sand and moving on them would take lot of power and vehicle could get stuck. The gap between the tracks was raised high and could hit the radiator of my 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 it was full of stones and rocks and I had to watch out for stones/rocks, which were more than affordable height.
The climb continued to be steep and I was not able to switch to normal gear. Over acceleration would make the vehicle heat up. The needle in the temperature indicator started rising and we had to take a forced break. After a short break we moved again and chose 4×4 higher. The climb was steep and to make it less steep I had to constantly scan the landscape and choose to climb an angle to the left and right alternately. The vehicle was tilting badly to one side and I had 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 of great difficulty to maneuver the vehicle. My assistant had not been feeling well and sleeping at the back.
The progress was damn slow, averaging a few kms per hour. The conditions were taking the toll. The probability that we may not be able to reach the top was gaining strength in every one’s mind. I was a man possessed. I was not thinking anything.
We had to stop every 15 minutes. Initially I had 2-3 volunteers to get down and put a stone behind the rear wheel. Gradually only one and finally none and we were stuck at the base of a steep climb. How much more!
Mogliswaran said “Saab, time ho raha hai, hamko waapis mudna padega”(Sir, its time we will have to turn back), night on that mountain could mean hell. We had to reach back at Tang Tse before dark. I looked at the watch 2.55 pm. I looked in the rear view mirror; everybody’s face was down. I said “if we don’t make it by 4pm, we turn back” (I couldn’t risk 5 lives and my saying this would make every one feel better). Ankush was in the co-drivers seat with his head in his hands. “Ankush” I said and he looked at me “Last attempt, ab upar jaa ke hi rukenge”(now we will stop at the top) I said. “Theek hai sir, ab upar hi rukenge”(Ok, we will stop only at the top) he replied.
I accelerated to 5000RPM (the maximum possible) and he released the hand brake. The vehicle started inching up. To cut the vertical climb I turned left, then right and then left again. Even the few minutes of climb appeared to be ‘an infinity’. The vehicle rose over the last bit of the climb and we could see the stone marking ‘Marsimik La’ right in front of us.
WE WERE THERE!
18,632 feet, 1232 feet higher than the base camp of Mt Everest. At that point of time we were probably the highest placed individuals anywhere on earth. No one was attempting Everest that day.
Sitting next to that stone Robert asked me “how do you feel?”
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”
PS. 1. My assistant fainted on the top and we had to evacuate him at top speed. He is OK now.
2. The Tata technician ‘Vinod’ recovered in Karu and is back.
3. JCO Sub Mogliswaran, our Liaison Officer, received his promotion orders when we got to Tang tse (as a matter of coincidence). He is back in his regiment in Leh.
4. The NDTV crew, Robert and Vinod, flew back from Leh and the result was shown in news. They were great company on the expedition and now they are good friends.
5. I am back in Gurgaon.
6. NDTV showed a ½ hr documentary on both English and Hindi channels, repeated several times.
7. Our timing is a Limca World Record now and a first. This TATA Safari became the first private vehicle to reach the top of Marsimik La.