Mountain Walking

Confessions from a Himalayan Drive to Sach Pass

I was born and I grew up in Shimla. But, my ancestral roots lie deep in the heart of Chamba district in Himachal Pradesh. I have visited our village several times since childhood, and some of my fondest memories are of walking with my grand-father as he recounted stories from three quarters of a century ago when he would walk 50 kilometres just to get to what we call civilisation.

And so, when we started planning our third Mountain Walker road-trip for September-October 2016, Chamba came to the mind immediately, especially since it’s not on the regular tourism map. We set ourselves the goal of exploring some of the better known destinations apart from exploring lesser known places. One destination that wasn’t part of our original route-plan, but crept into our itinerary when we eventually started the trip, was Sach Pass – at an altitude of 4,420 metres (14,500 feet) in the Pir Panjal Range of the Himalayas. Located approximately 125 km from Chamba town, Sach Pass facilitates the shortest route to Killar in Pangi Valley, from where one can drive further ahead to join the Manali – Leh Highway.

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Typical streams seen on high mountain pass roads, flowing onto and across the road; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

For the Chamba trip, right from the very start I was thinking about the route, roads, and vehicle we would take. It’s a remote region and given my reasonably extensive experience driving across remote mountains and high altitude passes, I was weighing the thought of undertaking this journey in personal cars (Swift and Alto 800). I still remember we had struggled with the Swift during one of our trips to Jalori Pass a few years ago. Generally, the roads around a pass are not in great condition. There are small streams of water flowing across a road which itself is rough, full of gravel, stones and slippery mud. A preferred vehicle for such a drive would be a Four-Wheel or Rear-Drive which has a good ground clearance. But having said that, we attempt and do cross these passes in smaller cars. It is a kind of a risk – it looks good when you are successful, even though you return back with a worn out car. And in case you get stuck, then you regret coming in such a small vehicle.

Normally I prefer my Alto 800 over the Swift for drives in the mountains – it performs better, is easy to manoeuvre, and in case something does go wrong with the car, it’s cheaper to get it fixed. The only drawback is that the Alto 800 is not as comfortable as the Swift; but then, when one is driving across high mountain passes, comfort is the least of the concerns. Further, in a car, the enjoyment of the drive is over-shadowed by the effort and concentration required to save the car and return back with minimum damage.

The last information update I received from my sources was that the road to Sach Pass was not that bad and I wouldn’t face any issues taking the Swift up there. So I decided to go with the Swift for the Chamba trip. The information got further corroborated when we reached Chamba and the locals informed us that it would take around 5 hours from main Chamba town to Sach Pass. We picked up some potato chips, chocolates and juice for our journey and left the hotel at around 8:00 a.m. The parking lot was around a km away from the hotel and on reaching there we found out that our car was stuck in the lot. It took half an hour to get the car out and this was a down-time right at the start of our journey – if you are so inclined, such signs can often indicate what lies on the road ahead…

After topping up the fuel tank in Chamba and driving for five odd kilometres, we crossed over the Ravi river onto a single tarmac road. This road was in a pretty good condition, much better than what I had expected. Since we had left the hotel without having breakfast, we started looking for some road side dhaba where we could eat some paranthas. We did find some small shops on the road but as the primary focus was to get to Sach Pass, we continued driving ahead with the hope that we would get something to eat at least in Tissa or Bairagarh which were the two main settlements on our route. If not at these places, I was sure that akin to all other mountain passes, there would be small eateries on Sach Pass itself. What we didn’t realise at the moment was that soon the shops, and then civilisation itself, would start diminishing and our hope to find a good dhaba would change to finding any place where we could get something to eat.

I was very much surprised to see such a good tarmac road here, especially when I thought about the bad condition of the road from Banikhet to Chamba. Apart from stopping every now and then to give way to oncoming buses and trucks, the going was pretty smooth. The second down-time of the day came when two buses were trying to cross each other at a narrow point on this single road. Since there were some big and small vehicles lined up behind each other in either direction, it took almost 30 minutes for the congestion to clear. On these single narrow roads in the mountains, one has to keep the driving hat on all the time and look for good enough places to let the bigger vehicles pass as otherwise small traffic jams form real fast. We crossed Tissa and reached Bairagarh at around 11:40am, from where Sach Pass was a mere 30 odd kilometres away. I calculated that it would take us another two hours at the maximum to reach the Pass, and then we could have lunch there and head back to Chamba. Considering the road conditions so far and the 30 kilometres that were left to go, I was thinking of reaching back to Chamba between 6:00 – 6:30 p.m.

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Stuck in traffic on the narrow single road; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

The condition of the road stared deteriorating as we went ahead of Bairagarh. The tarmac was replaced by stones and mud which were not even flattened properly. I could hear the stones jumping off the tires and hitting the bottom of the car. We slowed down to a speed of 10 kmph and I had to drive mostly in the first and second gear. I was seriously concerned about not causing any damages to the oil sump of the car. The worry kept growing on me and it started to get mentally tiring. I was so busy trying to avoid damaging the car (and getting stuck here in the process) that I couldn’t even enjoy the scenic beauty. At some places, the car would just skid completely and had to be driven up on half clutch. Since we were already at a height of around 4000m, even the power of the car had reduced. And then, the ground clearance was not too much so I had to drive slower. All this meant that I had to sacrifice the momentum needed to climb some of the steep and slippery sections of the road.

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The lush greenery seen towards Chamba Valley; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

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HPPWD personnel carrying out much needed repairs; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

After driving for a distance of around 10 km in an hour, we had to stop as road maintenance work was in progress. This was our third down-time of the day but this was a constructive one as they were trying to make the roads better. The HPPWD (Himachal Pradesh Public Works Department) Junior Engineer (J. E.) incharge of this section of the road was getting the road sections filled up with stones and mud, which were then flattened using a road roller. As soon as the road was cleared, we continued ahead towards Satrundi. We soon came across the typical small streams of water running across the the road and at some places, the road narrowed down a lot, with a steep drop on one side. Since the road was frequented by buses, trucks and pickups, their tires had worn down the road in such a way that a small hump had formed along the middle of the road. This made driving small cars even trickier.

Finally after battling for another half an hour, we reached the check-post at Satrundi.  Security on this road has increased since 1998, when terrorists had attacked and killed 30 odd road workers nearby. On enquiring from one of security personnel about the road conditions till the Pass, we got a smart reply “Yahaan tak aa gaye ho toh aage bhi pahunch jaaoge” (if you can reach here then you can reach the top too). I noticed that ours was the only small car here in the midst of a group of the more popular and preferred tough Mahindra jeeps.

I was surprised to see that the road condition after the Satrundi check-post was far better than earlier – finally I was able to shift to third gear at some places. Although the road was still rough, but the stones and mud had been flattened out which meant that I could drive a bit faster than earlier. We soon reached the series of hairpin bends that had been visible across the face of the mountain for quite some time before Satrundi. In fact, a few kilometres away from Satrundi, we had thought of turning back since the road was taking a bad toll on the car. But after seeing this comparatively better section of the road, we were glad that we didn’t turn back. After almost two hours of driving under full focus and concentration, I was finally able to enjoy the views from up here. The car was vibrating a lot but at slow speed, the chances of damaging the car were less than before.

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The zig-zag hairpin bends going up to Sach Pass, seen across the mountain face a little distance before Satrundi; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

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To and fro across hair-pin bends; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

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Approaching the final stretch to Sach Pass; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

Finally we reached the last stretch towards the pass. The road here was very bad as cold water from the melting glacier next to the road was washing away the flattened sections. There were numerous dips and holes on the road and at some patches it was really narrow with rough edges on the mountain side. Any turn around a corner in the road, combined with the narrowness and the undulations, was good enough to make it a really tricky drive. We were again back to driving carefully in first gear. At last, after almost after 6 hours of driving, out of which almost 3 hours had been spent on the last 30 kilometres, we reached Sach Pass at 2:30 p.m.

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Sach Pass; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

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Travellers offering prayers at the temple atop Sach Pass for a safe journey; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

The first thing I was hoping to find at Sach Pass was just the one small tea stall, where we could have a cup of hot tea and some Maggi to fill our stomach. But there was nothing, except a small temple where commuters stopped to offer their prayers for a safe journey. The sun was bright and hot but due to the cold strong winds, it was very chilly when we got out of the car. The views on both sides of Sach Pass were very beautiful and very different from each other. We could see wide valley and greenery on the Chamba valley side, while on the Pangi valley side there were high mountains and barren land with no vegetation. We soon got back into the car, which was at least 10-12 deg C warmer than outside. Since we’d had only one cup of tea since morning, we gorged on the snacks that we were carrying. After spending around 45 minutes at the top, we started the return journey as I wanted to cross at least Tissa before sunset.

Since I now knew the condition of the road, I was hoping that we would take lesser time driving back to Chamba. I was also hoping that there wouldn’t be any further delays hereon. We waved goodbyes and thanked the security personnel as we crossed the Satrundi check-post. A couple of kilometres ahead, there was a line of vehicles parked near a water stream. The flow in the stream had increased during the day and had damaged a part of the road. Led by the J. E., the HPPWD team were fixing the road. The entire operation took almost an hour to get finished and finally the vehicles started moving. The road has just been covered with fresh mud and stone and it was easy for the bigger vehicles to cross over. By the time we reached the patch, the typical big hump had formed along the middle and it became tricky for our small car. With both the tires on either side of the hump, the bottom of our car flattened the hump as we drove through. As we heard the underbody rubbing against the debris, I was worried that I might damage the oil sump but the J. E. guided us safely through. I was really hoping that this should be the final down-time of the day as otherwise there was a possibility that we would even miss dinner by reaching Chamba too late.

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A long break for road repairs; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

Further down the road, I was driving a bit faster and this proved dangerous. My carelessness and lack of concentration had resulted in a loud sound when the bottom of the car hit a stone lying in the middle of the road. The first thought that came to my mind was that we had damaged the oil sump and now would get stuck here. On inspection of the underbody, we were relieved to see that the oil sump was fine but there was a dent on the chassis, which was not too big a worry. Now I was back to driving slowly as any further negligence and overconfidence could lead to another incident and we might not be as lucky again. I was dying to hit the tarmac road but just a few kilometres before Bairagarh, we came to another stop for road repairs. While we were waiting at this spot, we were given some Halwa to eat and it was like getting water in the desert. Halwa had never felt this tasty in my entire life and this became the one down-time with which I was happy.

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The Halwa down-time; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

We crossed Bairagarh at around 5:40 p.m. and I was happy to get onto tarmac. It was just a single road but after driving on rough roads for almost 5 hours, this was heaven. Now I knew that if we had to reach Chamba in time, we would have to drive faster than what we had done in the morning. Normally I hate driving in the night and make it a point that we reach our night halt well before sunset. I don’t mind driving 10-12 hours continuously in day light but just a couple of hours of night driving with the head light makes me very tired. We sat quietly in the car, listening to some fast music to keep us awake and drove non-stop to Chamba. I was hoping to see some wildlife during our drive but nothing much happened. The drive was very peaceful and enjoyable as this area didn’t have many settlements and we could see only the headlights of our car lighting up the dark roads and mountains around. This was perhaps the most soothing part of the drive in the entire day. The car was making some noises, which appeared to be coming from the front bushings. Apart from these sounds, there was complete silence on the road. Now this car was straight away going for servicing as soon as we would reach Shimla.

We were happy and satisfied with our adventure as we reached Chamba at 8:30 p.m. More than the exploration of the area, today was all about the drive. We did it pretty well in a small car but I still would have preferred to take a stronger vehicle which was more suited for this kind of driving. Out of the 12 hours of our journey, 9 hours were spent on driving time and rest was photography and stops for road works. I really appreciate the effort of the HPPWD to maintain these roads at such high mountain passes. It is a tough and thankless job and they should be praised for what they are doing. Another aspect was that we should have been better prepared and carried some more food stuff with us for the journey. As I lay in bed after dinner, I thought about Pangi Valley on the other side of Sach Pass. We could have driven all the way there but that wouldn’t have been enjoyable. At least with more information now, I can be better prepared for our trip to Pangi valley the next time round.

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The road going across Sach Pass into Pangi Valley; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

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