At this time of the year, you’ll only spot snow leopards and foxes in the Spiti Valley. So a group of ten Royal Enfield Himalayans with snow chains on their tyres is the last thing you’d expect!
An insane idea turned into reality in 2018 and blessed with sparse snowfall and freezing temperatures, gave birth to the Whiteout. Version 1.0 was well executed and an eye opener to what mobility a pair of chains can give a motorcycle on a snow covered landscape. Version 2.0 was a given. However, as it rolled out it would be everything except what we had planned. Also it would not be the normal participants that would be hosted in sub zero temperatures this year. Owners, v-loggers and celebrities would give way to a phalanx of army personnel, Royal Enfield adventure innovator, Sachin Chavan and his young team of enthusiastic riders, and of course a few lunatics culled from the infamous rallying club – Himalayan Motorsport. Xplorearth, the extreme adventure company, would put together the routes, food, drink and backup, which would all be thrown to the icy winds by mother nature who had other plans for us.
Spiti has become more popular in the winters than probably at any other time of the year. White Spiti, the Snow Leopard Drive, the Winter Expedition, Spiti – all possible monikers are attached to the 4x4 adventures that foray into the “Middle Land”. This one was different. There were no steel and glass bodies surrounding humans, no heaters bringing up temperatures to a bearable 26 degrees Celsius when the outside read minus 15, and no 4x4. Nothing, except a ton of base layers below the protective jackets and full face, albeit open helmets, a pair of gloves snuggling inside wind protective hand covers. There was one luxury and one only. Heated grips that kept the hands toasty even when the melting snow drenched the gloves!
Yes, our journey into the land of the snow leopard was not with heated 4x4s but on motorcycles – the RE Himalayan being the steed of choice!
Royal Enfield began its attack on the snow several years ago. Three Bullets, equipped with snow chains imported from Japan, pitted their might against a horribly blocked road from Narkanda to Baghi. Battling for 14 hours against deep snow and cold, the attempt was successful, albeit only just.
The Whiteout Version 2.0 was officially flagged off from Koti Resorts, Mashobra, in a howling gale that threatened to rip off the tarps from the trailer being towed behind the backup Isuzu 4X4. The weather goddesses, we don’t have gods controlling any crucial stuff in Himachal, ensured the riders were lashed by pouring rain from Shimla to Tapri, the fuel halt just short of Kalpa. At Taranda Dhak the downpour was so bad that the riders were forced to ride through waterfalls that poured on them from high above. The climb up to Kalpa turned from rain drenched to snow dusted, and finally into an icy road that led into our hotel for the night – The Grand Shambala. The snow falling gently outside had begun adding to the 2ft on the ground and though the sight looked wondrous, it would be the start of changes that would haunt the itinerary for the entire week.
News came in from the ASC unit of the Indian Army at Karcham that the road to Pooh was blocked at Tinku Nala and further at Malling. No vehicles were plying towards Tabo which was experiencing a whiteout and Kaza was blocked solid with heavy snow. Landslides were rife and in a tragic show of nature’s fury six soldiers were caught in an avalanche, while on patrol. It did not look good at all. The next days ride to Tabo was looking increasingly impossible. Plan B was dragged out of the closet. We would do a training exercise above Kalpa on the snow laden road to Kashang. Chains would be fitted to the bikes and a dash through deep snow was in order. The climb up to Pangi village was uneventful but once the snow road started, the fight was on. It took 4 hours to cover as many kilometres as the riders fitted chains and then got used to the grip and slide that turned their tame motorcycles into bucking broncos! Climbing the ‘kandas’ (high altitude meadows) of Kinnaur was an exhilarating experience and the entire team returned to Kalpa, totally exhausted, but triumphant!
More bad news awaited. A huge avalanche had blocked Tinku Nala for at least two days and we were now forced to abandon the idea of going to Kaza and Tabo as the snow had piled up, cutting off roads, electricity and even access to the water springs that keep Spiti alive throughout the winter.
A few calls were made and the amazing news came in that a bulldozer had carved out a path from Sangla to a few bends before Chitkul. Over four feet of snow had piled up and a ribbon was now snaking through, looking more like a luge track than a road. The snow chasers had struck paydirt. Sangla to Rakchham was the new Spiti. Chained up at Rakchham, the motos and riders headed into the compressed ice, a foot deep, that formed the road. The ITBP at Mastrang Post were gobsmacked when they saw the first Himalayan brake to a halt outside their picket. They expected shepherds, locals, their supply trucks, even a visit from the local ‘churail’ (witch) haunting the woods on a snowy night, but ten motorcycles – never!
The day was spent in the crisp, cold, rarefied air above the Baspa river. The training was yielding results. More efficient techniques were developing. Riding the snow is a constant ballet. Sitting, standing, paddling and then careening over, lifting the bike then starting again. We learnt to ride wearing cleats on our boots so that each dab of the foot on the ice got some traction at least! It was the most intense cardio of this year, yet. Today, four hours saw us cover 12km in the snow. We had tripled our achievement in the same time as the day before! On our return to Rakchham we were besieged by locals to share a cup of tea. Many came out of their houses to see the latest consignment of lunatics to visit their winter wonderland. Reluctantly we set compass for Kalpa and returned, just as the sun hit the Kinner Kailash in a final blaze of glory.
We burned the telephone lines for the next few hours and learned that another jewel was awaiting us. The Baghi Road near Narkanda, an epic snow cross route, had been partially opened. Bringing back memories of another year, Sachin was really keen to traverse this Level 3 route. The bikes were out early, the chains eagerly biting into the frozen tracks. Two kilometres took just 15 minutes today, the team adjusting their riding to the terrain.
In the meantime the attack on the uncleared part of the road to Baghi, starting at Sidhpur, was mounted with much hope and bravado. The snow struck back and the leading bike could hardly make 500 metres before the chains excavated the deep snow leaving the bike solidly embedded in snow upto its bash plate. The ensuing rescue of six machines lasted three hours. Do not ever underestimate nature, especially the mountains, was the lesson learnt. Weary, wasted and relieved, we returned to the warmth of the Tethys Ski Resort, Narkanda. A bonfire warmed us and the accompanying rum made our stories of conquest even more unbelievable. The day had gone well. Someone’s eye caught the skis decorating the wall. I suggested we take a day off from motorcycling and ski instead. The essential training parameters would be the same – balance, speed and the wind rushing in your face.
The old Gujjar graveyard doubles up as a ski slope in the winter months. Local ski champ and motorcycle tour operator Kamal Sharma showed the novices how to get it right. The absence of a brake pedal was felt by many and ABS sorely missed. The return to the slopes of my youth was exhilarating. The turns and muscle memory soon became friends. The stops instinctive. We had a blast and returned, walking, in falling snow.
This was no holiday trip. It was training for what would later be one of the most brutal expeditions ever attempted in the Indian Himalayas. But that will be another story, told later.