- About Us
Words by Anand Mohan
Photography: Rohit G Mane
Manali and the towns around it were preparing for winter. The locals were cutting logs for firewood as we drove beyond Aut, and all the way to Bhuntar, the nearest airport to Manali. The roads were lined with the most essential commodity for the upcoming months. Winters in the Himalayas bite harder than the most ferocious of animals. We soldiered on beyond the bustling town to take the hairpin in front of the entry to the soon to be opened Rohtang tunnel. This tunnel will make one of the most treacherous and scenic mountain roads of our country a drive reserved purely for enthusiasts, and I have possibly experienced what that could be like on a day I couldn’t have dreamt of in my wildest dreams.
We drive beyond the last village where there are remnants of the first snowfall of 2017 lining the roads. Then it begins to climb and a few kilometres up ahead, a guard stops us. No one goes up Rohtang in the winters. If you are lucky and get your permits sorted, you could get to Gulaba, a snow view destination for tourists enroute Rohtang pass. We are beyond that point when a guard followed by three barking dogs, warn us of a big bear who had just crawled down the slope. Beyond that point at this time of year, all you could find up these mountain slopes were bears, JCBs clearing the road, and on this particular late December morning, our trusty battle-scarred Tata Hexa.
You’ve probably got to be a little loose in the head to try this. India doesn’t prepare you for winters like the west. We don’t get studded tyres here because most of the places that get buried in snow stay that way for the entirety of the winter. Even winter tyres won’t help you there. We end up making snow chains, usually for smaller cars and SUVs with 16-inch wheels. Our Hexa runs on 19-inch wheels and that means you’ve got to custom-make snow chains for the Hexa. Our first handicap. We decided to give it a pass as we were running short of time. It would mean delaying the drive by a day and the weather was worsening every hour. If we waited, the pass would be shut for good. I had sand ladders, a shovel and tow ropes in the boot so the risk to drive up without snow chains was worth taking.
Another Hexa handicap that we fail to recognise is that it is a soft roader. You can’t fault us though. We’ve given it a beating over the past six months over terrain many wouldn’t dream of taking it through, and it has conquered it beyond expectations. By now, we think it can do absolutely anything, and is definitely more than any other conventional soft roader. That little bit of madness in thought could border overconfidence but it is essential to remove fear. Fear invites failure, and we wanted to find out if we could tame this terrain as well. We made our way past the check post thanks to good friends of evo India, and after that, the stretch of road all the way up to the point where you can’t drive beyond was reserved for us. I was in Rough Road mode by now, making best of the Hexa’s abilities on a trail that demands crawler ratios.
In a more purposeful car, you’d stick the transmission in low ratio mode to drive safely on snow and ice. It feeds steady torque to the wheels and prevents slippage. The second the tyre begins to slip on snow, you’ve lost grip and then the soft snow converts to smooth ice. Driving on snow is the opposite of driving on sand. You need to calm your reactions, slow them down to doing a few basics right. Don’t make any vigorous steering inputs, don’t unbalance the car by accelerating or braking too hard and don’t rev too high. As long as you keep revs to a minimum to maintain momentum and manage to keep the car on its intended path, you will be fine. The Hexa’s Rough Road mode somehow manages to strike the right balance to encounter different terrains. In the snow, it doesn’t feel out of place, offers good grip and just by using a higher gear and light dabs at the throttle, driving over a foot of snow was not worrying me. I was sceptical initially, as I have been in the past when we had put the Hexa through some strenuous tests, but the confidence this car gives you in such adverse conditions is what you need when you live a life of adventure. It’s one tough car.
The plastic cladding near the bumpers and door sills ensure the paint isn’t getting damaged if I hit hard blocks of ice or hidden stones. I could bash through the soft layer of snow without worrying much because we had good under-body protection too. The only thing to worry about was the narrow road. The Rohtang road is a single lane in many parts, and if you have memories of driving this road on a clear day without the snow, you will know there are steep falls near the edge of the road. The JCB that clears the road in winter pushes some of the snow to a bank on the side. You could mistake it for hard land under it and if you get a tyre on it, the chances of toppling over are high. Reading the terrain is very important. I would only get closer to the edge if I could see a barricade or a stone wall beyond the snow bank, just to stay safe.
Rohtang has built a reputation for itself over the years. It’s the starting point of the Manali-Leh highway and what it basically did was, it gave you a crash course on the challenge the Himalayas had in store for you. By the time you had gotten across the pass and down the other side, you were a different man/woman from what you thought you were. The pass changed lives, pushed you to find your gut and courage faster than you knew. The road used to be narrow and slushy and one small mistake meant more food for the bears. It has become less treacherous now. Over the years, smooth tarmac to the top and tougher vehicles have made Rohtang a lesser challenge than before. The Manali-Leh highway has become touristy. It’s even possible to get to Leh in a day now.
The Rohtang challenge is not a thing anymore, at least when the weather is good. Once the tunnel is complete, this road won’t have any prominence. It will be the enthusiast’s route that will hopefully be cared for enough just to welcome you the right way for an entry to the Manali-Leh highway. It will never feel like this December day though, when you will have the climb up to Rohtang all to yourself, with the time and luxury to get out of the car and enjoy the incredibly beautiful Himalayas powdered from head to toe with snow. It’s a surreal feeling, to park your car at a hairpin for a few pictures, bash through a foot or more of snow just because you and your car can, and spend a day on a road that usually doesn’t permit a casual drive.
I know I’m lucky and I’m glad the Hexa is capable enough to not just drive up this road in the snow but do it nonchalantly. Sitting in the middle of nature’s love and fury while your steed’s got your back makes for a memory that should last a lifetime.