ABC of off-roading part 6 : driving across mountain passes

In part 6 of our ABC of off-roading series, we take the Maruti Suzuki Jimny to the majestic Himalayas to show you how to safely tackle mountain passes
In the winters, Wari
La gets fully covered with snow and our Jimny conquers it comfortably
In the winters, Wari La gets fully covered with snow and our Jimny conquers it comfortablyTeam evo India

Known as the 'roof of the world', the Himalayas not only serve as formidable guardians shielding us from our exuberant neighbours, but they also boast some of the most awe-inspiring trails and terrain not just in India but the world. The allure of traversing the Himalayas on a road trip is a dream shared by almost every enthusiast and that’s a huge part of the appeal of buying a go-anywhere, do-anything 4x4 like the Jimny. Driving in the mountains is very different from the plains, the highways and of course the city. That’s what we will be dealing with in this tutorial but first you need to prepare yourself.

Prepping for the Himalayas

All the basics needed for a stress free drive in the mountains — Mobile phone, thermos, first-aid kit, radio, lighter, head-torch and a power bank
All the basics needed for a stress free drive in the mountains — Mobile phone, thermos, first-aid kit, radio, lighter, head-torch and a power bankTeam evo India

Before hitting the mountains, a crucial first step is ensuring you’re armed with more than just enthusiasm. Trust me, you will want to be well-prepared for any curveball the Himalayas might throw your way. First, make sure to carry a map, physical is ideal, however if you rely on Google Maps, ensure you download offline maps of the region you are planning to drive on. The mobile network in the mountains is inconsistent at best. Also, prepaid SIM cards from other states will not work in Ladakh, so get yourself a post-paid connection. Oh, before I forget. Layer up. Don’t just carry one heavy jacket but dress in layers so you can peel on and off depending on the weather. And lather yourself in sunscreen and wear a good pair of sunglasses.

Altitude and the weather

Beware, the Jimny’s boot easily swallowed all our essential gear like snow chains, sand-boards, oxygen tank and tow-ropes
Beware, the Jimny’s boot easily swallowed all our essential gear like snow chains, sand-boards, oxygen tank and tow-ropesTeam evo India

Waking up in Leh and getting ready is an occasion in itself. Layering up is so important in extreme weather conditions that we can’t stress on it enough. That’s when you are out of the Jimny, of course. In the Jimny with the heater blowing warm air to comfort me, Wari La is keyed into maps and I’m on my way. At 17,428 feet, Wari La is the 13th highest pass in the world. It’s about two hours away from Leh and is the gateway to the spectacular Nubra Valley. It’s also a reflection of just how close you are to an adventure of a lifetime from Leh, the mountains and epic memories are but an hour away. Also, the temperatures drop like a stone. At this time of the year minus 20 degrees is to be expected and that’s precisely why proper preparation before the drive is key. This desolate landscape has rocky, Mars-rivalling, trails and snow-clad ascents that need all the skills you have learned in previous episodes of this series.

Conquering these passes in 2WD mode is manageable in the summer, but in winter, 4WD is mandatory. We know that the Jimny is equipped with four-wheel-drive, but its ability to switch between 2WD and 4-High on the go, in case things suddenly become tricky, is a really convenient feature. Just make sure the wheels are pointed straight and slide the 4x4 lever back to engage 4-H. As for 4-Low, you will need to come to a stop, stick it in neutral and then push the lever all the way back to use the low ratio transfer case. While the BRO has done an incredible job of laying butter smooth tarmac on almost all these passes, and tries to keep it in pristine condition throughout the year, you just can’t predict what lies around the corner. Landslides and formation of black ice is a potential risk and very common, so you’ve got to be really careful.

Next load up on snacks. You need to replenish the energy that quickly drains away in the mountains, and chocolates and nuts are great for that. Carry lots of water. You get dehydrated very quickly in the mountains and you don’t even realise it, so just ensure you drink a bottle of water every 2-3 hours to stay hydrated and keep those headaches at bay. Ah, the headaches. There’s no alternative to acclimatisation. Take it easy. If you are flying into Leh spend two easy days before climbing up. Walk slowly. Take everything easy and slowly get used to the lack of oxygen and altitude. Your body will take time to get used to the mountains and the more time you give it acclimatise the better for you.

A first-aid kit with crucial medications (especially disprin to keep those headaches at bay), extra fuel, emergency lighting, and a trusty lighter are non-negotiables. On the off-road kit front it’s important to carry high quality tow straps with shackles and an air compressor. At this time of the year it is also important to include snow chains. And for good measure, carry a set of sand ladders, a basic tool-kit and a tyre repair kit. Trust me, in the Himalayas, your preparedness can be the difference between an adventure and an ordeal. You won’t be the only one gasping for breath

With temperature, the oxygen level in the air also starts to plummet, the higher up you go on a pass. And you won’t be the only one feeling the lack of oxygen. Internal combustion engines suffer a significant power loss at high altitudes, but with a bit of finesse, you can overcome this. Stick to the lower gears, and keep the revs high. Downshift when you need a bit more power and try to avoid slipping the clutch. Lugging the engine is harmful for the pistons and the cylinders over the long run, but also, when you are on the move, the higher are your chances of stalling on a steep climb. And when you stall, you might be required to rev the engine a lot more to get going, and that will take a toll on your clutch.

Maruti Suzuki’s are extensively tested in the Himalayas so I wasn’t worried about the Jimny letting me down. And this is where another important aspect of the Jimny shines through and that is the size. As mentioned, the trails are narrow, but the narrow footprint ensures you can pick a line through trails and place the tyres where you can get maximum traction. You can also squeeze in between the sheer cliff face and an Army truck – no need to reverse down the slope. It reduces the stress of driving in the mountains, especially on the blind corners up in the passes.

The climb up to Wari La has over a 100 corners, and the Jimny also gets hill-descent control to tackle those steep declines
The climb up to Wari La has over a 100 corners, and the Jimny also gets hill-descent control to tackle those steep declinesTeam evo India

Driving in the mountains you will notice the locals take a wide line through corners – that is to get maximum visibility and you are well advised to follow their lines. Toot the horn before the corner to alert oncoming traffic, if you are encountering blind turns.

On descents, smooth and calculated inputs are crucial. Trust in engine braking to decelerate rather than relying solely on the brakes. While the ABS system prevents lock-ups, be mindful that on gravel or icy surfaces, it may extend the stopping distance.

When you’ve finally reached the summit of the pass, relish the breathtaking views, but exercise caution not to linger for more than 15 minutes. Prolonged exposure at high altitudes increases the risk of mountain sickness due to the decreased oxygen levels and can turn out to be fatal, so balance adventure with prudence.

Trail rated

Black- ice build up on the roads is very common in the Himalayas and to tackle these terrains, you use snow-chains
Black- ice build up on the roads is very common in the Himalayas and to tackle these terrains, you use snow-chainsTeam evo India

The ascent to Wari La was a walk in the park for the Jimny. I took the shorter, and equally scenic trail back to keep things interesting. Driving these trails is easy, but here’s what you need to keep in mind — when you are driving uphill, you can use power as your ally, but downhill, it’s all about staying cautious. Speed is your enemy here as the surface is full of big, sharp rocks and in the winter, the cold rocks feel sharper and can cut through rubber easily. They can also pose a serious threat to the vehicle’s underbody and suspension. The fundamentals though, remain the same. Keep the vehicle in 4-H, pick your line carefully and resist the urge to channel your inner Hari Singh. The suspension of the Jimny is beautifully compliant and there was a strong temptation to pick up the pace, but I err on the side of caution to prevent any unforeseen situations.

On a steep decline it’s better to get out and assess the situation. Walk the trail, but be careful, not to hurt your feet because of the millions of thorns and pointy shrubs present here. Ask a friend to spot you and use 4L and first gear on the very steep bits with hill descent control on. More gradual slopes can be done in second. Leave your foot off the brakes, and let the SUV do its thing. Downhill in 4x4s is the most fun you can have without putting much effort if you do the basics right. All you need to do is steer and use the rest of your time to soak in the stunning views.

Driving in the Himalayas is a sensory overload. The conditions up here demand all your driving skills, and then some. You’re treated to, no pun intended, breath taking views, but in the end it’s all worth it, because this is arguably the pinnacle of road tripping in India. The drive up to any pass up here doesn’t feel like ‘just a feat’; it’s akin to earning a badge of honour that you’ll proudly carry with you for the rest of your life

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