High Alto-tude escape

Driving up to the world’s highest motorable pass takes nerves of steel. But what does it take to ascend eight of them in 24 hours? We head to Ladakh to find out
Mountain GOAT - 8 passes in 24 hours
Mountain GOAT - 8 passes in 24 hoursPhotography by Rohit Mane

Humans are capable of incredible feats. We have climbed the highest peaks, crossed the widest oceans, braved the desert sun and survived the frigid Arctic. One such incredible human is Nirmal Purja, who scaled 14 of the world’s highest peaks in a record seven months. This made us wonder, what would be the automotive equivalent of such a feat?

 Now we certainly don’t put ourselves in the same league as the super-humans who have scaled the Himalayas, but at evo India, we like to push the envelope. And so we set ourselves a challenge – scaling eight of the highest passes in Ladakh in 24 hours. An epic adventure fit for the second season of the Mountain G.O.A.T. We do some pretty crazy stuff but this would be the craziest we’ve ever attempted. Which means we need something super-dependable. Something that doesn’t fear the mountains. Something that can take insane abuse. Something that will not stop no matter what the conditions up the passes are. Something that will keep going even when us humans are shivering, out of breath and nursing mega headaches. Something that has the mountain gods on its side; after all even if we brought along the best that money could buy – hell, even if we brought a tank – the mountain gods have the power to stop us in our tracks. We needed to get into the Ladakhi mindset for this journey. And what do the locals trust? The Maruti Suzuki Alto.

Car sorted, here’s our grand plan. We start at the highest motorable pass in the world, Umling La. Then we head to Photi La, Kaksang La and Tanglang La. The weather and road conditions would make it too risky to drive at night, so we pause the clock at our night halt. The next day, we hit Wari La, Chang La, Marsimik La, and finally Khardung La. On paper, it seems fairly straightforward but in reality, a feat like this requires equal amounts of luck and planning.

Our journey began in Leh, where the crew and I spent a couple of days acclimatising to the high altitude. Out there, the Alto is a way of life. To find out why, I ventured into the Leh market and accosted unsuspecting locals. Part of the reason I did this was to get reassurances from the locals who live and breathe in the Himalayas that our incredible feat was indeed doable. And I found them by the boatload. Every single person I asked told me that if any vehicle could do it, it would be the Alto. Their only piece of advice was, “Be careful when it snows, otherwise, the passes are no problem”. And, of course, snow was forecast for both days of our journey.

We sourced a set of snow chains, hoping to never have to use them, and set off towards Hanle, the staging point for the climb to Umling La, home to India’s highest observatory, and a gradual step up from Leh to help us acclimatise further. We arrived in Hanle after sunset and at first it looked like an abandoned village. There are no street lights and every home has thick curtains to keep the cold out and the light in – this is a dark sky sanctuary and all forms of light pollution are cut out to create the perfect environment for stargazers to admire the universe in all its glory.

Maruti Suzuki Alto at Umling La
Maruti Suzuki Alto at Umling LaPhotography by Rohit Mane

Umling La:19,024 feet

We planned on spending the evening stargazing and then getting some rest before heading to Umling La early the next day but the mountain gods had other plans. The altitude and minus 12°C temperatures were already playing havoc on our bodies. The first victim was our videographer Aditya; at five in the morning, his oxygen level dropped to 40, a dangerously low mark meaning it would be unsafe to take him up to Umling La. We made the tough decision to push on, leaving our chief videographer behind.

 For most, just scaling the 19,024 feet to the top of Umling La is an adventure of a lifetime but for us, it was just the beginning of an incredible journey. Thanks to the wonderful job the BRO has done on the roads, driving up there was fairly uneventful except for one frozen stream that crosses the road. The temperature at the top was a mind-numbing minus 17°C, making it impossible to spend more than a few minutes outside the warm interiors of the Alto.

 Within five minutes of being at the top, I had a throbbing headache; ten minutes in, the lack of oxygen was making me nauseous. Video clips and pictures out of the way, I set off downhill, slowing down only for the aforementioned frozen stream. The clock was ticking and we had no time to spare. With each passing kilometre, it became easier to breathe but the effects of high altitude were not easing up.

Photi La is 30 kilometres away from the Umling La
Photi La is 30 kilometres away from the Umling LaPhotography by Rohit Mane

Photi La: 18,124 feet

 The next pass was a short 30 kilometres away from the gateway to Umling La. The way up to Photi La was a far cry from the freshly paved tarmac at Umling La. Broken roads, numerous hairpins, steep ascents and sharp drops – it was one of the most treacherous drives of the journey. To make matters worse, the climb was making my heart race, which had me struggling for breath once again. At close to breaking point, a familiar sight gave me hope – an Alto coming from the other direction. I thought to myself, “If he can do it, so can I.”

 I might have been far from my comfort zone but the Alto K10 was right in its element. While even the 800cc Alto would be adequate for the steep climbs – as evidenced by droves of them running around in Ladakh – I was glad I had the additional power of the 1-litre K10. I could maintain a reasonably quick pace which would prove crucial in the latter stages of our journey. Its fuss-free character was also having a positive effect on my physical state. I attacked the hairpins with renewed enthusiasm, doing my best impression of 10-time Raid-de-Himalaya winner Suresh Rana to maintain momentum while the engine was thrumming away in second gear – working hard but not complaining.

The weather at Photi La was significantly better, despite there being a light dusting of snow at the top. I had learnt my lesson, so I spent less than ten minutes at the top but the drive down wasn’t going to be particularly swift as snow had blanketed much of the stretch. As it was my first time driving on snow, I took it particularly easy. Once again, the Alto surprised me with how much grip it could generate with its 145-section 12-inch tyres. Before I knew it, we were back on level ground, and I was feeling much better than I did after Umling La. Photi La is a shortcut to Hanle, which allows us to swoop back to quickly pick up Aditya and head back on the road to our next pass.

Maruti Suzuki Alto passes through a beautiful road leading to Kaksang La
Maruti Suzuki Alto passes through a beautiful road leading to Kaksang LaPhotography by Rohit Mane

Kaksang La: 17,851 feet

Three hours in, we had only covered two passes, and we still had a three-hour drive to get to our next pass, Kaksang La. For the stretch between Hanle and Mahe, I handed over the reins of the Alto to my colleague Rohin, took to the passenger seat and passed out. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and the high-altitude passes, not to mention the cold, puts a tremendous strain on the human body. The car though… it wasn’t even breaking into the proverbial sweat. Despite being one of the most affordable cars in India, the Alto K10 is no bargain basement econobox. Rohin hooks up his phone to the Smartplay studio system, with smartphone navigation, via Android Auto, fires up Google Maps when we get network near Nyoma, and I drift into dreamland hoping to recover from the nauseating altitude sickness.

The road from Nyoma to Mahe and onwards to Leh is probably one of the best driving roads anywhere in the country – smooth and flowing, with the Indus river by the side of the road for company. The Alto ate up the magnificent tarmac, you’d be surprised by how it handles mountain roads and by lunchtime we were at Mahe. The nap had me reinvigorated and a piping hot plate of rajma chawal later I took the ’wheel and pointed the Alto towards Kaksang La. Now this isn’t on most travellers’ radar but it’s an absolute stunner, taking us past two frozen lakes as the road winds its way up the mountains. It goes to show that sometimes the most breathtaking views are found off the beaten path.

Although Kaksang La was ‘just’ 17,851 feet high, my altitude sickness returned with a vengeance. This time, however, I was determined not to let it get the best of me. Once again, we found a fair bit of snow at the top. This time, however, our route required us to trace our steps back to Mahe, which meant we avoided the worst of it. Onwards to the next one.

Maruti Suzuki at Tanglang La-17,482 feet
Maruti Suzuki at Tanglang La-17,482 feetPhotography by Rohit Mane

Tanglang La:17,482 feet

After a gruelling eight hours on the road, everyone on the crew was utterly exhausted. Nevertheless, we were on schedule and heading towards our final pass of the day, Tanglang La. At 17,482 feet, it was the least challenging pass of our day so far, except to my fatigued mind, it seemed like the most arduous.

Thankfully, apart from the throbbing headache, I had no other aches or pains after spending the entire day in the Alto. The driving position was just right and gave me a good view out, which is crucial when looking for black ice on the road. The real MVP, however, was the heater. I was severely underprepared for the minus 17°C temperatures in terms of clothing, and I think the heater was the only thing standing between me and hypothermia.

The sun had nearly set when we began our ascent, which meant we weren’t able to enjoy the stunning vistas Tanglang La is known for. Still, we had a record to set and were racing up the pass when, once again, we spotted snow in the distance. I wasn’t about to take any chances in the dark, so once again, our pace dropped significantly. Nearly ten hours into our journey, we had made it to the top of Tanglang La but we weren’t done yet. Our clock would pause only when we made it to our night halt at the small town of Karu. Thus began the scariest drive of my life – downhill, in the dark, in icy conditions, while nursing a renewed bout of altitude sickness. The Alto’s headlights led the way and I followed gingerly, being as smooth as possible with my inputs and relying on engine braking rather than the brakes. In case the car started to slide on ice, my best bet would be to aim for the side of the mountain and avoid the sheer drops on the other side. It never came to that – the mountain gods took mercy on us – and the snow dissipated halfway down. Eleven excruciatingly long hours after we set off from Umling La, we were finally at our night half of Karu. Time for some much-needed rest – big day tomorrow!

Alto on the way to Wari La
Alto on the way to Wari LaPhotography by Rohit Mane

Wari La: 17,429 feet

On day two, we had four passes to cover in just 13 short hours – a big ask for our utterly exhausted crew. Miraculously though, I woke up feeling better than ever. The headache had disappeared and I felt a renewed sense of enthusiasm. We hopped into the Alto and set off towards Wari La just before sunrise. The winding pass takes you from 11,500 feet at Karu to a lofty 17,429 feet in a short yet hair-raising 45-minute drive.

The sun began to peek over the mountains as we began climbing, revealing some gorgeous views. The snow-clad peaks on the horizon seemed infinite in number. Snowfall through the night had made the drive challenging but I was getting the hang of things. The narrow pass is a hot favourite amongst bikers but no one would dare go up there on a motorcycle in minus 15°C temperatures (or maybe they do, bikers are crazy!).

We even took a couple of cheeky off-road short cuts, which the Alto dealt with beautifully. The key enabler here is the Alto’s low weight, which allows it to simply skip over rough patches. The narrow footprint also gives you more freedom when it comes to picking the right line through the rough stuff and the 160mm of ground clearance means it doesn’t touch anywhere. All the while, the suspension soaks up bumps with a deftness that belies its class.

At the top, we were greeted with more snow than we had seen the previous day. Enough to start a snowball fight but alas, the clock was ticking and we had three more passes to go. On the way down, it dawned on me that I hadn’t felt the effects of altitude at all. The much-awaited acclimatisation had finally kicked in. We wasted no time in making our way back down Wari La and onwards to Chang La.

Maruti Suzuki Alto at Chang La-17,688 feet
Maruti Suzuki Alto at Chang La-17,688 feetPhotography by Rohit Mane

Chang La: 17,688 feet

In under two hours, we were back in Karu, heading towards Chang La. Being that this pass is the fastest route to Durbuk and beyond, it had the most traffic of all the passes we had travelled to thus far. Thankfully, much of the road leading up to Chang La is smooth, two-laned tarmac, which enabled us to pass slow-moving traffic with ease. And the Alto, with its torquey motor and low gearing, just powered past smoky, lumbering MUVs that dominate these parts. I’d been told to watch out for the engines losing power in the high altitude regions but the Alto seemed hardly affected by it all.

As we got closer to the top, conditions worsened and the road got significantly narrower. Admirably, truckers in this region do pull over and let you pass at the first possible opportunity. The Alto and I didn’t need much of an invitation to squeeze through a gap and continue the ascent.

At the top, we stepped out of the Alto to pay our respects at the Chang La Baba Temple. Here we had a decision to make: continue down to Durbuk and on to Marsimik La – which may or may not be open to the public – or drive back down to Karu and on to Khardung La to end our journey. We were just two and a half hours into day two – well ahead of schedule – but a trip to Marsimik La would add around six hours to our day. Be that as it may, the lack of altitude sickness had the whole team raring to go. Marsimik La or bust!

The other side of Chang La, down to Durbuk, is a far cry from the way up. Narrow, bumpy and littered with rocks. Around every corner was evidence of a recent landslide that had been cleared by the Army or BRO. Look up at the mountains, and it’s easy to spot rocks perched precariously, waiting for the slightest movement to come tumbling down. I gave Rohin the false consolation that landslides only happened at night and pushed on.

Maruti Suzuki Alto at Marsimik La-18,314 feet
Maruti Suzuki Alto at Marsimik La-18,314 feetPhotography by Rohit Mane

Marsimik La: 18,314 feet

We braved the challenges of Chang La and made it to Durbuk, and we were rewarded with some incredible driving roads that took us all the way to the Pangong Tso lake. The freshly laid two lanes of tarmac flow through the valley with practically nothing obstructing your view ahead. You can take the racing line through every single corner safe in the knowledge that the road ahead is absolutely clear.

In my experience, well-driven Altos are some of the fastest vehicles around Ladakh. This was confirmed by my colleagues who have been here in some exotic machinery, and yet, they say, an Alto is hard to shake in the twisties around Ladakh. This time around, though, we had the Alto, and we were passing bigger cars like it was nothing. Before I knew it, Pangong Tso – one of the highest saltwater lakes in the world – came into view. We had no time to admire its crystal-clear waters, though; we had to keep our focus on the record.

Before Umling La rose to fame, Marsimik La was the highest motorable pass in the world at 18,314 feet. The drive to the top, however, is very gradual, which makes you forget how high you really are. Just a few kilometres short of Marsimik La Top is a checkpost set up by the Indian Army. Civilians are not allowed any further as the top of the pass is under observation by the Chinese. Now we could have turned around and continued to Khardung La; after all, we were almost at the top. But almost is never enough. After much persuasion, we were granted special permission to take the Alto to Marsimik La Top – a place where no civilians had been for quite a while. Our neighbours to the east must have been wondering why this bright red car was up there. Because the evo India boys don’t give up, that’s why!

Maruti Suzuki Alto at Khardung La-17,982 feet
Maruti Suzuki Alto at Khardung La-17,982 feet

Khardung La: 17,982 feet

 In all the excitement, we had spent more time at 18,000 feet than we should have. The altitude sickness was slowly rearing its ugly head once again. We were unable to get confirmation if a slightly shorter route to Khardung La via Agham was open. The probability of making it to Agham and being turned away was too high, so we chose to backtrack via Chang La. We had seven hours left on the clock and a seven-hour drive ahead of us to Khardung La. Talk about cutting it close!

The skies above Chang La looked significantly darker on the way back but with some luck, we made it to the other side before it started snowing. At sunset, our phones started to ping; this was the sign that Karu was near. With this came the news that snow was falling at Khardung La, and if we didn’t hurry, the pass would either be closed or impossible to climb. The race was on. Being off-season, the roads around Leh were sparsely trafficked, meaning we were clearing densely populated areas with ease. We made our way past the downed shutters near Leh market and began our climb up the legendary Khardung La. This is usually one of the most popular passes in the region but you wouldn’t know this if you were there that evening. The road up was in absolute shambles; you could call it an endless construction site but I chose to call it a rally stage.

 For the 35 odd kilometres to the top, we pushed the Alto to its limit, zinging all the way to redline on the straights and cornering as hard as I dared. Not once did the Alto feel out of its depth. Ten kilometres before the finish line, tiny specks of snow began to hit the windscreen. With each passing minute, it intensified until our pace slowed to a crawl.

I stopped looking at the watch and had my eyes glued to the road. “To finish first, first you must finish,” as the saying goes. It was becoming increasingly hard to see, and both Rohin and I were leaning forward in our seats when it came into view. Shining bright yellow in pitch darkness, the Khardung La board; we had made it! The joy was such that it took me a couple of minutes to check my watch. We made it with ten minutes to spare. We had done it – eight of the highest passes in the world in 24 amazing hours.

The temperature was around minus 15°C when I stepped outside and felt the snow hit my face for the first time ever. I took off my gloves because they were instantly soaked and surprisingly, I wasn’t cold any more. The rush of this experience seemed to have warmed my soul.

 In the end, through all the ups and downs, literally and figuratively, the only constant on this entire journey was the Alto. Every single person on our crew, including the locals, was hit by altitude sickness, not to mention fatigue, but the Alto just chugged along like it was born to do this. This is exactly the reason the locals swear by the Alto. Out there, there’s just no substitute. In all honesty, this journey was by far one of the toughest things our team has ever done. Himalayan mountaineers are still a league apart but in the automotive realm, we can proudly call ourselves the ultimate Mountain G.O.A.T.s.

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