Above the sky, is the limit | XUV400 to Sandakphu
This is a story of heartbreak, so grab a strong glass of scotch, put your reading lights on and cosy up. We are in the business of telling stories after all, and not all end the same. They often start on a happy note though. Let me take you to the streets of Darjeeling. Siliguri is two and half hours behind me as I navigate through the hill's lanes, criss-crossing the toy train line on our way to the hotel. Formally known as the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, it's barely ever seen. It’s so slow, you wouldn’t want to get on it unless time isn’t money to you. But it does look cool in an archaic way, clinging on to history when the world has moved on a long time ago. The hill station is in many ways similar to that train. The cars are relatively old, the registration series shows how few cars wedded to the town, and the eyeline is covered in hanging electricity cables that have their place in the Nineties. Nonchalantly cruising up the slopes without a puff of smoke or the violence of pistons, the XUV400 feels like a modern-day visionary. A scientist trying to sell the cure for cancer to a town that’s yet to find a modern way to treat the common cold.
A sharp hairpin turn to the left takes me to the serrated road leading to the front porch of The Dekeling resort, a 105 year-old property that would be the base of our Sandakphu adventure. Our charging partners Lion Charge have just set up Darjeeling’s first electric vehicle charger in this hotel – the first of many firsts in this story! – and the charger’s first ever charge would go to the pearl white XUV400 you see in this page. This was no ordinary charge. The electricity pulsing through the cables would back us up on some seriously treacherous terrain over the next few days. If all horsepower isn’t equal, as we often say of flat-sixes and V12s, all kilowatts aren’t equal either. And God knows we needed something special to send us up the Sandakphu trail.
Every summit has a base, and Maneybhanjang, at 6,325 feet above sea level, is arguably the most storied of them all. The village is all of 500 tiny houses and was famously known as the Land of Land Rovers. Before the town was known to outsiders, Series 1 Landies acquired over years by the villagers used to ferry people, material and the occasional tourist to the top of Sandakphu. The plucky little SUVs had massive presence, rugged 4x4 hardware and a small footprint, ideal for the tricky trail that went up to the summit. Except you look under the hood and most of these Landies are running Mahindra diesel engines. In fact the proliferation of Mahindras in this part has been so quick that this has now become the Land of Mahindras with the Pik-Up, Camper and Bolero serving as the backbone of this region, making life easier for the hamlets along the way, and taking tourists to what is the only place on earth where you can see four of the highest peaks in the world – Everest, Lhotse, Kanchenjunga and Makalu.
While everyone up here is used to seeing the Mahindra badge, the XUV400 is gawked at as an alien from a galaxy far, far away. Electricity is a luxury in Maneybhanjang, but just 30km away in Darjeeling, juicing up the XUV400 is now possible. So the XUV400 had over 300km of range on a full charge, a number recalculated after plenty of driving in the mountains. On paper, the number is 456km, but as you climb steep slopes in any electric car, the batteries drain faster. It’s normal, don’t freak out. You also burn dinosaur juice at an alarming rate with rapid change in altitude.
Prepping for the climb
Don’t pack your bags, charge your car and head to Maneybhanjang for your Sandakphu adventure. You won’t make it through the gates. The drive requires a lot of permissions from the local taxi unions, the police and the forest department. You need a support car there and a support car driver who is willing to trust your driving abilities as it is his neck on the line. Even tow ropes, sand ladders, portable air compressors, cold and wet weather clothes, and lots and lots of snacks. Once you get to town, the trail is on the left, staring you in the face with a steep incline, right at the gate. It’s so steep, there’s no guessing how the rest of the trail is going to be. It’s not yet time to toggle through the drive modes though.
5,500ft in 31km
The 163-floor Burj Khalifa is 2,717ft tall. Imagine two Burj Khalifas, one above another. It would be somewhere up there in the stratosphere. The climb from Hanle to Umling La is as long as the one from Maneybhanjang to Sandakphu, but the change in altitude is 1,200 feet less. That’s how steep this trail is. Thankfully, but to our film crew’s disappointment, the surface is paved for two-thirds of the way. We had actually accounted for bad roads, which is why we picked the Mahindra XUV400 for this challenge over other mainstream EVs. The SUV’s mid-size footprint backed by 200mm of ground clearance ensured I could negotiate a majority of the drive up to Gairibas, a tiny village about 20km from Maneybhanjang on our first day. The idea was to scout the route for the second day, when we would take the SUV all the way up to the top of Sandakphu.
The first few kilometres are a chain of hairpins that take you up in altitude at an alarming rate. I can see 4x4s struggle with turbo lag and lack of torque while getting out of hairpins in front of me. But the XUV400 pulls up like a freight train. There’s not even as much as a millisecond of hesitation, just a strong pull up to the approaching hairpin, all 310Nm taking us in the e-SUV forward with so much confidence, I was getting a tad overconfident with this endeavour. The foliage is dense, barely any sunlight piercing through the treeline, and then, in an unpredictably dramatic fashion, the treeline gives way to open skies, blue with a sprinkling of cotton candy clouds as far as the eye can see. The paved trail is still narrow, just over a car’s width, but the landscape – vast and open, the hills rolling from one to another, and the air fresh, thinning ever so slightly every few minutes.
I am playing on the safe side, going easy on throttle as much as possible, and driving the XUV400 in its single pedal drive mode to get maximum regen. But a few hours in, after plenty of shooting, the range was so comfortable, we could push the Mahindra more than I had anticipated. This is the fastest accelerating Mahindra after all, and we love to tap into The Thrill of Driving at every opportunity. The XUV400 also has drive modes – Fun, Fast and Fearless – simultaneously tuning steering, throttle and regen. As I move up the modes, the climb gets easier, the range drops marginally but the joys of tapping into full performance in thin air is addictive. One edge EVs have over fossil-fuelled cars is the ability to offer full performance at all altitudes. The XUV400 responds to the slightest inputs, as we enter the Singalila National Park.
The park lives a life of its own, creating tree tunnels all along till we reach Gairibas. The moss-lined walls speak of the dampness around us, encroaching on the road surface in most places. The trail becomes narrower, the throttle inputs need to get lighter, and just like you feel in any tunnel, this bit of the drive is just as never-ending. The difficulty level has stepped up a few notches already and there’s over 15km to go to the top. Direction and elevation changes are quick, even though the pace is slow. In a matter of minutes, there’s so much driving to do, I’m glad I’ve not got gears to change. A final non-dramatic turn later, we reach another forest check-post alongside a boom barrier.
I drive up the boom barrier to see a few Bolero pick-ups unloading paver blocks on the trail. This is the final stretch of the drive, and we’ve been told, beyond Gairibas, it’s impossible to drive up in a 4x2. We complete a series of corners and try our first hurdle, negotiating a climb down a half-complete set of blocks on the trail. The XUV400 scrapes its belly for the first time, quickly indicating that the trail ahead isn’t going to be easy. It’s already late in the day so we abandon the climb, with the plan to attempt this section early the next day. We turn around and get back to Darjeeling.
Time to hand over the keys of the car to our in-house expert of experts, the Ed. The trail to Sandakphu needs a deft hand, and I’m only half-deft. We start early today, just as the sun rises over the Kanchenjunga, and we are one of the few cars to enter the national park. Sirish is making quick work of the trail till Gairibas. A few corners ahead, the trail that didn’t have paver blocks the day before is a smooth climb up, but the joy is short lived. Just a few hundred metres ahead, we encounter a hairpin built the good old way – large round blocks of stone packed with mud. It’s arguably the steepest hairpin so far, and the surface is the nastiest too. Sirish takes a tight line in, struggles halfway through the corner as the wheels begin to spin and start digging up the surface. The XUV400 loses traction, the ESP cuts in and he has to plan a new strategy. He takes a wider arc the next time, the tyres rip through rubble, the XUV400 fights for grip and in a plume of dust, lunges forward. It’s our first taste of the nightmares ahead.
We are about 9km from the summit, progress has slowed down to a snail’s pace, the trail is getting even more unforgiving with every turn, and soon enough, there’s a crest that promises to tear through the underbelly. All hands are on deck. We clear a few of the sharper rock, spot him over the crest and soldier on ahead.
The weather has turned now. Those blue skies from a few hours ago have traded in the greys. It’s gloomy, like our future on the trail, but the summit is inching closer. A light drizzle threatens us but we keep getting closer. By now, we’ve developed mad respect for the suspension and the XUV400 for taking a beating without making us feel it. It’s built tough, something we’ve begun to expect of Mahindras, but the EV is a different breed so we didn’t know if we’d experience the same toughness in it. It’s a pleasant surprise, and it’s probably why we had reached so far. No FWD car has made it till here, except for the XUV400. The last time we were here we turned back at the lake at Kalipokhri, the rain coming down turning the path ahead into a slush fest. Today too we have rain, it has started light but the clouds are heavy, and with some trepidation we carry on further along the trail that skirts the border with Nepal. In fact, to our left are houses registered in Nepal when we approach the final army check post. They make us open the bonnet to see the ‘engine’, shocked at the silence of the XUV400. The higher we climb the more we encounter surprised faces all around. There’s a smile too, knowing that we aren’t polluting their home with noise and fumes. The locals welcome us everywhere, encourage us at this impossible challenge, and wave to us in disbelief as we drive ahead.
Sirish creeps in silence into Bikhay Bhanjyang, the final village, 2.9km from the top of Sandakphu. By now, the sky is a dark grey in the late afternoon hours and there’s a lot of tension in the air. The village is as silent as the XUV400, the few hundred metres of road is relatively flat, but it's the calm before the storm. Everybody knows it. Everybody. We drive a little further, now just about 15 corners separate us from a historical drive to the summit, and a series of hairpins stare us down. We can turn our necks up and spot four of them snaking up a mountain wall. Four hairpins taking us at least 15 stories up, linked to each other at the hip, surfaced by rocks and gravel smoothed by rain. This stretch is what you’d call ‘past its shelf life’. It’s beyond steep, broken at exactly the points where a vehicle would need traction and holding on to its integrity at the mercy of mother nature. The XUV400, even with Sirish’s mad driving skills, is at its grip’s edge. He tries the set of hairpins once, going up two out of four of them. He then backs up to gain as much momentum as possible, reduces tyre pressure, switches to Fearless and gives the XUV400 a mighty kick of the right foot. The SUV slips and slides up the third hairpin, cuts across halfway through it and runs out of grip. He backs up again, goes for a wider line, but the heavens open, the surface becomes slippery and the tyres spin and burn to their tread’s edge. It’s brutal. We put our cameras down and all of us push mightily, brave the stones being picked up by the spinning tyres, all in the vain hope of giving the tyres some assistance. We have power, we have torque, we have ground clearance, we have range, we have everything in fact except for one thing. Tyre grip. We even shove sand ladders under the tyres but even those can’t find purchase. It’s heartbreaking. The entire crew almost has tears in their eyes. The end is so near, yet so far.
The trail to the top of Sandakphu is a honey trap, it lures you in with a steady dial up in difficulty. We’ve heard stories of how hard this trail was back when the Landies exclusively ran these routes. From what we’ve been told, the difficulty level has gone down, but that’s only till you are left with the last third of the drive. Post Gairibas, the route is brutal, post Kalipokri it is apocalyptic, even for 4x4s. Yet there we were, just half a dozen hairpins from the top in the first ever electric vehicle this part of the country has seen. If not for the wrath of mother nature, who knows, we might have even negotiated that last bit, but it wasn’t going to be on this day. Our hearts are broken for having come so far and not reach the very top, yet there’s a sense of pride in what we have just accomplished. Every experiment doesn’t bear fruit in your first shot. What matters is you try again, and again, countless times till you achieve what you had envisioned. On our drive back, engulfed in these thoughts, we negotiate our toughest downhill drive in ages, without as much as thinking about it. We’ll be back. Mahindra’s electric journey has just begun and the learnings from this will go into the next generation of e-SUVs. And as for the XUV400, there’s now a new found respect for the immense capabilities of this Mahindra.
So, my friends, as we sit here with our glasses of scotch in hand, let us remember that not all stories end the same way. This drive may have been marked by heartbreak, but it's also marked by courage, determination, and the indomitable human spirit. We reached heights above the clouds, discovering a world of wonder and potential. The XUV400, more frequently used as a city runabout or for a short intercity drive, nearly conquered a seemingly impossible trail in the eastern Himalayas for a FWD SUV. In the future, its successors will strive to surpass this achievement. But for now, above the sky, indeed, is the limit.