Climbing out of my tent at 5 a.m., I wondered how it would feel to be on the summit of Everest or K2. The worlds two tallest peaks were not far away, and stood just 13,000 feet higher from where I stood. As it was, at 16,000 feet above sea level, some of my expedition members had fallen ill with acute mountain sickness. For me, it was hell just to put my sleeping bag into its stuff-sacka task that made my heart and lungs feel like they would explode. I could only wonder how we would survive the next 10 days driving through the Himalayas. I soon found out.
Itsik Mini and Zev Dar, the daring pair behind the Isuzu Challenge, love pushing adventures envelope. By design, the Israeli-based expedition, now in its fourth year, offers the ultimate in international off-road adventure. When I joined them last year, for instance, we were forced back by gunpoint while trying to cross into Chile from Argentina during the Isuzu Challenge Patagonia.
When I first spoke with Itsik about what he had in mind for this years Isuzu Challenge, he smiled and by way of invitation, said, Were driving to the Ladakh region of the Himalayas.
RISHIKESH TO MANALI
We begin our 18-day expedition in the city Rishikesh, along the banks of the Ganges River. The 4x4 journey would finish in Leh, roughly 800 miles to the north, at an elevation of 11,500 feet. Rishikesh lies at just 1,174 feet above sea level, and its where we joined the group of about 50 Isuzu Challenge participants. After getting acquainted, we loaded our gear into seven Troopers and 10 Ippon extra-cab pickups that had been shipped to India from the Isuzu Challenges home-base in Israel.
Each vehicle was outfitted with Yokohama Geolandar M/T tires, Airtech snorkels, TJM Products bull bars, and Warn winches to help meet the off-road conditions the expedition expected to encounter. Other equipment included skidplates, nerf bars, roof racks, fuel cans, recovery gear, and oxygen tanks. The O2 would come in handy soon enough.
Leaving Rishikesh, the route took us north on a road cut into a steep mountainside, then through picturesque villages situated in green valleys flowing with rivers and waterfalls. We encountered our first major obstacle at the Yamuna River, where a recent monsoon had destroyed the bridge. After careful inspection, Itsik and Zev determined that we could cross the river, but only after winching down a 100-foot-long, nearly vertical cliff. After two hours of nerve-rattling winch maneuvers, all the vehicles were safely at the rivers edge. Now the fun part began. We had to cross the violent flow. One by one, the Isuzus plowed through the hood-deep current, struggling to find traction on slippery granite boulders. Eventually all 17 vehicles emerged from the raging Yamuna, their drivers excited by their first major accomplishment. Continuing north into Himachal Pradesh, the terrain became a transition zone between the plains of Uttar Pradesh and the high Himalayas. Heavy rains caused flooding that made for slow progress through this area. Winching the vehicles through the tough stuff became second nature to most expedition members.
After several days of driving on heavily rutted, muddy, winding roads through mountainous landscapes covered with beech and pine forests, we finally arrived in the beautiful village of Manali. Located on the northern end of the Kullu Valley, Manali is considered the gateway to the Himalayas. Here is where our high-altitude endurance test truly began.
MANALI TO LEH VIA TSO MORIRI AND PANGONG TSO
The road to Leh is the worlds second-highest driveable road, reaching an elevation of 17,582 feet at Taglang La. As we motored out of Manali and quickly gained altitude, the awe-inspiring peaks of the Himalayas were within view in less than an hour. By the time we ascended to the crest of the first high pass at Rohtang La at 13,051 feet, both the diesel engines and our own heads were suffering from a lack of oxygen. We stopped at the pass to rest, and marveled at the grandeur of the mountains, not really sure what lay ahead. Our destination for this day, however, was the camp at Patseo, perched at nearly 13,000 feet. At a meeting in Manali the doctor along on this trip spoke briefly about our health and how it would be affected by the altitude. Afterward, he administered pills to help prevent problems. As an extra precaution, five bottles of oxygen were stowed in each vehicle for persons having difficulty breathing. These were to be set outside of each tent before we went to sleep, since most symptoms develop at nighttime.
After dinner, people were feeling the effects of the lack of oxygen, not to mention the unfamiliar food. Some had headaches, nausea, and trouble breathing. Others were vomiting. This wasnt a good sign the first night at altitude. The only thing they could do is rest, take oxygen, and let nature take its course.
After breakfast and tea, we continued along the main road towards Leh, a treacherous route that winds through the most incredibly raw high-altitude scenery imaginable. For much of the way, the only inhabitants of the high plateau are Khampa nomads, soldiers, and tar-covered workers struggling to keep this strategic road open. This is a sensitive region of northern India due to continuing border disputes with Pakistan and China. After climbing up to the Moriri plain, the expedition turned off the main road near Taglang La and headed for the two lake regions Tso Moriri and Pangong Tso, over 110 kilometers of rough and rocky road to the east. On the way, the Isuzu Challenge delegation donated solar energy panels to the remote village of Karzok near the shore of Tso Moriri, where we camped for the night. This effort, along with contributions from other international organizations, helps the areas residents contribute toward the reforestation of their depleted surroundings.
Following a morning ceremony of thanks given by the villages monks, we broke camp and backtracked to Kunzum, where we met our fuel-supply truck. Out here there are no stations, so pre-planned fuel depots are mandatory. After refueling we continued on to the remote Hanle Monastery where we had the afternoon free to visit the monastery and explore the surrounding wilderness in our 4x4s. We set up camp at nightfall in the shadow of the monastery.
We motored north from Hanle toward Pangong Tso the next day. This is an area inhabited by Khampas, who were often seen taking advantage of the summer sun and moving herds of goats, cows, and yaks from one grazing spot to another. Khampas live in large, movable family tents or in solid winterproof huts that are scattered throughout the region. We stopped and visited with them, and we found most of them to be friendly, inquisitive, and always inviting.
From here on out, we followed a loop route through military restricted zones that have been, until recently, closed to travelers. Our logistics coordinator, Dev Dar, had received prior permission to lead the expedition though this highly sensitive area dotted with military checkpoints and bases. At our 15,000-foot base camp near the shores of Pangong Tso, we could see the Chinese border across the lake, a stones throw away.
The following morning we proceeded towards Leh through a surreal landscape inhabited by nomads, wild horses, and yaks. We stopped in villages teeming with wide-eyed youngsters and elderly people, all of whom seemed mesmerized by our convoy of yellow, zebra-striped Isuzus. A couple of tricky river crossings and several more military checkpoints later, we arrived at the main road once again, just 20 miles outside of Leh. Once in the city, we refueled our vehicles in preparation for the biggest challenge yetKhardung La.
LEHTHE NUBRA VALLEY VIA KHARDUNG LA
The steep, narrow road ascends quickly north of Leh as it snakes endlessly upward toward the pass. Military convoys, cargo carriers, fuel trucks, and public buses congest the road, which is the main route through the mountains. Several times when passing these vehicles, our Trooper was just inches from a 1,000-foot vertical drop-off. The fright-factor was extremely high in these situations, especially since there were no guardrails. As we rounded one of the 36 switchbacks, we came to a sudden stop. A fuel truck was lying on its side and blocking the road. It had fallen off the road 100 feet above, and miraculously came to rest on the road below. The driver was standing outside of his overturned rigs smashed cab in shock, oblivious to the seriousness of the accident.
When we finally reached the pass, the clouds gave way to blue skies and the view of the Himalayas seemed endless. This was the highlight of the expedition. Being on the highest driveable pass in the world was mind-boggling. The thin air did little to dull our adrenaline-tinged senses as we posed for photos in front of the 18,380-foot altitude marker. After nearly an hour we headed down the other side toward the Nubra Valley, where we would spend the night and return the following day to Leh.
As we descended the oxygen-deprived Khardung, our bodies had had enough of the altitude and welcomed the oxygen-enriched air we found in the green and fertile Nubra Valley. We set up camp near the village of Panamik and relaxed in natural hot springs located within shelling range of Pakistan. We joked, If the Pakistanis invade, well be back to Khardung before you can say, Dali Lama.
The 2001 Isuzu Challenge was an extreme test for both man and machine. Understandably, the Indian Himalayan high country is a place where few four-wheelers will ever go. But if you ever get the chance, go for it. Youll find it to be a very enlightening 4x4 journey to the upper limits.