Tour de Ladakh [Day 3 – Part 2] : Breathless at Baralacha La

La. In the native Tibetan speak ‘La’ means ‘High Mountain Pass’. The Manali-Leh highway has four major passes; Rohtang La (3955m above sea level), Baralacha La (4894m), Naki La (4740m), Lachulung La (5065m) and Tanglang La (5360m). Rohtang La and Baralacha La particularly have a notorious reputation of sudden landslides, utterly inhospitable weather and result in quite a few deaths each year. In general an entire 400 kms between the Manali-Leh highway is devoid of any life forms (Including vegetation). Barring a couple of villages, the only people you will met on the way are fellow bikers, truckers delivering petrol to Leh, a few Army camps and some tents near them for road trippers to rest for the night. Needless to say most people avoid this route and take the Srinagar-Leh road instead to get Leh’D. Rohtang La is the more famous one owing to its proximity to Manali but certainly Baralacha La is a much more dangerous one. Few attempt it every year and fewer cross it successfully. Due to the low oxygen levels in high altitudes, the human body gets messed up; Acute mountain sickness, breathlessness, nausea, headaches, nasty sunburns, you name it. Adding to that, the bikes also lose a lot of power, the steep inclines lead to burnt clutch plates, brake fails, throttle cable snaps, etc. Putting it shortly, Baralacha La is the ultimate test of Man and Machine against the Nature.

That Ultimate Feeling you get while doing these twisties with ‘Warm Shadows’ by Fink blaring in your earphones while the KTM engine is screaming at 8000 RPM in the background!
Yes, That’s the road! At parts, the snow had slid right down to the roads.

THE CLIMB

Earlier today, barring a few water crossing, we had encountered mostly good roads right up to Zingzing Bar. The roads have treated us really well and was easily one of the best riding experiences we had till date and who would have thought that what’s coming next will trump it! Baralacha top was 12 kilometers from the Zingzing Bar base camp. We had some piping hot tea and maggi at the base camp and even before starting the mammoth and surreal mountains had wept us off our feet. The freshly laid roads were not bad either. After the high speed cornering earlier that day, we treated the following curves with respect. Speed was becoming a problem with the loss in the engine power in the steep uphill push as well. The ice walls here made the ones we saw at Rohtang minuscule in comparison. Also the snow was untouched, white and neat. Words and photos cannot do justice to the mesmerizing effect the surroundings had on us.

But mostly the roads were decent and a 40 kmph was doable.
Your’s Truly with his One True Love. The KTM Duke 200.
Roads. Best served with some soft classic rock in the earphones. Serve Chilled.
Me with Sukesh in the Pillion. He was dying to have a go at the roads with the KTM. But i was having too good of a time to oblige!
That’s Rahul. Oxygen Break! Look at the neatly cut snowfields!

BREATHLESS AT BARALACHA (FIGURATIVELY!)

In an hour or so we reached what we think was the Baralacha La Top and it hit us hard. After Rohtang, we were both elated and disappointed; Elated for obvious reasons and disappointed as we thought nothing would top what we saw at Rohtang ever. Well, disappointment was hit out of the park at Baralacha Top. Now, Nothing can beat this. I won’t blabber much now. I will let the photos taken in a humble camera phone do the talking. You be the judge.

Baralacha La Top.
Endless Valleys of Snow
Baralacha makes even a 200 Pounds Rahul look so Puny!
180 Degree Panorama shot of the snow fields.
Baralacha was so beautiful that he could have done the dirty with her!
Me and Sukesh at Baralacha Top.

Well, whatever time we had gained in the first half of today’s ride was lost on Baralacha itself as we couldn’t help but waste time playing around in the snow. I swear we could have stayed there for a week more and not get bored if not for the fear of freezing to death and our bodies buried under the snow for eternity. And symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) we slowly showing. We took a few energy bars and oxygen . Yeah, in those conditions small bursts from the oxygen cans gave some sort of a weird high. We had to start off and make it out of Baralacha before the sun goes down. After sundown, these areas get cold. Real cold. Like in the wrong side of -20 degree Celsius cold. The next camp at Sarchu was some 35 kms from here. It might seem like a small distance but in those conditions it takes more than 3 hours to cover that sort of distance.

Can you spot the road? The kind of excitement that comes from riding through those roads is unmatched.
Sukesh trying to be badass, climbing slopesand slipping and falling down…
Selfie!

THE DESCENT

Rahul was leading with his Pulsar and Sukesh and Me were trailing with my Duke. Suddenly, a large chunk of ice fell of the slopes and landed on Rahul’s helmet. Good gracious he was wearing a helmet; Otherwise it would have been a real pain in the arse to carry of his 200 pounds body down the treacherous roads on bikes! A couple of kilometers down the hill, suddenly Rahul stopped his bike and started honking. Ladakh has surprised us again. A huge melting glacier. Single most beautiful thing we had seen in our journey till now. To hell with sticking to the schedule. Photo time! The huge blocks of slowly floating downstream, Larger blocks breaking into smaller ones. Sadly light was becoming an issue and we couldn’t take more photos and videos of it. A few kilometers ahead even that was trumped by a the view of a huge, smooth, frozen river. If not for the oxygen bursts which was responsible for bringing our heads to sanity levels at regular intervals, we definitely would have snowboarded down the valley to certain death!

Lo and Behold… The Glacier! Right after Rahul’s ‘Ice Chunk hitting the helmet’ moment.
The photo does no justice the the beauty of the glacier.
Neat and looks Yummy!
Rahul Pant with his Pulsar. Hats Off to the Pulsar 150 for making it to Baralacha Top. Hard Ass Bike.
Need I say more?!
Running out of captions to write!
On the descent of Baralacha La.
Someone left a Booze Bottle! YaY for the creativity, NaY for polluting the virgin beauty of Baralacha.
Icy Cold valley

THE RESCUE

In the Road to Leh, you are pretty much by yourself. No ambulances, almost no presence of the army, no civilians either. If you are stranded, the only thin thread of hope you can hang on to is that if any other biker might pass that way saving your arse. And that too is rare as on an average just 2-3 groups travel those roads so early in the season. We happened to be in such a situation. somewhere after the Glacier, we saw this young guy with his CBZ Xtreme frantically waving his cell phone. There is no mobile connectivity after Manali till Leh. On coming closer, we came to know that he is a part of that group we met earlier today at Keylong during lunch. Turns out the guy, Raghav was split from his group and was left behind. And now he has almost succumbed to AMS. He was in no condition to ride his bike. Mind you, it was -10 degree Celsius there and with the wind blast it was difficult for us to breathe even after our Diamox and oxygen dosage; Think about the condition of that guy. We gave him some Diamox, Oxygen and I gave him the thermal lining of my riding jacket to him. Sukesh road his bike and he sat in the pillion.

Getting Dark, Getting Colder, Getting Tougher, The Beauty Turning into the Beast.
There’s Raghav with his CBZ Xtreme. Rahul retrieving the Oxygen Cans for him.
Even during the ‘Raghav Incident’, Baralacha La was constantly throwing us pleasant surprises.

BREATHLESS AT BARALACHA (LITERALLY!)

Baralacha had stopped being beautiful and started being merciless. It was dark and freezing cold. The descent roads were bad. Infact, there were no roads at all. Just slush and Black Ice. Our boots and denims were wet due to the countless water crossings downhill. And now we had the feeling that the water inside our boots were starting to freeze. The wind felt even worse when blasted straight to our wet denims and boots. Thank got for the knee guards which partially shielded the cold wind. The tyres of the Pulsar and CBZ were skidding like a drift showdown due to the black ice. Black Ice forms when the water flowing on the roads freezes after sundown and makes a layer of ice. It offers zero grip and traction to the tyres and manoeuvring the machines become near-impossible. I had relatively less difficulty as the Aftermarket Ceat Vertigo was proving some gip to the Duke. Rahul almost crashed once and all of us had dozens of hair raising moments.

After the overdose of beauty, now the going gets tough. You can see the Black Ice slowly forming on the roads.
The Sunset in your face makes driving even tougher.
The Bad Roads Cometh
Slippery Roads.
Still Beautiful!
Another Glacier.
There’s the Pulsar and the CBZ Extreme leading the way.

It’s dark now. So, no more photos. Finally after fighting Baralacha La for two hours in the descent, we were back on the plains. But it was pitch black, the roads were non existent and it wasn’t getting any warmer. We had heard horror stories of riders dying in the cold in these roads before. We had to get to one of those camps real fast and find Raghav’s group. We were in for the rudest shock in our lifetime in within a few meters. Dead End.

TRAPPED

Dead End. Mountain slope on the right. Gorge on the left. A river flowing in front. There’s no road. Trapped. After 15 minutes of panicking and searching for possible routes with our flashlights we had three options.

Option 1: Stay put and wait for help. It was already night and help if at all arrives will arrive the next day and will find four frozen bodies. Certain Death.

Option 2: Return back to Zingzing Bar. But that would involve climbing the bad side of Baralacha La. We barely made it in daylight. It would mean certain death at night.

Option 3: Cross the river and look for the road on the other side. Sure, we might drown or be swept down the gorges due to the flow, but it was the only possible option where there was atleast a chance of making it out alive.

Needless to say we reluctantly settled down for option 3. Formed two human chains and tried to cross the river by foot. The point was to check if there was a road on the other side and to chart out a path we could follow to cross the river on bikes. It was pitch black and we waded through the waist deep water with the help of our flashlights. After 15 minutes of battling the freezing water and many scary moments Raghav and me made it to the other side. Thankfully, the road was there on the other side. But, the job was only half done. Now we had to ride three bikes across 60 feet of waist deep, freezing cold, high velocity water. Raghav stayed there at the other side of the river with his torchlight as a waypoint and made my way bike to get my bike. The Duke had an underbelly exhaust which made it immune to stalling in the water if the exhaust got underwater. Riding the Pulsar and the CBZ was trickier. I was the first one to cross the river. Next was Rahul on his Pulsar and Sukesh followed with Raghav’s CBZ. Thankfully after a nervous half hour, all three bikes and 4 riders were safely at the other side of the river. The trick was to keep the throttle in a rev state at all time so that the water never gets a chance to enter the exhausts; Else the bikes would stall in the middle of the river and wont start again. Now, just a few more milometers to the Sarchu camp.

ALIVE!

After six kilometres we came across this lone tent where a bike belonging to a member from Raghav’s group was parked. We stopped there and came to know that even the other guy was split from the entire group and after hours of searching he had to call it a day. Poor guy didn’t have any money with him. His luggage and cash was in the group’s Innova which was nowhere to be found. Raghav decided to stay with his friend and search for their Innova up ahead. We lend them some cash and bade them goodbye and good luck. Raghav thanked us, Invited us to his place at Chandigarh during the return trip. There was no need for the thanks. And after all, we bikers have to look out for each other in those inhospitable and lonely roads to Leh. Anyway, that wasn’t the last we would see of Raghav. Ladakh had planned even more adventures for us!

We found a camping spot in Sarchu. The camping guy gave us some hot tea which we gulped up in seconds and he prepared a bonfire. We got out of our frozen boots and warmed out feet. I almost wanted to shove my legs into the fire. After a humble dinner of Concrete hard Rotis and the hottest and spiciest dal ever cooked we went inside out tent. The tent was smaller than a Tata Nano and three of us including the 200 lbs Rahul had to fit into that including luggage. It was -10 to -15 degrees outside. We slept with our riding gears on. The weird pungent smell inside the tent, Sukesh’s snores, the minuscule real estate of the tent, the sound of the howling winds outside, the rock hard floor, none would matter in tonight’s sleep. We Earned It.

Dinner at the Camp’s kitchen.
Try getting out of your wet clothes in a cramped up tent!
Yes, Three of us defied all laws of Physics and somehow managed to fit into that tiny tent!

BARALACHA LA. CONQUERED.

Trip Log. Day 3.

Origin Major Stops Destination
Khoksar Keylong,Zingzing Bar,Baralacha La Sarchu
Bike Start End Distance
Duke 200 5979 6135 156 KMs
Pulsar 150 35960 36112 152 KMs
Start Stop Total Time Ride Time
9:30 21:30 12 Hours 9 Hours
Point A Road Conditions Point B
Khoksar Bad, Broken Bridges Sissu
Sissu Average Keylong
Keylong Average Gemur
Gemur Average Jispa
Jispa Good Tandi
Tandi Excellent Zingzing Bar
Zingzing Bar Very Good Baralacha La
Baralacha La Very Bad, No Roads Sarchu

 

7 thoughts on “Tour de Ladakh [Day 3 – Part 2] : Breathless at Baralacha La

  1. Honestly that was a magazine quality article, I read the whole thing! I am in wonder of your adventurous spirit. Such a cool story, glad you made it. Thank you for looking out for your fellow motorcyclist.

    • Glad that you liked travelogue. And speaking of the ‘Adventurous Spirit’, it is pretty evident from your username that you too belong to the same category! Of course we had to help out the stranded guy. And Karma will play its role very soon. He would return to help us out in a similar situation in less than a day. I will write about that in my next post.

    • Thanks Man. It’s not uncommon for groups to get separated in those roads. There is no habitation of any kind and cellphone connectivity for hundreds of kilometers. And after sundown, it is virtually suicide to turn back in those treacherous weather to look for your teammates instead of rushing to the nearest camp, Most of the times you can do nothing better than wait and hope for someone else to find your stranded teammates. Anyway, I’m glad that we could come to his his. He will come back the next day to return the favor when we were in a sticky situation!

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