Atop the Sach Pass
“This was the place where terrorists showed up and killed many sleeping labourers,” said our driver, Kapil. He was referring to the Chamba massacre of 1998 when some Kashmiri militants crossed the Sach Pass, entered Himachal and went berserk. It is not exactly the kind of thing you would want to hear when your car has broken down and you are not sure if you will ever make it. But was there another option?
We’d started early in the morning at Bairagarh on Kapil’s Mahindra Maxx, in order to make the most of the short day. The idea was to top the Sach Pass and come back instead of going all the way to Pangi valley on the other side. Pangi was a tempting but risky proposition because the winter had already started and snowfall could block the road very soon, thus stranding us completely. A few locals also joined in, including the herb trader from Pangi. But the weather beaten 30 km stretch of road, with a sharp altitude gain, ended up taking a serious toll on the vehicle. We rose above the tree line to reach the bald mountains, to be rewarded with a clear view of the pass that slithers up the mountain like a serpent. I have seen many other peaks and passes in the Himalayas but this still remains the most memorable view.
The car gave up just before Shatrundi, forcing us to call for help. As the driver struggled with the car, we grabbed at those precious moments to soak in the view around us. The shadows were bitterly cold. The slivers of the sun’s rays spared us the onslaught. Shatrundi is a sort of a temporary summer settlement. Come October and it gets completely deserted as the locals flee the harsh winters. The absence of any tea shops dashed my earlier hopes of wrapping my freezing fingers around a hot cup of chai . However, gazing at some beautiful frozen waterfalls more than made up for everything else.
Once the vehicle was repaired and the journey resumed, the progress got even slower as the road took on a steeper stretch, broken at places and extremely narrow. The speedometer never crossed 10 km per hour. We were now driving over the serpent that we’d earlier seen from the distance.
After almost 5 hours of struggle, the vehicle topped the enigmatic Sach Pass. As expected, it was covered in a thick blanket of snow. A temple of a local deity welcomed us. This is where the locals and travelers crossing the Sach pray, especially if they are crossing over to the other side as the road there is even worse – there are stories of vehicles disappearing without a trace. It was 4400 metres and the altitude blessed our eyes with visions of colourful cloud formations and movements unimaginable at lower altitudes. A persistent breeze created an illusion of clouds rising rapidly like smoke from the Pir Panjal peaks – surreal and humbling at the same time.
A thin layer of ice over the entire stretch made it treacherous. If not careful, one may go to sleep on these lands and end up falling any moment through the deceptive ledges and slippery slopes. The howling wind was deafening at times but the bigger worry was the biting cold that pierced through our woollens. The almost spiritual desolation was somewhat disturbed when a caravan of several cars arrived from the other side ferrying locals. The vehicle stopped as if by habit in front of the temple. That just can’t be missed. The tacit cooperation and camaraderie of local drivers became evident here as some of them quickly exchanged passengers. The local travellers with us went with another driver to Pangi while some others joined us to return to Chamba.
In a way, the descent was so much more pleasurable. The most difficult part of our trek to the Sach Pass was over, with enough time at hand thanks to the early start. As the afternoon sun shone brightly over the mountains, the reddish brown hue of the alpine meadows contrasted well with the azure skies and the pristine snow.
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