Notes from three miles up

Skip: Now that I’ve had the experience, I can safely say that 17,586 feet up is as high as I want to go – unless there’s an airplane involved.

Gabi and I embarked on what we thought was going to be a daylong drive to the famous Pangong Lake. We knew we would access the lake by traversing the world’s third-highest accessible road at the Cheng La pass.

Those zigzag lines (center left) are the roads we traveled.

Those zigzag lines (center left) are the roads we traveled.

What we didn’t understand was that the “road” would quickly morph from a windy, paved affair that cut along the edge of the foothills into a glorified goat path with no guardrails that rose abruptly in a continuous, accelerated arc.

A glimpse out our window offered an unobstructed view to the rock-strewn valleys hundreds of feet below.

Chang-la is a stunning place. Flanked by vast snowfields and the peaks of the Himalayas, it is a small group of tents and crude structures offering medical care, hot tea and toilets. We sucked in the thin air, gazed in amazement at the incredible vistas that surrounded us, chatted with a couple of other travelers, then continued along to the lake. I also failed to fully appreciate the effects of altitude sickness until we eclipsed the summit.

There, I was treated to a massive headache that sounded the warning of the blurred vision and nausea to follow. Gabi, I am happy to report, was spared the effects of altitude sickness. She was too busy being terrified by the ride. The nice thing about altitude sickness: it lessens fairly quickly when you descend. Having gone one way across the divide, however, I knew a second dose was in store when we made our way back. There are no circuit routes in this remote, barren and unforgiving environment, and nature declines to look favorably upon fools who exceed their limits by venturing within. I knew it wasn’t going to kill me; it just felt that way.

The trip was a terrifyingly beautiful ride; a 12-hour round-trip fix for adrenaline junkies and at some points considerably more than enough for this intrepid pair. Still, it’s the kind of thing we came here to experience. Invigorating, captivating, spellbinding and horrifying, the road took us up incredible verticals cutting back and forth along countless switchbacks. It took us down mountainsides with evidence of recent avalanches, at one point slicing through a 30-foot wall of debris left from spring runoffs along a particularly enormous divide, created by the hardy souls at the Border Roads Organization.

We forded streams – a couple of them wheel hub-high on the sturdy Toyota minivan ably operated by our guide Ali – and plunged down ravines cut through the road by runoff from the mountains. We rocked back and forth as the road punished the minivan, which was designed more for transport to soccer practice than crossing the Himalayas. We passed wide expanses of greenery where streams from mountain waterfalls fed the flora and fauna. We stopped to watch marmots edge from their burrows, yaks, cows, horses and pashmina goats graze and drink from the frigid waters. We passed army posts after military fuel depots galore, reminders of this region’s proximity to China and Pakistan and the ongoing tension that exists in these parts.

The place has an edgy feel to it, punctuated by a sign at one base that proclaimed, “Live by chance. Love by choice. Kill by profession.”

We made our way to Pangong, a cobalt-blue finger lake ringed by a half dozen or so crude restaurants and places offering “rooms” and tents for overnight visitors. We grabbed a quick lunch at a place aptly named “Three Idiots,” feeling as though we had added two more to the lot by embarking on such a ridiculously beautiful and rare yet risky journey.

Everywhere around us, enormous peaks of grey and brown rock hovered over the road, reaching endlessly to the horizon. Impossibly blue skies provided the backdrop, and it was far more enjoyable to look up and out than ahead or down. Avalanches were abundant, having strewn boulders, rocks and sand hundreds of feet from mountain peaks to valleys below.

The road seemed to disappear at times, and Ali dutifully honked his horn to warn the oncoming Indian Army trucks, cars and SUVs of our approach. It was a delicate dance for two vehicles to pass one another on a one-lane road. One driver apparently wasn’t as skilled as ours, and we viewed with clenched jaws the wreckage of a car jammed among the rocks down the mountainside as Ali sped past. For my liking, 50 kmh is too fast for a mountain road with no guardrails, so we prevailed upon Ali to slow down on the ride back from the lake. He did so, but that meant he had to find places to allow the other cars by. It added to the suspense.

A couple hours later we were back in the valley, surrounded by clusters of homes with glistening white monasteries looking down on them from nearby foothills. We paused to appreciate the unique experience of the drive, with the rugged terrain offering rare glimpses of this harsh land.

And we vowed that once was indeed more than enough.