A Journey Through Zojila Pass

    On a short leave in late September 1984 was when I had to pass over Zoji La to reach my home. It turned out to be one of the most dreadful experiences in my life. At Kargil— where I was posted then— we had been experiencing bad weather since the past two days. Excitement to reach home was very high. Seven months had passed since I had gone home on my previous leave. It was a hard-earned leave. Relief to replace me had taken more time than usual due to the shortage of suitable officers at the unit.

    We were to travel around seventy kilometres to reach Zoji La from Kargil. We were travelling in seven big army logistic vehicles. It had snowed heavily around Zoji La since the past two days. Once Border Road Organization (BRO) extended clearance on the suitability of the road, we commenced our journey from Kargil. The time of departure was around 1300 hours. With huge build-up of snow around the area, one could easily fathom the intensity of the journey. BRO had worked hard to clear the snow, to ensure that the pass was fit for traffic movement at the earliest. People from the organization could still be seen working around the area.

    The situation on the ground was entirely different from what had previously been painted by the BRO personnel. Snow had hardened over the pass. I was shocked that the vehicle I was travelling in was skidding freely, the driver having no control over its movements. Ours were 2–wheel drive vehicles. Vehicles of this make are not suitable for driving through snow-bound areas. Two front wheels being free offered no resistance against skidding.

    The situation was terrifying. On my left, I could see exceptionally steep, deep slope. In case of a fall, loss of life was guaranteed; the remains would not be found. Looking down sent shivers down our spines. The bridge between life and death looked too narrow. Our right flank was dominated by a steep and sharp wall of mountain. Big boulders and debris, mixed with snow, falling with speed was commonplace. Not too far from our position, we could hear sounds of falling rocks and sand quite frequently. Life appeared to be enveloped with the narrative of hell. One of the drivers was so scared that he declared about his inability to drive under those conditions. Another driver, on realising his vehicle was skidding, had crashed it against the wall of mountain.

    The gravity of the situation further heightened when I came out of the vehicle to coordinate further plans to move under the given circumstances. My shoes failed to hold me firmly; they had become like ice skates. Leather boot heals proved to be disadvantageous, as they provided requisite momentum for skidding on hardened snow surface.

    The atmosphere was of gloom, despair and panic. The darkness of night made it scarier. We could only see through the headlights of vehicles. The road— narrow and circuitous— frightened even the most experienced and skilled drivers. Some of them had been driving vehicles in difficult terrains for many years. But today, the situation was entirely different. This situation was a bolt from the blue. This was the time to revisit our own daring and nerve. Remaining calm and collected appeared to be the only way out. The weather was inclement and the possibility of further heavy snowfall could not be ruled out. Therefore, staying there any longer could have been life-threatening and perilous. We decided to move slowly and gradually; we were almost crawling. Some of us walked throughout the complete route to guide the vehicles. Even a chance error by a fraction of a second could end our stories.



    Author : Col. N. S. Malhan

    Col. Narinder Singh Malhan was commissioned from the Indian Military Academy (IMA) Dehradun. On having served for almost four decades in Indian Army, he loves to share his experiences through his writings. In his opinion, every life has a lot to unfold. Each life is unique and is a historical document with its own identity. He strongly feels, real discovery is through introspection by looking back in own time. He believes, sharing own experiences are like revisiting life's milestones with more intensity. He thoroughly enjoyed his journey in uniform.


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