The district administration scrambled to put together rescue teams when information about 8 trekkers being trapped on a high mountain pass between Naggar side of the Kullu valley connecting up with Malana side trickled in on Thursday (10.3.2016) afternoon.
One last phone call from a battery exhausted mobile number to the police helpline by the stranded trekkers and anxious calls by parents of these students had alerted the authorities about the impending emergency in the valley heights.
Unlike Nepal where the air connectivity is better than the road network, state authorities in Himachal Pradesh only have one leased helicopter which is mostly used to ferry an octogenarian chief minister around the notorious Himalayan topography through the year.
Some flying hours of this chopper are also devoted to carry out emergency evacuation from Lahaul, which from November to April-May is landlocked because of heavy snow blocking road traffic over Rohtang Pass that connects Kullu valley with Lahaul.
Temperatures in February 2016 had soared touching all time highs, globally making it the highest temperatures ever recorded for the month. Tourist friendly Manali, famous both as summer and winter resort, had had one of the leanest seasons, for there was hardly any snow that fell from November to February (2015-16).
Emboldened by the fair weather as spring broke out early, a group of engineering students from Punjab set out to open the trekking season in March itself by attempting to cross the Chandrakhani Pass. The pass is excellent trekking country, only the season opens up by April end and lasts till November.
The initial climb on Wednesday (9.3.2016) was pleasant where they encountered wild rhododendrons in bloom, a marker for alpine spring season in these mountains that was at least a month earlier than normal years.
Dismissing the weather forecasts that nearly all trekkers check into on their mobile Apps before setting out about a rainy weekend ahead, the ill equipped students considered themselves strong enough to weather a storm or two.
Temperatures dropped dramatically when the overcast sky began to drop pounds of snow in the heights on Thursday evening, while the lower valley received widespread rains.
In a matter of hours snow had accumulated to over 1 feet, making it difficult to go further or retreat to safety. The cold sucked out a day’s battery power storage from camera’s and mobile phones in a few hours.
Stories about Rohtang Pass being a killer pass for winter trekkers have resonated for generations in Kullu valley but very few attempt to cross the Chanderkhani Pass in winters.
Towering over the valley, Chanderkhani Pass is famous as the Charas (Marijuana) trial for it connects the remote Malana valley with the outside world. Naggar-Chanderkhani-Malana is a very popular summer trekking route.
Malana can be tipped as the Charas capital of the world for connoisseurs sitting in Belgium have ranked Malana Cream as the best dope on the planet.
Snow trail to nowhere
Alerted by the emergency call on 100 helpline number, the police reached out to Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports that is based in Manali for sending out a rescue team which needed trained mountaineers.
The electronic trail was lost soon after the last call for all attempts made to reach the trekkers over phone had failed. No GPS guidance was available to sight the students.
Slopes around Chanderkhani Pass have steep gradients and one can get easily lost when a sudden snowfall leaves no traces about the path to be taken ahead, especially when the visibility drops due to the prevailing mists.
Rescue teams with trained mountaineers till late evening combed the area where the students had indicated about having been stranded. Traces of humans having walked on snow were spotted at one place but fresh snow had covered the trail that did not go far and was soon lost as it was still snowing.
More snow on Saturday frustrated the ground rescue operations and hopes of finding the missing students were beginning to wane.
Caught in an early winter storm in 1983, Australian climber Roddy Mackenzie, an Everester, was amazed at the amount of snow that fell in a short time around a peak in Manali. It was enough insight to turn the region into one the best heli-skiing country on earth.
For India, a country where only a few private companies or individuals owned helicopters, heli-skiing was an adventure thrill few had even heard of then.
The sport of air dropping skilled skiers on virgin slopes with powdery snow with runs extending to over 3000 metes was introduced to India and Manali in 1990.
Civilian helicopters with experienced pilots brought in all the way from Switzerland have been camping in Manali each winter, ever since the sport was launched in the country.
The 2015-16 Heli-skiing season was nearing its end when information about the students weathering a snow storm at Chanderkhani Pass got to Manjeev Bhalla, managing director of Himalayan Heli Adventures, the company that runs adventure sport operations.
Cold, hell nights
Cold, wet, without water, nothing to eat, and without any fuel to light a fire, the eight students had lived through hell from Thursday to Saturday afternoon, a time when the snowstorm continued to lash the mountain ranges.
Without any phone connectivity, no maps or markers to guide the onward path, the trekkers had split into two groups. In search of help, two of the lost trekkers had moved ahead of the others and had found shelter in a cave. The remaining six were huddled together in a tent pitched in a deodar (cedar) forest.
Having been contacted by the district administration to assist them in the rescue operations, Bhalla set up a crack team consisting of Swiss pilots Capt Gerold Biner and Capt Daniel Lerjen to carry out rescue sorties in the ranges where the trekkers were stranded.
The biggest challenge was the bad weather and lack of any accurate details about the movements of the trekking group.
The first reconnaissance flight on Friday turned out to be a very short one due to the weather changing rapidly. Fresh snow had covered any human tracks, if there were any around. No human was sighted.
Before the weather allowed carrying out of next the sortie, the rescue team managed to reach one of the trekker’s brother who provided important details that helped in narrowing down the search area.
The terrain zeroed down upon did not allow prospects of walking in deep and soft snow in a densely forested area with cliffs and rocks scattered around.
On Sunday afternoon, as the weather conditions improved, Capt Biner started to scan the course of Matikochhar Nalla from the lower end, flying dangerously above the forest canopy.
Close to the top of the Nalla as he rounded a bend to his joy and relief he spotted the trekkers. “I got them” is what he shouted into the radio.
The news brought instant happiness to the rescue team and lifted everyone’s spirits.
First view showed only 6 of the trekkers, the remaining. 2 were still not spotted.
All the same, based on the ground realities it was obvious to the rescue team that evacuation would have to be done using hook and harness method only and without losing any time.
At this point it was decided to locate 2 mountain guides to the trekker’s camp.
As the weather was deteriorating fast, a second helicopter was called in to speed up the evacuation efforts.
It was on the second evacuation sortie that one of the helicopter crew spotted the missing 2 trekkers ‘holed up’ in a cave on the opposite bank of the Nalla, a couple of hundred meters higher than the others.
Another dark night
A minute by minute rescue operation was carried out but by the time the 6 trekkers and the mountain guides had been pulled out of the camp, a dense fog followed by heavy snow set in, preventing any further flying.
The remaining two 2 trekkers in the cave could not be evacuated and had to spend another night in those heights.
Starved for days and fearing for being lost forever, hope had come out alive after seeing the helicopters rescue the 6 others, which kept their spirits warm through the long cold night.
Monday morning turned out to an overcast one but the rescue team was prepared to risk it as it was possible to fly in it.
The remaining 2 trekkers after having spent 5 nights in sub zero temperatures were safely evacuated and brought to the helicopter base.
“It was nothing short of a rebirth for the stranded students,” said Bhalla who along with the district administration authorities carried out the rescue operation that involved 4 flights, all of them taken under bad weather conditions.
Perhaps for the first time such a daring rescue operation, without involving the armed forces, had been carried out by a private company in the region.
Photos by Himalayan Heli Adventures