I lay on the cold, hard ground trapped under my bike. The rear wheel spun in place, not having made contact with the ground because of how the machine was propped up on my leg. Everything hurt. My body was still warm from the exertions of keeping my steed upright, or from picking it up every time I had failed, but my mental strength was waning. A deep breath followed, a grunt of annoyance, and an almighty kick to free myself from under the weight of the unfortunate machine. A whiteout greeted me as far as the eye could see, with the falling snow covering up whatever tracks existed both ahead and behind. The handheld radio I had was emitting nothing but white noise. So, there I was – alone, cold, hurt, and for all intents and purposes, dead. A pretty cool way to go, all things considered, but that was little consolation.

And just like that, BANG. I woke up wrapped in the warm blankets in The Grand Shamba La in Kalpa, with the chaotic iPhone alarm doing its thing. Some nightmare, that. However, the room was warm, much like the majority of the ride from Shimla the previous day. I could vaguely hear my neighbour Vir Nakai FaceTiming his daughter, showing off the Spider-Man quilt the hotel had chosen to adorn his bed with the previous night. A hot shower followed (we would not have the pleasure of another for the coming few days) and I began to slip into the multiple layers of gear for the day to come.

With only the boots remaining, I decided to step into the balcony and check out the (pretty spectacular) view as I buckled up. I unlatched the door and stepped into the balcony. “F**k me”. I was greeted by 6 inches of freshly fallen snow. The nightmare was real. My hopes of cheating my way through an easy Winter Spiti ride were in the mud, and my mind immediately started doing the math as to how we were even going to get down to Reckong-Peo without incident.

I shuffled downstairs for breakfast somewhere in between “I’m going to die” and “suck it up, lad” and could barely bring myself to stomach half a bowl of cereal before making my way towards the bike. Our contingent was travelling in 4x4s for the most part, and while traversing the snow would be challenging and even new to many, it certainly is a lot less hellish in the comfort of a heated vehicle. 3 of us would be riding – Vir (old hand in all things motorcycling), Kaustubh Shenai (an experienced ADV-rider in his own right) and myself. The other two seemed to be quite upbeat about the day ahead (if only they knew what was to come), which in turn boosted my spirits somewhat. By the time we got onto the bikes, we were raring to go.

The snow was expected to last for only the first few kilometres of this section of the journey, and as we would lose altitude normal service would resume. Fast forward 50 metres from departure and I already found myself in an unceremonious heap on the ground, having come around a corner too hot after overestimating both the traction of a rear snow chain as well as my own skill. Luckily the body and mind were both fresh at the time, so after consoling myself that things could only improve from then on, I picked up the bike and continued on my way.

20 relatively uneventful but high-concentration minutes later, we had dropped enough altitude to get rid of the chains for the time being. The 4x4s were able to catch up with us at this point and the entire convoy began to make its way towards Kaza. Now I would take you through the entire journey but it was, for the most part, routine. The occasional tip or spill here and there but nothing to write home about as such.

Post lunch at Nako, the bikers built up quite a lead over the group of cars, mostly due to the ongoing roadwork, our undeniable skill (yes, riding for most of the day without a fall had brought the ego back to previously lofty altitudes) and our determination to reach Kaza before sunset, so as not to deal with more ice/ snow than absolutely necessary. The views as well as pace were fantastic, and as we crossed Tabo Bridge the sneaky suspicion that we would make it to Kaza without any undue incident was beginning to increase. It had been an extremely peaceful run with no traffic to hinder our progress either, almost like we had the entire valley to ourselves. In hindsight, that was telling us all we needed to know about what was to come, but tunnel vision had kicked in and the milestones counting down to Kaza were coming thick and fast so on we rode, taking in the views and relishing the ride.

Shortly after Tabo, we were flagged down by some gents from the road-works labour force. They informed us rather matter of factly that there was no way in hell we were making it to Kaza. Around 2 feet of snow had fallen the previous day, and though the sun had wiped out a large portion of the same, daylight was fading and the temperature would only continue to drop. Adopting the classic “dekhi jayegi” mentality famous in North India, we soldiered on to see how far we could get before these apocalyptic conditions revealed themselves.

The temperature was dropping rapidly, and the Oxford heated grips were being put through their paces – 30%, 40%, and then 50% with each passing few bends, as the sun sank lower behind the mountains and the shadows lengthened. We began to encounter the first bits of snow and ice around Pooh, the first few wobbles bringing down both confidence levels as well as speed. We gingerly made our way down the sharp decline that came soon after (thank God the snow/ ice had melted, we would’ve been sent sliding straight into the river otherwise to a rather unseemly demise), and as we rounded a few more bends I looked up and saw the dreaded sight – the entire incline barely a few hundred metres ahead was pure white. The way the road bent ahead made it impossible to see if it was just that section or whether that was going to be the case for the remainder of the journey, but those 50 odd metres looked deadly enough to cripple our progress on the spot. It all began to add up – the warning from the labour force, the absence of any oncoming traffic. We were well and truly f**ked.

Maybe Vir and Kaustubh knew something I didn’t (or they thought they did anyway), and while I parked up on one side at the foot of the climb, both of them attacked it with gusto. What followed was nothing short of comedic gold. Vir took a more measured approach up the right-side track, but as his chain-less rear wheel began to lose traction, out shot his telescopic limbs (he’s massive, probably 6’4 – but from where I stand, he seems closer to 7 feet tall) and brought the bike to a halt. He killed the engine in gear and began to plan his dismount. Kaustubh in the meanwhile took the left side track, momentarily fixing Vir with his best ‘WTF’ glare of annoyance, as if his progress had intentionally been hampered by the big man. As he arrived abreast of Vir and the 390 ADV however, he began to realise that perhaps he had miscalculated gravely and things were not as simple as he had thought. Once the rear wheel began to spin in the same place, he gassed it. The bike turned 90 degrees in the same spot, slamming into Vir’s back and sending him crashing into the innocently parked KTM. Down went the bike, shattering the rear-view mirror. Vir, being the behemoth that he is, was able to stay upright with the stricken Beemer and its confused rider resting against his back. Once the two had got it together somewhat, Vir turned to Kaustubh with what was his very own rendition of “Et tu, Brutus?” and I dismounted from my safe vantage point to help clear up the mess, still in splits. On a day when the elements would do their best to break us, we could’ve done without the helping hand from our own motley crew. You know what they say though – with friends like these, who needs enemies?

A brief reconnaissance mission on foot revealed that the rest of the way at least till as far as the eye could see would be more of the same, so we made the smart decision to wait for the backup crew and get the chains onto the bikes. The remaining distance to be traversed before the safe haven that was Kaza was no more than 40 kilometres, but with the temperature plummeting and snow on the road hardening rapidly to ice, our progress would be slow and arduous.

After about 20 odd minutes we heard the crackle of the radio signalling the approach of the rest of the convoy. The 4x4s made for excellent warm waiting chambers, and where we thawed out while awaiting the backup vehicle that was a little way back having had to look into some issues faced by one of the D-Max’s. Once they arrived, Xplorearth crew Omi and Ravish were at their efficient best, getting the rear chains onto all three bikes within minutes. While the rest of the caravan had been sent on their way, two vehicles stayed in order to provide us with back-up; The trusty Fortuner manned by Vijay Parmar (or as I call him, dad) and Praveen Grover (VP and PG for the remainder of this tale) – both hardened by decades of experience during the Raid-de-Himalaya, and the Isuzu D-Max with mechanical support, spare parts etc. spearheaded by Om Chand and Ravish Sharma. These individuals were key in ensuring that all of us made it home in one piece, and without their support I would never have the cojones to even attempt what was to come.

And so, at roughly 1830 hrs, began what would prove to be the most challenging 6 hours of our lives. Progress was initially tentative, but before long we were doing between 25-30 kmph. The ice was yet to harden completely, and emboldened by the presence of the chains as well as our recuperation in the warmth of the SUVs, we felt comfortable doing fairly respectable speeds. At this pace we would be home and dry in just over and hour.

Everything was fine, only till it wasn’t. Without warning, the wobbles started getting more and more exaggerated. The merest lapse in throttle control was enough to turn the bike right round facing Kalpa again, and it took every bit of concentration to fight the urge to fiddle with the front brake when in doubt. Within the first kilometre, I had an almighty fall. My entire body was jarred and my confidence in tatters. How the f**k was I supposed to do 40km more of this? In a cruel way, it gave me comfort seeing Kaustubh having similar woes. As they say, misery needs company, and boy oh boy were we miserable. Vir had sped off into the distance making the most of his landing gear when necessary. I was so busy staring at what was 10 metres in front of me, eyes absolutely transfixed by the sparkling surface, that I dare not look around to try and catch a glimpse of the KTM tail light in the distance.

What seemed like an eternity passed, and both Kaustubh and I had a few more spills. Both man and machine were taking an absolute battering. By now, the Fortuner had overtaken us to give Vir company. A niggling knee issue was troubling Kaustubh, so while he took a breather to compose himself, I decided to plod on myself. I rode past a carcass that was located just off the road. It could’ve been anything, I dare not look and take my attention away from the path (we discovered it was a blue sheep on our return), lest I find myself in a heap on the ground again. This was probably the most surreal part of the entire experience, as I found myself in between both groups, in absolute solitude. No company, no help (not till they caught up with me anyway), just a man, his horse, and the deafening silence of the mountains. Unfortunately, at this point I couldn’t afford to be having these existential thoughts, and before I could delve too deep into the meaning of life, the ice pulled me into a rut, my hand twitched on the throttle and BANG, I was on the cold ground, trapped under the bike.

In some cultures, they say having a bad dream means good fortune is headed your way. I was ready to call bullshit on this theory. Not only was I suffering as I had in my dream, but to add to the misery it was also after dark and well below zero degrees. If anything, I had managed to outdo the nightmare from the previous night and then some. Though I’d have loved to wallow in self-pity in that moment, hanging around wasn’t particularly an option so with a deep breath, I extracted myself from under the bike, picked up the machine, pointed it in the general direction of Kaza, and off I went.

I had scarcely rounded the next bend and I found the Fortuner parked up, with Vir dusting the snow off as he picked himself up after what seemed to be a similar experience. I parked up next to him, grateful for the breather. I decided to check the GPS telemetry to see how much distance we had covered in the past hour. What I saw shattered whatever little confidence and resolve remained till that point, as I started working out how many more hours of punishment we had in store. We had completed a total of 4 kilometres on the ice, and fallen at least twice that number. At the current pace, it would take us 9 hours to cover the remaining distance, setting our ETA at around three in the morning. Vir was equally appalled when I shared this information, and I could see that VP was figuring out how to proceed from here. By the time Kaustubh limped his way to where we were, VP decided that without chains on the front wheels we would have no chance in hell, and so Omi and Ravish (God bless their souls) did the needful for all the bikes. By this point we had given up trying to help, and were just conserving energy. Vir and I wolfed down a chocolate while Kaustubh nursed his knee in the warmth of the SUV. Before long the bikes were ready to go, the riders less so, but nonetheless we mounted our steeds and resumed our journey.

The front chains were a boon, they truly were. Unfortunately, they had to contend with rapidly cooling temperatures, which had turned all the snow on the tracks made out by preceding traffic into ice. Chains or no chains, traction was at the bare minimum, and the machines were squirrelling out of control every few hundred metres. The instinct was to get ones’ feet down, but the riding boots had close to no grip and the end result would often just be a more spectacular fall. The bikes had taken a beating as well, and the bent handlebars would often take me somewhere I really did not want to go. What I am eternally grateful for is my combination of Motocross boots and knee braces, both saving me from shattering multiple bones in both my legs on umpteen occasions. Skill had also left the building a while ago – this was purely a mental and physical battle to keep going, despite the relentless cold, innumerable falls and seemingly never-ending journey.

Following Vir up a gentle slope, my eyes caught his long legs snake out to save a fall. That brief moment of distraction was enough, and I found myself on the ground again, having done a full split on the bike which was now facing into the hillside. Bambi on ice. I took a minute to compose myself. A lot of self-doubt was beginning to creep in, and I began to consider how far I was from the limit. The words of Nimsdai Purja echoed in my head (watch 14 Peaks on Netflix if you haven’t yet) – “Sometimes when you feel you’re f**ked, you’re only about 45% f**ked.” I still had backup, none of my limbs were shattered, and I had company. It could be worse.

Once I was done with this introspection, I picked the bike up. VP and PG had arrived on the scene. I was asked if I could carry on, or whether I wanted Ravish to sub in for me. I grunted and swung a leg over. I hadn’t been through this much punishment only to throw in the towel here. I cranked up and resumed the journey.

One thing did stick with me though, in that moment. We at Xplorearth pride ourselves on extreme experiences. We put a rider in a place where the only way out is through – to learn more about yourself, your machine, and emerge a different person and a far tougher individual than you arrived. VP NEVER gives anyone the option to sit out or give up, unless the situation is so extreme that a very real danger exists to life and limb. To hear him give his own son an option to cop-out was a real testament to how extreme the conditions were that night. Unfortunately, unlike most of my male Indian counterparts, being the son of the house hasn’t ever entitled me to any mollycoddling or preferential treatment. Struggling, feeling fear, pain, doubt and the like were permitted. But quitting – that has never been and will never be an option. Without that being ingrained in me, I don’t think I would’ve survived the night. Time for some more Nimsdai – “Giving up is not in the blood, sir. It’s not in the blood.”

I think he’d be pleased to know that not finishing the ride that day was a thought that didn’t once cross my mind that night, Dosco or not. We had Ravish, we had the trailer, but the only way that bike was reaching Kaza without me astride it was over my dead body.

The next stretch was (relatively) smooth. I had attained a trance like state of concentration, was used to the rear sliding all over the place and made good progress, soon catching up with Vir. The milestones were also coming along much sooner now, giving us a little more hope with each passing one. The fear of falling was also massively reduced, somewhere after the ninth or tenth time. As fortune would have it though, there was still time for one last heart attack for the both of us. We happened upon a very gradual decline, the type that one would barely even notice on a summer day. Unfortunately, with the temperature hovering close to -15 degrees by this point, the icy surface had us hurtling uncontrollably downhill. I had to fight every single instinct in my body not to touch the front brakes, while my legs were dragging along in fear trying to slow down bicycle style, extremely unsuccessfully. The correct course of action of course would have been to hit the rear brake, but fear had put paid to that. Before I rear ended Vir rather spectacularly, I hit the kill switch on the engine and just allowed the bike to slither to a halt. My pulse must have been well over 200 at that point, and I could see my compatriot having gone through a similar experience, mentally at least. However, we wisened up after that, using the deeper snow on the side of the road to slow our progress whenever faced with a decline subsequently.

My arms were beginning to lock out at this point, and hydration was needed. While I had water in my hydration pack, it was pretty much frozen. I hadn’t been able to give it any attention for the last many hours and hence had to resort to crushing the ice in the pipe and consuming whatever little fluid it would afford me. Soon we were only 6 kilometres short of Kaza, and it was about 1030 PM. Vir had another spill, and we took the opportunity to stretch our legs. Fresh optimism was bubbling in the camp as we could literally smell the end.

Unfortunately, as we started off again, the nut and bolt holding my front chain in place came undone. To make matters worse, the chain had become entangled around the still rotating wheel. With the help of PG, not only was I able to recover the stray nut and bolt, but we were also able to free the chain and within another few minutes I was rolling again. By this time, Kaustubh had succumbed to his knee injury, and Ravish had taken over for him. He continued along with the Fortuner to back up Vir while the D-Max tailed me home. The handlebars were so bent by then that I was riding akin to my namesake from the Mahabharata, ready to fire an arrow from a bow at a moment’s notice, with the right side pulled in close to the chest and the left extended fully.

I was not to be denied though, not so close to the end. The cold, the pain, the bumps and bruises would all be forgotten, but victory or failure is forever. You could bet your bottom dollar that I wasn’t going to be telling my grandchildren 50 years down the line about how I almost completed this ride. As I made it into Kaza and rode to the area outside Sakya Homestay where all our vehicles were parked, I was greeted with a hero’s welcome. Vir and I were delirious, our adrenaline peaking and making it feel as if the past 6 hours had lasted 6 minutes.

The day had been incredibly difficult, and we ended it in the best way possible – a warm meal and a comfortable bed to sleep in. The body was sore, and the mind shattered into a million pieces. It was going to be quite some time before we could fully process what we had done that night, but it would also be an experience none of us could and would never forget.

I can safely say I would never attempt anything like this without the backup crew I knew was sweeping up behind me. They allow us to focus and enjoy doing what we do while knowing that we are in the most able pair of hands should we require it. If I could pick any four individuals to have my back while attempting something as insane as this, I wouldn’t choose any differently. I also think the task at hand would be twice as hard without the company of my fellow riders. Though we lost Kaustubh somewhere along the way, Vir’s optimism and attitude was contagious, and helped me keep going even when I most doubted myself.

It’s been months since we’ve returned to our mundane lives after Ice Kross 2022, but I can still remember it as if it were yesterday. In my limited experience, I’ve done my fair share of harrowing rides (Zanskar, monsoon Spiti, Pangi Valley and so on to name a few), but this was quite easily the most difficult of the lot, by a country mile. Never before have I felt like one mistake could easily be my last. Certain points in the evening were totally out of my control, and it was only by the good graces of the Big Man (or woman, depending upon your reading of faith) up top that I made it home in one piece.

All told, it was the most rewarding achievement in my life till date. I won’t be surprised if it hasn’t been topped even 30 years down the line. The physical scars have healed, but the mental ones shall stay for life. And yet, next February, I’ll be swinging my leg over the bike ready to do it all over again. Life is way too short to not take opportunities like this – before you know it, it’s passed you by!

That’s the thing about bad dreams – they’re supposed to foreshadow the best experiences. In this particular case, they most certainly had. So, there it is – a tale of mountains and men.

*Cue ‘Time’ by Pink Floyd*

And you run, and you run to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older
Shorter of breath, and one day closer to death

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say

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