Manali: In one of the toughest operations to dig through mounds of snow to make way for nearly 300 tourists, comprising three foreigners, who got stuck on the icy road in Himachal Pradesh’s Spiti Valley at altitudes ranging above 15,060 ft, ‘snow warriors’ on Wednesday began work to reopen the mountain pass.
Seven tourists, most of them elderly and facing health issues, were evacuated by a chopper on Tuesday from the glacial-fed Chandertal lake.
More chopper flights could not operate owing to unfavourable weather and poor visibility.
The stranded people comprising tourists, largely from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat and three women foreigners — two from Ireland and one from the US, have been stuck at the Chandertal for the past four days as rain-battered hills snapped road links.
Heavy snowfall in the region this week has also made the operation to reopen the road network more challenging, according to a government official.
“The snow-clearing operation towards the Kunzum Pass began early this (Wednesday) morning on the third day and a 12-km stretch has been made motorable,” Assistant Public Relations Officer Ajay Banyal, who is posted in Kaza, the headquarters of Spiti, told IANS over phone.
Now the total distance to clear the snow to reach the tented accommodation of the tourists at the Chandertal is 25 km.
According to Banyal, who is accompanying the rescue and snow-clearing teams, the snow clearing work stopped on Tuesday night as the temperature fell below sub-zero with wind chills.
Additional Deputy Commissioner Rahul Jain, who is monitoring the rescue operation, said after this week’s snowstorm dumped more than four feet of snow in the Chandertal area.
“A rescue team of six people carrying a satellite phone was sent on foot to the place where the tourists were stationed. They reached there on Tuesday at around 2.30 p.m. but could not evacuate them as trekking on the snow-laden paths is risky and challenging for tourists. So they have decided to rescue them by road only,” Jain told IANS over phone, adding that the Kaza-Samudo road is yet to be restored.
“The road restoration work is in full swing. We fear that some people might be trapped in the Batal area. We sent a team of trekkers this (Wednesday) morning there to know about the status of stranded people, if any.
“Our goal is to make the road motorable today so that the rescue can be done from Chandertal and nearby areas,” an optimistic Jain added.
“Since there was no shelter en route and camping was not feasibly, our men spent a night in a snow-struck truck parked on a roadside,” an official told IANS.
He said the men have been working in Arctic-like conditions where chances of snowstorms and avalanches still loom large.
Oxygen near the Kunzum Pass is minimal and high velocity winds blow every afternoon. After a bulldozer clears off the major snow, labourers manually clear the remaining snow with shovels.
The team of rescuers comprises Sub-Divisional Magistrate Harsh Negi, tehsildar Bhumika Jain, naib tehsildar Prem Chand, Station House Officer Sanjay Kumar and Veer Bhagat, besides ITBP and Border Roads Organisation (BRO) personnel and local youth.
Volunteers of the Losar Mahila Mandal will look after the food arrangements of the stranded tourists.
The locals — largely Buddhist residing at an altitude between 3,000 metre and 4,000 metre — cultivate green peas, potatoes, barley and wheat on soil that is dry and lacks organic matter.
The Kunzum Pass, which connects Spiti with Lahaul, normally remains closed for traffic for nine months owing to snowfall.
It is located on the Samdoh-Kaza-Gramfu highway.
Chandertal can be easily approached from Kunzum Pass.
The idyllic settings of the Himalayas draw an increasing number of backpackers, especially foreigners, for adventure activities.
High mountains, though beautiful, are rugged, cold and inhospitable and no place for inexperienced or ill-equipped travellers.