The Road to Sandakphua Part III July 2016

A casual conversation with one of my old friends from India got the spirit of adventure flowing. In the last installment we skirted ledges cut by Nepalese villagers into the sheer cliffs of the eastern Himalaya in a Toyota SUV. The road had just leveled a bit and we heaved a mutual sigh of relief!

The locally produced Toyota Fortuner was performing well. The powerful diesel was more that a match for any grade that the mountain had thrown at us yet… but a new danger lurked ahead that had not been taken into account. As we rounded a bend, we saw another sheer wall ahead that extended upward as far as we could see. We also saw the first of more than 20 switchbacks that had been carved into the face of the cliff! These switchbacks were one narrow lane wide and had not been constructed with a Toyota Fortuner in mind. The tight radius of the switchbacks had been cut to accommodate the short wheelbase of the vintage 1960s Land Rovers used by the Sherpa guides in this region. The Toyota’s long wheelbase made it impossible to negotiate the switchback corner in one try. The standard stick shift of the Fortuner was also not our friend in this situation. As we rounded the first hairpin turn in the switchback, the angle of ascent increased dramatically and we were immediately aware that the Toyota could not make the turn in a single pass. Vijay hit the brake and stopped the SUV. We drifted slowly backward, and braked again. At this point one of the driver’s feet was on the clutch and the other heavily on the brake. He attempted to engage the handbrake which would let him make the transition from the footbrake to the gas pedal.

The handbrake had been tested on the gentle approaches to the Hyatt Hotel in Calcutta, but our current situation had not been considered. The handbrake would not hold and the Fortuner slid backward toward the edge of the switchback and a 1,500 foot drop. The footbrake was dramatically re-engaged, stopping the vehicle with a lurch. The driver would have to make a perfect transition from the footbrake to the gas pedal to a clutch release in order to prevent the backward plunge into the clouds below. Vijay hit it just right and the diesel engaged perfectly and we climbed upward. We were able to negotiate a few of the switchback in one turn but most of the 20+ hairpin turns were done the hard way.

The cloud cover, thousands of feet below the peak of Sandakphu.
As we leveled off at the top of the cliff, there was a powerful explosion! Kaboooom! Gunfire did not seem possible in this desolate area but we stopped, and climbed out to assess the situation. The tires were intact. The Fortuner’s fenders were badly mauled and the running board on the passenger side was bent sharply upward but those were all cosmetic issues resulting from frantic efforts to keep the vehicle on the road. We could only surmise that the engine had backfired… perhaps in triumph! Soon we reached the hut at the summit of Sandakphu. The extended Sherpa family that manages the station was waving a hearty welcome and cheering mightily!

We were told that this was only the third time that a vehicle of this size had reached the station. The other two had been driven by Sherpa guides, who had spent their entire lives in that region…

In the next issue—what goes up must come down!!

Richard Keldsen

San Francisco
July 2016