Through mountain of snow, they open road to Lahaul

By Vishal Gulati, IANS,

Manali : In a rigorous four-month effort, they chipped away a mountain of snow to once again link this Himachal Pradesh tourist resort with the picturesque Lahaul Valley via the strategic Rohtang Pass.

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This annual feat was undertaken by dedicated men of the General Reserve Engineering Force (GREF), a wing of the Border Roads Organisation, with their team of labourers.

GREF authorities said this year there was record heavy snowfall in the area and the snow-clearing operation was quite challenging.

“Some of the areas between Marhi and Rohtang Pass were under 60 to 70 feet of snow, unusually large. Near Rahni ‘nullah’ (below Rohtang) there was a snow wall of 70 feet. Normally these areas experience 40 to 50 feet of snow,” Col. Yogesh Nair, commander of the Manali-based 38 Task Force of GREF, told IANS.

Restoration of traffic on the 229-km-long Manali-Rohtang-Sarchu highway will take place within a week.

Nair said the traffic on the highway would be restored within a week as snow-clearing work was completed April 24.

Every year, after winter, GREF opens the highway by deploying more than 250 labourers.

“This time it (the highway) was re-opened in a record time despite hostile conditions and continuous snowfall till as late as April. Even these days the area is witnessing snow every night,” Nair said.

The highway is strategically important to maintain supplies for the armed forces in the forward areas of Jammu and Kashmir’s Ladakh region along the borders with China and Pakistan.

The residents of several villages in the Lahaul Valley are awaiting early restoration of traffic. They have been holed up since late December, as heavy snow snapped road connectivity entirely.

The snow-clearing operation work started March 1 and it was completed in 55 days.

“We had only 32 working days. Rest of the days the work remained suspended due to snowfall, snow storm, landslide and avalanches. Even the labourers who got caught in a snowstorm of March 16 had to be evacuated with much difficulty,” he added.

Last year, the highway was made motorable May 25.

Working in snow in harsh climatic conditions when a sudden drop in the temperature, even in summer, can trigger winter-like conditions is really difficult. Even oxygen is quite minimal and high velocity winds blow every afternoon.

GREF has provided special uniforms to workers which weigh around five kilograms and the weight of a pair of shoes is two kg. Anti-glare sunglasses and gloves are also given. A team of doctors normally accompanies them for handling any exigency.

With the help of the global positioning system (GPS), engineers locate the road beneath the hill of the snow. After the bulldozer clears the major snow, labourers pitch in with their efforts to clear the remaining snow with shovels.

And the workers feel proud to be associated with this strategically-important project.

Jeewan Lal, a labourer from Jharkhand, said: “Last year saw heavy snow after a gap of many years. But this time it was much more. I have never seen such snow accumulation in the past 10 years.”

“But we feel proud that despite working in hostile conditions, we managed to clear the snow in a record time,” he added.

GREF officials said snow clearing work is on now near Baralacha Pass (16,020 ft), one of the world’s highest motorable roads. “We are very close to Baralacha but still it will take another fortnight to make the entire 222-km-long Manali-Rohtang-Baralacha-Sarchu highway motorable,” the officials said.

Vishnu Bodh, a resident of Tandi village in the Lahaul Valley, said: “We are praying for the early reopening of the highway.”

A government-run helicopter, which also operates once a week, is the only mode of transportation for villagers of the Lahaul Valley, comprising more than two dozen small, scattered villages with a population of over 20,000.

Rohtang Pass (13,050 ft) in the Pir Panjal range, 51 km from here, normally remains cut off from the rest of the country for over five months due to snowfall.

BRO maintains roads that serve the border areas of India. It is staffed with a combination of Border Roads Engineering Service officers from the GREF and officers from the Corps of Engineers of the Indian Army. The organisation develops and maintains arterial roads on the borders of India.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at [email protected])