Each year within the first two weeks of October, the World’s Highest Motorsport event takes place in India, the Maruti Suzuki Raid-de-Himalaya. One of the ten toughest rallies in the world, the tagline of the event states ‘Making grown men cry since 1998’, owing to the extreme route of the rally : the unpredictable weather, inhospitable conditions and harsh terrain in some of the most remote regions in the world. The rally is a week long adrenaline overdose, with oozing action for each person involved : the Organizers, marshals, sponsors, the media team, doctors, service teams and obviously the bravado competitors who are pelting at 6000 RPM at 15,000 ft. above sea level!
Here’s what we go through as officials each year!
Preparing for the Rally
Marshals compose the backbone of a successful rally, working under and with the COC(s) (Clerk of Course), ensuring the rally runs safely. However, to be successful a marshal needs to make sure they complete the rally themselves – with both them and their machines in one piece. This is serious stuff, and each marshal team knows it – we don’t want to be cold, starving, stranded, ill equipped, or worse – look like a fool among the rest, and with that in mind we begin preparation.
A thorough vehicle and equipment check-up is an absolute must. Energy and warmth are next, and rations are procured knowing that we will be living in our vehicle, eating at odd hours, exposed to insane temperatures and putting together a meal or two each day! Once we’ve prepared for all that, we load-up and make our way!
Arriving at the RAID
As a marshal team, we usually reach the rally a day or two before the flag off, helping kick-start the proceedings! Duties are given on the basis of the experience and availability of the marshals. We could be at the registration counter ensuring each participant has all paperwork in order, or at the scrutiny venue, making sure vehicles confine to the guidelines. We go there as a volunteer, giving at least a week (and possibly more) of our time away from everything else important to us, except motorsport, over-landing, the love for the mountains and the thrill for adventure, possibly extreme! Most of us ensure we are available each year. Only major personal or work related commitments change plans!
The two days when everyone is arriving are absolutely festive. Roaring rally vehicles all around, members of the fraternity, the sponsors all at the scrutiny venue! We meet friends and acquaintances who we possibly meet only a couple of times a year, or restricted to motorsport events. If you’ve been regular for a few years you’ll have a few buddies from different parts of the country to catch-up with! Your first jobs are to procure your marshal dockets, install your radio’s and proudly sticker up your vehicles. You get around the venue mingling with everyone and completing roles assigned to you and evenings are spent – well, bonding, spelt as DRINKING, strengthening old bonds, and creating new ones!
It is only around evening on Day 0, when the minds begin to wander to the 1 AM roll-time, loading GPS tracks, checking your duties in the DCOC (Deputy COC) manual and making sure you get a bit of rest, not knowing if you will get any further on.
Odd Hours, Night Driving and Day Breaks
It’s 12:30 AM, engines are warming up, you’re lined up in a massive convoy of SUV’s and ambulances, possibly with no clue who’s in the car in front of you or behind you. With the convoy leaving at inhuman hours to set-up the stage, it is a possibility that someone oversleeps. To ensure each one being there, a quick roll call is taken on the radio to confirm attendance, and the ones who’ve overslept are given a call, a luxury lasting a day or two before the rally heads into the Himalayas, with no phone network!
After a day or two this becomes a regular practice, with your move time usually accurate. That said, dinners are usually served at common areas and you get a chance to get any information that varies from the DCOC. A one-off chance you don’t do that, you could be off your time.
We, last year slept-off as soon as Day 2 ended and did not know the stage from Patseo – Sarchu had been cancelled for the next day and all marshals for that stage were being placed in the return stage : Losar – Gramphu. This meant I had woken up at 1230 to cover only 60 KM instead of the 200 odd I needed to, by 9 AM. The convoy manning the first half of the stage left at around 3 AM and I was given the opportunity to crash for another few hours. With enough sleep, I realized this was an opportunity to drive to Losar at my own pace enjoying the solitude of driving alone with headlamp beams in the horizon through the valley!
It also gave us an opportunity to set-up a fire, make chai and maggi and gaze at the stars waiting for day-break. Not a lot of people traversing through the region would end up sitting in the middle of nowhere at 3 AM, but for us this was an opportunity, one which we get to experience at the Raid each year!
It is serious business!
On every stage your responsibility could be a different one. Those with most experience are usually given a role where timing is involved, which means start, flying finish and/or a DZ and FZ, or where safety is of concern. As the convoy moves on, marshals are placed forming a radio chain. At any point of time in a stage there should be a fluid flow of communication possible. This does not mean you need to be in contact with a guy 30-40 KM ahead of you, but the fact that a message from you can be relayed to anyone and everyone through that chain. As a radio car, your most important job is to track competitors as per their competition number, accounting for each one. It is your duty to ensure there is no competitor missing between you and the guy behind as well as you and the guy in front of you, and constant and crisp radio communication through chitter-chatter among other teams is an absolute must! Other duties include crowd control and localizing traffic movement, often extremely difficult tasks as people find it hard to come to terms with the fact that the road has been shut for a race, and they cannot go about their business. Typically the ambulances are also placed as per the evacuation plan along with a marshal team to ensure quick communication with the others and especially the stage controller!
This is what you are here for and you’re responsible to be extremely alert in what could be a life and death situation. How quick a medical team arrives at an accident scene or how quick you realize a competitor is missing could be dependent on how alert you are and how cleanly you communicate! In 2015 a competitor went down the cliff in his Gypsy, but was evacuated in time and airlifted to Mohali whereas in 2016 even though the competitor was airlifted to Manali from Chatru, minutes within a crash, tragedy could not be averted, leading to loss of life and terminating the rally!
Pushing your limits
The adventure you get to experience along with the breath-taking landscape is a lure to each and everyone and challenges are thrown each year, which is definitely what attracts us. Braving extremely cold winds, stationed at high altitude passes and gasping for breath, clocking up a decent mileage each day on difficult terrain, is what attracts you to this spectacle. The rally being conducted in October, just when it starts snowing in the higher reaches, means the chance of experiencing extreme weather!
In 2014, the convoy was rolling around 1 am from Kaza and at around 3:30 we experienced heavy snowfall just around Takcha. By the time we had reached Kunzum Top there was a thick sheet of ice on the track meaning zero traction and the vehicles were moving all over the place with minimum throttle.
We were at a stand still and even though marshals are advised to carry chains, many were not and a few were having difficulties putting them on due to the cold! I remember my toes completely numb! As we struggled to put our chains on we got help from Hari Sir – who was walking through the 4 AM traffic jam encouraging each of us to put our chains on and giving us instructions and confidence to start rolling down the pass! The entire process took up a couple of hours and by then the stage had been called off owing to safety as driving competitively in such conditions was an absolute no-go! Since we had time we took to cooking another round of maggi, and I remember holding the pressure cooker straight from the gas into my bear hands to feel any kind of warmth!
As marshals we all are relatively experienced, but this was an instance I saw many teams out of their comfort zones. We waited for the sun to come up in the hope of melting ice, giving our tyres contact with gravel, in turn getting some traction, moving feebly through the hairpins. I’m not going to lie, we were at the edge of our seats when we did start rolling down!
That said the feeling of getting snowed in at 15,000 feet is not such a daunting one with the Raid. You have ample resources such as doctors, ambulances, rescue teams, some of the most experienced heads in the scene as well as those friends who you’d want around if you get stuck in this situation!
Unfortunately, this is going to be the first year in about 8 years that a member of Team Terraquest is not going to be at the Raid. We are going to miss it, and how! Good luck to all our friends competing, marshaling, making up the amazing Himalayan Motorsport Association Team. Good luck to Vijay Sir, Manjeev Sir & Atul Handa Sir for succefully completing the event!