Manali, India – It was ‘Team Raptors’, who voluntarily came to the rescue of nearly 100 tourists stuck on the icy roads overlooking the picturesque tourist resort of Manali in Himachal Pradesh at altitudes ranging above 3 000 metres this weekend, and won accolades for their exemplary act.
The heavy snowfall on Saturday evening coupled with slippery roads in the 12km avalanche prone stretch between the Solang ski slopes and the newly opened Atal Tunnel Rohtang turned joy into a nightmarish experience for the nearly 300 tourists.
The tourists were trapped in their vehicles. It was Team Raptors, comprising seven local youths, who are experts in off-road motoring, that came to the rescue of nearly 100 tourists.
They assisted the local administration and the police in the night-long rescue operation that ended on Sunday. The remaining tourists were rescued by the administration.
Ace off-road rallyist Suresh Rana, founder of Team Raptors, told IANS on Monday that the rescue operation was tricky owing to poor visibility and inclement weather.
“A large number of panicky tourists along with children left their vehicles behind and started trudging on snow-laden road towards Manali,” Rana, who captured the Raid-de-Himalaya – one of the world’s toughest off-road motor rallies – 11 times in the four-wheeler Xtreme category, told IANS.
He said seven members of Team Raptors first started rescuing those who were walking with no idea about reaching their hotels.
“Initially, our team members safely transported the tourists back to Manali in their respective hotels. Later, we told the administration to make their arrangement for transportation mid-way so that timely assistance could be extended to more stranded tourists,” Rana said.
He said most of the tourists, who left their vehicles behind, were rescued in 4X4 vehicles. “The sigh of relief on their faces was priceless.”
“I am extremely grateful to Team Raptors for rescuing me and my entire family,” said Akhil Dubey, a tourist from Delhi.
“Our vehicle broke down while hitting a snow-laid boulder when we were coming back from the Atal Tunnel. There was no help in sight. They were a godsend for us. As we faced snow for the first time, we all were panicky and shivering badly. They dropped us to our hotel in Manali,” he added.
Besides Rana, the other members of Team Raptors were journalist Sandeep Singh, Jony Singh, Vishal Bodh, Anmol Kumar, Manoj Kumar, Vikas Kohli, Parveen Sood and Hitesh Sharma, all motorists who normally participate and organise off-road Himalayan rallies.
“It took six hours to cover just 24 kms between the Atal Tunnel and Manali due to lack of traffic management and slippery road conditions with the onset of snowfall on Saturday,” Akshay Thakur, a resident of Manali, told IANS.
He blamed tourists for irresponsible driving and traffic snarls.
Thakur along with his family was stuck while coming from Keylong via the Atal Tunnel.
A tourist, Dinesh Gupta, echoes another concern: “I was charged Rs 1,000 per family member by a taxi driver for dropping us to our hotel in Manali. Since our vehicle got struck and even walking was risky, we preferred to take a cab. There is no mechanism to regulate the private taxi operators. They are robbing the tourists in the hour of crisis,” said Gupta, a tourist from Chandigarh.
He said the next day the local administration assisted in getting the vehicle retrieved from the snow.
Most of the tourists blame the local administration for ill-equipped and poor vision to handle any exigency.
“The much publicised tourist destination Manali has no disaster management strategy,” remarked tourist Shalini Verma.
“The roads often get clogged, and the snow makes it risky to drive on them, especially for non-Himachali motorists. Nobody is there to assist in case of a natural calamity. When the administration knows about the prediction of heavy snowfall, why they allowed hundreds of tourists to move towards the high hills,” she asked.
The 9.02km long horseshoe-shaped Atal Tunnel – the world’s longest motorable tunnel, under the 3 978-metre Rohtang Pass in the Pir Panjal range – has 45 avalanche-prone spots, official said.
Most of the avalanche-prone areas are located on the south portal of the tunnel towards Dhundi, 25km from here. At a couple of points on the route, avalanches occur every year.
Chandigarh-based Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE) has designed mechanical structures to ensure the safety of motorists by countering avalanches on both ends of the tunnel that remain under snow even during peak summer.
Three snow galleries have been constructed at the tunnel’s south portal from the Manali side. The length of a gallery varies from 40 metres to 130 metres.
The other mechanical structures on the 12-km stretch towards the south portal are five deflector steel walls and a bridge to withhold an avalanche.
Officials said the local administration should restrict the movement of vehicles, especially during the peak tourist season, towards the tunnel during the winter and the monsoon when chances of road slips are high.