On Top Of The World

Abhay Verma
Driving the ‘Big Daddy of SUVs’ – the Mahindra Scorpio-N to the world’s highest motorable road for the ‘Bharat Drive’

Photography: Speedway Events and Productions

Ladakh is a mystical land that enchants everyone. It’s a place that features on everyone’s bucket list, and a trip to Ladakh is always mesmerising given the stunning natural beauty, especially the tall mountains. But at the same time, the high altitudes and treacherous terrain also mean a challenge if plan to go there by road. As a seasoned automotive journalist, Ladakh has been an annual pilgrimage of sorts for me and over the years, I’ve also seen accessibility to the region improve thanks to the ever-improving roads. My first trip to Ladakh was way back in 2008 when a roadtrip to Leh was considered a serious test of man and machine.

But the past few years have seen rapid infrastructural development in Ladakh, courtesy the ever-improving roads that have improved transport and accessibility to the region. Of course, given the high altitudes and resultant lack of oxygen this has been a huge challenge for the Border Roads Organisation or BRO. The BRO is literally the backbone of things in border areas like Ladakh and works tirelessly, day or night, to provide immediate relief whenever there’s a landslide or any other natural calamity blocking roads. This is besides the constant work undertaken by the BRO to construct new roads, especially in some of the country’s remotest parts, despite severe challenges like the altitude and lack of oxygen.

This has helped in improving quality of life for locals and above all else, helped the Indian army for faster movement of troops, supplies and more. And when tasked with driving the Mahindra Scorpio-N from Leh to Umling La for the Bharat Drive, I was grinning with excitement. After all, it isn’t very often that you get to drive to the world’s highest motorable road, that too in an SUV as butch and hardcore as the Scorpio-N! The Bharat Drive is the first initiative of its kind by the Automotive Journalists Association of India, or AJAI in short. The AJAI is a body formed by some of the country’s leading automotive journalists who have come together for a cause.

The idea is to groom young talent and help youngsters keen on cutting their teeth in the exciting world of automotive journalism. Besides grooming youngsters, AJAI also aims to help and support existing journalists, especially veterans, and ensure there’s always a helping hand for those who might be in need. The Bharat Drive is our way of kickstarting proceedings for AJAI, and is a cross-country drive that sees us celebrate the nation’s infrastructural progress, especially the development of new roads. Effectively we’re all coming together and this month, besides TURBOCHARGED, you will see a bunch of other leading automotive publications from the country drive across the nation to show you the best of India’s highways, expressways, bridges and more, across various legs.


These are roads that are helping improve connectivity across the vast expanse of the nation, making remote areas accessible and also helping the army in sensitive border areas. And while Mahindra has partnered with AJAI for this drive and given us the Scorpio-N, JK Tyre is our tyre sponsor and has provided us with its Ranger H/T tyres. The Mahindra Scorpio-N itself is no less than a strategic choice for this drive too. Launched originally in 2002, the Scorpio has become an icon of sorts when it comes to hardcore SUVs. And in its latest avatar, the Scorpio-N has become a formidable force with its born tough design, modern technologies and features and above all else, the rugged, go-anywhere nature. And my leg which has me drive it from Leh to Umling La is one of the most special ones! Not just because I get to drive across some of the most beautiful roads you can drive on, but also because constructing the road leading to Umling La would have called for some unimaginable efforts.

The JK Ranger H/T tyres also suit the Scorpio-N’s character as a tough, go-anywhere SUV perfectly. As a homegrown tyre maker JK Tyre has risen to become one of the biggest players for passenger car tyres. And the Ranger H/T tyres offer excellent control and stability, whether cruising at 120kmph on a six-lane expressway or crawling on broken country roads and non-existent mountain roads or even when crossing rivers. This is thanks to their unique tread pattern and compound which optimises grip and traction. My leg, from Leh to Umling La is one of the shortest on the Bharat Drive – it’s just about 300km, but the altitudes make it one of the most challenging ones.

JK Tyre’s Ranger H/T tyres turned out to be the perfect choice for the
Bharat Drive with their unique tread pattern and compound, helping us stay in ‘Total Control’

That’s because that relatively short distance has you climb about 8,000 feet – from about 11,000 feet to over 19,000 feet, which is higher than the Everest Base Camp! As you climb higher oxygen levels continue to go down, making it more difficult to breathe, which only makes me want to salute the BRO for their efforts in constructing a road up there! A day of acclimatisation in Leh later I was behind the wheel of the Scorpio-N, on my way to Umling La, via the picturesque village of Hanle, that’s home to the world’s second highest observatory. Getting out of Leh and onto the relatively narrow but smooth two-lane highway was a piece of cake for the Scorpio-N.

Its 2.2-litre mHAWK diesel engine offers 175PS and 400Nm and was performing excellently, ensuring progress was quick. The automatic gearbox was adding to the SUV’s impressive manners by selecting the right gear intuitively, thus helping me focus better on the road. On the other hand the ladder frame chassis and well-tuned suspension augmented its feel as a rugged SUV meant to be driven to the rooftop of the world. The first 100km or so were thus dispatched in a jiffy, and I was noticing a change of scenery as I drove on. Hanle and its surroundings look very different from Leh, with a visually-stunning, desert-like appearance that will remind you of roads abroad given the desolateness and colours.


The roads were pristine, two-laned, and helping in making remote areas accessible. As I drove on I resisted the temptation to make a pitstop at the Hanle observatory and soon as I passed Photi La, a mountain pass at 18,124 feet, a thought crossed my mind. That was an altitude most people will probably never drive at, or even get to by road, and that itself made driving the Scorpio-N to Umling La very special! It was getting a little difficult to breath and I was having to take it easy in terms of even getting out of the SUV and walking a few steps. But the Scorpio-N was soldiering on without a hitch, impressing with its performance and stability. The engine and gearbox seemed unperturbed by the altitudes, besides which the Scorpio-N also had me ensconced in great comfort as I drove on.

Despite the challenges I knew I was almost there, and besides the smooth tarmac I was driving on, the Scorpio-N was helping me achieve something that’s no less than a dream for enthusiasts, which is driving to the world’s highest stretch of tarmac. Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise given the Scorpio’s iconic status. It has been the preferred choice for buyers looking for a real SUV in India and several markets abroad, which makes my heart swell with pride as an Indian. The tyres from JK Tyre were doing a stellar job too and interestingly, despite Ladakh being infamous for broken roads, I had barely encountered any such sections – which is a remarkable feat!


And finally, I reached Umling La top. There, it also dawned upon me that the very Scorpio-N I had driven up was the one that had been driven all the way from the sea level at Mumbai! 19,024 feet is also the highest altitude that any Mahindra Scorpio has ever been driven to, arguably, because there exists no road higher than that – in the world! But importantly, the ease with which I managed to get to Umling La would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. It’s taken some heroic efforts to build the road leading up to Umling La, which leads to a village called Demchok on the other side, which sits very close to the international border. And thus, besides connecting these parts of Ladakh to the rest of the nation, Umling La is also of strategic importance for the Indian army. So it might be in an extremely remote corner, but Umling La is a road that we as Indians should be immensely proud of!
Jai Hind, Jai Bharat!

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