Hyundai Sea to Summit Part Two: The Summit

Special Feature Updated: August 22, 2022, 06:10 PM IST

There's a marked change as the Sea to Summit drive heads out of Chandigarh. For one, it's no longer pouring buckets. The rains, which had followed us all the way from Mandvi, into Rajasthan, and onwards to Chandigarh, seems to have left behind the orange warnings it had earned along the way.

The skies were blue again, and a gentle breeze was rippling through the mustard fields in Punjab. Ah, this is exactly what we were hoping for as the first view of the mountains appeared.

As much as we enjoyed looking at the Venue all dirty (like an SUV should be) after days on rain-soaked highways (our rock-climbing antics in Bera apart), it was nice to cover distances with clear visibility for kilometres. Now, for a while at least, our focus was on covering distances and not so much on shooting.

Thankfully, the roads allowed for that. On the straights, holding 80-100kmph with the Venue in sixth gear would have the 1.5-litre diesel motor purring away right in the peak of its torque band. Throw in ascents, and traffic and you'd think you would need lower gears to make quick progress. Fortunately, that's not entirely the case. The way this engine's been tuned, it gives you a nice flat torque curve to play with at low revs. This means you can get away with short-shifting, while still keeping the engine feeling pretty relaxed as the revs rise. Hairpins in third and fourth gear seemed very doable, and after a point it almost felt like cruise control with minimal thought and effort needed. This engine and gearbox combo have really got it just right.

From Manali, the Atul tunnel makes short work of the trip to Jispa. Once the best place to break your journey from Manali to Leh, now it seems incidental. Good weather stays with us as we begin the real part of the climb. Thankfully. Rains in this part of the country can sometimes result in cloudbursts – warm monsoon air meeting cold air – and that can get destructive.

Still, it seems the rains hadn't escaped the region completely. Parts of the road seemed entirely washed away, in some cases leaving behind the evidence of the landslides strewn across the tarmac. The Venue ate it all up, and was even keeping up with our camera car (a body-on-frame pickup) through the rough stuff. This despite being mindful of the canine's comfort, fast asleep in the back seat. If that isn't testament to the Venue's ride quality over the worst the mountains could throw our way, I don't know what is.

Everything from the Gata loops to the climb up Taglang La was dispensed off between first and second gear in the Venue, proving this engine breathes pretty well up in rarefied air. A nice bonus in the new Venue is that the cabin air purifier is now built into the centre armrest. The higher you climb, the less oxygen there is in the air, but having the cabin air being conditioned and purified helps, at least psychologically!

Now, while the journey up to Leh by road is no longer as treacherous as it used to be a few years ago (not even comparing it how hardcore it was a few decades back), it's still no walk in the park. Rolling into Leh with a few days of acclimitisation ahead of us, we almost felt like we didn't need it. We were still pretty fresh after the drive up! Of course, we're not ones to shy away from much earned R&R – it had been nearly two weeks on the road at this point after all.

Leh is trying to simplify its sometimes chaotic traffic by being more walk-friendly, which means parking spots near the main market are few and far in between. Again, it's easy to find a spot to fit the Venue into considering it fits in most hatchback-sized parking spots. That's something bigger SUVs can't do. Clearly, it's a case of being able to package a lot into the Venue, whilst not taking up a lot of space at the same time.

Now there are three ways to get to Umling La from Leh. And they all start past the town of Hanle, the site of India's highest observatory and usually your best shot at capturing the Milky Way when you aim a lens up at the sky. And while we were fortunate enough to avoid heavy rains on this trip, the forecast and skies looked gloomy the day we reached Hanle. Overcast skies meant no star spotting would happen this time. But we had bigger aspirations on our mind.

Umling La. The world's highest motorable road. The Everest for anyone with a bit of petrol in their veins. Coming back to the three ways up, the best road is via Photi La pass. Unfortunately it was closed due to repair work. Which left the other two options. One via a village called Boog, and the other via Punguk. There are no signs announcing the way. It's almost like the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), who have heroically built and continuously maintain all the roads in Ladakh, don't want anyone to go there.

Quite by accident, we found ourselves on the middle path. It leaves the road behind, and cuts across a valley between the mountains. I imagine this is what the More plains looked like. Before they were tamed. The surface is hardpacked sand, hints of brush, and lots of gravel. It's a good excuse to let the Venue kick up a storm. This sort of off-roading in an agile, quick SUV like the Venue is proving to be addictive!

A quick 30-odd kilometres later, you suddenly find yourself back on pristine tarmac. A quick check on the altimeter showed we were still around 15 and a half thousand feet. But by our calculations, we were only 40-odd kilometres away from Umling La top. Were we really going to climb 3,500ft of elevation in that short a distance?

The answer is yes. And it's glorious. The moment you start seeing the signboards announcing things like "You are now higher than Everest base camp", your heart starts racing a little faster. The few motorists you pass along the way give you the thumbs up, almost egging you on. It's a wonderful feeling to be on the climb up to the highest motorable pass. Knowing that it's a path only the most adventurous have chosen. As the altimeter seems to jump numbers by the hundreds instead of the tens, we're once again expecting the diesel Venue to feel the elevation.

But, if anything, the Venue's performance feels as renewed as we do. And as we reach the top, the heavens opened up. At this altitude, with temperatures hovering around zero, the drizzle turns to snow. What a feeling, to be greeted by snowflakes the first time we set foot on the road at the top of Umling La! The BRO have a small café at the top serving quick refreshments, for people wanting to say they've had the highest chai in their lives. For us, the feeling of achieving what we set out to do – drive from Sea to Summit in one shot – is a different high.

Oh, and in case you were wondering. We did the math on the fuel efficiency the Venue returned even at high altitudes. And it averages out to around 14-15kmpl. Which is stupendous! The Venue's definitely on its way to peaking at the top of the sales charts, and we're glad we got to experience this drive of a lifetime in it.