It was the end of April 1989. A 10-member patrol, including one junior commissioned officer and nine other ranks, was heading towards a post on the Siachen Glacier when suddenly it was hit by an avalanche at a height of 21,500 feet. All 10 soldiers were buried alive. All of them died. “This was before 24x7 news channels. So, few people learnt of the tragedy,” says Vijayant Kumar, a retired colonel who was then posted at Siachen as a 26-year-old captain.
At Siachen, where the biggest enemy is the weather, avalanches are a reality soldiers live and cope with every day. The most recent one, which swept through an Indian army post on February 3 killing nine soldiers, had the nation praying because the 10th soldier, Hanumanthappa Koppad, was found alive, though barely — buried under blocks of ice and snow at temperatures of minus 45 degree Celsius six days later. All efforts to save the life of this 33-year-old lance naik, however, failed. He died in a Delhi hospital.
Only those who have served at Siachen can understand what Koppad had endured. For others, the life a soldier leads at Siachen is impossible to fathom. One can only try to grasp what he is up against day after day.
Any soldier, if he is to survive the inhospitable conditions at Siachen where temperatures can fluctuate between minus 18 and minus 60 degree Celsius, has to first go through three stages of acclimatisation — between 9,000 feet and 18,000 feet — to get his lungs accustomed to living and working with whatever little oxygen is available on the glacier. Once he is at Siachen, his lungs will be pushed to the limit.
Special skills have to be acquired: crossing crevasses, climbing over and cutting through 90-degree ice walls, avalanche clearing, drilling and casualty evacuation. These are taught over a month at the Siachen Battle School at the base camp, also called the snout of the glacier, at 12,000 feet. Any soldier who fails these tests goes through the one-month grind again before he’s ready to meet the glacier. It is only until this point that outsiders — celebrities and political leaders — can visit.
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The real journey begins after this — on foot, tied with a rope to each other so that if someone falls into a crevasse, he is not lost forever. “Many crevasses, 100-150 metres deep, are sometimes deceptively covered with a thin sheet of ice that can crack and take the person down with it if he is not roped up,” says Kumar. These gaping icy holes have claimed many soldiers; the bodies of some have never been found.
“From the base camp, it takes four to 10 days to reach the designated post depending on where it is located — central, southern or the farthest north of the glacier,” says Satpal Singh Kohli from 6 Dogra, who was posted here in 1989. The soldiers begin the journey as early as 2.30 or 3 in the morning so that by 9 am they are at one of the intermediary posts. “Normally, we avoid movement during day time when the chances of avalanches are higher,” says a colonel who was posted at the glacier in 1998 when he was 27.
Each soldier carries an ice axe, his weapon and a colossal battle load of 20-30 kg. The body starts sweating despite the sub-zero temperatures because he is also wearing six or seven layers of high-quality, warm clothing. “After walking some distance, you realise there is a thin sheet of ice between your body and your clothes. The sweat has frozen. You can hear it crackle,” says the colonel. The body generates heat but it is not enough to melt the ice because the temperatures are so low.
Opening a can of condensed milk can take 40 minutes “because you are so clumsy due to all the clothing and gloves you are wearing,” he says. Chocolate and dry fruits, he adds, are the only things that stay okay.
For water, most soldiers just boil snow and drink it. But snow too can be contaminated.
With appetite down and the body fatigued, the bowel movement also gets affected. “Even a normal, healthy person takes two or three hours to relieve himself in the morning,” recalls an officer. “We have to take a lot of laxatives.”
Until a few years ago, there were no toilets. “We used to go out in the open, which would be a problem because of the crevasses that open out in the summer months,” recalls Rajesh Bhardwaj, a retired medical officer who was posted at Siachen in 1984 as part of Operation Meghdoot (when India gained control of the glacier). “We used to ‘rope up’ before going for our daily ablutions, two soldiers together, also because sometimes the weather could turn nasty in minutes causing a whiteout and obscuring visibility.” At those temperatures, the waste doesn’t rot and it contaminates the snow. Now the soldiers have been provided with bio-digester toilets.
To bathe, the troops have to melt snow. “That’s a difficult task because it takes a lot of snow to make half a bucket of water. I took a bath once in six weeks,” says Bhardwaj.
Kerosene is the lifeline. Earlier, it was delivered in jerry cans. Now, there is a kerosene pipeline running from the base camp to the last post, with pumping stations in between that have to be constantly maintained.
Until 2000, the soldiers stayed in snow tents that icy winds and blizzards could blow away or rip apart. Now, they have fibre glass huts. Each can accommodate six people and two can be joined to take in 12. It has a window on the top for the sun to filter in. “If you are stuck in an avalanche, this window also serves as an emergency exit,” says an officer. But these structures keep coming loose and shifting because there is no foundation holding them in place; they are just hammered down into the ice with nails. As soldiers prepare food or sleep inside — mostly in sleeping bags on the floor or on makeshift wooden planks because beds would take up too much space — the ice underneath melts. The iron nails anchoring the hut come loose and the structure becomes unstable, shifts and can even be blown off on a windy day. So every few weeks, a new patch is dug up and levelled and the structure pushed into it and hammered down.
Supplies, including ration, are airdropped largely between 5 and 7 in the morning because as the temperature starts rising, the rarefied atmosphere becomes thinner and it becomes difficult for the helicopter to fly. “After 9 or 10 am, the chopper can barely fly. It might not be able to take even its own weight,” says Kohli, the retired colonel. “At Siachen, the helicopter rotor is never turned off for it might not start again.”
Creating a helipad too is a task. Soldiers spread the parachute cloth on the snow and write an “H” on it in bright colour, for example with melted red cherry jam so that the pilot can spot it. But the helipad sometimes gets buried under snow. Every few weeks it also has to be shifted as the ice around it melts under the sun, making it jut out like a pillar. The effect is called “pillaring”.
These are hardships the soldiers don’t mind as much as the loneliness and depression that sets in. “You are a group of men — 10 or 20 to each post — stuck in the middle of nowhere,” says a major who served in Siachen in 2012. “After a while you begin to forget that another world even exists.” Sometimes, he says, you feel it would be better being on a post where you are face-to-face with the enemy; at least there’d be something to keep you occupied.
To cope, there is a compulsory interaction period. Meals are had together and every soldier has a “buddy” who looks out for him. “We would also play pithu, kho-kho or invent new games,” recalls an officer. “We were so starved of fresh food that once, after a gap of more than a month, some fresh food was dropped. I ate bhindi (okra) raw just to get a feel of fresh food,” recalls Bhardwaj.
He remembers two young officers who had formed a dancing troupe. “They would dance like female dancers from old Hindi movies with elaborate hand and neck movements” — all aimed at keeping the moral high and the troops cheerful. Earlier, letters from home would help lift the mood. “We were sent packets made by officers’ wives in Delhi, with chocolate, cards and letters of encouragement,” says Bhardwaj. “Everyone would laugh on receiving these letters but secretly each soldier liked it and cherished the letter.”
Satellite phones — one on every post — have now replaced letters. “Soldiers get to talk to their families once a week for two minutes per person,” says an officer who served at Siachen in 2003.
The chilling temperatures and high altitude can take a serious toll on health. Even a seemingly innocuous action can leave a soldier maimed for life. “If you are sitting outside on a nice sunny day with not a cloud in sight, you can get a sunburn and a frostbite at the same time,” says a colonel. “And if you touch, say, your metal weapon even briefly without gloves on, you could lose a part of your skin or even the hand. Such cases are common,” says Kohli. The glare of the ice can blind if a soldier steps out without the protective goggles. “You are so bogged down by clothes, ropes, goggles and caps that sometimes you just want to break free,” says an officer.
Incidents of soldiers dying in their sleep due to carbon monoxide poisoning from bukharis meant to keep the huts warm are common. Breathlessness, headache, loss of orientation, nose bleeds, stomach ulcers, skin and respiratory problems and hair loss are routine too.
The conditions a soldier particularly dreads are dehydration, high altitude pulmonary oedema (water in the lungs) and high altitude cerebral oedema (water in the brain), which can be fatal. To make it through these, he needs to be evacuated immediately. But there are days when the helicopter cannot fly because of bad weather. And so, many soldiers lose their lives every year. Besides, the helicopter cannot carry much load in this area, so the patient often has to be evacuated alone, without any nursing assistant or doctor on board.
An officer who served in 2002 recalls that even five to six years after returning from Siachen, the soldiers continued to have blisters on their feet.
Prem Nath Hoon, who led Operation Meghdoot and headed the Western Command, says Rs 20 crore is spent a day on logistics for keeping the Indian army at Siachen. The retired lieutenant general is not for “de-induction of troops from Siachen — because if we lose Siachen, then we lose Kashmir” — but he feels that the deployment at the glacier has been mismanaged.
Bhardwaj is of the opinion that it is inhuman to expect the soldiers to fight in such an inhospitable place. “We should demilitarise the zone as soon as possible. The human cost is very, very high.”
That does not appear to be happening anytime soon. So, in the frozen desert where a clap or loud laughter can trigger an avalanche, the troops must soldier on.
Names of serving officers have been withheld on request