Monday, February 8, 2016

Keeping the supply chain to Siachen uninterrupted: How India does it

‘Here the hepter, doctor and porter are our real Gods’

As the financial year draws to an end in March, every other government department and organisation in India is busy finalising and reconciling the accounts. In Leh, the headquarter of 14 Corps, two brigadiers in charge of ordnance and supplies however have much more important issues than balancing the credit and debit columns. As winter shows first signs of receding and the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) engineers get down to the task of opening the two passes—Zoji La and Baralalcha La—that connect  Ladakh to the rest of the country, the two brigadiers in Leh start monitoring the movement of supplies that are contracted for the coming year. Although the Zoji La and Baralalcha La do not become viable for heavy traffic until middle of April—they are under 8 to 10 feet of snow for over six months in the winter—a meticulous timetable is already in place to ensure a convoy of trucks starts flowing into Ladakh carrying all kinds of provisions ranging from tents and snow clothing to ammunition and from fruit juice to high calorie chocolates.

Given that the window for stocking up for the rest of the year is only between April and early November after which the passes close and the fact that a full-fledged Army Corps is now deployed in Ladakh, the challenges of maintaining the logistics chain have increased manifold. The planning actually begins 18 months in advance, the two brigadiers tell me explaining the complex operation. The Army has established ‘ordnance echelons’ at key locations along the long supply chain. The trucks bearing various items begin to move after receiving an indication that the passes are open and repaired to take the load. The sequence of travel and loading unloading is all decided a year in advance.

As the convoys begin their journey from the plains of Punjab, enter Himachal Pradesh or Jammu, depending upon their ultimate destination and then traverse the high passes, officers in the Army’s ordnance and supply branches get busier. They have to keep a tab on the progress of these convoys on coming into Ladakh either on the Manali-Baralalcha La-Leh road or the Jammu-Banihal-Srinagar-Zoji La-Kargil-Leh route. The long distances and difficult, narrow roads add to the challenge that the truck drivers face. In the summer months, tourists travelling by these roads often encounter these convoys and many of us would instinctively curse the truck drivers for slowing down or sometimes even blocking traffic. But next time any one of the readers come across these trucks, give a little thought to the vital tasks they are performing. Without these uncomplaining truckers who take tremendous risks driving in the high altitudes, soldiers deployed in the harsh terrain across Ladakh would not feel comfortable!

For Siachen, the trucks have to cross another hurdle, the formidable Khardung La (at 18,380 feet it is considered the world’s highest motorable pass) and then travel another 200-odd km to get to Siachen base camp or the farthest base in the Turtuk sector. Not every truck has to go up to Siachen base camp though. Over decades, the Army has established various nodes where depending upon the importance of the equipment or provision, stocking is done. Every three months, the stocks are pushed forward either for their final destination or are kept in transit.  An estimated 1,80,000 tonnes of provisions are needed in a year in Ladakh.

After years of bureaucratic jostling, special rations are provided to troops in high altitude. In Ladakh, two categories of High Altitude Ratios exist. The first category is for those living in altitudes between 9,000 and 12,000 feet.  The second for those stationed above 12,000 feet. In Siachen, it must be emphasised, the base camp itself is at 12,000 feet! After a detailed study, it has been decided that every soldier who gets deployed on Siachen must get a 6,000 calories per day diet. So specially selected food items that include, chocolates, beverages, eggs and dry fruits, are specially flown into the glacier. In fact, soldiers have an option to choose from over a dozen special items to eat in addition to those available at the base camp and lower altitudes.

For every battalion that gets deployed in Siachen, fresh supplies have to be provided.  At the very least 12 units get rotated in a year on Siachen. Then there are personnel from other arms. So on an average about 15,000 to 20,000 troops get deployed by turns on the glacier in a year! The highest priority however is to supply Category I and Category II items. They include snow clothing, gloves, three pairs of socks, Jacket Down, triple-layer snow suits and survival essentials like the ice axe and crampons. None of these are supposed to be reusable.

For the logistician, there is no room for error. When the trucks are unloaded at various points the stocks have to be divided into ‘air portable’ or parachute compatible weights. They have to be stored in accordance with the priority of dispatch. Come blizzard or avalanche, the loads have to be carried every day.

Once the provisions are sorted out, stacked and ready for dispatch at various locations, helicopters take over. The larger, sturdier Russian built Mi-17s carry the heavier loads. They are not able to land at every small helipad on the glacier. They also have limitations of ‘hover’ at those altitudes but they are indispensable in dropping, guns, ammunition, tents, snow scooters and spare parts since equipment failure is frequent on the glacier. After all, despite their best intentions no defence manufactures would have anticipated the extreme conditions that prevail on the Siachen glacier. The Mi-17s with their ability to carry heavy loads are as indispensable as the lighter Cheetahs. The Mi-17s operate from three places—Leh, Thoise and Base Camp—and have a busy scheduled throughout the year.

A helicopter at Siachen
Then there are the old but reliable An-32 transport planes which are based in Chandigarh in the planes. From the very beginning of Operation Meghdoot, these planes have contributed immensely to the supply chain.  An-32s carry the heavier loads and drop them by parachute over the glacier. While the dropping both by the transport aircraft and the Mi-17 helicopters is a pretty sight, for the soldiers on ground, it is a major task to keep track of the loads and retrieve them. As Lt Gen (retd) Ata Hasnain, who commanded his unit (4 Garhwal) on the Northern Glacier in 1995-96, reminisces: “On the northern glacier, there are no porters. All the haulage is done by soldiers. The drops used to begin early in the morning. That time (in the mid-Nineties), the kerosene jerry cans apart from the other heavy stuff needed for heating used to be dropped by Mi-17s or An-32s through orange or red colour parachutes as near the posts as possible. At the posts there was an entire arrangement to keep a close eye on the drops. Once the Mi-17s and the transport aircraft had departed, the work for the ground soldiers would begin. They would fan out to the spots already noted, some on snow scooters, most on foot, roped to each other, locate the parachutes, haul the loads on the sledges, tie them up to the snow scooters or start pulling them to their pre-determined storage points. That’s the time the soldiers were most vulnerable to the dangers of crevasses, especially in summer month when they open up in large numbers.” 

Snow scooters are indispensible on the glacier for the mobility they provide. They were inducted into the glacier operations as early as 1984-85, according to the initial notes of the Northern Command.  But the infamous Indian bureaucracy, instead of facilitating their easy acquisition, delayed purchases on absolutely flimsy grounds. As Lt Gen VR Raghavan noted: “The army found that snow scooters can greatly help...and reduce both time and effort...snow scooters are based on a simple technology, are cheap, and easily available in the world market. They do not require the complex processes involved in the acquisition of tanks or aircraft or submarines. Snow scooters are meant to operate on snowfields and not glaciers. Consequently, their parts get worn out faster on glaciers. Nonetheless they are not required in large numbers and an annual purchase of couple of dozen would have more than met the needs on the Saltoro. This simple matter was turned into a tortuously complex operation by officials in the Ministry of Defence.

“It first questioned the veracity of the breakdown rates, then the quality of training imparted to users, then the cost-effectiveness of the machines against porters and finally, the need to have them altogether. On one occasion, when a few snow scooters were sanctioned after some years of denial, the troops on the glacier asked that special prayers of thanks be offered to the regimental deity. The story may be apocryphal, but it shows how gallant soldiers are reduced to seeking divine intervention against an insensitive official process.”

Me at Khardungla top
In fact, it took personal intervention of George Fernandes, defence minister in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government (1998-2004) to speed up the process of acquiring the snow mobiles. Fernandes, who earned the sobriquet of ‘Siachen Minister’ because of his frequent—and as soldiers say, morale-boosting –visits to the glacier, administered a shock treatment to the civilian bureaucrats by ordering them to visit and stay in the Siachen area in 1998! An international news agency report in June 1998 said:For more than a year, three Indian bureaucrats ignored a request for snowmobiles from soldiers stationed in an icy border wasteland. Now, the angry defense minister is reportedly sending the officials to the country's equivalent of Siberia.

“The Pioneer newspaper, quoting anonymous defence sources, reported Wednesday that Defense Minister George Fernandes, returning from a visit to the Siachen glacier in April, was displeased to find that the bureaucrats had been sitting on the request for 10 snowmobiles. Fernandes ordered that at least 10 snowmobiles be sent to Siachen every year and directed the Defence Ministry officials to spend at least a week on the glacier to familiarize themselves with the needs of troops there.

“The Times of India added that such familiarization postings could become standard under the energetic Fernandes, who became defence minister when a new government took over two months ago.”

Fernandes in fact made almost three dozen trips to Siachen during his tenure as Defence Minister. Describing one of his visit to the glacier, Manoj Joshi, writing for India Today in October 1998, says: “The schedule would be punishing for a 40-year-old but George Fernandes, Union defence minister who celebrated his 69th birthday this June, wouldn't know it.

Take his last trip to Siachen, a place avoided by the healthiest at the best of times. Up at Udhampur at 4.30 a.m., Fernandes was at the airport an hour later for the flight to Leh, which he reached by 7 a.m.

A visit to local officials, the Doordarshan Kendra, a quick lunch, and he was off by road to Khardung La. There, atop the highest motorable pass, he held an impromptu press conference with accompanying journalists, even while army officers pleaded with the party to move on because of the danger of hypoxia.

By evening, he reached Partapur, the headquarters of the Siachen brigade. Throughout the journey, he made it a point to stop the convoy to talk to locals and jawans. At Partapur, his first assignment was to inspect the base hospital, which he did, taking notes in a small book.
After dinner, he chatted with friends till 12 midnight, worked on his files till 2 a.m. and was up again at 6.30 a.m. for a helicopter ride to the higher reaches of the glacier.

Special privileges were at a minimum. On the road he was, as always, upfront, next to the driver, minus any special security. Arrangements were not ostentatious the jawans he dispensed with the special table and tucked in with the jawans.”

George Fernandes’ tours and his special interest in Siachen ensured that acquiring snow mobiles at least has remained a smooth affair thereafter.
In fact, in 2010, the Ministry of defence claimed: “The Defence Ministry has signed a contract for procurement of 20 Snow Mobiles with M/s BRP, Finland in December 2010. The complete set was received, inspected and deployed in Siachen by March 2011 in a "record time frame of three months."

Before Fernandes made it a habit to visit the glacier every six months, ministers and Army Chiefs visited Siachen infrequently. Lt Gen PC Katoch who commanded the Siachen brigade between December 1997 and December 1999 tells me: “When I took over the Siachen Brigade (1997), I was told that periodicity of visit by the Defence Minister and Chief was about once in 2-3 years. While I was still on attachment, Mulayam Singh Yadav came on his last visit. He presented four INMARASATs to the formation and next day national dailies flashed this news with heading “Communication Problems in Siachen Resolved”. Siachen was actually a neglected sector till then.” He too credits Fernandes with bringing Siachen into focus.

“On his second visit, in 1998, he (Fernandes) witnessed three bodies that had been recovered from a crevasse in Central Glacier after many months, when the crevasse opened a little more. Skin from the bodies was peeling off and Fernandes was visibly shaken. He was a Defence Minister who visited ‘every’ post on the glacier where helicopter landed, understood the difficulties and ensured due priority to this sector including its equipping,” Gen Katoch told me in 2013.

In the first two decades of Siachen deployment, bureaucratic procedures seem the main hurdle. Remembers Gen Katoch,: “Every winter, the special clothing came much after the winter started setting in (I saw this during onset of winter in 1997, 1998 and 1999). Of particular concern were lack of socks and gloves. Delhi had a stupid system of an Annual Provisioning Review (APR) that commenced only in the new financial year, that is April. By the time the troops got the stuff, it was late September, at times even October. There was no system of reserves at Army/Command/Corps/Division level despite knowing the quantum of troops on the glacier and extreme weather conditions. At times it was painful to know that imports had arrived in Delhi but clearance from DGQA (Director General Quality Assurance) was being delayed on one pretext or the other while troops suffered cold injuries on the glacier. On protested like hell including to all the visiting VIPs but nothing much happened. Now, I am told the situation is much improved.”

The supply chain is now indeed much more efficient and the priority accorded to Siachen, perhaps one of the highest across the Indian Army.

The trucks, the Mi-17s, the An-32s all brought the goods right at the doorstep of the glacier but in final analysis, the life saver for troops perched on the Saltoro are the Cheetahs and their magnificent pilots. Light, versatile and flown by pilots of the Indian Air Force and Army Aviation, the Cheetahs have been synonymous with Siachen from the first deployment. When flight operations begin at day break, a Cheetah, with a full tank, is barely able to carry a 20 litre jerry can in the first trip. So suppose the Cheetah is going to the highest posts at Amar or Sonam,  it would take one jerry can and may be a mail bag containing letters for soldiers from their families.

On the return leg, having shed a 20-litre jerry can and burnt some fuel, a rucksack of a soldier about to go on leave and therefore needing a lift back to the base camp would be brought back. In the second trip, two jerry cans would make their way up and the soldier, whose rucksack had been brought down in the first trip back, would get a lift down to the base camp. And so it would go on till noon, the official cut off time for helicopter flights in the Siachen. So nearly 20 sorties would take place to evacuate or transport half a dozen soldiers! Such is the difficulty in flying in the rarefied atmosphere on the glacier. In the summer months when temperatures rise, it is doubly difficult to strike a balance between the need to carry as much load as possible and the safety of the helicopter since the heat makes the already rarefied air at high altitude thinner, greatly reducing helicopters’ power.  And yet the pilots take risks, going beyond their normal duties, always game to save a patient, evacuate an injured soldier or transport an essential spare part in an emergency.

As a young officer posted on the glacier told me in October 2013: “Sir, in Siachen, the Hepter (helicopter), doctor and porter, are our real Gods!”

Truer words have never been spoken!

Initially of course, helicopters were a scare resource. Sitting in South Block, the Army HQ, it was difficult for the Staff Officers to understand the criticality of helicopters to sustain the deployment in Siachen. As Gen Raghavan, who also commanded the Siachen sector in the mid-1980s, has written: “A stage was reached when every helicopter hour was measured. Army and air headquarters were locked in interminable sessions to decide on allocation of sorties to Siachen...a couple of dozen hours of helicopter allocation was a cause for celebration or despair on the Saltoro. On occasions local commanders were reduced to petitioning senior officers for additional helicopter hours not as an operational necessity but as a personal favour. It took some years and not a few close calls with military disasters before a full understanding evolved on the indispensability of helicopter support...” 

Much has changed since those difficult years. Today, apart from the IAF’s 114 Helicopter Unit, the Army has two aviation teams based in Leh, one of them a squadron of indigenously developed and manufactured Advanced Light Helicopters, Dhruv, boosting India’s ability to keep the supplies to Siachen uninterrupted.

(Extracted from my book Beyond NJ 9842: The Siachen Saga, Bloomsbury Publications, 2014)

Friday, February 5, 2016

Here great courage and fortitude is the norm: Tales from Siachen, the world's highest battlefield

In the winter of 1988, 5 Kumaon battalion was inducted on Siachen.  Gopal Karunakaran, then a young Captain, now Vice President with the Shiv Nadar Schools, was commanding his company at Sonam, one of the highest posts on the glacier. One day, the Base Camp Commander, Rajan Kulkarni (no relation of Sanjay but commissioned in the same Kumaon regiment like him) called Gopal on the radio set and told him that a telegram had arrived for him from Kerala. Gopal knew it could mean only one thing since Geeta, his wife was pregnant with their first child and was back home in Kerala.
“Rajan asked me if the telegram should be sent up to the post. We were in the middle of the winter and there was no guarantee that a chopper would come the next day or the day after. And a climbing patrol would take more than a week, if it was scheduled to come. Eager to know the news immediately and not willing to wait, I asked Rajan to open the telegram and read the contents. Now, we the 5 Kumaonis are a very OG (a propah, sticklers for etiquettes) paltan (battalion). Informal and exuberant conversations were rare.  So when Rajan open opened the telegram and read the contents, he didn’t want to say congratulations, a girl has been born etc so he said ‘Congratulations, you are a true 5 Kumaoni.’ Translated it meant it was a girl! It  so happened that in a quarter of a century till then, every officer posted to the unit was blessed with a daughter. Every boy born to them was at a time when they were outside the unit! The news came to me four days after she was born,” Gopal recalls.
In those days telegrams were the only means of communication for soldiers on the glacier. That is how Gopal got to know his daughter Priyanka was born in distant Kerala. “Since we were posted on Sonam, people said you should be named Sonam,” Gopal told his daughter at our place one evening describing the incident to Priyanka, now studying in Australia.
Over pao-bhaaji and chai at my place that November evening, Gopal recalled clearly every moment of his stay on the glacier even 25 years later. If Priyanka’s birth was the greatest news he could get on Siachen, there was a sad incident Gopal cannot forget even now. Gopal was the unit’s Adjutant, a key man in any unit. One day a young lieutenant Sunil (now a serving Brigadier)  walked up to Gopal and said, “Sir, young Rajan Singh wants to meet you.” Gopal asked him what the matter was.
Sunil said: “Sir, he is super shy and is afraid to meet you but he still wants to tell you something.” So Gopal told Sunil to bring Rajan into the tent.
Rajan was a young, 18 year old boy-soldier, straight from the hills of Kumaon on his first posting after training. As Gopal asked him to speak, young Rajan had an unusual request. “He told me sahib jab paltan wapas jayegi mujhe MT platoon mein post kijiye (Sir, when the unit returns from here, please post me to the Motor Transport platoon!),” Gopal remembers.
Apparently, Rajan had rarely seen or travelled in cars or vehicles back home in the hills. But his journey to Siachen had taken him on a plane, a truck and a jeep and he had instantly fallen in love with automobiles! Gopal had no hesitation in agreeing to Rajan’s request and promised to post him in the MT platoon on the return journey so that he could enjoy being in the midst of automobiles!
Next day, Gopal and the first lot of his unit started their 20-day walk for Sonam. Rajan was among the first batch of soldiers walking up. Four days later, as they reached the Kumar base at 17,000 feet, Rajan was violently taken ill after developing HAPO (High Altitude Pulmonary Odema).
“At 2.30 at night, I got a call from the nursing assistant about Rajan’s condition. So I went to meet him and sat with him for half an hour. The nursing assistant said the situation was under control since Rajan was being given oxygen. The nursing assistant had already requisitioned a helicopter first thing in the morning. But at 4 am, I was again woken up. Rajan was sinking and the post was running out of oxygen! The helicopter’s arrival was still 90 minutes away.
“By 4.15 Rajan died, a seemingly fit boy but felled by the unforgiving mountains. That day, we realised the importance of oxygen on the glacier and the vital link that helicopters provide! It was a sad loss so soon after our induction on to the Glacier, but we took it on our chins as the accepted dangers of a soldier’s life. We shed not a tear, and proceeded to do our duty for the next six months, battling the odds and the enemy, in incredibly difficult conditions,” Gopal recalled.
Now, a quarter century later, medical and evacuation facilities on the Glacier have improved way beyond imagination with the Army constantly striving to better the situation. Now HAPO bags are available at almost every post which helps soldiers overcome the HAPO syndrome by maintaining atmospheric pressure equivalent to the sea level once they get inside the bag. The soldiers now have the luxury to wait for the helicopter to arrive. Oxygen cylinders, big and small, are available aplenty across the 150-odd posts on the Glacier. The number of medics, called nursing assistants, has also increased exponentially. In fact a whole new ‘Siachen Medical Doctrine’ has evolved (see separate chapter) which has helped bring down  medical casualties drastically.
It however does not mean soldiers don’t meet accidents or succumb to health issues even now. Since the entire deployment of the troops is in sub-human weather conditions, health issues do crop up, no matter how fit or young the soldiers are. But the response to medical emergencies is faster and mostly available at the posts now.

It wasn’t so in the early years. Many a time, unexpected problems cropped up. Lt Gen (retd) Ata Hasnain remembers for instance how toothaches became a major headache! “Before starting the walk to the Glacier, every unit went through a very thorough medical check up. Dental health was of great importance. Theoretically, on the Glacier, you can, through tele-medicine treat any ailment, even a heart attack. But dental pain can never be treated. And they say a man suffering toothache is almost paralysed. So a dentist and his assistant were permanently posted on the base camp, at least when we were there. The dentist used to carry out a large number of fillings. If a tooth was decaying, it would be extracted ruthlessly! Many people have lost their teeth on the base camp! All this became mandatory and helpful. Otherwise imagine the cost of evacuating a man by helicopter just because he had a toothache!”

Those who have served on the Glacier also recall how a code has evolved over the years on setting priorities for using helicopters. P-I was always for seriously injured soldiers, P-II for less urgent patients, P-III for sending officers up and down and P-IV, the least priority was for a body. “A dead soldier was of no urgency since it was always important to save a life than use precious helicopter hours to transport a dead body,” Gen Hasnain remembers. But sticking to the order of priority would sometimes lead to unintended consequences.

In the mid-1990s, a Gorkha unit lost a boy soldier due to HAPO on Sonam saddle, which is approachable only by helicopter. On the first day, the body was brought to the helipad so that it could be sent down to the base camp. But the pilots were busy ferrying essentials through the day and told the Gorkhas that the body would be taken down at the end of the day. When  closing time for flying came, the pilots said they were low on fuel, so they would take the body back the next day. Next day, something else took precedence. And so it went for two weeks.

Every day the Gorkhas would bring the body to the helipad and every day, unable to load it onto the helicopter, took it back. The daily routine and living with a dead colleague’s body for two weeks eventually got to the Gorkha troops. They started hallucinating. And started treating the dead soldier as if he was alive; they kept aside food for him. Ultimately, someone sneaked to the GoC about this post and the body. He was livid. Next day the body was categorised P-I and brought down forthwith!

Gen PC Katoch concurs: “At times, visibility packs off for days together – fogged out at times even for 7-10 days at a stretch. There have been cases where men were living along with the dead body of a comrade in the same habitat because helicopter sorties could not be launched.”

Pilots have their own stories about carrying back the dead. Since transporting bodies was P-IV, very often rigor mortis used to set in and the bodies used to be stiff by the time their turn came for getting onboard the helicopters. Cheetha helicopters are in any case too small to accommodate the prone bodies, so the soldiers were forced to break limbs to stuff the dead man in a sleeping bag and then send him away.

Brig (retd) RE Williams, who now works with the Jindal group and was also an important part of the initial days of the Army Liaison Cell (ALC), an organisation set up to handle the Army’s media affairs at the turn of the century post the 1999 Kargil conflict, has a story to tell too.

He was a young Major in 1987 and was deployed on what is now Bana top with his own battalion, the 8 Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry (JAK LI). Now the most decorated battalion of the Indian Army, the 8 JAK LI is perhaps the only unit that has actually fought two hand-to-hand battles on the Glacier (see the Battle for Bana top). Brig. Williams co-authored a book with filmmaker and author Kunal Verma in 2010, titled: The Long Road to Siachen: The Question Why.  In the book, Brig Williams describes the pain of sending one’s own colleague on his last journey in less than ideal circumstances.

“Evacuating a live casualty was not a very difficult exercise but ferrying a fatal casualty was a very demoralising event...First, even though the method was absolutely inhumane and disrespectful, we were forced to evacuate by actually tying the body to a rope and sliding it to lower altitudes. There was no alternative because when a casualty cannot be evacuated immediately due to operational and other reasons, it becomes very heavy and rigor mortis sets in, making the body extremely stiff. Carrying such casualties in areas where you have place to move is much simpler as it can be carried on a stretcher, but carrying a body in terrain where there is inadequate place to move even two abreast, it is a torturous experience. Ferrying it is bad see one of your colleagues being evacuated by this method is a psychological ferry a dead man on a helicopter at altitudes over 20,000 feet is another major exercise. With the body stiff and hard as a rock, the situation becomes more a last resort, to accommodate the casualty, some limbs, I hate to mention, have to be forcibly adjusted. Such are the realities of living and dying at the world’s highest battlefield.” 

Rules for flying are also very strict. After 12 noon, helicopter sorties on the Glacier normally end, unless there is a dire emergency. Even in an emergency despite the pilots’ willingness, the top brass is firm on not breaking the rules leading to a lot of heartburn.
Remembers Gen Katoch: “The hierarchy is steeped in its own rigidity and fails to see logic. The rule, at least in my time in the Glacier was that any flying by Army Aviation after noon had to get permission from Army HQ. In one particular case, a jawan got critical with high altitude sickness. Permission from Army HQ was sought through Army Aviation channels which was in limbo because the concerned official was in a meeting. The Army Aviation pilot at Base Camp realising that weather was already turning bad, informed me and took off without permission and evacuated the casualty, saving his life. I commended the pilot, spoke to the GOC and sent up a citation for him. But Army Aviation ceased his flying and pulled him out despite all my protests not to do so.”

The synergy between the aviators and  ground soldiers is perhaps at its best on the Glacier. Within Army units, it is exemplary. Another incident Gopal recounts from his tenure on Siachen was about a soldier, who had slipped and fallen towards the enemy side and how he was rescued at Bana top, at 20,000 feet by a brave and courageous officer who went across single handedly at grave risk to his life, to get the jawan back. The soldier spent four hours exposed to temperatures below minus 40 degrees C, (later both his arms were amputated). “When I met him in the hospital a month later he said he knew that his company commander would come to rescue him. It taught me a lesson in trust, faith, camaraderie and leadership which I shall never forget for the rest of my life,” Gopal said with justifiable pride.
Soldiers, by the very nature of their profession, develop enviable camaraderie and devotion to duty. On the Glacier it simply gets accentuated.
Lt. Gen (retd) Rostum K. Nanavatty, who commanded the Siachen brigade between October 1988 and November 1990 and later also became the Northern Army Commander, reminisces: “My lingering memory of Operation Meghdoot is that of the Indian soldier who, irrespective of his background or regiment (I had 18 major units turnover during my command), unerringly performed their duty to the country in the face of insurmountable odds. He demonstrated doggedness, tenacity, spirit of sacrifice and commitment that was only matched by the Pakistani soldier on the other side of the Saltoro. The latter, it must be said, astonished us on more than one occasion with his innovativeness and derring-do.  It compelled me to coin the maxim ‘Welcome to Siachen: here great courage and fortitude is the norm.’

Gen Nanavatty’s maxim, finds a pride of place even today, 25 years later, on the Glacier.
Those who have served and continue to serve on Siachen, form an elite band of brothers, difficult to emulate anywhere else. When wearing a uniform, a small sky blue/white ribbon on top of the left pocket finds  pride of place in the uniform worn by a Siachen veteran! Everyone, soldiers, JCOs, young officers, aviators and senior commanders, have their favourite anecdote, stories of triumph and tragedy to share.

Lt Col Sagar Patwardhan, who was deployed on the Glacier with his unit, 6 Jat in  1993-94, had a couple of unforgettable experiences on Siachen. The first time when he went for a reconnaissance, the accompanying soldier developed a stomach ulcer and couldn’t carry his rucksack after reaching half  way up. “At such times, you have to step up and carry the colleague’s bag no matter how much the discomfort of taking the extra load. We also lost our way in total ‘white out’ conditions. The ‘link’ patrol took us up to the designated point, but the other patrol coming to guide us further was yet to arrive. So we stumbled through and somehow found a small post. Now that post didn’t have enough place in the tent for us but we all ‘adjusted’ and slept.”

Next morning, Sagar, answering nature’s call, got out of the tent and went some distance down the slope, away from the tent and promptly ‘sunk’  up to his waist in fresh snow! “As I tried to extricate myself, one loosely tied boot got stuck inside the hole! Desperate to get back into the tent, I put my foot back into the boot, by now full of snow! Since  wind had picked up speed and I was some 10 metres away from the tent, there was no point shouting for help. No one would have heard me. Using all my strength, I somehow freed my stuck leg, stumbled back into the tent and shouted for help! Everyone pitched in. I first got into the sleeping bag and desperately tried to warm myself! Saving the foot which had got exposed to snow was now the first priority. As others tried to turn snow into warm water on the stove, I started rubbing the foot after having taken off the wet socks. It took us three hours to get me back to normal! I thought to myself, if this has happened to me on my first reconnaissance patrol, how will I survive the 90 days I am supposed to be here?”

But survive he did!

After spending his mandatory three months on the Glacier, Sagar was back at the base camp and was promptly made in charge of the Siachen Battle School that imparts  basic training and etiquette about survival on the Glacier. Three months into his tenure, a post called Bhim with 8-10 soldiers got buried in an avalanche. Helicopter sorties showed no sign of life there. The worst was feared but the bodies needed to be retrieved, so Brig. Tej Pathak, who later retired as a Lieutenant General and was the Siachen Brigade Commander then, sent for Sagar and asked him to take a 25-member team up to Bhim to try and locate the post.
“Orders are orders! Normally, if you have done two tours on the Glacier, you are not sent back but here I was, trudging up again on an 11-day trek to Bhim on what was nicknamed ‘Patrol Sagar.’ As we neared the post, a snow storm hit. We were cut off for three consecutive days. On the fourth day, we located all the bodies. Now came the tough task of taking them all down with the help of  choppers. By the time we finished the task, it was another three days. After I came back, the commander sent a congratulatory message and later recommended me for a citation. Nothing came of that recommendation, but the satisfaction of having done my bit has kept me going even after so many years,” Sagar tells me.
Devotion to duty under such extreme conditions is what sustains India’s deployment on the Glacier.

Gen Nanavatty also remembers one such tragic incident.

 “I vividly recall a JCO in-charge at an advance support base who, even as avalanches were crashing down about him, simply refused to abandon his post and calmly signed off –forever-- saying ‘Sahib, main yahan se nahi nikal paunga: sab ko meri Ram Ram bol dena’ (Sir, I won’t be able to make it back from here. Convey my greetings to everyone).” He also off hand very fondly remembers an Artillery Observation Post officer at 6,400m, who conscious of the fact that the enemy was monitoring radio traffic, refused to divulge that he was grievously wounded and continued with his mission until a lull in the battle.
In October 2013, when I revisited the Base Camp, 2 Bihar and 7 Kumaon battalions were manning the central and the northern glaciers. As I sat down to interact with the soldiers, all of them were eager to share their stories. Havildar Rajiv Kumar of 2 Bihar talked about the extreme cold.  But what he was most amused was how cooking food was the most difficult part of staying on the glacier. “Wahan chawal pakane ki liye pressure cooker ki 21 sittiyan lagani padti hai sahib (we needed 21 whistles of the pressure cooker to cook rice up there!),” the simple soldier recalled. Another colleague of his, a cook said, although high-calorie and high-protein diet is provided for everyone, hardly anyone ate. “Uppar to bhuk hi nahin lagti hai sahib (there’s no appetite up there, Sir),” he confesses. So  he would often make a variety of dishes ranging from  maggi kheer to a milk shake!

Capt Deepak Chauhan of 7 Kumaon can’t forget his stay at Amar either. “When I was going up to Amar, everyone was telling us, even the unit before us that it is the toughest post but I thought to myself, what is so tough? I have done the commando course, I shouldn’t find it difficult. At Amar, there is a 1,000-feet wall to be climbed before reaching the top. Once we reached the ‘wall base’ the first 200 feet is a 60 degree incline, the next 400 feet is a 70-degree slope, but the last 400 feet are the toughest. As the people who are already on top throw a rope down, the final 400-feet stretch seems unending. It is at an 80-85 degree incline and you have to haul yourself up by the rope. In all it takes about two-and-a-half hours to climb the 1000-feet wall,” the young captain, who stayed there for 100 days, tells me.
As a company commander at Amar, for Chauhan, like many others before him, the main challenge was to keep  motivation levels high. So, I used to get them to rearrange the tent, change  guard duty every 5-6 hours and order different dishes to be made. So our boys even made jalebis (an Indian sweet dish) at the post,” Chauhan revealed. Many who have served on the Glacier several years ago, cannot forget the innovation by the cooks. Gen Katoch, who was the Siachen brigade commander between 1997 and 1999 tells me: “Once staying on the Central Glacier, I was given excellent Dahi, which I was told is set inside the HAPO bag – some innovation! Similarly, the best sizzler I have ever had in my life was at Base Camp cooked by an artillery unit.”

Most soldiers complain of insomnia at those altitudes. Doctors attribute sleeplessness to  lack of oxygen and extreme cold. As a jawan said, all that he managed to do was to sleep fitfully for three to four hours at a stretch. But unlike earlier times, soldiers now manage to take a ‘dry bath’ and change their undergarments every fortnight or so.  Now, every post has a common heated tent where soldiers can go, dip their towels in medicated hot water and sponge themselves. This is a big change from the early days.

Despite improvements in basic facilities, standard drills of wearing proper snow clothing without exception are still a must. Old timers and the current lot, both are unanimous in saying that units which rigidly followed the teachings of  pre-induction training, did not and do not have a single weather casualty during their entire tenure on the Glacier. Pre-induction training, at Base Camp is comprehensive and it is generally found that only those suffered weather injuries who either did not follow the acclimatization schedule, or take  standard precautions (nothing can happen to me attitude). Usually, nine pairs of imported heavy woollen socks are issued to each individual for the Glacier tenure. But those who don’t use them  suffer, as Gen Katoch recalls. “Once, a Kumaon unit deployed on Northern Glacier started having multiple cases of chilblains and frostbites. I went up to the Sonam post and asked the men to individually show me their nine pairs of imported heavy woollen socks. Some of them had brought only four-five pairs up .They sheepishly admitted that the remaining pairs had been kept behind to take them home and present the socks to the budhao, the old man, usually an ex-fauji himself!”

Gen Katoch also admits to being foolish himself. “Once staying on a company post on the Central Glacier, I was to visit a forward post early morning. The first part of the journey was by snow scooter and the time was an hour plus before sunrise. Like a fool and displaying stupid bravado, I was wearing my stitched up balaclava in the icy winds. I could hardly feel my ears. I visited the post and by noon had come down to Base Camp by helicopter. By evening, both my ears were back with frostbite. For a month I could not sleep on my side as the treatment is only application of medicine!”

Following SOPs (standard operating procedures) is the only trick that works.
Col (retd) Danvir Singh concurs. He remembers when his battalion, 9 Sikh Light Infantry, was told that it would be going to the Glacier, it started training and preparing the soldiers both physically and mentally. “We started  psychologically training a year in advance. Lots of photographs and video films were shown to the troops. We got officers and men who had previously been deployed on Siachen to come and speak to our boys. All their fears were addressed. Fear of crevasses, fear of frost bites. It was drilled into their minds that only training, training and training will keep them alive. When I went to the Glacier as an advance liaison officer, I saw at first hand and narrated the experience to the boys. So by the time we were inducted, most of our troops were well aware of what they were getting into.”
Danvir said any battalion which can imbibe training requirements fully, survives and performs the best. “I was personally afraid of falling into a crevasse and sure enough I did while walking to Indira Col. But since all four of us were properly roped up and were following the SOPs, I came out safely,” he told me in Delhi one afternoon.

The range of experiences that soldiers undergo is mind boggling. Capt Bharat, a young officer of 2 Bihar, narrating his experience in walking up to a post called Pehalwan, reputedly the closest post to a Pakistani post on the central Glacier, recalled how the 20-member patrol party has to walk according to everybody’s convenience. “People realise that individually no one can survive the Glacier. It is team work that matters.”

“One incident I cannot forget is that during my stay there was an accident on the Pakistani post just about 350 metres away from our post. Their tent caught fire and was reduced to ashes in a matter of minutes. Since we were so close, we shouted across to check if we could help. They declined. Of course, help fetched up for them but I must say, unlike in our case where helicopters fly to every post almost daily, in their case, I saw helicopters coming to their post only twice during my 110 day stay at Pehelwan. When you compare their facilities with ours, one feels proud of our system and our army,” the young, barely in his mid-twenties, Captain tells me on the Base Camp.

But no matter how many attempts are made to increase  comfort levels, there are some posts where lack of space  creates its own problems. Gen Hasnain recalls: “At the the Bana listening post, located on the peak of the Bana saddle, the bunker used to be wide enough to have an ice bed as wide as a 3-tier berth in Indian railways. So an officer and a soldier who form the total strength of that post, slept with their legs over one another. The officer would get the first turn to put his legs over the jawan’s. After a while the jawan would tell the officer, ’sahab bahut ho gaya, ab jyada weight ho raha hai. Ab thodi der ke liye mein paon upar rakhta hoon (Sir, it is unbearable. Now my legs will rest on yours for a while)!

Many such tales remain to be shared but one thing is clear, that over the past three decades the bond between the Saltoro and the Soldier has deepened. The inhospitable terrain of Siachen brings  the best out of the Indian military. All that the soldier asks for is that the nation keeps faith in him. And give him the respect and dignity he deserves.   

(From my 2014 book Beyond NJ 9842: The Siachen Saga)