Lt Col Amol Awate (Retd)
Now that the Phase-I Karmayogis are back home to their Alma Mater after the event-full Bharat Darshan, I feel quite nostalgic about the first week that we all spent with the Army, which invariably will always be my second home. The snow-clad mountains of Uri remind me those eventful 90 days spent at the Siachen Glacier. At the highest battlefield in the world, the enemy is not so much an entity holding rifles and guns but weather, isolation, mind and definitely your body is.
Siachen’s lowest point is at nearly 12,000 feet. Soldiers are deployed up to a height of 24,000 feet, where temperatures vary between -25 degrees by day and -60 degrees by night. On my fourth day of deployment sometime in mid of Dec 2008 at a post which was at 21000 feet, the snow began pelting down in a blizzard lasting 22 days. It was not the gentle and beautiful snow of Mussoorie, Shimla or Gulmarg but at Siachen “SNOW” is just not a four-letter word. “It is a complete white-out,” which means zero visibility even at daytime. What followed was severe rationing. There was no communication and our stocks were coming down. We had to use everything sparingly especially fuel.
(Our smiling faces at Chandigarh airbase before being air dropped to the Siachen base camp at Partapur – 102 Infantry Brigade)
From cooking food on a heater and melting snow for drinking water to lighting up the pre-fabricated snow shelters, kerosene is the magical substance. It is the lifeline, and you must make it last till the next supplies arrives. You do not know when it will come next. The weather there offers very small logistical window to stock up because if the weather changes swiftly and suddenly the helicopter which brings in supplies cannot land for days as the air becomes super thin. The Russians and the French are still surprised as to how their helicopters have exceed their service envelope, this equipment was never made for this harsh terrain and weather conditions.
The Living Quarters
There were no beds. I use to sleep on makeshift bed which use to lie on top of supplies that we stored in the shelter. It was a privilege to sleep on heaps of Dairy Milk (fruit and nuts) chocolates which u never felt like eating as u don’t feel hungry for days. It takes three hours to heat up a bucket of water for a wash. Everything that we take for granted and normal down here in Mussoorie does not exist there. In that freezing temperature, a wash should be the last thing on an officer’s mind. I was the cleanest to bath once in 15 days but there is a reason behind it. One should try to be as normal as possible in such desolation. The first task is to keep yourself fit only then can you fight the real and obscure enemy.
Crevasses usually serve as toilets with a ladder leading down into them. We use to go a little distance from the post so that the excreta do not get mixed up with the snow that has to be melted for drinking water. When we venture out, we tied ourselves to each other so that we will not drift apart if the weather changes and if we are caught in a snowstorm or get plunged into a hidden crevasse. I recall Havildar Param Singh my radio operator going out for toilet one day, he never came back. Param’s body was found after two months and it was as fresh as if he had slept an hour back. He was swept away even though he was tied to a rope anchored inside his tent.
(Ropes are used by soldiers to help prevent potentially fatal fall-related accidents)
The doctor is a big psychological factor. When jawans know there is a doctor around, that’s reassurance. However, doctors themselves live in constant apprehension of a medical emergency. Though the evacuation chain is very robust the weather must hold good. Naik Bikash Ghosh had a splinter injury due to enemy artillery shelling. We could not evacuate him for three days because no helicopter could land due to bad weather. The brave boy with a broken arm and grievous injuries sustain himself to be evacuated later. Also there was a situation where the weather packed up for four days and a soldier suffering from High-Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPO) was lost because he could not be evacuated to a lower altitude immediately
Stuck in the first blizzard, I first read every newspaper and magazine at the post. Next, I began reading the newspapers pasted on the inside walls of our shelter. Then I read the Gita… I found a copy lying in one of the shelters. When I ran out of all that, I was down to reading the ingredients on the cartons of toothpastes and shampoos. I wish, I had decided to appear for Civil services then, things could have been much easier now. The idea was to keep as busy as possible. So, through those 22 days of the blizzard, I volunteered for whatever task came up my sleeves including fetching water, cleaning weapons, and writing the operational log just to keep myself active and mentally alive.
I never entered the kitchen before but at Siachen, I learned to cook and that too enthusiastically. I used to cook a lot for myself and even my jawans. “Siachen pudding” a loved delicacy emerged out of those prolong “white-outs,” it was my mix of everything sweet available on the post including chocolates, biscuits, powdered milk, condensed milk etc. After, I left the post my mess cook Havaldar Maghana Ram did claim “Siachen pudding” as his own creation and I strongly contested his claims. The fight between the cook and the Officer Commanding will go to eternity, in fact the pudding fight is a wonderful connect between us and we both enjoy it even today. Vegetables and meat must be thawed for two hours before they can be cooked, they use to be like virtual stones. I dreamed a lot of green and leafy vegetables but we never got them for almost three months. Your physical appetite goes down the same is with your intellectual appetite. It is said that three months stay at Siachen reduces one’s life by six months. I used to crack discussions with my jawans, just to get them talking. But no one use to be in a mood to talk or discuss anything. They would not want to contribute but just nod their heads. The isolation does not see any army ranks, it’s at every level.
With everyone wearing the same clothes, eating the same food, and sleeping in the same shared shelter, the line between an officer and a jawan is very thin. Ten to eleven soldiers, including the officer in command of the post, generally share one fibreglass shelter. In our Academy the fight goes on from Ganga to Silverwood and now that Indira Bhawan is in foray. I love it here at LBSNAA as I have options and hope, which Siachen, never offered.
Apart from one another the one diversion that soldiers had from lurking inner fears, loneliness and depression were dogs. Almost every post had a dog. We had one called “Pastry” (a mountain stray dog) whose specialty was that she would have breakfast at one post then travel for lunch to another and have dinner at a third post. She knew exactly where her next meal was coming from so we used to send letters tied to her collars. She ate rotis dipped only in condensed milk, but never off the ground and she always wanted it on a plate. All dogs at Siachen are generally named after food items Coco cola, Five Star and even Hot dogs etc…to name a few.
(Pastry’s foul mood as food not served on her designated plate)
The Phone Calls
Soldiers are allowed one call a week. Most remote posts had a satellite phone and the calls are put through by an operator. Bad weather means connections often do not go through. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made here too. A soldier might give up his share of time on the phone for the sake of a colleague who wants more time on the phone with his family or girlfriend. Many a times, I used to tell the operator to tell my mother that, I was fine and he would in turn call me and tell me that “Mataji keh raheen hain ki vo bhi theek hain” (Your mother says she is fine too).
After spending three months in that wilderness, the return to civilisation can be jarring. After you finish your rotation on the post and get leave, in a matter of a few hours you are back in Chandigarh or New Delhi. The feeling can be very confusing, seeing tall buildings, traffic on the roads. I recall having mineral water on the Shatabdi back home and thinking that it tastes funny because I got so used to drinking melted snow.
The stories from Siachen never end, they are in tons. Every day of those 90 days was a story in itself. The much-prized Siachen Glacier medal worn proudly over my uniform and all those who have served in the Saltoro Range is a dull grey-white strip reflecting the cold unforgiving terrain just conquered by the brave men of Indian Army. But for me there is nothing dull about the pride of having served and commanded the best troops in the world and that too at the highest battlefield in the world. Jai Hind.
(Back to Chandigarh airbase with weight reduced by almost 15 kgs but the smile continues forever)