Before setting off for home, a soldier recalls the fight for survival on the highest battlefield in the world

Simple tasks translate to mammoth ordeals at Siachen.

First published:

First person: We can tackle enemies on Siachen, but there’s not much we can do about nature

An account of life at the Siachen glacier by a soldier who served with the ten men who lost their lives in an avalanche on February 3

I’m off on a holiday from service, but I leave with a heavy heart. My comrades from the Madras Regiment, who are missing in an avalanche that buried them last week, had a special place up on the Siachen glacier.

There isn’t much separating India and Pakistan, except for the border. On either side, we speak Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Balti, Ladakhi and Sheena – we are the same people after all. Communication that is tapped is easy to interpret for both sides. But when it came to vital information, it was our boys from down south who were the key. Despite spending so much time with them, it’s hard for us to catch a word of what they are saying, let alone the other side.

And the enemy posts aren’t too far off. We are perched on one of the glaciers, while the Pakistan and China posts are on another one in the distance. There isn’t much action on a daily basis, though if you ask me, we live to shoot.

Perilous terrain

But even without the action, there are many other challenges that we face each day. The moment we step on the glacier, we are on high alert – you are responsible for your own actions, and one wrong step can cost you your life, in addition to that of others.

We survey the territory during the day; it’s our backyard and we need to know it like the back of our hand, because it is the key when it comes to night patrolling. We set up route markers that are linked by ropes, and we only move from route marker to route marker. You never know when there is a crevasse formed as the ice keeps shifting every day. It is important to be hooked on at all times, including when we need to use the bathroom, which are simply ice caves that are covered on all sides. We can’t shave as it can cause metal bites, and bathing is a once-a-week affair – the skin goes red and our bodies are left sticky since it’s difficult to get the soap off.

Eating is a task because food doesn’t digest fast. We usually eat dried or canned food in minimal quantities, and fresh food is only cooked at times. Breakfast is at midday, because you can hardly summon an appetite before that; lunch follows at 4 pm. It’s only when we get off the glacier that we realise how terrible our eating schedules are. Par hum se puchho garam khane ka mazza (Ask us about the joys of eating a hot meal)!

Drinking water is the key to remaining fit. We have to boil and filter the water, since the ice up there is old. On an average, it takes an hour to just melt a 20-litre jerry can of ice.

Small victories

They say your life reduces by five years when you are stationed at Siachen. Should someone fall ill, we need to consult the doctor as medicines too have side effects at that altitude. It often irritates some of the soldiers, who are looking for instant relief and want an extra dose.

The altitude also causes hallucinations at times – ek baar tha jab ek bande ko Dilli ki traffic sunai de rahi thi (On one occasion, a soldier thought he could hear the Delhi traffic). The only way out is to evacuate them to a lower camp.

But if there’s one thing that everyone looks forward to, it’s cooking. It’s a delight when your turn comes as it really keeps you occupied. The day flies by and you don’t really think of where you are. You need to keep yourself engaged, as well as entertained, and Comedy Nights with Kapil is a favourite among us. We play chess and carrom, crack jokes, celebrate when the Indian cricket team wins, sing songs and listen to stories, even after realising at times that it isn’t really true. Kaise jeena hai who hum par hai, chahe hum jahan bhi ho – main haske jeena pasand karta hu (It’s up to us how to live life, no matter where we are – I like to live with laughter).

You can never be prepared enough, despite all the rigorous training that we go through at base camp – keetab ki padhai aur ground main bohot farak hai (There’s a big difference between theory and reality). It starts out with a screening of the movie Vertical Limit, which helps the boys understand what to expect. I’ve been a part of the process, both as a trainee and an instructor, and climbing ice walls that are almost vertical and bivouacking on one is always a challenge, every time the need arises. At times, the crevasses are so big that we need to couple a few ladders to traverse them, which too can crack because of the cold.

Keeping the faith

We often wake up at nights when the ice creaks below our camp, but nothing quite prepared us for this disturbing news. We heard about the avalanche, and I set out as part of a search party to locate the missing men. We had recently rescued some 20-odd soldiers, who were buried under seven to eight feet of ice. The terrain up there is hostile, and every part of our body has to be covered at all times to prevent frost bites. Any carelessness on that part could result in losing an arm or a leg. It’s so cold these days that even the thermometer outside our snow hut has stopped functioning.

Everyone has a radio set, along with extra batteries that we keep under our armpits at night to keep them warm. We tried to build contact through it first, but there was no response. The four battalions up there grouped to conduct a search operation, but my party couldn’t locate anyone on two excursions.

The search was on when I came off the glacier and I hope my comrades are found soon. We can tackle enemies when handed orders, but there’s not much that can be done when it comes to nature.

After this accident, there will be loads of questions once I get home, especially from my mother. I often have to lie to her on how long I will be stationed at Siachen. Our battalion is up there once in four years, while the rest go there just once during their entire service. I even married late because life is uncertain.

Aap jab tak glacier pe ho, sab kuch ram bharose hai (When you are on the glacier, everything depends on god). I often hear debates on whether this posting is needed. But this is what I chose for myself, and there is a job to be done. I look forward to going back up there once my holiday ends.

The soldier, who’s asked for anonymity, joined the Indian army nine years ago. He has served two stints at the Siachen glacier.

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