On 2nd January 1981, I joined my first unit, 20 PUNJAB in Arunachal Pradesh. I had joined straightway from Indian Military Academy (IMA). I was about one week old in the unit, when I was asked to meet the Commanding Officer in his office. As per his orders, I was to lead a patrol party to ascertain the condition of a route from Dirang to the Bhutan border. This was likely one of the routes which the ‘Trans Himalayan Expedition Team’ could undertake. The team, other than me, consisted of one JCO and ten soldiers. We were given three days’ time to prepare. Preparations mainly included the collection of ration and clothing for extremely cold weather conditions. Kerosene and cooking stove were of utmost importance to survive.
Our first stay was at Bomdi La. We stayed there for six days to acclimatize under higher altitude conditions. Subsequently, on reaching Dirang, we decided to meet one of the officers of ASSAM RIFLES posted there. The aim was to obtain the latest feedback from him on weather and route conditions. He painted a very gloomy picture and indicated limited chance of success under the adverse weather conditions prevailing there. It was snowing heavily. Notwithstanding the feedback we received, we moved on with the mission as planned. Steep climbs, accumulation of snow up to our feet and dense forests throughout the route were general conditions. We came across wild goats quite often. Walking in snow for the first time in my life, was a great experience, and a wonderful way to discover real challenges a soldier could come across. The power of nature appeared infinite and boundless. It required immense mental stamina and patience. At times, it required almost two hours or even more, to cover even a distance of one kilometre. Under these conditions, every next step involved speculation and risk; any idea of depth was a fallacy and full of imagination.
The responsibility of being on the right track leaned on my shoulders. Frequent map reading and good use of compass could be ignored only at the peril of losing route. The loads which we were carrying on our backs weighed fifteen to twenty kilograms. They included sleeping bags, ration and personal weapons. Initially, for the first two days, aching parts of the body, as a consequence of the load, were the biggest irritants. Subsequently, it did not remain an issue, as we got used to it quite well. Steep climbs tested nerves and determination. The best approach was to look down and keep moving step-by-step. Looking too far at the height of the mountains was not the right strategy. Distances were misleading and consumed much more time than anticipated.
We came across the winter vacated shelters of the security forces on our way. This is one of the routes that the Chinese had used during 1961 war. At such great heights, we came across huts which were made with local resources. None of them were occupied under the extreme cold weather. During winters, locals move out to alternative locations. They were to move back to these places again during summer with their animals. These areas provide ideal grazing grounds for their animals. Yak was a common household possession; it met multiple requirements of the family. Most of the huts had adequate stock of dry wood. For us, these huts were a luxury for night stay; dry wood kept us warm. One of the huts also had a carcass of a yak. In addition, we had a good and lovely companion— a dog had volunteered to go along with us. He was our ‘Tiger’. His presence added to our vigilance. One-way distance was about fifty-five kilometres, which we could complete in five days! Difficult terrain with steep climbing and thick snow gave the feeling of a much longer distance. Around 14,500 feet was the maximum height we came across.
Once we reached the India-Bhutan border, we were relieved and happy. Border pillars could distinctly be seen not too far away, at regular intervals. They were roundish in shape, made of cement, heavy in weight and identified by serial numbers. On reaching the international border, we were to start our return journey. This was the start of the most memorable moment. Heavy snow made it impossible to find the track which we were to take to move ahead. Most of the time during the daylight hours, we spent to discover it. At last, it was at around 4 PM, when we succeeded in our search. By that time, it was quite late for us to continue with the patrolling.
The sun setting early in the east reduced daylight hours significantly. Being late, we had no choice, but to spend the night under the open sky. It continued to snow heavily throughout the night. The ground was completely white with accumulated snow. A suitable place under the given circumstances was identified around a tree, where we decided to cuddle in for the night. There was lot to learn from my team members. The foremost issue at that moment was to keep ourselves warm. One big dry stem of a dead tree was lit with kerosene. The same almost lasted till morning to save us from freezing. That was the most valuable asset and a great survival lesson, only attainable through courage and patience.
Values of the team was another take away. The importance of sleep when tired was well understood. Rather, it was a God-given lesson learnt in humility. The night was long; the weather merciless. Human beings looked insignificant. Ground reality brought hard facts of soldiering face-to-face. This was my first encounter with the
virtual reality on ground.
On hindsight, revisiting those memories, everything looks like an adventure. Accessibility to those areas under extreme weather conditions would not have been possible unless one was from the Army. Finally, the long-awaited sunrise brought happiness and we continued with our mission journey.
A wide water channel on our way surprised us. The water was freezing cold. Putting feet inside water was a chilling experience. Appreciation of various factors were based on assumptions. There was no way to deal with the hardships unless one discovered his own courage. In pursuit of our mission, the negotiation of demanding water channel was inevitable, as there was no other way out. Hats off to the ‘SIKH’ troops, brave and bold, as any challenging situation showed their gallant side. It was fun to command these troops. Probably, their very existence is dedicated to bravery and courage.
Crossing the mountains was a learning experience. However, it kept us chilled and wet for quite some time. Fire came to our rescue. By evening, we reached the road ahead and had a comfortable stay in one of the army units there. The mission was complete. Our loyal companion Tiger chased our one-ton vehicle for quite a distance. His pain was very evident and he continues to be unforgettable. It was very touching. His cry was loud and distinct. The good time spent with him will always be fresh in our memories.
Author : Col. N. S. Malhan
Col. Narinder Singh Malhan was commissioned from the Indian Military Academy (IMA) Dehradun. On having served for almost four decades in Indian Army, he loves to share his experiences through his writings. In his opinion, every life has a lot to unfold. Each life is unique and is a historical document with its own identity. He strongly feels, real discovery is through introspection by looking back in own time. He believes, sharing own experiences are like revisiting life's milestones with more intensity. He thoroughly enjoyed his journey in uniform.