Lt. Sanjay would remember the long march on the Siachen glacier for the rest of his life. Early morning on a cold January day, he was climbing up to his post— an icy ridge at 21,000 ft. He could feel the biting cold chill his bones as he trudged along the icy path. The strong winds had churned up the snow all around, thus he could hardly see the ghostly figure walking just a few feet ahead of him, to whom he was roped up. The temperature was close to -40°C, although Sanjay had no means of knowing it. The icy winds blowing across the glacier at 50-60 kmph did not make it any easier. “So, this is what the men at the base camp— Kresher— live with,” he thought. Whether it was ‘Kresher’ or
the ‘Crusher’, it surely could ‘CRUSH’ the will out of anybody easily— man or beast. “However, we, the Indian Army men are made of stronger stuff and we shall not be deterred by the mere elements”, Sanjay said to himself and reassured himself that his team must go on, no matter what.
Sanjay repeated the old dictum taught at National Defence Academy continuously in his mind– “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”. Despite this, subconsciously, the smart aleck variation to the former saying– “The tough get going and the wise report sick”– also kept coming to his mind. But Sanjay told himself, “This is no time for such stupid thoughts” and kept trudging ahead. While walking, he could hardly feel any sensation in his toes. He tried moving his fingers inside the Scarpa shoes, which he thought could resist -35°C, but to his utter disbelief, his brain
mind didn't receive any sensory signal back from his toes. “I hope my feet are alright”, he worried, and an image of his friend— Lt. Mayank— at the hospital flashed in his mind. The young officer was in danger of losing four of his toe fingers to frostbite.
He bumped into the man walking ahead of him all of a sudden, and realised that the column had halted. “Kya hai? (What is it?)”, he asked, with a tinge of impatience.
“Sahib, crevasse!” said the man through his face-mask, which was completely covered with ice. Sanjay recalled his senior briefing him at the base camp. He had warned him of these killers en-route— “Sanjay! No bravado please, there are no medals for accidents on the glacier”. Only four days back, the unit had lost a JCO in a crevasse. As he sat on the ladder and painfully dragged himself across the yawning chasm, Sanjay thought about his Company Commander Major Dheeraj at the post 3,000 ft below him. “Well that is the job I would like,” he thought as he sighed, “a Fibre-Glass Hut (FGH) at the post, with no such terrible climbs, and hey! 17,000 ft is a piece of cake compared to where I have to go! Lucky Major!”
Major Dheeraj, on the other hand, had been having a horrid time since the past few days. Since his induction to the post a few days back, he had not been feeling too well. He could not accurately pin-point the problem, but all these symptoms probably indicated acute mountain sickness. To top that, his old migraine problem had returned, and with a vengeance. He suspected it was due to the extreme cold. He was afraid of even reporting to the doctor with whom he shared the FGH, for fear of being de-inducted. The boys of his company whom he had motivated for this tough tenure by giving them various pep-talks would think that when the time came to face the odds, their leader chickened out. "No– no! That will not do," he firmly said to himself.
Things were not going too well for 'A' Company as well in the past few days. The Commanding Officer was quite angry about the recent incident in which the JCO had fallen into a crevasse. “Totally avoidable,” he kept saying, “a bad incident due to utter carelessness”. Major Dheeraj had told him a number of times that all precautions for marching on the glacier were followed. Hence, he was pulled out of the crevasse quite quickly. However, the man had possibly died of a heart attack due to the shock of falling rather than the cold. “Please don't tell me cock-and-bull stories; I have been through your phase,” was the CO's dry retort.
The company's morale had dipped with the death of the JCO. Major Dheeraj was trying his level best to keep them pepped up. “These things do happen in operations. Remember our attacks in Kargil when we lost twelve men in a single day? We still kept going and the hill was ours,” he told his men. His post was alright, but how would he look after the morale of the other three posts over the rickety telephone lines through which one had to shout at the top of his voice to be heard at the other end? The CO had told him to plan a visit to the posts. He had also told him that he himself would soon be coming up to visit the forward posts. “Where will I put up the old man?” thought Dheeraj. The doctor, a veteran of two months on the post, had told him that all three of them would have to share the same FGH. “Right now, the place I’d like to be the most would be the CO's location at Forward Logistics Base (FLB),” thought Dheeraj ruefully.
Colonel Rajeev Kumar was livid with rage. He had just been informed by the Brigade Headquarters that there had been another accident in his battalion. This time it was a vehicle accident near the Khardung La. Although the driver and co-driver had serious injuries, they would probably live. What was devastating was that a civilian on the road had been killed and there had been a furore in the Division and Corps. The CO had just been chewed out on the phone by the General Officer Commanding who wanted to know why his drivers were not properly trained and how the accident had occurred. Rajeev had told him that he had just been informed about the accident and he would investigate. “One hell of an investigation I can do sitting at Forward Logistic Base at 16000 feet,” he thought bitterly. He rang up his Second-in Command, a young Major with only five years of service, and told him to investigate. Rajeev remembered the saying of his humorous colleague and course-mate Deepak, who was commanding a SIKH battalion. “Well Rajeev, all the best for your command,” he had said, “Remember, as a CO, the string of your pyjama is in the hands of eight hundred men. Anyone can pull it any time. So, relax and enjoy your command.”
“All that is fine, but I would rather be responsible for my own pyjama,” he thought. He waited for the call from the Brigade Commander who would obviously not be too pleased with the incident. The Siachen Bridge was possibly the busiest one in the entire Indian Army and the commander was a very important man. “But I still don't mind being the Brigade Commander,” Rajeev thought. “At least I can blame the poor CO's if something goes wrong.”
Brigadier K.S. Talwar was not exactly having a wonderful time at the Siachen Bridge Headquarters. He was a man of principles, hand-picked by the Army Headquarters to command the elite Siachen Bridge. A strong and cool man described as ‘Unflappable Tally’ by his peers; he was not one of those officers looking for his next rank. “Celebrate every promotion as your last one and you shall be happy in the army,” was what he’d advise all. After taking over the Siachen Bridge, however, his patience and composure had been put to severe test. There had been a spate of visits from various dignitaries as the agenda of demilitarization of Siachen seemed to be high on the list of Government priorities. Then there were the trials of various equipment. It seemed that multiple indigenous companies were trying to manufacture items for the troops in the glacier to use, and all these trials were keeping the units busy. The division wanted ten feedbacks every day, therefore, his staff was quite hassled. It was quite amusing that the reminders for the feedback would arrive by fax even before the main letter would come by normal mail. The brigadier was a man of action who believed in being on the ground. He liked to visit units, identifying and understanding their problems, rather than remaining confined to his chair at the Headquarters. Of late, he had been unable to do that and he was not very happy about it.
Today, ‘the Boss’— Major Uday Pratap Singh, the General Officer Commanding— was visiting the glacier and he had to accompany him. “I shall apprise him about the ludicrous feedback system,” thought Talwar, “The General's chair is where I should be— there I can sort out all of these issues.” The sound of the approaching helicopter brought him out of his reverie and he prepared himself to receive the General.
Contrary to Brigadier Talwar's thoughts, the last few days had been quite difficult for General Uday Pratap Singh. While passing the ‘All okay’ report every evening, he had had to report that all was ‘Not okay’ with his division.
Majority of these troubles had been caused by vehicle accidents occurring on the good roads close to his headquarters. He had not jacked up all the vehicles of the local units for a few days, but essential duties had to continue. The Corps Commander had not been too happy. He had commented wryly that very soon there would be no vehicles left in the formation to ‘jack up’, as all would already be in the accident dump.
The General decided to leave all his troubles behind today, as he planned to fly over the Siachen glacier and visit the troops at a few posts. General Singh was a veteran of the last war and was always very happy to be with the boys. The helicopter did a brief touch-down before taking off again to fly over the glacier. The General looked down over the vast expanse of white snow and ice, marvelling at the mighty snow-clad peaks. The visibility that day was excellent. He could see miles away at the towering pinnacles of the Saltoro and Karakoram ranges. “Life is so beautiful here... seems like heaven. At least there are no road accidents here, for there are no roads at all!” mused the General.
As the helicopter descended, approaching a forward post, General Singh looked down at the patrol of ten men led by a young Lieutenant slowly climbing up the icy slope, towards the post. “Ah! To be youthful again; to be in the shoes of that young officer leading the patrol of these brave boys! What a life, just brave the odds and fight the enemy – those good old days! Wish I could be a Lieutenant once again,” General Uday Pratap said to himself.
On the ice wall, Lieutenant Sanjay was clawing his way slowly up when he heard the sound of the helicopter. “That must be the GOC,” Sanjay thought. “How I wish I could sit inside a helicopter and go to a post rather than labouring for hours in this wilderness... From up there, looking down at all of this must be feeling heavenly!”
Author : Col. P. Rajgopalan
Colonel P. Rajgopalan was commissioned in the Indian Army in 1988. The officer is a veteran of Kargil war and fought militants in Kashmir for many years. He commanded his infantry battalion in the Siachen Glacier where he was nominated for meritorious service award. He is also a Combat Army Aviation pilot and has flown army helicopters in battle. After pre-mature retirement from the army he now pursues his passion of flying and training other pilots.