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-bhaajiand 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 enough…to see one of your colleagues being evacuated by this method is a psychological setback…to 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 difficult…as 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)