When I landed in Leh, I wasn't sure if I would go any further. A group totalling more around 50 people, from all walks of life, four birthdays of different members in this group, and with strange fears in my heart I began my lessons in earnest, with complete faith in my instructors, who were all HAWS qualified. A special mention of Rajesh Joshi of 21 Special Forces, who had under his belt, instructor grading from HAWS (High Altitude Warfare School), Ghatak-Commando School, Belgaum, CIJWS-Weirangte and also a Sena medal. Superb chap, with super fitness and understanding of the mountains.
With festivals like Onam, Ganesh Chaturthi, navratri, Eid, the inauspicious Shraddh period, in tow, during the trek, the training began in full swing, with each festival and birthday being celebrated in a unique style. With each passing day at training, I spoke less with members and focussed completely on the trek. Cut off partially at the Base Camp from the world and completely at the Camps during the trek, the trek proved to be a personal journey for me. Lessons learnt were far too many, about life and nature.
Theory classes in the evening, after which there were games. Practical lessons in the morning, which included ice-wall, walk with load, without load, gear and equipment, crevass rescue drill etc.
After September 24, walking acquired a new meaning for me, as did the Glacier. The Glacier was no longer intimidating, but had become my friend.
The trek had a special meaning for me, as I was doing it on my own, unlike my fighter sorties (three of which I've had this year, in India and abroad), where it was my pilot who did everything. I found it a litle funny as even for 10,000 feet, I used oxygen masks in fighter jets, but here I was trekking at 16,000 feet without any medical aid, or medical problem. Must say pulling Gs in a fighter jet is much easier, as it happens once for some seconds but soldiers are pulling Gs all the time at those heights. I could feel the blood rushing down, and sometimes even felt black-outs, but I stood straight.
I gave up all kinds of medication, and with nature's intervention in my natural cycles being altered to suit the trek, I was sure of completing the arduous journey without problems. I increased my water intake, regularly did my deep breathing and meditation, all of which helped me breathe normally on high altitude. I kept up with my intake of the desi-stuff which my mother had given and which I carry everywhere with me.
The Glacier is a slow moving river of ice, set in motion by its own weight and gravity. As I begin with my theory classes in Siachen Glacier's Army Mountaineering Institute, located at Base Camp-2, I am exposed to the soldiers undergoing training at the nearby Siachen Battle School (SBS), where they are trained for 21 days in ice-craft, rock-craft, snow-craft, weapons and load, enemy locations, crevass rescue drill and medical hazards on the Glacier, most of which are fatal.
For the nine battalions manning the Glacier, ever since the first post was laid down by Colonel N Kumar in 1978, and hence named after him as Kumar Post, it has been a tough war with the hostile weather rather than with the enemy in the 76 kilometer Glacier, with some posts as high as 23,000 feet. There are 20 peaks over 25,000 feet on the Glacier which has a temperature of minus 60 degree in winters and between 11-15 degrees in summers during the day, but goes upto minus 20 degree during the night. There is no vegetation in the area and for every 120 meters of elevation, there is a decrease of one degree in temperature.
Divided into four, as Northern, Southern, Central and Sub-sector Haneef, Siachen (which means 'land of roses'), was earlier just a trekking spot, when New Delhi noticed an increased activity by foreign mountaineers coming from Pakistan when it was decided to establish military posts, of all kinds like satellite posts, listening posts and Company posts in the late 1970s and thereafter in the early 1980s the Indian Air Force (IAF) was brought in for logistic support and surveillance.
The Glacier situated alongside the Nubra river, is receding slowly. The Nubra originates from the snout. During the Simla Agreement, India and Pakistan recognised the NJ 9842 as where the LC (Line of Control) would end. Snow could be seen only from Camp-3 onwards, before which the Glacier was covered with moraines. this was enough proof that the Glacier was receding at a fast pace.There is climate change in place.
From NJ 9842 till Karakoram was Pakistan territory, while NJ 9842 till Saltoro was Indian territory. Islamabad had raised a hue and a cry in 2007 when the Indian Army began taking civilians to Siachen for trekking, but G-1 (training) of 14 Corps, LtCol S Pokhriyal told People's Post,"There was a reason to have this trek. It was the only way to send across a message to the other side that the territory belonged to us, which is why the trek has an interesting mix of people related to Indian Defence. But since the response as seen on this third edition, has not been very satisfactory, this trek might even be stalled from next year."
In the third expedition of the Siachen Glacier High Altitude Trek for civilians, in which People's Post was invited, a hectic training schedule for 10 days was followed comprising theory and practical classes, acclimatisation, medical check-ups and general briefings.
As the training came to a finish, with final medicals at the Advanced Dressing Station (ADS), I completely gave up talking to those around,in order to conserve energy. I read spiritual books, slept early, ate well and kept myself covered. Besides BP, pulse, weight, SPO2 (concentration of oxgen percentage in blood), haemoglobin, everyone went through a rigourous dental check-up and many were zeroed in for pulling out their teeth, some of whom underwent the tortous grind. Those with high BP were given more time to normalise.
BP is of paramount importance on high altitude, as it can prove fatal. Dental health is given priority as, after one leaves the Base Camp, there is no dentist on higher posts, and given the weather, personnel generally give dental hygiene a miss which is required as chocolates, candies and cookies are part of the special ration!!
The trek began with obeisance to OP Baba, who is considered the omnipresent deity of the Glacier, rescuing and saving soldiers on the Glacier by appearing in their dreams and forewarning them. Each post on the Glacier has a temple decicated to the Baba and each half link has a small tent with a red flag reminiscent of the Baba's presence in the area.
I was roped up with four school boys, and the name of our rope was 'Chindit Cheetahs'. Cadets VPS Pathania (RIMC), Vikraal Singh, Prabhat Ranjan and Ravinder Kumar were my team buddies, whome I led, with our Ustad being Havaldar Instructor Yamuna Prasad, from 6 Kumaon.
The 122 kilometer trek from Base Camp to Kumar Post and back in eight days, was fraught with chilly winds blowing at more than 40 knots, rarified oxygen as the altitude increased and snow-fall, besides the terrain full of stones, seracs and moraines. My brain stopped working and only my legs worked. They carried me forward. All I did was watched my next step, and stopped looking at the destination. Put your head down and just walk. I chanted my spritual mantras, drank water at half links and just walked.
The trek team comprised IMF professionals, school students from the Rashtriya Indian Military College (RIMC) and Military Schools, army officers and army doctors, Personnel Below Officer Ranks (PBORs) from the army and the IAF, personnel from the defence accounts and local porters carrying stores and luggage.
Soldiers take between nine to 28 days to reach posts, after they have undergone thier physical training at SBS and have been declared medically fit at the ADS, situated at the Base Camp. Any personnel found with high blood pressure, or an increased pulse, less than specified oxygen percentage concentration in blood or dentally unfit is not inducted into the Glacier. While those found with problems up on the posts are immediately flown down. They lug their stores, which is anything between 20-25 kilograms, and climb the snow-peaks, with full gear.
The highest PBOR manned post is located at 23,000 feet while the highest officer manned post is at 19,000 feet. The largest portion of the Glacier with the maximum posts is in the Northern Glacier, while sub-sector Haneef, named after Captain Haneefuddin of 11 Rajputana Rifles regiment who died during Kargil, is the smallest portion.
With strict instructions from the trek Commander to our team about not bathing during the eight days of the trek, to invoking OP Baba and wishes from the 102 Brigade Commander, Brigadier Avinash Singh, who enquired about the number of oxygen cylinders and maggie packets kept in stores, the team of amatuers and professionals, began on September 17 at 8.00 am and completed the first camp of 12 kilometers without problems. Located in Partapur 102 Infantry Brigade is an independant Brigade, which was earlier part of the Karu-based 3rd Division during Kargil.
The Commanding Officer of the Northern Glacier, also called NG 'Tiger', had left instructions for soldiers at each camp, which were applicable to the trek team also, about how to conduct oneself in high altitude. Instructions like drinking lots of water, hot water drill for the feet after each camp, proper clothing and proper rest were to be adhered to.
Soldiers of the Indian Army are inducted for a maximum of 90 days on the Glacier, preceding which they undergo seven days of acclimatisation in Leh, second stage of training in North Pullu at 10,000 feet and third stage of training at SBS at 11,000 feet. The days they take to reach thier posts are not taken into account in their days of induction. With washing their utensils, to cooking, conducting patrols of the territory, carrying back injured fellow-men sometimes, along with their own and the injured person's stores, these tough soldiers have a tougher life to lead ahead. Winter inductions are the most abhorred, as they bring in the maximum casualties.
After completing Camp-2, 26 kilometers on the Glacier full of moraines, ice walls, and a five kilometer walk on hard ice with almost six kilograms of foot wear, a press photographer developed stress fracture in his lower calves, while a RIMC student fell ill owing to high altitude.
The trek team reached Kumar Post in four days, and found it quite warm and pleasant, with bright sun shine. A one-day halt at Kumar was announced, which for me was a blessing in disguise. We utilised the day, taking photographs, making ropes bags, playing cards and generally basking in the sun. I saw the forward location base (FLB), which was adjacent, 10 kms, from Kumar. Kumar at first sight appeared like a shopping complex, with tents on both sides. A medical check-up was carried out at the end of the day. I showed a perfect 120/80 at 16,000 feet, with perfect pulse and SPO2.
After spending a day at Kumar, where the NG Tiger rules, currently the position held by Colonel Rajesh Kanojia of 25 Madras, the team which spent the day making bags out of parachute strings and singing to invoke the Goddesses during navratri, as every unit of the Indian Army has its own deity and a special Mandir parade once a week, the climb down began, making it a total of 122 kilometers both ways.
The first casaulty during the descent was a military school student, who had to be oxygenated enroute. Left with just 19 out of 21 civilians and one Link Commander from the hosting battalion, the number of porters increased while returning back from 19 to 23. Enroute we discovered that a soldier from the hosting 25 Madras battalion had died of cardiac arrest in Camp-2, owing to low blood pressure.
Completing four camps in three days with snow-fall in between and temperatures touching minus 21 at night, the job of the medical officer and his nursing assistant increased on the journey. Blood pressure, pulse and SPO2 checks were done before the climb down could begin. I un-roped from the 'Chindit Cheetahs' and walked alone.
I was instructed by my Ustads, not to lose height suddenly on the mountains, as you would have to gain height in that case, while walking.
Soldiers coming back from Sia La, the biggest Post on the Glacier (it is a Company Post), too stopped at Kumar for a breather and were seen discussing logistics like the controlled use of water and Kero-heater etc.
Kero-heaters are the lifelines of the Glacier, as electricity is a scarcity, due to which only these heaters are used for warmth. Fibre Glass huts (FGH), Arctic and Russian tents are used for accommodation. Also defunct parachutes are used for tents, as they avoid the melting of ice easily and also provide camouflage to the surroundings as it is a battle zone.
The team trekked back on up-hill and down-hill slopes full of stony moraines and snow-capped landscapes with the Havaldar Instructors showing the way and the Link Commanders at each half link closing in on the team from both sides, thereby ensuring safety to the amateur civilians.
With special Glacier ration issued to each of us, for instant energy, it became clear why the troops lose appetite at the Glacier. The special ration comprising dry fruits, chocolates, juices, candies and cookies, besides other items numbering around 50, the altitude hits on the digestive system. A Medical Officer told People's Post, "The troops train so hard and the physical routine here is so tough, that there are more casualties owing to weather than those due to enemy fire. Mostly what bothers us is the cold injuries."
For the soldiers it is a trek almost everyday, with instructions like no bathing and shaving for 90 days. Shaving takes a back seat, for two reasons, one for religious, as the personnel repose faith in OP Baba and refrain from shaving as a mark of respect, and the other reason is medical, to avoid metal-bite in the extreme cold climes.
It was more than a trek for me, a personal journey, which exposed me to the ugly side of the Glacier, how troops lived and survived there in difficult conditions but had a smile on thier faces while coming back.
During the journey and stay, electricity, mirror, these are small things whose importance I got to value. Posts on the Glacier, except a few, do not have electricity and there are no looking-mirrors to get dressed etc. There is no connectivity with the world. No communication (STD comes after 10.00 pm and that too is limited, and this is only in big posts). No phones, no internet, water is made by heating ice. I learnt how to respect small pleasures given to me by God.
I discovered how small we all are in front of nature, and how powerful nature is. We are nothing but small specks in the universe. Mountains teach you discipline. I never walk even a kilometer in Delhi, but on the Glacier, I woke up early, adhered to all the instructions given by the Ustads and was regular with my foot-drill, deep breathing etc. All of these helped me come out a winner. My stamina had increased by the time the climb-down began.
All I had in mind while boarding the Leh to Delhi Kingfisher flight was to rush to the beauty parlour as I land in Delhi, but enroute my mind went out to the soldier at the highest post on the Glacier, counting his 90 days to finish, his loneliness in the severe cold, his breathing problems etc, amidst all of which he would have to perform the daunting task of protecting the country, so that the likes of us can comfortably go to parlours!!