Forever hostile to all life on the towering heights of this glacier, the weather has been particularly nasty ever since April 7 when a massive avalanche wiped out an entire battalion of the Pakistan Army in the Gayari sector at 13,000 feet.
If overcast skies bring along with them sub-zero temperatures and blizzards, bright sunlight and rising temperatures raise the possibility of more slides that caused the avalanche in the first place.
The weather changes come with little announcement as a group of journalists saw for themselves while being helihopped by the Army to Siachen’s Ground Zero on Thursday.
For the first time, an Indian journalist was included in the group being taken to witness the rescue operations. Rescue workers have been struggling for nearly a month to recover the bodies of the 139 men — 8 of them civilians. But until now, not a single one has been found. Only some traces of the battalion headquarters have surfaced: a few life jackets, pieces of the soldiers’ igloo accommodation, and medicines were found about 600 metres from the original location. That was on April 23, over a fortnight after the avalanche.
Nothing has been found since.
Yet the search continues, and the Chief of the Army Staff, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, reiterated, while talking to the visiting journalists, that it would continue until the bodies, each one of them, was found.
“The minimum we can do is recover the bodies,” said General Kayani, on his third visit since the disaster. On a previous visit, he had said: “If we need to dig out this mountain, we will do so to get the bodies,” no matter how long it took.
The weather and the inhospitable terrain have taken more lives on this side of the glacier as well as on the Indian side than the actual conflict, and now it is the most slowing factor of the rescue work.
This is difficult to fathom from afar or from the pictures that are being regularly released by the Army about the work going on in the Gayari sector to find the bodies, but it is immediately apparent to the visitor.
The father of Maj. Zaka ul-Haq, the battalion second-in command who perished in the avalanche with his men, had accompanied the COAS to the site. Fighting back his tears, the bereaved father from Muzzafargarh in the Punjab province, urged the Army to declare them dead, something it has not done so far. He conceded that it was only after coming here that he realised what an uphill task was under way to find the bodies.
The Army had apparently considered making the announcement on April 30 — a day designated as ‘Yaum-e-Shuhada’ when the military remembers the sacrifices of its personnel — but held back.
Every day brings a new challenge for the rescuers, and the barren greyness of the area is a stark reminder of the futility of a war in the highest battlefield of the world. This is an area where the mountains seek to challenge the skies and man on the Pakistani as well as the Indian side of the glacier has sought to challenge both not only at his own peril but also nature’s.
Putting the task of the rescuers in perspective, Commander of the Force Command Northern Areas Ikram ul Haq said the area that requires to be dug up is 3.6 million cubic feet in mass. Of this, 1.73 million cubic feet, or roughly more than a third, has been excavated.
Since the avalanche took place around 2 a.m., most of the men would have been indoors, so the focus of the rescuers is on tracking down the main accommodation area.
The area has been zeroed in on primarily with the help of two rocks — one of which bears the words ‘Welcome’ and was near the entrance, and the other ‘Allah Hafiz,’ near the exit.
Still, according to Maj. Gen. Haq, the rescue teams would be able to hit the ground level of the main accommodation by this monthend only.
“The problem is that after every 20-30 feet, we are encountering huge boulders which we are now blasting, despite expert advice against it.”
Pointing to a boulder sitting in front of the ‘Bilafond La Wall’ — which the Army had thought would protect the battalion headquarters from slides that are frequent in the area — he said it measured 22 metres in height and 44 metres in visible length. “This boulder came down with the avalanche which came at such speed and intensity that the Bilafond La Wall could not stop it.”
Similar boulders are being encountered all along the way by rescue workers. To avoid triggering more slides in the process of blasting, the boulders are being blasted in the morning as “this is the only way we can make our way through this,” despite the heavy machinery that has been shipped in from
Rawalpindi. Ferrying the machinery itself has proved to be a challenge as it has to be done by road. At Juglot in Gilgit district on the Karakoram Highway, they have to be dismantled as the bridges en route cannot take their weight, and then put back together at Goma, a base camp of the Army. All this takes a minimum of a fortnight, and on any given day 30 per cent of the equipment cannot be used due to snags, caused mainly by the weather and rocky terrain.
The equipment and expertise brought in by some European countries were of no use as they are made for homogeneous snow-laden avalanches, and not the mix of snow, sand, slush and hard rock that they encountered in Gayari.
The ground-penetrating radars donated by China too had the same limitations. The mercurial swings in the weather have ensured that for nearly the entire month, helicopters could not fly into Gayari. This is a delayed winter, and at a time of changing seasons, slides are almost a daily occurrence. On one day, there were as many as 54 of them, said the FCNA commander, and each slide is preceded by very strong blizzards.
He is of the view that the April 7 avalanche was also triggered by the late winter and frequent changes in temperatures.
An added problem is that the avalanche blocked the river Gayari, changed the lay of the land even as it took lives.
After days of work, a water course has been opened to clear the lake that was formed by the blockade on the river. Simultaneously, a wall had to be constructed around the artificial lake to prevent the water from inundating the area marked out for excavation. The construction has disturbed the area so much that it is no longer safe for habitation.