“Coming back from Siachen is like getting a second lease of life,” says Havildar Mittu (retired) from the Madras Regiment, recalling his two stints at what is known as the world’s highest battlefield – Siachen Glacier. During his stints in 1987 and 1999, he saw episodes eerily similar to the one that the country witnessed about a week ago.
“We lost four people in an avalanche in 1987. They were headed towards the next link to fetch supplies. It took us four days to find them. None of them had survived,” he recalled, even as the country heaved a sigh of relief at the miraculous rescue of Lance Naik Hanamanthappa Koppad.
The Siachen experience for many of those who have served a stint in the extreme weather conditions and difficult terrain is still fresh in memory.
“It is medically not possible to live in those conditions beyond three months. During that period, we lived on eating ready-to-eat food, chocolates and dry fruits, most of which are airdropped. On those days that they were not airdropped, we had to walk up to the next link, which those four people were also doing,” he narrated.
For those who are deemed fit enough to secure the border at Siachen, a bath means sponge bath, not being able to survive the cold beyond two minutes out of the feather light overalls that keep them warm from the inside. Activities such as brushing teeth are negated out of the daily routine. Even something as simple as walking is a task in itself, with a stretch of 2 km taking nearly six hours in the waist-deep snow, being roped up in groups to avoid crevasses.
“The biggest challenge in Siachen is survival,” echoed Col. Prateek Seth (retired.) from the Parachute Regiment, who served in the glacier in 1992, referring to temperatures that dipped below -50 degrees Celsius.
“If there were snow blizzards, it reduced the temperatures further. Even breathing is a problem there and the lack of oxygen, and the cold makes you eat much lesser. We come back after suffering weight loss and have to gain that strength back,” he said.
Dealing with avalanches is not the only dangerous situation one deals with, apart from predisposition to frostbite and high-altitude pulmonary edema.
Col. Seth said rescuing someone even from a narrow 10-feet-deep crevasse would be difficult as the body would freeze.
“Once, our fibreglass hut caught fire and we had to spend the night bundled up with each other out in the cold,” he remembered.
Lt. Col. J.S. Brar (retired), who also had two stints at Siachen, while explaining how the avalanches at Siachen are more dangerous because they are mostly solid blocks of ice, did admit that the number of casualties had decreased and the chances of survival had increased over the years, thanks to more facilities and machinery provided to the jawans.
Letters on chocolate wrappers
How did the country’s soldiers communicate with their families while being posted in Siachen with its dizzying heights, extreme temperatures and challenging terrains?
“I wrote letters to my (now) wife on chocolate wrappers. You may think it is romantic, but that was the only paper available,” said Col. Prateek Seth (retired), recalling those days of 1992.
This piece of paper would have to then be sent to the base camp, from there to Leh, and airlifted again to make it reach it destination — all of which would take a month. But he has another story to share: postponing his wedding.
“We had to push it by 15 days because they had to find me a replacement and the weather was bad. But my wife is the daughter of an Armyman, so she understood,” he reminisced, 24 years later.