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The monthlong Civilian Trek, 2015, to the Siachen glacier organised by the Indian Army began on September 15. It is organised annually by the Army Adventure Wing between August-September and about 30-40 civilians are selected from the defence forces, media, Rashtriya Indian Military College and Rashtriya Military School cadets and trekking enthusiasts recommended by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF). This is the only chance for a civilian to visit the world’s highest and coldest battlefield. There is vacancy for two media persons and I was selected on behalf of The Hindu on a first-come-first-serve basis.
The trek begins from Leh in Ladakh at a height of about 12,000 feet above mean sea level. From there, the participants proceed to the Siachen Base Camp which goes into the mountain slopes at 10,000 feet and, from there, trek on to Kumar camp which is at 16,000 feet, the distance of the trek being 60 km both ways across 8-9 days.
All participants are first acclimatised to the low oxygen atmosphere at Leh (stage I: 6-7 days) and then undergo training at the Base Camp (stage II: 10-12 days) to handle the specialised mountaineering equipment prior to the actual trek to Kumar camp. This is critical, as the sub-zero temperatures and the thinning oxygen gradient can be fatal. Those whose vital body parameters (blood pressure, pulse) do not stabilise in the first week are sent back as it is too risky for them to proceed further.
India decided to allow civilians to trek the glacier in 2007 despite severe protests from Pakistan that it would not help the peace initiatives between the two countries. India has, however, consistently maintained that it does not need anyone’s permission, Siachen being part of India.
Why did India allow the trek?
The reasons for that can be seen as twofold:
Firstly, it is a way of reinforcing India’s sovereignty over the glacier which Pakistan claims as its own.
Second, it is an opportunity to showcase to the nation and the world the hurdles the Army faces in manning and provisioning the peaks in the most inhospitable terrains where the weather is the bigger adversary than the opponent.
Why is Siachen so important to India?
Siachen, in Balti language stands for ‘Sia’ which is a certain rose species that grows in the region and ‘Chen’ means "in abundance". However, it is more popularly known as the world’s highest and coldest battlefield. The Indian Army has been dominating and controlling the icy peaks at 22,000 feet since 1984.
Like several things between India and Pakistan, Siachen too is a legacy of partition. While the Line of Control (LoC) was delineated and accepted by both sides up to point NJ-9842, the glacier itself was left unmarked. India claims the area based on the Jammu & Kashmir Accession Agreement of 1947 and the Karachi Agreement of 1949, which define the ceasefire line beyond NJ-9842 as “running Northwards to the glaciers”.
Siachen sits at a very strategic location with Pakistan on the left and China on the right. So Pakistan re-interpreted it as North-Eastwards to claim the area beyond the Saltoro Ridge and beyond Siachen as its own. This would give Pakistan direct connectivity to China as well as a strategic oversight over the Ladakh region and on to the crucial Leh-Srinagar highway posing a serious threat to India.
In the 1970s, Pakistan began allowing foreign mountaineering expeditions and eventually tried to set up camp on the glacier. To pre-empt Pakistan, India launched Operation Meghdoot in April 1984 and occupied the high points of the glacier. Since then, both sides have been exchanging fire regularly and the guns fell silent after a ceasefire agreement in 2003. While the LoC keeps flaring up, the agreement on the glacier has held since.
In recent times, there have been calls and attempts to sort out Siachen and Sir Creek, which are dubbed “low-hanging fruits”, before a solution can be found for the Kashmir issue. India while expressing willingness for demilitarisation has called for authenticating the 110 km Actual Ground Position line which is the current position as the border which Pakistan refuses to.
The first two days at Leh is strictly rest and drinking lots of water to let the body adjust to the low oxygen condition. BP and pulse rate is monitored daily by a medical team from the Army General Hospital in Leh.
This is because as available oxygen drops in the air, the number of molecules in the red blood cells (oxygen carrying capacity of Haemoglobin) goes down as altitude increases.
Ladakh is a cold desert and there is high rate of dehydration due to the high rate of water vapour loss from the body. This results in high altitude sickness and to counter this, the ascent to high altitude has to be gradual.
2-km walk and medical check up
Complete medical check which includes blood and urine reports, Lipid profile, Electro Cardio Graph (ECG) in addition to BP and pulse. 2km walk and moderate exercise.