Siachen Diaries: Getting fit to blend in

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In this second part of the Siachen Series, Dinakar Peri takes us through the acclimatization process en route the world’s highest battle field, providing a peek into the hardships faced by the Army

This is the second part of a series. You can read Part 1 >here

September 19: Only a few days remain for our first stage of acclimatization to end, which means only a few days more at Leh. We are awaiting our medical reports. Only those who are certified medically fit can proceed to the next stage (two more stages of the acclimatization routine await those who pass the test).





A couple of participants have been asked to repeat the tests – they were at the border of acceptable limits on a few parameters.

September 20: I pass the test.

So, I can look forward to the annual Ladakh Festival, which starts today, with some relief!

This is a rare chance to watch the locals dance, dressed in their traditional Ladakhi attires. This festival is a huge draw amongst foreigners, who also visit this place to trek and bike. I am fascinated by the simple body movements in the traditional dance, which makes a lot of sense in high altitude conditions like this. You can’t put too much strain on the body.





September 21: We leave Leh today.

Four don’t make the cut on medical grounds. The remaining 32 have a formal chat with the General Officer Commanding 14 Corps Lt Gen SK Patyal. 14 Corps, the army formation responsible for protecting the Ladakh region, was created after the 1999 Kargil conflict.

Our team leader is Capt. Arpit Khera. Apart from him and the civilians, the team includes lady officer Capt. Swati Sengar, two signal personnel, three trainers from the Army Mountaineering Institute, two trainers from the Siachen Battle School (SBS), a medical officer and a medical assistant.

 

September 22: We are headed to the Siachen base camp for stage two of the acclimatization process.

We are told we will be trained in ice-craft and also in handling equipment for the trek.

The very thought of this journey to the base camp is exciting. We will be traversing through the world’s highest motorable road at Khardung La (also called K Top), located at 18,340 feet. The route then descends down to 12,000 feet at the base camp.





Till Sasoma, the vehicles move uneventfully. We are even on time for lunch at the transit camp in North Pullu. But once we cross a check post beyond Sasoma, our schedule goes for a toss. That’s because roads that were washed away a few months back due to floods are still being mended.

At one point, there’s a torrent of water rushing across. And, as if on cue, one of our vehicles is stuck in the sand. Nothing seems to work till finally an Army truck, carrying our luggage, pulls it out.

Just when we think things are fine again, just a few kilometers ahead, the car gets stuck quite deep in water that it breaks down. The Army truck now has to drag it all the way.

What makes this worse is there’s no way to communicate about this delay to the officials waiting for us at the base camp. The systems are down. It must have eventually reached them. For, a rescue team meets us on the way at 7 p.m. We finally reach our destination at 8 p.m.

Sept 23-30: At Siachen Base Camp. While the stay at Leh was more relaxing and getting used to the high altitude conditions, the scene at Base Camp was totally different. It involved lectures, training and exercises and in short, a hectic schedule for a week. The base camp is located at the mouth of the glacier beside the Nubra river, which originates from the glacier. Helicopters constantly circle overhead. Over the years, the Army has developed standard procedures to sustain troops on the icy glaciers. Casualties have come down over the years.



 

The base camp was originally built on the mountain side to prevent damage from Pakistani shelling. It has seen constant firing in the past. Guns are silent now, as they have been since the 2003 ceasefire. Things aren't bad at all. There is DTH, BSNL mobile connectivity as also intermittent Internet. What more, fresh food too! Our host here is the Army Mountaineering Institute. The medical check-ups continue — several people report elevated BP, not unusual. Day one was a day of rest, largely. "Mountains teach humility," says Base Commander Colonel Hariharan in his lecture.

And then there's a word of caution: "You are not achieving anything by completing the trek. Please do not show bravado and put others at risk." Every trainer is referred to as 'ustad.'

Life in the base camp is in sharp contrast to city life. The day begins with bed tea at 5am and we are out for exercise by 7am. By 10.30 pm, the lights are off. Our workload is gradually increasing everyday. After two days of moderate walks without loads, we take long walks on the third day as also climb hillocks with fully loaded backpacks. It was a testing time for everyone. After seven days, it is time pick who is fit and who isn't.

Unfortunately, four don't make the cut. I do!

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