Siachen Diaries: The last hurdle

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Dinakar Peri gets sight of the Army's flying lifelines at 15,000 feet above sea level ... and manages to clear one final hurdle for the Army's civilian trek.

This is the third part of a series. You can read Part 2 >here and Part 1 >here.

Our stay at the base camp and stage two of the acclimatisation process is coming to an end. High altitude and extreme conditions mean everything here is a challenge. Army posts on the glacier (located at 22,000 feet or thereabouts, where temperatures plummet to minus 50 degrees in peak winter) can’t do without helicopters. They are their lifeline.



Weather is the single most important factor which determines activity here. On a clear day, the constant buzzing of rotors is a norm. The idea: drop as much load as possible when there is clear sky. But here’s the thing: in summer, when the sky is clear, the helicopters can carry only lesser load than usual. That’s because due to the high intensity of the sun, the air gets lighter. In winter, they can carry more. But then, the weather is so bad at times that flying itself is impossible!



There is a specific way in which the supplies are arranged on skit boards and then tethered to a parachute bag for airdrop. The Air Dispatch Unit, under the Army Service Corps, works on this. For those belonging to this division, the day begins much before dawn.







I have been seeing both the Army’s aviation unit and the Air Force operate here. Their roles are different, though. The Army is the lead agency for casualty evacuation while the Air Force takes care of supplies.



The Army operates the Cheetahs, which are legacy systems and in need of urgent replacement. But they are preferred here, as they are the only helicopters which can land on small helipads at remote posts. Flying at such high altitudes is very challenging and every move is fraught with risk, pushing both man and the machine to the limits. As one officer put it, “We operate 24X7, all round the year. We are forever prepared for contingencies as we operate on the edge.”



In addition to helicopters, AN-32 medium transport aircraft of the Air Force fly sorties from Chandigarh to drop loads. It was a visual delight to watch one such sortie at 15,000 feet, as we were trekking up.



September 30-October 3

It’s time to go to North Pullu for stage III acclimatisation for four days. This stage, which is a must for soldiers going on to the glacier, has been introduced for the first time in a civilian trek. This is also the final acclimatisation stage before we embark on the actual trek.





A five-hour drive from the base camp will take the 28 of us to North Pullu. On the way, we stop at Sasoma to visit the Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment, which functions under the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO). The Army depends on it for weather and avalanche forecast. After a short presentation, we are off to North Pullu.



 



Situated at 15,300 feet, North Pullu looks sprinkled in white. It has just received a round of snowfall. We hardly feel the effect of high altitude at first. But it only takes a short walk on a slight elevation for breathlessness and exhaustion to set in. What do we do? Standard Operating Procedure- Drink plenty of water, and rest.



On day two in North Pullu, we start our exercise routine with a 2 km walk. Day three is exhausting, as we go uphill. It’s also exhilarating.



Our blood pressure is being monitored regularly here. Many are apprehensive about not making it to the final list. Team doctor Capt Dr. Kate very politely reminds us that there would be no compromise on the medical front. “We cannot take the risk,” he tells one of the members who suggests he be a bit lenient.



The camp at North Pullu, being a transit camp, isn’t as comfortable as the base camp. But the Army has gone out of its way to make us comfortable with the limited resources available there. But several fellow trekkers are yearning to get back to base camp quickly just to get a wider choice and tastier food.



Four trekkers are declared medically unfit to continue further. I clear this hurdle too. Twenty-four of us are heading back on October 3 to being the final trek on the glacier to Kumar post, located at close to 16,000 feet.



 

October 3

We reach the base camp from where the trek starts next morning.

While trekking, ‘roping up’ is a must i.e. lining up and tying up with a rope at even distances. Usually, 5-7 people are assigned in a rope. Under the supervision of Base Commander Col. Hariharan, the entire group of 24 trekkers, five trainers, four officers and four soldiers have been assigned six ropes.

Even the order of line up in each rope has been fixed to save time in the morning. While the backpacks would be carried by porters, instructions are being given as to what items among those issued to us need to be taken. After a final check of the entire sequence, it is time for dinner and to pack up for the big day on October 4.

 

After the three-week long training and eliminations, we are about to begin the final trek of 60 km. We can’t wait to start.

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