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Siachen Glacier: Always a Self-Esteem Test for Indian Warriors
Lt General (Retd) Ata Hasnain recollects his experiences from his stint as a Commanding Officer at the foreboding heights of Siachen.
The recent avalanche in the Siachen Glacier area leading to the loss of nine precious lives and the miraculous survival of one Lance Naik has once again put the focus on the highest battlefield in the world.
Former Army Chief, General VP Malik famously quipped:
Rescue teams search for bodies of ten soldiers who were buried under a recent avalanche at Siachen. (Photo: PTI)
"The self-esteem of Indian Army personnel who have served at the Siachen Glacier is undoubtedly the highest."
To wear the grey and white ribbon denoting service in Operation Meghdoot (the official name of the deployment since 1984) is a singular honour.
Many officers of the Indian Army volunteer for deployment at Siachen.
In the Northern Glacier, for example, there is a need for at least 11 to 13 officers at any one time and a unit is divided into two equal halves for deployment three months at a time, making the requirement of officers higher than the authorisation.
Living Arrangements at Siachen
Indian units occupy the heights of Saltoro Ridge to the West to give depth to Siachen. Accommodation at these heights could mean a single hut fabricated with great difficulty shared by all ranks (no officer-man distinction here).
In addition to this would be one or two snow bag constructed bunkers behind even more snow bag based walls. The toilet could be a CGI sheet contraption which threatens to blow away or simply a snow dugout.
Imagine yourself perched on a snow bag throne attempting to purge the poisons with the wind howling and freezing your posterior.
There is no luxury of reading a newspaper in the loo because there aren’t any papers and the longer you keep yourself exposed, the greater the chance of getting frostbite.
To keep warm, there are no heaters except kerosene stoves with perforated gheetins on top to make them red hot so they act as radiators. Bukharis consume too much oil and are unpredictably dangerous at these heights, hence, stoves.
Sentry duty at the Saltoro can be a harrowing experience with temperatures at minus 50 and lower and the wind chill makes it worse.
Soldiers exercise in the harsh climate. (Photo: IANS)
Imagine being snug in your soot soiled sleeping bag at 2 AM and being woken up for your stint of two hours. From the 15 degrees of the hut to the minus 50 of the sentry post can be quite some change; It can bring on hallucinations especially if the enemy threat is real.
But the enemy is a wily one and ceasefire or not, no chance can be taken. To evict the enemy from a post if he captures it will mean the loss of many of our lives, so it is best to be uncomfortable now for a shorter spell.
Service in Operation Meghdoot is Singular Honour
Half-a-unit of soldiers is deployed at Siachen three months at a time and there is a need for 11-13 officers which is higher than the authorisation.
Soldiers at sentry duty at Saltoro brave temperatures that range below -50 degrees; the stark temperatures between huts and the sentry posts can bring on hallucinations.
Hygiene is a major concern since bathing is medically prohibited.
Unmapped crevasses are a huge hazard to soldiers – they can swallow five to six men.
To some of the posts on Saltoro, a vertical climb by ropes is necessary and may take over an hour, a time in which the most sought after drink in the world is a 250 ml (or at least four of them) pack of Frooti or Real Juice (unenterprising companies have never even thought of using this for their advertising – ‘Thirst Quenchers to the Keepers of the Sentinels’).
Layers of clothing and physical activity lead to sweating; sudden halt of activity results in icing up of sweat leading to acute discomfort. There is no dearth of goodies from branded chocolates to soups and dried fruits but the appetite for anything is missing at most times – as is sleep.
Working with mittens takes double the time. For example, even lighting a stove to make a much in demand cuppa takes longer. The strong temptation to remove mittens carries the threat of ‘metal bite’ – sections of skin peel off where you touch frozen metal.
De-inducting soldiers resemble unkempt humanity. Bathing is a strict no-no.
(Photo Courtesy: Syed Ata Hasnain)De-inducting soldiers resemble unkempt humanity.
The nose, earlobes, fingertips and toes are the most vulnerable and have to be protected.
There is a post where only two men can live at a time but space exists for only one to sleep. If at a rare moment, both wish to lie down, they take turns at lying on their back and resting a leg on each other.
It’s like being in a frozen space the size of an Indian Railways three-tier middle berth and staying in that position for at least 45 days.
Bathing is medically prohibited as water may freeze on the body, therefore, hygiene is a major concern. Each individual is authorised 14 pairs of socks to ensure that he has clean and dry socks available at all times.
The most common way to keep fit is to transport jerrycans of kerosene oil on your back from a lower height to a higher post. It may take four to five hours to make the climb.
Spilling oil also causes oil burns on clothes and the skin but that is a minor ailment compared to those that may afflict you if you do not exercise.
Movement is essential for survival but this too has its dangers as unmapped crevasses can take a soldier by surprise and can swallow whole links of five to six unsuspecting men if precautions are not taken.
Typical column of inducting soldiers in fresh snow clothing. (Photo Courtesy: Syed Ata Hasnain)
But the most fascinating thing is if you are unlucky enough to get a toothache, there is no dentist on-call, although, there may be enough doctors. You will have to be evacuated by helicopter – a really expensive tooth treatment.
That is why dentists take no chances in pre-induction dental tests; they simply extract an ailing tooth instead of aiming to treat it. It saves agony and much expense to the exchequer.
(The writer, a former GOC of the army’s 15 Corps, is now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and Delhi Policy Group.)