Where the Cold War Never Ends

First Person

Where the Cold War Never Ends

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré

Quartered in snow, silent to remain,
When the bugle calls,
They shall rise and march again.

– Memorial at Siachen Base Camp

I

was stationed at Saddle, a post on a tiny flat plateau on a mountaintop with steep slopes on either side. Located at 5,800 metres, we had arrived there after 21 days of passing lower-altitude posts, getting acclimatised bit by bit. At this kind of a forward post, the temperature dips to -55°C, which is why a soldier’s maximum tenure is never more than three months. That might sound like a short while – a mere quarter – but in Siachen time moves slowly.

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March 1, 2003 dawned a white day, heavy with thick snow. The Defence and Research Development Organisation had already released a high-risk warning of avalanche in my area and no troop movement was to be allowed. We anchored our huts with iron rods on either side to ensure they did not slide off in a blizzard. Hemmed indoors by the snowstorm, we didn’t leave the hut except to take turns to remove snow from the roofs and clear paths from one hut to another. The night was even harsher. My men didn’t eat dinner because there was no way to step out in those conditions to relieve yourself.

As a company commander, it was my job to speak with each post every day to take stock of the situation and the men. That evening, as I started making my regular “All okay” telephone calls, I could feel the snow on my cheeks like needles. Around 8.30 pm, while speaking with the commander of the intermediate post, Mangez, two levels below Saddle, the line went blank mid-sentence. I wasn’t too anxious. I assumed that a small avalanche might have disconnected the telephone connection. But when there was no response even when we tried calling the signal operator at Mangez, the alarm bells started to ring. The post might have been hit by the avalanche. There was nothing to do but follow protocol: We updated HQ and hunkered down to wait for further instructions.

***

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At a post located at an altitude of 5,800 metres, the temperature dips to -55°C, which is why a soldier’s maximum tenure is never more than three months.

Courtesy: Sachin Bali

At 5,800 metres, the wait is the toughest. My men killed time discussing reasons for loss of contact and possible outcomes at Mangez. But mostly they prayed. They knew in their bones, just like I did, that the news wouldn’t be good.

That night I did not sleep. The missing men were keeping me awake. I stepped out of the hut into the howling black blizzard, looking in the direction of the post, wondering what had become of them.

The hours passed slowly. We stayed on listening mode to get any signal from the missing post but there was nothing. As time went by, we spoke less and less and by dawn, the entire post was silent, heavy with dread.

As soon as morning broke, we laced up our boots, ready for action the moment we got a report. The day cleared soon and we could hear some helicopters flying in the general direction of Mangez. Finally, our much-awaited report was delivered.

It had happened as we’d feared. The soft snow on one of the rock faces near Mangez had triggered a massive avalanche and washed away the two prefabricated huts that comprised the post. The soldiers didn’t stand a chance of evading the disaster. The blizzard and the howls of the arctic wind had drowned out the murmur of the building avalanche, which took only seconds to destroy everything in its view.

Out of the 12 soldiers at Mangez, six had been spotted out in the open, dressed in only a full-sleeved jumper without shoes and socks in -58°C. They had been on duty when the avalanche hit. The other six, who’d been taking their turn resting, were buried deep under the snow. My stomach lurched. The six who were snowed under, had been there for over 16 hours. Their chances of survival were next to none.

My thoughts immediately swerved to the six survivors. On a routine day, kitted out in top mountain gear, the soldiers would have come indoors every two hours. They would have warmed water on a kerosene stove, added salt to it, and dipped their hands and feet in it to defrost their frozen limbs. Now, in the open for over 16 hours, they were at the risk of being severely frostbitten, blinded by snow, and getting high-altitude pulmonary or cerebral oedema.

The only hope was that these men would be evacuated by choppers, even though air rescue at that altitude is tricky to pull off. The air is so thin that a helicopter cannot hover at one point as it may lose control. Still, there was some cheer at Saddle. Hope floated on the cold winds.

“Trudging through soft snow is like dragging dead weight. Your body works with only 30 per cent of the oxygen it requires to function normally, so every step drains you.”

Sachin Bali

Our next update came a few hours later. The helicopters were unable to evacuate or even drop any equipment or clothing. Whatever they were dropping was landing a few feet away from the stranded men and immediately disappearing in the soft snow.

The only way to save these men would have to be on foot – and we would have to be their foot soldiers.

***

A rescue operation in normal conditions is fraught with risk. In Siachen, it can turn into a suicide mission in the blink of an eye. My briefing to the team was straightforward – this was highly risky and they could easily say no. It would not be held against them. I meant every word, but not one of them opted to stay back.

We swung into action immediately. A team of nine men (and I) began the descent to rescue the men of Mangez. On a clear day, the route would have taken a little over an hour with a stop in between. But the incessant snowing had dramatically changed the route, and it took us over two hours to reach the half-link post.

Trudging through soft snow is like dragging dead weight. Your body works with only 30 per cent of the oxygen it requires to function normally, so every step drains you. We had to divide the rescue team into two: The route opening party of four people, would “create footsteps” in over waist-high snow, which the rest would follow. After every few steps, the person leading the group had to be changed to avoid overtiring one individual.

The drill was exhausting, but we kept going. The route markers between each post had submerged in the snow and we were banking on our instincts to move forward, leaving it up to God to prevent us from walking into a crevasse.

It took us the entire day and we reached late in the evening to the area where Mangez should have been. We were aghast to see the changed terrain. The avalanche had created a landscape we’d never seen before. There was soft snow 15 feet over the normal surface; there were mounds, manoeuvring which was near-impossible.

By this time, the extreme cold and wind chill had caused our hands to become stiff. None of us could feel our feet. My jaw was beginning to freeze and talking was difficult. But we had to keep looking for the men, even though the waist-high pile-up made it impossible for us to walk further. To make things worse, our radio batteries had died.

Out of sheer desperation, we used whistles and shouted for the men, well aware that any vibration from our walking or shouting could trigger another avalanche and submerge all of us. But we had no choice. We kept going but there was no response. It was as if the wind and terrain had rendered us invisible and mute to them.

It was time for a difficult decision. I had to choose between continuing to look for the men or head back to Saddle. We had been walking in waist-high snow for around 12 hours, and there were signs of mountain sickness on everyone: Some of the men were unable to move forward, some were beginning to be incoherent. I could hear a buzz in my head. I felt as if I was somewhere else, in a serene location, where I could camp and make a warm beverage. That’s when my training kicked in. I realised that the cold was playing tricks on my mind. I gathered myself and decided to lead my team back.

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The blizzard and the howls of the arctic wind had drowned out the murmur of the building avalanche, which took only seconds to destroy everything in its view.

Courtesy: Sachin Bali

I knew the walk back was going to be even more arduous. We had no physical or mental energy left. I asked the team to shed weight, leave behind their rescue equipment and oxygen cylinders and just walk. I was in agony but had to keep the mood light and the men distracted. I joked with a young soldier who was just about to get married that he should seriously consider postponing the wedding, given the rate at which were walking.

I don’t know what worked but we got through. After being exposed to more than -58°C for more than 17 hours, we saw the half-link post – and then we could move no more.

Inside the half-link post, we had to let our bodies stabilise before we could warm ourselves. Only once we took off our gloves to dip our hands in water, did we see it – our hands were blue and swollen. All the exposure and sweating had done their work. Most of us had third-degree frostbite. I tried to drink some juice, but my worry about the men didn’t allow anything to pass down my gullet. I hoped the survivors had somehow managed to walk towards the post below.

That night again, nobody slept.

***

The next morning, helicopters were sent to evacuate my team from the half-link post: The men who could still move, worked tirelessly to create a helipad on soft snow, by stomping on it and flattening it with wooden boards. The helicopter could only make two difficult landings that day and had to return due to the sun going down. My instructions were clear: The team had to be evacuated first and I’d go last.

As our evacuation was in progress, the base initiated another rescue mission, and this time, four men from Mangez were taken back to safety. The ones who had been in the sleeping bags, however, remained in their icy graves until their bodies were recovered months after the incident.

By evening, I was the only one left at the half-link post. I looked at my feet through the night. I no longer had any sensation of cold or discomfort. All the nerves, tissue, and muscles had been blitzed and large blisters had started to form. The next day my feet would turn black. I thought long and hard about amputation that night.

The next morning, I flew back. Even as I was being taken to the hospital at Chandimadir, my mind was full of things to be done when I got back to the post in a few days – like re-establishing Mangez and capturing another peak in the area. I had no idea that my feet would render me unfit for duty, and that my chosen career of being a combatant in the infantry had ended.

I never went back to Siachen again. It’s been 13 years now, but not a day goes by when I don’t close my eyes and see that memorial etched in stone: Quartered in snow, silent to remain/When the bugle calls, they shall rise and march again.

As told to Karanjeet Kaur.

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