Saturday, December 5, 2009

AN UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTH

Well, its a long long break since my last post; I am hopeful of completing my Siachen Chapter of my life soon. Apologies for this delay.

Good news is, now I have my Siachen photogaphs scanned. So it will be illustrative blog from now on.

A thing I forgot to mention - another fact about Siachen at the entry to Base Camp.
As we enter the Base, I notice couple of fires burning - yet no one around - uncontrolled fire - a threat in security terms. Is it the burning waste, or is it a party just completed or is it a preparation for Campfire - I had these questions running inside me.

My doubts were soon put to rest - they were funeral pyres - of soldiers who succumbed to the Glacier. Their unfortunate families didn't even had the last look of their loved ones. I later learn that because of the time and distance at which Siachen is cut off from the world, the authorities carry out the last rites of these unfortunate men - of course after informing their families.

This stark reality of probability of "no last look" is one other thing that bears down heavily on the Siachen experience.

Next : The SBS Training

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Off we go to Base Camp

After the acclimatization, we were scheduled to leave for the Base Camp of the Siachen Glacier. It’s a drive on the rugged roads through the Nubra river Valley. This journey was eventless except for few ‘tea-break’ stopovers and a lunch break. Our trucks lumber along the road alongside the Nubra river and sometimes in the river bed in the Nubra valley with the mountains towering on both sides. These are barren mountains – no trees, no significant vegetation. Whatever the little greenery that is there soon turns to brown by the time we reach Base camp.


Amidst the travel I noticed the rocks on the mountains/hills alongside. They are smooth, very surprisingly. Laid my eyes higher up, the smoothness is still the same- this smoothness is nothing but the result of being in water for long time. They are like the small smooth pebbles we see in streams. And to find them at these heights is debatable controversy - a challenge to our “Creation” theory. From my view there could be three possibilities :-

a. These rocks were in the water covering the earth before earth was separated by the Almighty.

b. Himalayas are known as folding mountains – that form when two landmasses collide. Indian plate colliding with the Asia mainland, land folded up at the point of contact forming Himalayas. Since sea separated the two land masses the rocks were smoothened in the sea/ocean and when the land folded up, these rocks settled along with the soil that formed the mountains.

c. As per Hindu Mythology the Kashmir valley was a huge lake which was the hiding place of a demon that killed people. Sage Agasthya had to drain the lake to trigger destruction of the demon. Once the water drained the smooth rocks and the land remained - of course the demon was destroyed.

Well as I said, it is debatable.

The closer we reached to the Base Camp, the fewer the villages and sparser the people. On the way we were told that this is the last village that we’ll come across. This means that we will not be able to see “Civilians” and the civilization – only the FORCES from now on. Also means that it’s a goodbye to seeing females – except in the “pondy literature”, general magazines and of course in our thoughts and dreams. No thoughts of not seeing old people and kids – strange, only concerned about no females. Some sort of eeriness and strange thoughts creep in – for everyone – will I be coming back to the colored civilization again? Will I return in same good shape? What if something
happens? How long will it take for the news to travel to near and dear….. its all black thoughts.

Then suddenly someone shouted “see there is the glacier”. From my truck, from 2 Kms, all I could see was that there is some sort of inhabitation – the Base Camp - and beyond it, there is no road. Something huge, wide and black and looking like lava is filling the valley between the mountains. It is later the next day that I learned that this black thing is nothing but the glacier itself – the mass of floating ice – turned black with the mixing of soil.

By the time we reached the Base Camp, the sun was setting. There was a bunch of men that cheered our arrival. Some were from my Battery who reached a week before us - happy that we are with them again ; the rest were from the existing Regiment- glad that they will go back to the civilization. Hot tea was served with biscuits and water too, though not in the same sequence.

There is a two “room” shelter for the officers from Air Defence – one for the Battery Commander and one for the troop commander (officers like me). The room for the troop commander will be occupied only for few days – during the training before leaving for the glacier and for few days after coming back from the glacier. These “rooms” are separated with a wall and have separate entry doors. A small toilet is “attached” to the rooms. These rooms are not the regular brick-cement type. Just rocks piled up, mud plastered. Iron sheets separate the floor from the sky and rocks are placed on these sheets that they don’t fly away in gusts of swirling winds of the valley. I am going to be the occupant of my room for the time being.

In this Base Camp we are to acclimatize for couple of days before we start our Training. We have to successfully pass the training to walk on to the higher abodes on the Siachen. This famous training centre is called

“The Siachen Battle School” (SBS in short)

We are now at 12,150 Ft.

Next – About the Base Camp and the SBS Training.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Acclimatization

Hi again :

Acclimatization (n) :
Adaptation to a new climate (a new temperature or altitude or environment).

Excerpts from net on Acclimatization :

When we go too high too fast, our bodies initially develop inefficient physiological responses. There is an increase in breathing and heart rate to as much as double even while resting. Pulse rate and blood pressure go up sharply as our hearts pump harder to get more oxygen to the cells. These are stressful changes, especially for people with weak hearts. For example, if you reach 10,000 feet and spend several days at that altitude, your body acclimatizes to the conditions at that height. If you further climb up, your body has to acclimatize once again.

Some bodily reactions due to this sudden change :-

· The depth of respiration increases.
· Pressure in pulmonary arteries is increased, "forcing" blood into portions of the lung which are normally not used during sea level breathing.
· The body produces more red blood cells to carry oxygen,
· The body produces more of a particular enzyme that facilitates the release of oxygen from hemoglobin to the body tissues.
· Increased heart rates


So : Since we moved from plains to the mountains we need to acclimatize to the conditions at Thoise. We are made to stay for a week at this place in a Transit Camp.

First day : absolute rest.
Second day : Stroll a bit around the Transit Camp.
Third day onwards : increase the distance day by day and climb little heights (on foot).

I obediently followed the instructions for first two days.
Being with an adventurous spirit, I couldn’t walk on a beaten path. It has to become a path after I had trod. So it was good bye regular roads for our acclimatization walks. I took my troops to trekking. Since these men are going to be with me in tough conditions, they better be fit. I used to take them to the nearby mountains, into the Nubra valley – river bed. Enjoyed the valley view from the top.

After all what is there to cherish what everyone has seen?

One early morning I went to the airfield just to watch the big bird (IL-76 aircraft) land and take off. Its amazing and wondering how this hulk can fly actually.

On one of the walks into the mountains we came pretty close to a waterfall - only to miss its sweet water as the darkness was enveloping fast. Once we went into the Nubra (the river that flows there) valley. In the distance we could see some camels.

Camels?
Hold On !!!
In the higher reaches of Himalayas?
Joking? Cant’ be.
But Yes, we did see camels.
Guess what, they are double humped – one of the rare species.
No, not the ones we see even in Hyderabad, which they parade before being put up as meat in a butcher’s shop!!!

One day we strolled into the village and went to a Buddhist temple. Saw the prayer wheels. When you walk by them, you are supposed to spin them around. If you have a wish put it in the biggest one and spin it 101 times (don’t remember the count exactly). Ladhakis take religion religiously !!!!

The operations of Siachen Glacier are controlled by Siachen brigade located in Partappur village, close to our Transit Camp. The brigade staff also has an Air Defence (AD) Officer to coordinate AD operations.


(((Partappur is not even near the Siachen Base Camp. Some of them boast of serving in the “treacherous” Siachen just by serving as DTT (Desk Top Tiger) in the Partappur and not having visited the Base Camp atleast.)))

However, I must not forget to mention the good moral support of these officers. I was very cordially invited by the AD officer (there will only be 3-4 AD officers at the most in Glacier operations at any point of time) for a drink in the evening. Spent some time there in the Brigade.

Families are not permitted in Leh and Partappur areas during winter due to the extreme cold. Families do join officers and stay in the temporary accommodation for 3-4 months from May to October. During acclimatization time there was a Sunday which was a party day near the Nubra river with the families. Had a gala time, chilled beer, ice cold river streams and the beauty (and beauties !!) all around. It was a good party/picnic/afternoon.

Life has to go on and so should we. We are through the acclimatization process. No problems to anyone so far.

Our next stay would be at the Siachen Base Camp. Height - 12,000 Ft.

Catch you later … … … …

The Flight

The flight has to land at Leh/Thoise at Sunrise and take off for return by before the air gets heated up (because of the rarity of air [at this high altitude] the aircraft cannot generate enough thrust for take off). We had to get up early to catch the flight. Generally these are the timings.

· Get up and get ready at Transit Camp – 2.30 am
· Loading of our equipment – 2.30 to 3.00 am
· Arrive at Airfield – 3.30 am
· Check of equipment/men – 3.30 am to 4.30 am
· Technical Flight checks 4.30 am to 5.00 am
· Take off – 5.00 am
· Land at Leh/Thoise 6.00 am

We will all be aboard waiting for takeoff. From the inside of the aircraft one feels that they are in a heavily loaded truck. Just that this flies. Oh Yeah, the aircraft is IL-76 – Garuda, massive plane with two decks (levels). This has a gunner in the tail who is supposed to fire any enemy planes, during a war.

Then we get a good news that flight is cancelled as the weather is packed (unsuitable).

Unload and get back to the Mess. Nothing to do till next day. So this continued for about 5 days till we took off. During one of these “cancelled days” we went to a movie “Phoolan Devi”, went to a colleagues house, did some (unnecessary) shopping etc.

People manipulate the staff at the Transit Camp. things to stay in Chandigarh for couple of days extra. Intentionally miss the flight / no-room in the aircraft, fell ill… individual’s creativity comes to the fore. Coz, one is considered to be on duty as long as you are in transit camp.

So finally one fine day when everything is OK we took off. My team to Thoise and the other team to Leh. Some time after the take off, we could see the sun coming up the horizon and the Himalayas moving slowly below us - nothing but wilderness. All that we could see was brown patches and white patches and some white patches with the early morning golden hue of the rising sun. Being taller, some mountains are covered with snow and the lowly ones without the snow are brown.

Wondered if rescue / recovery can reach, if we were to crash in those places.

The flight, though not comfortable was exiting. Some men (soldiers) around you tense, some excited, some pretending to be enjoying. But I can say everyone had a prayer on their lips while take off and landing that everything should be OK. No regular seats. Just foldable benches along the sides. In between there’ll be luggage, equipment all secured. So no regular seatbelts. Just hold on to what ever you can. Being a cargo plane there were few windows and once the daylight was streaking through, people rushed to take turns to watch the view.

During the flight we reached an altitude of 32000 ft. Nearing the end of the flight we descended and flew between the mountains, in the valleys and finally DHAD DHAD DHAD DHAD we touched down. The Thoise runway was not so smooth but is vital for the troops serving in this sector. When the doors opened, a chill dry and clean air slapped on the cheeks. The air was so fresh and clean that I filled my lungs to the full. We were at 10100 ft. I was never at this height. I felt light. My steps had a spring. I said “WOW Lord, your creation is amazing. Thanks for bringing me here.” We saw the sun from up above, but down on the land, it is yet to come up above the mountains.

After unloading and checking of our luggage, it was loaded them on to the trucks. Not by us but the men at the airport. We had strict instructions. No exertion. Coz coming from plains to this altitude, the body doesn’t adjust and there could be major health issues. We were treated like the fighting cocks, well fed and taken care off, before being let in to the BLOODY battle field.

Luggage in trucks, we in buses, off we go to the transit camp, where we would be spending next week acclimatizing to the climate, height and conditions.
Coming up : The Acclimatisation.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Desert Rose - Preparation and Move

In 1996, our Regiment, 126 Light Air Defence Regiment (One-Two-Six Lt AD), was in Bharatpur (Rajasthan) when we got the orders to move to Leh. The Regiment would be Headquartered in Leh (highest airfield in the world). One of the four Batteries (Company) will do their tenure on the Glacier for 6 months.

My Battery, being the fittest and capable to take over from the existing Regiment and ensure smooth transition, was tasked to move to the Glacier first. We started preparations and exercised harder than the regular morning P.T to be ready to face the rigors of the Glacier. It was a proud time – when others exercised on normal P.T dress, we trained ourselves in battle clothing (back packs, boots et al….)

I couldn’t have been much prouder as I was picked up to be the first officer to lead the troops on to the Glacier. What more motivating than this honor !!!!

We were booked separate train coaches which were to be attached to passenger train.
The travel was to be in three phases – Bharatpur to Mathura by road, Mathura to Delhi by train and Delhi to Chandigarh by train.

From Leh were to be airlifted as two groups –
advance party led by Lt. Col Jimmy John to move from Chandigarh to Leh and
my battery led by Maj. Subir Malhotra to move from Chandigarh to Glacier.

The Srinagar – Drass – Kargil (remember 1999 Kargil war???) – Leh road was snow covered and was not opened for the year. This road opens for about 5 months from June till October. Hence the airlift else, drudgery of travel all the way by road which takes 7 days.

Coming next.. the Airlift and the acclimatization.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Journey to the Desert Rose

Well, as it is said that the Blog should go on.... here am I with some of memorable periods during my life's journey.

I'll start with the journey and the fond memories of the Siachen Glacier.
For those "Siachen" is a 'not-heard', it is the highest active battle field in the world.
Amidst all possible calamities, it is here that the guts of soldiers are tried, tested and cherished.
Its a battle with the enemy across the LOC (line of control) and a big war within.
More than the enemy, one needs to conquer the innate demons & fears to survive and walk back alive and healthy.

Siachen takes its name from a type of rose that blooms in this icy desert.
As delicate and as beautiful the rose here is, so hard, sharp and numerous are the thorns around it.
As one tackles the thorns to get to the rose, so does one need to tackle the fears within to enjoy the stay on the glacier.

Cont'd.....

Sunday, February 22, 2009

"Who Ever loved, That Loved Not at First Sight"

It lies not in our power to love or hate,

For will in us is overruled by fate.

When two are stripped, long ere the course begin,

We wish that one should love, the other win;

And one especially do we affect

Of two gold ingots, like in each respect:

The reason no man knows; let it suffice

What we behold is censured by our eyes.

Where both deliberate, the love is slight:

Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?

- Christopher Marlowe (1564-93)