The sad news of ten Army jawans being buried in an avalanche on the Siachen Glacier has once again highlighted the perils and challenges that the Indian Army has been resolutely facing for the past three decades in the highest battlefield of the world.
This writer had the good fortune of supporting the first Army expedition to the Glacier in 1978, a full six years before Op Meghdoot was launched on 13 April 1984, and thereafter again in the mid-'90s while commanding the Siachen Pioneers helicopter unit at Leh. The Glacier had changed, and has continued to change literally every year, but what has not decreased one bit is the commitment of the Indian jawan towards protecting those most inhospitable mountains in the world, where not a blade of grass grows but what is our sacred land.
An Army paltan (battalion) spends three months at a stretch on the Glacier after a very structured acclimatization process. The dangers are many, starting from a bone-jarring -40 degrees celsius to deep crevasses, and from serious medical problems due to the high altitude to avalanches that strike without warning.
I have evacuated many casualties, serious and not so serious, but can never forget the haunting and helpless look of a strapping young Naga lad of around 20 odd years who was suffering from cerebral edema (in which water collects in the brain due to the effects of high altitude). Preparing to go back from Base Camp to Leh one afternoon, we were asked to go for an urgent cas evac (casualty evacuation) to a helipad called 'Golf.' Cas Evac requests override everything else and off we went to 'Golf.' As he was put in our Cheetah helicopter, I asked him above the din of the rotors, "Kaise ho (how are you feeling)?" With great effort, he moved his hand to give me a "thumbs up".
When we landed at Base Camp, a mere 15 minutes later, that handsome boy who could give our filmi heroes a run for their money, was lifeless. We had lost another hero for a national cause.
In the avalanche at Siachen this week, ten Indians in the prime of their youth would have just heard a rumble or a roar as the snow wall would have descended on them. They would have taken a crouching position to form a bubble of air, if possible, before the snow enveloped them. The helicopters would have been launched from Base Camp, or machines flying in the area would have been diverted to the avalanche site. As I see the photograph of the avalanche released by the Army, I can pinpoint the place, and feel the Cheetal (Cheetah helicopter re-engined with an Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Dhruv engine that now equips the Helicopter Unit) pilot making the approach to the helipad.
There are three deep crevasses he flies over, his eyes glued to the landing site - the co-pilot calls out his speed over each crevasse, since these are the "speed markers" for a Glacier pilot! As he crosses the third one, one into which a helicopter had slid a few years ago (the crew were pulled out with ropes), he looks for the black jerry-cans placed on the ground to provide depth perception to a pilot by breaking the monotony of the sea of white ice.
The snow flies and envelopes the helicopter in a white bowl, but the pilot's eyes stay glued to the black jerry-can that he has picked up to maintain his orientation and prevent a disorientating white-out. The helicopter touches down and a blast of icy cold air hits the pilot as he opens the door and yells "kahan hai (where are you)?"
The helipad party would have pointed to the avalanche site, the Cheetal would have taken off and circled the area but to no avail - an avalanche covers everything in its wake. The pilots would have seen the rescue teams of jawans digging maniacally to get their comrades out, waiting only to catch their breath - at 19,000 feet, the oxygen content is just half of that at sea level. A few deep puffs from oxygen bottles, and then back to digging - alas, in this case, no one could be pulled out.
Once the jawans are found, the Cheetals would fly-in again, this time to bring back the mortal remains of their comrades in olive green. I can imagine what would be going through the minds of those pilots - they too would never forget the sight, as I can't of that young Naga Regiment boy in 1995.
Rest in peace braves! The nation can never - NEVER - repay your debt. But we all know that the scroll at the Base Camp Memorial typifies what you were and would continue to be:
"Quartered in snow, silent to remain.
When the bugle calls, they shall rise and march again."
(The author, a retired Air Vice Marshal, is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.)
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