Displayed prominently at the Army’s Siachen Base Camp is a slogan that forewarns soldiers: “The land is so barren and the passes so high, that only the fiercest of enemies and the best of friends want to visit us.”
In truth, while the enemy is nearby, the best of friends can never drop in.
Siachen’s lowest point, the snout of the desert ice-and-snow glacier, is at nearly 12,000 feet. Soldiers are deployed up to a height of 22,000 feet. It is often lyrically described as the highest battlefield in the world, but the enemy at Siachen is not so much an entity armed with rifles and guns across the Actual Ground Position Line — no fire has been exchanged between Indians and Pakistanis in more than a dozen years here — but nature, the atmosphere, snow, mountains, and the isolation, the mind, and one’s own body.
Major Saurabh Kaithat of Ladakh Scouts, remembers that it was his fourth day at a post 21,000 feet high when the snow began pelting down in a blizzard lasting 22 days. It was not the gentle, beautiful snow of Dr Zhivago. At Siachen, snow is a four-letter word.
“It was a white-out,” Kaithat describes, using a phrase that comes up in every conversation around Siachen, which means zero visibility even at daytime. Kaithat is a veteran of two postings at Siachen, in 2001 and 2010.
What followed was severe rationing. “There was no communication, and our stocks were coming down. We had to use everything sparingly, especially fuel.”
From cooking food on a heater and melting snow for drinking water to lighting up the pre-fabricated snow shelters, kerosene is the magic substance. “It’s the lifeline, and you have to make it last till the next supply. You don’t know when it will come next because of the weather.”
There are only very small windows to stock up, because the weather changes swiftly and suddenly. Plus, there are very few places that a supply-carrying helicopter can land, and very little load that it can bring in.
The temperatures vary between -25 degrees by day and -55 degrees by night. A unit is deployed at Siachen for two years, while troops are stationed at the highest posts for a maximum of 90 days, and sometimes even lesser.
Before being deployed to Siachen, soldiers undergo rigorous training at the Siachen Battle School, located near the base camp, and get acclimatised to the conditions. They learn rock-climbing and how to handle ice walls as well as negotiate crevasses. Rigorous medical check-ups are held, and soldiers suffering from high blood pressure or suspected cardiac ailments left out.
Barring accidents, acclimatisation is the initial challenge, says Major Amritesh Kumar of the Sikh Regiment, who had one tenure at Siachen in 2005. “If you last the initial days, chances are you will last the whole term.”
The living quarters
“There are no beds. We sleep on makeshift beds which lie on top of supplies that we store in the shelter. There is no other place to keep them,” says Lt Col Manav Sharma, 35, of Ladakh Scouts, now posted at Chandimandir Cantonment, the headquarters of the Army’s Western Command.
“It takes three hours to heat up a bucket of water for a wash,” he adds. “Everything that we take for granted and normal down here does not exist there.”
In that freezing temperature, a wash should be the last thing on a soldier’s mind. But, as Sharma says, there is a reason behind it. “One should try to be as normal as possible in such desolation. The first task is to keep yourself fit, only then can you fight. Stick to your routine.”
While they bathe inside the pre-fabricated snow huts, crevasses usually serve as toilets, with a ladder leading down into them. The soldiers go a little distance from the post, so that the excreta does not get mixed up with the snow that has to be melted for drinking water.
When soldiers venture out, they tie themselves to each other so that they don’t drift apart if the weather changes and they are caught in a snowstorm or get plunged into a hidden crevasse.
Col Samir Gupta, who served as a medic at Siachen in 1992, recalls one soldier going out to the toilet one day. “He never came back. We found his body much later. He had been swept away even though he was tied to a rope anchored inside the tent.”
Every post has a nursing attendant, and every company has a doctor. According to Col Gupta, that is a huge morale booster.
“A doctor is a big psychological factor. When troops know there’s a doctor around, that’s reassurance,” says Gupta, now serving at the Command Hospital at Chandimandir Cantt.
However, doctors themselves live in constant apprehension of a medical emergency. “The evacuation chain is very robust, provided the weather holds good. During my time, we had a soldier with splinter injuries due to enemy artillery shelling. We could not evacuate him for three days because no helicopter could land due to bad weather,” says Gupta’s colleague Col K V S Hari Kumar.
There were situations, adds Col Kumar, “where the weather packed up for four days and a patient suffering from high-altitude pulmonary oedema was lost because he couldn’t be evacuated to a lower altitude immediately”.
Stuck in his first blizzard, Major Kaithat remembers reading “everything”. “I first read every newspaper and magazine at the post. Next, I began reading the newspapers pasted on the inside walls of our shelter. Then I read the Gita… I found a copy lying in one of the shelters.”
When you run out of all that, it’s down to reading the ingredients on the cartons of toothpastes and shampoos, says Major Dhruv Raj Sirohi, 30, of the Rajput Regiment.
The idea is to keep as busy as possible, explains Maj Kaithat. So through those 22 days of the blizzard, he volunteered for whatever task came up — including fetching water and writing the operational log, just to keep active.
Even soldiers who have never entered a kitchen before learn to cook, and enthusiastically.
“I used to cook a lot,” says Lt Col Sharma, adding that “specials” were likely to emerge following the “white-outs”. He gives the example of a dish dubbed “Siachen pudding”. “It’s a mix of everything sweet available on the post, including chocolate, biscuits, powdered milk, condensed milk.”
Vegetables and meat have to be thawed before they can be cooked. “They are like stones. I used to dream of green vegetables,” smiles Major Kaithat.
“Psychologically, it’s a huge challenge,” says Major Kumar. “There is so much isolation. Your physical appetite goes down, but your intellectual appetite does not get satisfied. I used to start a discussion with the jawans, just to get them talking. But no one is in a mood to talk or discuss anything. They wouldn’t want to contribute, just nod their heads. The isolation is at every level.”
“You’ve to keep the team in good humour. I used to make the boys write letters home compulsorily,” adds Lt Col Sharma.
With everyone wearing the same clothes, eating the same food and sleeping in the same shared shelter, the line between an officer and a jawan is very thin, say the officers. Ten to 11 soldiers, including the officer in command of the post, generally share one fibreglass shelter. That also keeps the morale up.
Apart from one another, the one diversion that soldiers have from lurking inner fears, loneliness and depression are dogs. “Almost every post has a dog. We had one called Pisti (a mountain stray dog) whose specialty was that she would have breakfast at one post, then travel for lunch to another and have dinner at a third post. She knew exactly where her next meal was coming from, so we used to send letters tied to its collar,” laughs Lt Col Manav.
Major Kumar recalls how the dog at their post would eat roti dipped in condensed milk, but never off the ground. “He always wanted it in a plate.”
All dogs at Siachen are generally named after food items — chocolate, pastry, etc.
The phone call
Soldiers are allowed one call a week home. Most remote posts have a satellite phone, and the calls are put through by an operator. Bad weather means connections often don’t go through.
Sometimes sacrifices have to be made here too. A soldier might give up his share of time on the phone for the sake of a colleague who wants more time on the phone with the family.
“I used to tell the operator to tell my mother that I was fine and he would in turn call me and tell me that ‘Mataji keh raheen hain ki vo theek hain (Your mother says she is fine),” remembers Major Amritesh.
After spending three months in that wilderness, the return to civilisation can be jarring. “After we finish our rotation on the posts and get leave, in a matter of a few hours, we are back in Chandigarh or New Delhi. The feeling can be very confusing, seeing tall buildings, traffic on the roads. I recall having mineral water on the Shatabdi back home and thinking ‘this tastes funny’ because you get so used to drinking melted snow,” says Maj Dhruv Raj Singh.
“The stories from Siachen… they never end, there are so many,” says Lt Col Sharan, with three postings under his belt — 2001, 2010 and 2014. “Everyday of those 90 days is a story. Each day of your posting is different.”
The much-prized Siachen Glacier ribbon, worn proudly over their uniform by those who have served in the Saltoro Range, is a dull grey-white strip, reflecting the cold, unforgiving terrain just conquered by the men.
But for the soldiers, there is nothing dull about the pride of having served at the highest battlefield in the world.
“It’s a difficult time for everyone, but a good time,” Col Kumar says. “For people who come back like us and can talk about it, it is a good time. Unfortunately, a lot many tragic incidents also take place.”