There had been a snow avalanche warning the previous day. But Tuesday, February 2, passed uneventfully, and early morning on the 3rd, Sonam Post sent out its first report of the day to its company base: an “All OK”.
At 19,500 feet in the Northern Glacier, the post is at an altitude similar to Camp 2 of Mount Everest. Such reports — sent thrice every day, at pre-arranged times — are the only means by which Army posts at Siachen stay in touch. In the snow, the nearest post, Kaziranga, is a trek of a couple of hours from Sonam. The posts are not visible to each other, even through binoculars.
At that time of the day, with sunrise nearly an hour away and the snow a grey expanse, the 10 soldiers at Sonam Post were still in their Arctic sleeping bags. These were spread inside either igloo-shaped Fibre Reinforced Plastic huts or specialised Arctic tents. Their leader was a young JCO, Subedar Nagesha T T, who was a part of the Ghatak platoon. Every infantry battalion in the Indian Army has one Ghatak platoon, comprising only its fittest and most “motivated” soldiers.
The 19 Madras battalion had been deployed at Northern Glacier, the toughest tour of duty at Siachen, only recently, and all its men were still not fully acclimatised for heights above 18,000 feet. The battalion is also manning Bana Post, Siachen’s highest, situated on a sharp, high icy cliff, named after Subedar Bana Singh. The subedar was part of the 10-member team that captured the post, then under Pakistan and called Quaid Post, in 1984. He was awarded the Param Vir Chakra.
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Sonam Post, lying right below Bana, serves as an administrative base, maintaining and operating the helipad to sustain the soldiers at Bana. IAF pilots fly helicopters beyond their stipulated ceiling to land at the helipad, the highest in the world.
Sometime between 5 am and 6 am on February 3, the avalanche struck.
It wasn’t what Sonam Post had been expecting.
There are four reasons a snow avalanche may be triggered: when the accumulated slope of snow is between 55 and 80 degrees; when sun melts the lower portions of snow and slides the bottom away; when heavy winds shift snow; or when the snow crystal is shaped like a cylinder and doesn’t interlock like a star-like crystal.
The avalanche-prone areas at Siachen are well identified and no post is located in these areas. Besides, the DRDO’s Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment has its equipment and personnel deployed with units on Siachen to provide avalanche warnings. No movement is permitted during “medium” and “high” warnings but soldiers can move with precaution during a “low” warning. The Tuesday warning had been for a “low-danger” snow avalanche.
What struck on Wednesday was an ‘ice avalanche’, with an 800 x 600 metre ice wall falling down and swamping a 1,000 x 800 metre area. Sonam Post lay buried, up to 35 feet down, under ice boulders bigger than the size of a room.
For the next five and a half hours, the world remained unaware. Then, around 10.30 am, the radio set at Kaziranga Post suddenly crackled to life. The voice at the other end was of a soldier now known to the entire country. It was Lance Naik Hanumanthappa Koppad, saying they were trapped.
The officer at Kaziranga Post immediately set out with his Avalanche Recovery Team (ART) for Sonam. The Siachen Base Camp and each unit of the Siachen Brigade has an ART of 10 soldiers under an officer.
They reached early afternoon, to a nightmare. Sonam Post was covered under blue ice, which is formed when snow falls on a glacier, is compressed, and becomes part of the glacier. Air bubbles are squeezed out and ice crystals enlarge, which makes blue ice even tougher than concrete.
The officer sent out a message to his commanding officer, located at the Kumar Post. The CO left for Sonam almost immediately, after informing his boss, the Commander of 102 Brigade. That is when the first reports about the tragedy started surfacing.
Over at the Northern Glacier, other ARTs from nearby posts had started moving towards Sonam. They had with them avalanche tracker devices, to track “avalanche victim detectors”. These detectors are small instruments with a fluorescent orange cord that each soldier carries on his person, to be switched on at times of precisely such emergencies. Because of the swiftness of the avalanche that morning, no one had had the chance to do so.
Late afternoon, the rescuers were lucky to access a telephone cable — in military terms, the “cable JWD” — a twin-wire black cable which could lead them to the location where the soldiers were buried. However, just following the cable to where the soldiers were wasn’t easy. Technical experts were called in to pass an electric current and assess the length of the cable, but it didn’t help.
The teams eventually kept digging with the basic tools they had.
At around 6 pm, just when hopes were fading, Hanumanthappa’s voice rang out again on radio, from 35 feet under. It was a very brief message, but to men battling impossible odds, it was a lifeline.
The rescue became more urgent now, with the ticking clock on every mind: the chances of finding a survivor in an avalanche go down to 20 per cent within 3 hours, and to 1 per cent in six.
By then the brigade commander was also at the site and a temporary administrative camp had been established to look after the 100-plus search and rescue team.
The first night the rescue work was intermittent. After inclement weather hampered it the second night, soldiers, their numbers by now 150, decided not to take any more breaks.
However, given the weather and the rarefied air, they could only be deployed in teams of 25-30 each and had to be rotated every 20 minutes.
In over 200 helicopter sorties, specialised digging and boring equipment, like rock drills, electrical saws and earth augurs, were brought. Also flown in from the base camp were two avalanche rescue dogs, Dot and Misha, and radio signal detectors and deep-penetration radars capable of detecting metallic objects and heat signatures up to a depth of 20 metres.
On the basis of what these equipment found, further digging was carried out at seven points in the disaster-struck area.
At these heights, a Chetak helicopter carries just one to two jerrycans of fuel or kerosene at a time. The fuel and kerosene required to light up the area, and fuel the specialised equipment like radars and power communication equipment, needed hundreds of flying hours, in inclement weather.
“More than 200 soldiers, carrying loads of over 40 kg per person, dug looking for survivors,” says Col D S Goswami, spokesman, Northern Command.
February 8 evening, 5 pm, on the sixth day of what seemed like a hopeless task, they picked up another signal: of body heat and a radio set.
Drilling began with renewed vigour. Around 7.30 pm, Hanumanthappa was found, severely dehydrated, hypothermic, hypoxic, hypoglycemic and in shock. But — as it would be recounted for a long, long time here, in the snowy mountains —alive.
An officer at the rescue site remembers the Lance Naik’s eyes. “There was a bright spark in them when I first saw him after he had been pulled out.”
Hanumanthappa’s other colleagues tell you to not miss the the scroll of honour at the Siachen Base Camp: “Quartered in snow, silent to remain. When the bugle calls, they shall rise and march again.”