The call came through late one February evening, on the shouting-volume-only wireless phone that links a tiny patch of land just above the mess tent to the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited network, and through it, to India.
Amit Bhatkande’s father had died — and the young soldier was needed at home in Kolhapur. For his boss, Subedar Dattasahib Patil, this wasn’t bad news: infiltration through the northern reaches of the Line of Control (LoC) falls to nothing in the winter, and one soldier on leave is one man fewer to keep warm.
Patil’s problem was different: to get Bhatkande back home meant despatching dozens of his comrades on a journey that might have led them straight to their own funeral pyres.
Imagine a soldier on the LoC, and more likely than not television images of the Siachen glacier will kick in: soldiers kitted out in state-of-the-art ski boots and imported clothes that keep out minus 50º winds. The men who guard the defensive wall along the LoC, though, are fighting a less sexy war — one about which India just doesn’t seem to care.
“I loved my time on Siachen,” says Subedar Patil. “The first thing I did before I came here was buy myself a pair of decent shoes from the market, and a good jacket.”
LIFE ON THE ‘WALL’
Earlier this month, just after the troops at Khanabal Post had finished repairing the giant stretches of LoC fencing brought down by winter avalanches, they set to work preparing for the most important winter challenge: staying alive. Each company needs 30,000 litres of kerosene to survive the winter, hauled up the mountain by porters and ponies, one 10-litre can at a time. Food and ammunition have to be hoarded, enough to last for the six months that posts in the northern LoC have been known to be cut off.
The second-most important job is making sure that those who need to get out, can do so — and at 16,700 feet, with up to 30 feet of snow at minus 25º, that isn’t easy.
Long, thin poles driven into the ground mark the least avalanche-prone routes down the valley to the nearest road a four-wheel drive can struggle over, linking the supply base at Macchel to the headquarters of the 53 Brigade at Zamindar Khan Gali.
“The valley fills up with more than 25 feet of snow,” Patil says, “so we tie ropes from one pole to the other to mark the way. It takes at least 10 men, with avalanche rods and spades, five hours to beat a path through the snow to get to Katwar, down the valley. Then, the post there continued…