“It’s done,” she told the lady officer, as tears rolled down her cracked, red cheeks unfettered. A momentary shiver ran down her spine as they clasped each other in a joyous embrace. The flurry of emotions was, however, tempered with realism. And although familiar territory now, the journey back might not be the same experience.
Vamini Sethi, 31, was one of the few civilian participants to successfully complete the annual Siachen Civilian trek 2016 held in September this year. “It turned out to be far more difficult than my imagination. I expected some fun along the way, but it never got easy. The Army told us you’re not here to have fun, but understand how jawans stay in hardship,” says Sethi, a Mumbai-based banker who was one of the three women participants to finish the expedition along with 23 others.
The annual month-long Siachen Civilian trek 2016 is organised by the Indian Army’s Adventure Wing between August and September. The Indian Army decided to allow civilians to trek the glacier in 2007. Around 30-40 civilians are selected for this trek, along with personnel from the Defence Forces, Rashtriya Indian Military College and Rashtriya Military School cadets, media, and some trekkers recommended by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. This is the only time when civilians can take part in an expedition to the world’s highest and coldest battlefield.
The selection criteria for the trek is tough. Out of over 2,000 applications from across India, only 17 civilians were selected, says Vamini. Interested participants send their applications addressed to the Indian Army’s Headquarters North High Command. Selection is done on a first-come-first-serve basis. Due to extreme weather conditions in Siachen, medical, physical and mental fitness are given prime importance. The application is then forwarded to Army’s Adventure Wing along with indemnity form and medical certificate. Applicants should be preferably below 45 years. “I first applied for the trek in 2013. Finally, I made it. While the applications were open to 40-year-olds, the Army also looked at a diverse group of people from various backgrounds. This year, nearly 80 per cent of applicants were less than 30 years of age,” informs Vamini.
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The 120-km trek (60 to and fro) commences from Leh in Ladakh. From here participants move to the Siachen Base Camp at 12,000 feet and move towards Kumar Post situated at 16,000 feet, the last post till where civilians are allowed. The entire distance of the expedition is around 60 km both ways and takes up to nine days to cover. The trek is also organised by the Army for the purpose of showing civilians the daily hardships of jawans serving the nation in the world’s coldest battlefield, where most casualties occur due to extreme weather than enemy bullets.
Stage 1: Reaching the Siachen Base Camp
Once the participants reach Leh, they are acclimitised to the low oxygen levels in Leh for seven days. The first three days are rest days and the participants are advised to drink plenty of water. Blood pressure and pulse rate are monitored daily by the Army. Between 6 and 9 am, they are all advised to go for long walks, and given commando-style full body training one after the other with very few breaks in between. Then they are given training for 11-12 days at the Siachen Base Camp (Stage 2). This is where they are taught to handle specialised mountaineering equipment and techniques to survive at high altitude. Here, they stay at Siachen Battle School, situated roughly at 12,000 feet. “At the base camp, we were given trekking equipment such as bulky 4-kg Scarpa ice shoes, ice axe, thick jackets, ropes etc. We were taught snowcraft, rockcraft and made to go on runs carrying 5-10 kg backpacks. Besides this, we had multiple sessions on tying 20 different variations of knots,” says Sethi.
There are three stages in total. At the end of each stage, the Army conducts routine medical check ups to gauge the vital body parameters of participants. Those whose medical indices such as blood pressure, pulse, insulin levels did not stabilise in the first week of training were sent back as it is too risky for them to go any further. Medical was given prime importance. The Army wouldn’t leave anything to chance.
“This is the scariest thing. You can be physically very fit, but medical conditions are not under your control. You can be sent back for this. I remember Colonel Hariharan telling us at the beginning that if we control our medical conditions, the Army will take care of our physical fitness. I didn’t come all this way here to go back home,” she says.
Siachen training tougher than last year
There’s another reason why the Army made this year’s training stricter and tougher than last year. Vamini explains that in 2015 lot of participants quit halfway through the trek due to physical fitness issues and many of them had to be evacuated using a chopper as there was no other way of bringing them down. “So this year the training was planned in such a way that if anyone wanted to quit, they should quit during the training itself and not while climbing up, as evacuations by chopper in that zone is always dangerous due to bad weather and remote terrain,” she adds.
Stage 2: Siachen Base Camp
While at the Siachen Base Camp, Vamini says, they were asked to wear the 4-kg Scarpa trekking shoes at all times, even while going to the toilet. This was to ensure participants get used to the equipment. But here was a challenge that almost made her cry. The smallest of things can become the biggest impediment. “For the uninitiated, the shoe is quite heavy and initially hits your shin repeatedly. Imagine wearing that shoe for the entire day, even for going to the loo. After a point I just couldn’t bear the pain and was almost about to back out. Never imagined a pair of shoe can do this to you. But I didn’t quit. I took painkillers and carried on.”
The stay at Leh and Siachen Base Camp are very different. At Leh, it’s a little relaxing and more about getting used to the climate, but at the Siachen Base Camp, which is located at the mouth of Nubra river, the environment is spartan. Over the past few years, the Army has done a good job at sustaining troops at high altitude, as a result casualties have come down. One can also see helicopters whirring in regular intervals to maintain constant vigil.
Given the hostile weather conditions and terrain, the participants had to undergo rigorous training for 21 days before they could proceed further. “This year the Army had made the training tougher and stricter than last year so they could judge our mental ability. They were judging us throughout. People were missing out on these training sessions because of its difficulty. One of my fellow participant told me during the training “Looks like they’ve forgotten we are civilians not commandos”. But this year, the dropouts were more due to medical conditions such as chilblain, low blood pressure, insulin spike etc, not age or physical conditions primarily.”
Stage 3: North Pullu (15,300 feet)- Final Stage
This is the final stage before the participants embark on the trek. To observe how their bodies were responding to high altitude, the Army made the participants walk with and without load (5-7.5 km) alternatively for three days in a row. Besides, they were given instructions by rope instructors on the practical aspects of the expedition and how to prevent medical problems in high altitude areas. One wouldn’t feel the altitude at first, but when participants were asked to walk on an incline, exhaustion and breathlessness set in fast.
Lectures were also conducted by the training team on how to take care of other members in a group as they shared some of their prior mountaineering experiences with them. This was a testing time for everyone. The training team would inform the participants that they are being monitored. This added to their anxiety about not making it to the final list. “This was the most difficult part of the training because oxygen is very less at North Pullu. A lot of people took breaks in between because of blood pressure issues and blisters. One said he can’t do it any more, while four others were eventually dropped by the Army because of medical issues at this stage. Finally, 28 people started the trek from 36.”
North Pullu is a transit camp, so it doesn’t have the comforts of a base camp. But even then, Vamini says, the Army went out of their way to make them feel comfortable. “It’s not that once you reach the camp you’re comfortable. The camps were all set up on lumps of ice. So they were all very uneven and tricky. Moving around the glacier was so painful. Can’t imagine how soldiers who are posted here for months stay in such conditions.”
At North Pullu, for the first time, Vamini’s resolve to carry on with the trek began to crumble when she momentarily thought of evacuation due to hamstring issues. “When the last civilian woman left the camp due to childblain, I was already very exhausted and I thought the trek hadn’t even started. I felt alone at this moment. This along with shin pain and hamstring problems got me extremely worried. I thought I might just need an evacuation.”
The officer in charge, however, insisted she take injections lest the injury gets worse. “I refused. Instead, I persisted and somehow managed to walk till Camp 2. Overnight, I applied mustard oil on tired muscles and slept. The next morning, luckily the pain had subsided and I decided to go ahead.”
Given the extreme weather, everything here is a big challenge. The helicopters are, therefore, a big lifeline for the armed forces here. Weather is the only thing that determines the level of activity. So the main aim is to airdrop supplies when the weather is clear.
But here’s the catch: When the skies are clear in summers, helicopters can carry lesser load. The harsh intensity of the sun makes the air lighter. In winters, the choppers can carry more load, but then the weather conditions are so bad it makes flying nearly impossible. For jawans stationed here, there are crippling challenges such as blizzards at 100-150 knots (185-275 km/hr) and sub-zero temperatures that go below minus 55 degrees Celcius. Extreme cold also causes life-threatening high-altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPO), a medical condition where fluid accumulates in the lungs. This is one of the main causes of death on Siachen glacier.
Soldiers are provided with specialised multilayered clothing that prevents excessive sweating. But then there have been cases of sweat becoming ice inside gloves and shoes, causing frostbites. Since 1984, the Army has lost 879 lives on the glacier, including the 10 who perished in an avalanche in February this year.
From North Pullu, the participants headed back to the Siachen Base Camp from where the trek will proceed to Kumar Post situated roughly at 16,000 feet.
This is the breakup for the final trek:
Base Camp – Camp 1: 12km
Camp 1 – Camp 2: 14 km
Camp 2 – Camp 3: 16 km
Camp 3 – Kumar Post: 18 km
The excitement for the final leg was palpable amongst trekkers as this is what they have been preparing for the past three weeks. As the journey through the glacier to Kumar Post began, they were all roped up with each other trekking across the harsh terrain, through moraines, snow and deep crevasses.
“We had to trek at the speed of the leading rope member and in our rope, it was a military cadet. I did find myself struggling to match up to his speed at that altitude with limited oxygen. Unlike all the other treks that I have done before, this one didn’t give me a chance to look around as we had to constantly look down while trekking due to broken moraines and crevasses that can be life threatening,” she says.
Kumar Post is named after former Indian Army’s High Altitude Warfare School’s commanding officer Colonel Narendra Kumar. He was instrumental in leading Operation Meghdoot in 1984. This is what secured all of Siachen glacier for India. Prior to this, it was unoccupied and undemarcated area. A ceasefire went into effect in 2003, since then the area has been largely peaceful.
Troops usually serve for between 1 and 3 months at one post, and move between high-altitude posts and back. Jawans are trained at the Siachen Battle School, and undergo acclimatisation schedules before being inducted. Camp 1, 2 and 3 are transit points for soldiers deployed in forward posts. They usually have a few jawans and porters stationed here. The actual posts where jawans are stationed are located at 18,000 feet and above. Bana Post is the highest on the glacier at 22,000 feet, while Indira Col is the highest point on the glacier that India controls. It must be mentioned that posts beyond 20,000 feet are held by India alone. It gives India strategic height advantage that comes from holding a higher position. This enables India to pre-empt any move by Pakistan.
After an overnight snowfall, all the crevasses get covered from top making it difficult to identify them. The risk of falling into one is always high. As such, Vamini says: “I eventually got into a state of trance while looking down and trekking for hours without stopping or talking. Every day, there would be only one break for 7-10 mins (at half link- as they call it ) during the entire trek.”
There was an additional challenge here. If one person stopped mid-way for some reason, the entire chain of people had to halt. This meant more time taken to reach the final destination and problems in coordination and logistics. The Army training prepares you in such a way that such conditions don’t arise. But in most cases though, it’s the small issues that are a hindrance. “There were times when I had frost on the spectacles I was wearing under my snow goggles. In such cases, I had to wait to get to the half link as stopping would mean stopping not just your own rope but all the ropes as we were made to walk in a line,” she adds.
The trek to Camp 3 was exhausting as the team went on to Kumar Post, where the terrain was mostly flat. The toughest bit was the climb to Kumar Post which is situated on a block of ice. Once they finally reached the post, Vamini asked a soldier about the life up here in such punishing conditions. Several thoughtful minutes later, the jawan gave her a disarming smile that somehow belied the hardships they endure at Siachen.
In hindsight, Vamini says, the journey has taught her to stand tall and still be humble. “For us it was an expedition, we went up there and came back. But our soldiers stay there for months regardless of how tough it gets. A big salute to the Indian Army and the brave jawans who have sacrificed everything for the sake of the motherland.”