Siachen Experience#1 : The Will to Fight Death
Lance Naik Hanumanthappa of 19 Madras raised the entire country’s conscience to understand life in a snow filled, crevasse ridden, avalanche prone, icy northern heights that is a bone of contention between two hostile neighbors. His sheer WILLPOWER defied death in those icy heights but alas, sadly he could not survive. We salute this brave hero who battled all odds. And that opened some of my forgotten memories.
Year 1995. Young and barely 25, I was full of energy posted to the Siachen area. The tenure on those icy mountain “Top” for jawans are 60 days and for officers it was 90 days. This does not include the month long training at Siachen Battle School at the Base Camp and the climb up and climb down which would involve about 10-12 days including the acclimatization of 4 days at 14000 feet, or the stay in the Siachen Base which can go anywhere up to a year or two . Men are compulsorily relieved at the end of the fixed tenure on “Top”, because medical experts have ruled that prolonged stay in such areas cause immense harm to the body due to the rarefied atmosphere and less oxygen. I know it is true, because I did suffer from memory loss later.
My tenure on “Top” was interesting. Towards the end of my tenure , I was eagerly expecting my relief around the 85th day, but alas, I was told my relief developed some medical issues and another person was being detailed. Hence my relief would be delayed. That meant another month more than what I bargained for. I became the oldest serving guy in the Northern Glacier, and I gave up expecting the relief. I saw the turnover of an Infantry Battalion, made loads of friends that I met when they moved up or down enroute the place where I was, which was indeed comparatively better than the posts ahead. To spend my time, I learnt skiing, I visited my boys in other posts and often led the patrols to open up lost beaten tracks due to heavy snow. In short, I kept myself busy. Finally the day arrived.
My relief stepped in. I was eager to get back to base. A day prior a weary looking Captain had stepped into my Fibre Glass Hut (which actually looks like an big Igloo). He was weak, and had lost weight. I could not recognize him even though I had met him on his way up. That was because he was forced to stay in a mountain post double the time than authorised (Officers on remote mountain top posts are rotated after 45 days). He was not relieved in time and had grown very weak. He had stayed in the same post where Hanumanthappa was trapped in ice. We decided to walk down together to Base Camp.
So on the destined day, both of us, happy to be relieved, started our journey back. It was a 4 day walk. At the end of each day’s walk, we rested in a Camp. The idea each day, was to reach that camp before it got difficult due to darkness or bad weather. Day 1 went fine till about 12 noon. Weather wasn’t too good. Camp 3 was still nowhere in sight. Capt SS sat down to rest. Sitting down in the open, means loss of body heat, and in no time we would freeze. I requested him to continue. He said, “Sir I can’t walk any more. Just leave me here. At least you guys save yourself.” I couldn’t believe what I heard. I said, “I am weak, I can’t carry you, but I just can’t leave you here”. I tied his belt with a rope and lugged him. I told him many things to get his spirits up. I dragged him. In no time, I got tired, but in small bursts, with rests in between, we both made it to Camp 3 by about 4 pm. There on being given water and warm food we recovered. I told him that we could call for the helicopter for evacuation and he could avoid the foot trek. He had grown a bit stronger. He felt going back in a helicopter would be a shame when his men were walking. He felt he could make it by foot.
The next day, he showed a lot of courage and we made our way through the snow. Around noon, again his body gave up. He pleaded that he be left there to fend for himself to die or be evacuated. That was something that we never do in the forces. We never leave our comrades behind. There is no way some one can find him in the icy wilderness, and with no helipad nearby there was going to be no evacuation either. This time, others in the group also pitched in, again we tied the rope and inched our way to Camp 2. It took us far more time and we barely managed to reach camp 2 before it became dark. Again the warm food rejuvenated us and lifted our spirits. Again the talk of helicopter ride was rubbished.
The third day, we set off again this time for Camp 1. Snow was lesser, but our energies were getting lower. Capt SS stopped earlier than usual. He again asked to be left behind. The same talk, motivation that we have completed half the distance and that in two days we would be back in civilization egged us on. My energy was getting depleted. Realising this, Capt SS stretched himself even more. We made it to Camp 1 that day, and I was hell bent on ensuring that he leaves by the helicopter. But looking at his eyes, I realized his death defying spirit. I gave up. I thought to myself, just one more day if we survive, it would be something remarkable. A gift of Life.
So the fourth day started. This was our home run. By evening we would be back in Base camp. The route was getting easier but we were completely drained. Pulling, pushing, motivating each other we trudged along. Many a times, when I gave up, Capt SS motivated me, when he gave up I pulled him up…and towards early evening, we could see the faint spots of Base Camp at the far distance at the end of the icy stretch. That raised our hopes. Another 2 hours and we could see figures approaching us. Officers and men from his unit had come to receive their Hero who did more than what he was supposed to. I was extremely happy to hand him over to them and ensure that I got back to Base camp in one piece.
I admire Capt SS. He never gave up hope. He was ready to sacrifice himself so that others could get back alive. Every day he refused being evacuated by air, because he wouldn’t want the men to think that the leader is weak. He refused to die, by his sheer will. He gave us a hope to live to fight another day.
Capt SS and I had the opportunity to be together Ten years later doing the same Staff Course at Wellington. We met each other recently while he was doing his Higher Defence Management Course. Now a proud Colonel, I am sure with his courage and strong Will, SS will rise higher to do greater service to the officers and men he commands and to the country.
Such are the stories every person who has survived there has experienced. I am lucky to be alive to write one.And this is dedicated to unsung brave warriors of Siachen.
Next time you meet a guy of the Forces, show him a little more respect than he deserves, for not many will tell you what they suffered. That is the least we country men could do for them.