Quartered in snow, silent to remain,
When the bugle calls,
They shall rise and march again.
– Memorial at Siachen Base Camp
I was stationed at Saddle, a post on a tiny flat plateau on a mountaintop with steep slopes on either side. Located at 5,800 metres, we had arrived there after 21 days of passing lower-altitude posts, getting acclimatised bit by bit. At this kind of a forward post, the temperature dips to -55°C, which is why a soldier’s maximum tenure is never more than three months. That might sound like a short while – a mere quarter – but in Siachen time moves slowly.
March 1, 2003 dawned a white day, heavy with thick snow. The Defence and Research Development Organisation had already released a high-risk warning of avalanche in my area and no troop movement was to be allowed. We anchored our huts with iron rods on either side to ensure they did not slide off in a blizzard. Hemmed indoors by the snowstorm, we didn’t leave the hut except to take turns to remove snow from the roofs and clear paths from one hut to another. The night was even harsher. My men didn’t eat dinner because there was no way to step out in those conditions to relieve yourself.
As a company commander, it was my job to speak with each post every day to take stock of the situation and the men. That evening, as I started making my regular “All okay” telephone calls, I could feel the snow on my cheeks like needles. Around 8.30 pm, while speaking with the commander of the intermediate post, Mangez, two levels below Saddle, the line went blank mid-sentence. I wasn’t too anxious. I assumed that a small avalanche might have disconnected the telephone connection. But when there was no response even when we tried calling the signal operator at Mangez, the alarm bells started to ring. The post might have been hit by the avalanche. There was nothing to do but follow protocol: We updated HQ and hunkered down to wait for further instructions.
I knew the walk back was going to be even more arduous. We had no physical or mental energy left. I asked the team to shed weight, leave behind their rescue equipment and oxygen cylinders and just walk. I was in agony but had to keep the mood light and the men distracted. I joked with a young soldier who was just about to get married that he should seriously consider postponing the wedding, given the rate at which were walking.
I don’t know what worked but we got through. After being exposed to more than -58°C for more than 17 hours, we saw the half-link post – and then we could move no more.
Inside the half-link post, we had to let our bodies stabilise before we could warm ourselves. Only once we took off our gloves to dip our hands in water, did we see it – our hands were blue and swollen. All the exposure and sweating had done their work. Most of us had third-degree frostbite. I tried to drink some juice, but my worry about the men didn’t allow anything to pass down my gullet. I hoped the survivors had somehow managed to walk towards the post below.
That night again, nobody slept.
The next morning, helicopters were sent to evacuate my team from the half-link post: The men who could still move, worked tirelessly to create a helipad on soft snow, by stomping on it and flattening it with wooden boards. The helicopter could only make two difficult landings that day and had to return due to the sun going down. My instructions were clear: The team had to be evacuated first and I’d go last.
As our evacuation was in progress, the base initiated another rescue mission, and this time, four men from Mangez were taken back to safety. The ones who had been in the sleeping bags, however, remained in their icy graves until their bodies were recovered months after the incident.
By evening, I was the only one left at the half-link post. I looked at my feet through the night. I no longer had any sensation of cold or discomfort. All the nerves, tissue, and muscles had been blitzed and large blisters had started to form. The next day my feet would turn black. I thought long and hard about amputation that night.
The next morning, I flew back. Even as I was being taken to the hospital at Chandimadir, my mind was full of things to be done when I got back to the post in a few days – like re-establishing Mangez and capturing another peak in the area. I had no idea that my feet would render me unfit for duty, and that my chosen career of being a combatant in the infantry had ended.
I never went back to Siachen again. It’s been 13 years now, but not a day goes by when I don’t close my eyes and see that memorial etched in stone: Quartered in snow, silent to remain/When the bugle calls, they shall rise and march again.
This article was originally published in Arre
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