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Aug 01, 2017 at 10:43

From discovering that she had survived being aborted three times to climbing the glacier at Siachen, to becoming world’s first woman to do a sortie in the MiG-35 and Sukhoi Russian fighter planes, Suman Sharma on becoming a fighter warrior and reaching newer heights in the midst of Indian soldiers.

When I landed in Leh, I wasn’t sure if I would go any further. A group of around 50 people, from all walks of life, and with strange fears in my heart I began my lessons in earnest, with complete faith in my instructors, who were all HAWS (High Altitude Warfare School) qualified.

Cut off partially at the Base Camp from the world and completely at the Camps during the trek, the trek proved to be a personal journey for me. Lessons learnt were far too many, about life and nature. The theory classes were held in the evening, after which there were games while the

practical lessons were held in the morning. After a while, walking acquired a new meaning for me, as did the Glacier.

The Glacier

A Glacier is a slow moving river of ice, set in motion by its own weight and gravity.

As I begin with my theory classes in Siachen Glacier’s Army Mountaineering Institute, located at Base Camp-2, I was exposed to the soldiers undergoing training at the nearby Siachen Battle School (SBS), where they are trained for 21 days in ice-craft, rock-craft, snow-craft, weapons and load, enemy locations, crevasse rescue drill and medical hazards on the Glacier, most of which are fatal.

For the nine battalions manning the Glacier, ever since the first post was laid down by Colonel N. Kumar in 1978, and hence named after him as Kumar Post, it has been a tough war with the hostile weather rather than with the enemy in the 76 kilometer Glacier, with some posts as high as 23,000 feet. The temperature can vary from minus 60 degree in winters and between 11-15 degrees in summers during the day, but can go to minus 20 degree during the night.

Divided into four, Northern, Southern, Central and Sub-sector Haneef, Siachen (which means ‘land of roses’), was earlier just a trekking spot. When New Delhi noticed an increased activity by foreign mountaineers coming from Pakistan, it was decided to establish military posts, of all kinds like satellite posts, listening posts and Company posts in the late 1970s.

The Trek

As the training came to a finish, with final medicals at the Advanced Dressing Station (ADS), I completely gave up talking to those around, in order to conserve energy. I read spiritual books, slept early, ate well and kept myself covered. Besides BP, pulse, weight, SPO2 (concentration of oxygen percentage in blood), haemoglobin, everyone went through a rigorous dental check-up.

The trek began with obeisance to OP Baba, who is considered the omnipresent deity of the Glacier, rescuing and saving soldiers on the Glacier by appearing in their dreams and forewarning them.

The 122 kilometer trek from Base Camp to Kumar Post and back in eight days, was fraught with chilly winds blowing at more than 40 knots, rarified oxygen as the altitude increased and snowfall, besides the terrain full of stones, seracs and moraines. My brain stopped working and only my legs worked. I chanted my spritual mantras, drank water at half links and just walked.

Soldiers take between nine to 28 days to reach posts, after they have undergone their physical training at SBS and have been declared medically fit at the ADS, situated at the Base Camp. Any personnel found with high blood pressure, or an increased pulse, less than specified oxygen percentage concentration in blood or dentally unfit is not inducted into the Glacier. While those found with problems up on the posts are immediately flown down.

The highest PBOR manned post is located at 23,000 feet while the highest officer manned post is at 19,000 feet.

With strict instructions from the trek Commander to our team about not bathing during the eight days of the trek, to invoking OP Baba and wishes from the 102 Brigade Commander, Brigadier Avinash Singh, who enquired about the number of oxygen cylinders and maggie packets kept in stores, the team of amateurs and professionals, began and completed the first camp of 12 kilometers without any problems.

Soldiers of the Indian Army are inducted for a maximum of 90 days on the Glacier, preceding which they undergo seven days of acclimatisation in Leh, second stage of training in North Pullu at 10,000 feet and third stage of training at SBS, at 11,000 feet. From washing their utensils, to cooking, conducting patrols of the territory, carrying back injured fellow-men sometimes, along with their own and the injured person’s stores, these tough soldiers have a tougher life to lead ahead.

After completing Camp-2, 26 kilometers on the Glacier full of moraines, ice walls, and a five kilometer walk on hard ice with almost six kilograms of footwear, a press photographer developed stress fracture in his lower calves, while a RIMC student fell ill owing to high altitude.

The trek team reached Kumar Post in four days, and found it quite warm and pleasant, with bright sun shine. A one-day halt at Kumar was announced, which for me was a blessing in disguise. We utilised the day, taking photographs, making rope bags, playing cards and generally basking in the sun.

Climb Down

After spending a day at Kumar, where the NG Tiger rules, currently the position held by Colonel Rajesh Kanojia of 25 Madras, the team which spent the day making bags out of parachute strings and singing to invoke the Goddesses during navratri, as every unit of the Indian Army has its own deity and a special Mandir parade once a week, the climb down began, making it a total of 122 kilometers both ways.

The first casualty during the descent was a military school student, who had to be oxygenated enroute. Enroute we discovered that a soldier from the hosting 25 Madras battalion had died of cardiac arrest in Camp-2, owing to low blood pressure.

Completing four camps in three days with snowfall in between and temperatures touching minus 21 at night, the job of the medical officer and his nursing assistant increased on the journey.

I was instructed by my Ustads, not to lose height suddenly on the mountains, as you would have to gain height in that case, while walking.

Soldiers coming back from Sia La, the biggest Post on the Glacier (it is a Company Post), too stopped at Kumar for a breather and were seen discussing logistics like the controlled use of water and Kero-heater etc.

Kero-heaters are the lifelines of the Glacier, as electricity is a scarcity, due to which only these heaters are used for warmth. Fibre Glass huts (FGH), Arctic and Russian tents are used for accommodation.  With special Glacier ration issued to each of us, for instant energy, it became clear why the troops lose appetite at the Glacier.

For the soldiers it is a trek almost everyday, with instructions like no bathing and shaving for 90 days. Shaving takes a back seat, for two reasons, one for religious, as the personnel repose faith in OP Baba and refrain from shaving as a mark of respect, and the other reason is medical, to avoid metal-bite in the extreme cold climes.

Small Pleasures

During the journey and stay, electricity, mirror, these are small things whose importance I got to value. Posts on the Glacier, except a few, do not have electricity and there are no looking-mirrors to get dressed etc. No phones, no internet, water is acquired by heating ice. I learnt how to respect small pleasures of life.

I discovered how small we all are in front of nature, and how powerful nature is. We are nothing but small specks in the universe. Mountains teach you discipline.

All I had in mind while boarding the Leh to Delhi Kingfisher flight was to rush to the beauty parlour as I land in Delhi, but enroute my mind went out to the soldier at the highest post on the Glacier, counting his 90 days to finish, his loneliness in the severe cold, his breathing problems etc, amidst all of which he would have to perform the daunting task of protecting the country, so that the likes of us can comfortably go to parlours!!