I write this piece when the whole country is praying for Lance Naik Hanumanthappa Koppad who remains in coma and on ventilator support, following a miraculous rescue effort that found him alive with a weak pulse, after being buried 25 feet under ice for six days.

Courtesy: Indian Army
Courtesy: Indian Army

On February 8, Hanamanthappa was found in a fibre-reinforced hut that was buried deep in ice, saved because of an “air pocket”, where he had been trapped since February 3 when a wall of concrete-like ice came crashing down on the Sonam army post in Siachen, killing nine of his colleagues of the 19 Madras regiment.

There were blizzard conditions at the Sonam post with temperatures plummeting to -40 degrees centigrade, at an altitude of 19,600 feet, because of which not even the hardiest and most altitude-adapted rescuers could work for more than 30 minutes at a stretch.

It took some 300 sorties by specially trained army helicopters for six days, and relay teams of some of the best-trained rescue experts in the world, who kept digging and carving through the ice looking for the 10 soldiers. As one team stopped, exhausted and out of breath, another would take over, not giving up their search – resulting, finally, in Hanumanthappa’s miraculous rescue.

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The nine comrades of Hanumanthappa, who expired under the weight of the snow avalanche, were pulled out in various stages of rigor mortis.

With rigor mortis, the bodies become stiff and fitting them into limited space becomes a problem. The latest tragedy points to the routine hardship faced in transporting mortal remains of our warriors from the frontlines of the glacier unless ALH helicopters, that need a larger helipad, can fly in. The smaller helicopters necessitate the rather insensitive exercise of breaking the limbs of bodies to allow each to fit into the rear cabin. Imagine doing that to the mortal remains of those who were once your colleagues and with whom you shared jokes and drank rasam. Siachen warriors need to be psychologically extremely strong to overcome the trauma of the most unexpected situations. Hanumanthappa’s survival after six days under snow frozen into ice is a display of will to live and overcome hazards of any kind.

Extreme conditions

The sound of an avalanche can be deafening. It starts with a loud explosion and then comes the sound of the rushing snow – it all happens so fast that there is never time to run if you are in the path.

All kinds of drills are taught to those posted there to maximise the chance of survival. The main need is the creation of an air pocket around you to enable breathing till you are rescued. However if you are in a prefabricated structure, chances are that the angle irons and sheets will crush into mangled bits around – or on – you making movement near impossible.

The second difference from avalanches anywhere else is that there are no rescue parties at hand – the nearest post may be some distance away and have just six or seven men who would take a couple of hours to beat the snow path they have to make to reach the avalanche site, provided they even come to know that the post has been buried.

Movements in the glacier after fresh snow or avalanches have to be through many feet of soft snow and it is necessary to have a path beating party which keeps flattening the snow and hardening it to enable movement. The exercise is energy-sapping and painful.

Courtesy: Indian Army
Courtesy: Indian Army

There is just about nothing which is normal at Siachen. Just take something as routine as the comfort of flushing your waste in the morning, which is taken for granted by all those who live in urban India, while rural folk find the comfort of the fields. However, in Siachen nothing decomposes – not even human waste, which therefore requires special incinerators. But those are only luxuries for the larger posts and can’t be found at the smaller posts because of sheer lack of space. Men and waste find a way of living together in the strangest “jugaad” you will find anywhere.

The spot where the recent avalanche occurred, once had a mechanical trolley to lift approximately 20 kg from the helipad to the post on top of the vertical wall. We kept every conceivable spare part to keep it functional but the rate of breakdown broke all records due to extreme temperature. Manual hauling was then the norm. Many times the men on top would request a special item, and once even aloo samosas were sent up to satisfy their cravings.

Courtesy: Indian Army
Courtesy: Indian Army

Strategic significance

I will not try in this piece to expand on the Indian Army’s continued insistence that it wishes to hold on to its deployment at Siachen, as that is a separate discussion. However, nothing on Siachen can be complete without mentioning a few important facts.

Most Indians are unaware that Pakistan has never officially told its people that it is India which is holding the strategic Saltoro ridge on the west of the glacier which affords us the tactical advantage over the Pakistan Army. The logistical advantage, incidentally, remains with Pakistan as it is at much lower heights. Pakistan has been hesitating to accept India’s demand that if there has to be any mutual withdrawal, then a demarcation of the current Actual Ground position Line or AGPL will have to be verified on maps and ground and then signed.

However, even that demand has to be seen in perspective as many feel that it would not be a satisfactory condition. The main reason is the trust deficit: Do we trust the Pakistan Army to live up to an agreement? What if it reneges, like it has so many times in the past, and occupies the vacated positions? Indian military and national honour will demand that we get back what is ours and it would cost us hundreds if not thousands of lives to do so.

Second, Siachen is the northern most deployment that we have which flanks and, in fact, juts into the Gilgit-Baltistan area. With the China-Pakistan strategic relationship ignoring norms and going ahead with the construction of joint infrastructure in this area that belongs to India – or, even by Pakistan’s claims, is at the least disputed – the glacier assumes even more strategic significance. Holding it becomes a dire necessity. The Nubra Valley adjacent to Siachen, north of the Ladakh range, provides depth to the crucial Leh Valley. If that was not held by India, we would virtually have Pakistan and China in collusion sitting almost on the Ladakh range, with Leh within earshot.

These are some of the basic reasons which our countrymen need to understand when they question why we should be holding an inhospitable territory such as Siachen.

Courtesy: Indian Army
Courtesy: Indian Army

Expect the unexpected

When I took over the command of my unit, it was already deployed at Siachen’s Northern Glacier. As I flew into the tactical headquarters without much acclimatisation of the body, I was asked to rest for four days there before I could go any further – the height was 15000 feet above sea level. But there was no rest – those were the days when Siachen was alive with artillery and small arms exchanges.

One of my young lieutenants – call him Bhupi – rang me up to welcome me to the glacier. He had just six months of service and had never met me. He was commanding one of the dangerous posts on the Saltoro Ridge. I told him I would look him up soon and he sounded most enthusiastic and said: “The men tell me that you will come and visit every post here”. Ten minutes later, Lieutenant Bhupi was dead. He had just gone to a snow cave to check the hygiene of the spot from where the troops brought clean snow for melting to water when the firing began. He made a dash to the trench wall for cover and was then peeping over the wall to determine the location from where the firing was being directed when a stray bullet from as far as four kilometres hit him below the right eye. He fell on the enemy side comatose. It led to a major conflagration with heavy exchange of artillery.

On the very first day of my command, Siachen had taught me a lesson – take nothing for granted here. Recovery of Lt Bhupi’s body was an operation by itself. Bringing it down in state of rigor mortis through a snow tunnel and then a bullet ridden stretch left the men sapped before it could finally be lifted into a helicopter.

I will never forget my initiation to Siachen – at least, not in this life time.

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain commanded his unit at the Northern Siachen Glacier. Later he was the Commander of the Srinagar based strategic 15 Corps.