A trek up the Siachen Glacier

October 28th, 2008 - 2:29 pm ICT by IANS  

Siachen Glacier, Oct 28 (IANS) It was for me the experience of a lifetime: an eight-day trek up the Siachen Glacier in Jammu and Kashmir, once regarded as the world’s highest battlefield at 22,00 feet where the guns have been silent since 2003 after an India-Pakistan truce.The 80-km trek from the Siachen Base Camp to Camp 3 and back by a 32-member group of defence personnel, military school students and journalists served to vividly bring out the hazards and pitfalls Indian Army soldiers have to face on what was also the world’s coldest battlefield where temperatures dip below - 65 degrees Celsius.

Food goes stone cold as soon as it is taken off the burner, washing your face becomes a luxury, and drinking water smells of the kerosene used to melt the ice. Yet, the soldiers stoically endure this, serving for a minimum of three months on the glacier in a two-year tenure in the area.

I was among five women, including two journalists, who survived the arduous but adventurous trek:

Day 1: Full of enthusiasm and unaware of what lay ahead, the group set off for Camp 1, our first destination. Meandering through rock debris the task was made all the more difficult by the special clothing, 2.5-kg shoes and the 20-kg rucksack that each of us carried.

Walking in ropes of five, the trekkers paused every 10 minutes to catch their breath, prompting Col. Satish Sharma, the Commanding Officer of the Army Mountaineering Institute to remark: “You have been walking in between breaks while it should have been other way round.”

The team reached Camp 1 at 6 p.m. just before sunset and was served peanuts and hot tea - which seemed a luxury at those frigid heights, surrounded by the Saltoro Ridge on one side and the Karakoram Range on the other.

The first night in a sleeping bag was difficult and one also had to accommodate the camera, shoes, socks and hand gloves to keep them warm.

Day 2: After getting an inkling of the vagaries ahead and hearing from team leader Lt. Col. A.L. Maini that the stretch to Camp 2 was the toughest, we did not feel like coming out of our sleeping bags. This apart, we also shunned our everyday luxuries like bathing as the mercury registered -10 degrees Celsius.

The 14-km-long stretch involved crossing deep crevasses over ladders and walking over the snow, wearing crampons - spikes that are tied under the shoes to get a grip on the slippery snow.

Matching steps with each other, holding on to one another when someone tripped on frozen rivulets and crossing many ladders, we managed to reach the halfway point at around 1 p.m.

Camp 2 was achieved at around 6 p.m., after crossing the toughest stretch of a two-km snow desert and moraines.

The night was a delight with a full moon ethereally bathing the snow-clad peaks.

Days 3 and 4: Heavy snowfall between Camp 2 and Camp 3 confined us for all of two days, with virtually nothing to do other than waiting for our meals.

The group then zeroed in on playing cards. I guess it was the longest cards session at those heights from 9.30 a.m. to 6 p.m., a record of sorts.

Day 5: The temperature declined after a night of snowfall but the two-day layover redoubled the team’s determination to complete the trek. We set off for Camp 3 with new vigour even though the thick snow layer made walking difficult.

After trekking for 16 km the team reached Camp 3, where the temperature was a bone chilling -25 degrees Celsius. The whole team was so exhausted that everybody just went to sleep.

Day 6: The previous night brought with it a peculiar problem: the sleeping bags were full of ice when we woke up due to the heavy condensation.

We could well imagine what the soldiers had to face, when at the height of winter, the temperature plummets to -65 degrees Celsius at Bana Post, the highest point of the glacier located at an altitude of 22,000 feet.

After unfurling the tricolour at Camp 3 we started on our return to the Siachen Base Camp. This time our speed surprised us all and in record time we reached Camp 2, which we felt was like home after spending three nights there.

Days 7 and 8: From Camp 2, in what seemed to be a cakewalk, we reached Camp 1 and then the Siachen Base Camp. It was fairly easy now, with our bodies having acclimatised better.

Would I do it again? Most certainly - because I’m now a veteran of sorts!

(Ritu Sharma can be contacted at ritu.s@ians.in)

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