The flight from Chandigarh to Leh is barely an hour. However, the landscape changes beyond recognition in less than sixty minutes. The IL 76, with 200 of us on board, made a soft landing.
Soon, its giant rear door opened for the passengers to alight. A gush of bone-chilling wind and thick layers of snow appeared familiar as if the world had stood still since I was last here over a decade back, in late 1970s.
My assumption stood challenged no sooner did I climb a few steps. The breathlessness was a reminder that time has moved on.
The battalion was ready for the final phase of training prior to deployment in Siachen. I had been flown at the last moment to take over the unit, due to unavoidable circumstances. It was the first unit of our regiment to take field on the Northern Glacier. There was an underlying apprehension about the adaptability of the troops from the plains to the extreme altitude conditions.
The height of posts at the Northern Glacier varied from 18,000-21000 feet, temperature hovering at minus 40 degrees Celsius.
Besides, enemy was always on the lookout to gain a foothold on the ridgeline. Therefore, the challenge was to achieve extremely high standards of physical endurance and mental resilience. Adaptive leadership was the mantra.
After two months of sustained preparations, the unit was ready to take field. Process of induction was smooth, without any hiccups.
However, Day One was off to a shaky start when my prefabricated shelter was up in flames due to a freak accident. To ward off superstition, the division commander assured us that it was a good omen. Here on, there was no looking back.
A kind of pattern developed over a period of time. During bad weather, the opposite side made stealth attempts to grab our positions. By virtue of being deployed on the dominating heights, in close quarter engagements, we always had an edge.
Most posts were at a reasonable standoff distance, barring one. Here, the 'no man's land' was barely half the length of a football field. This happened to be the most precious real estate, with a history of many bloody engagements.
When the days were bright, the adversary resorted to artillery fire assaults to interfere with our air maintenance. With guns deployed near the road heads, ammunition was not a problem for the opponent.
On the other hand, in our case, every round had to be air transported as our guns perforce had to be deployed on the glacier itself. It was the guns at Gyari (where recently, 135 soldiers of the Pakistan army got buried in an avalanche), which were most active.
When Bofors opened up, enemy's artillery went silent. Occasionally, VIPs landed for a snappy handshake. Seeing the brunt of artillery duels, they often remarked, "Here ice appears to be on fire".
With just two fatal cases in seven months, the myth of high casualties stood demolished. Over the years, the army has mastered the art of glacial warfare. Since 2003, the Siachen is quiet owing to the ceasefire agreement. Today, it pinches the other side more and hence the offer of an olive branch.
Over the years, the strategic importance of Siachen has been realised. The superhuman feat of those who held it under most trying conditions has few parallels in the annals of warfare. A soldier is the most ardent voice for the cause of peace, but never on terms that compromise what he stood and fell for.
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