The trip from Leh to Base camp via Thoise was absolutely out of this world. The Mi-8 climbed over Leh and then hopped over Khardungla onto the Shyok valley. The helicopter had been stripped off of all equipment that is not required to climb over the pass. The winds at these altitudes in the mountains create their own set of problems. However, the helicopter pilots were experienced and made the whole thing look like routine. We met the Army people at Base camp. We were briefed on the sortie; switched helicopters; from the heavier Mi-8 to the the lighter Cheetah, with skis. Siachen glacier is the second longest glacier in the non polar world, and is about 70 kms long. We took off for the sortie in the Cheetah.
The glacier was a white expanse of snow with snow covered mountains on either side and light clouding on top - ideal conditions for whiteout. - "Whiteout is a weather condition in which visibility and contrast are severely reduced by snow and diffuse lighting from overcast clouds". Everything looked white and the horizon was not discernible, making it very difficult to decide on what is right side up. It seems as if one is enclosed inside a white ping pong ball. The helicopters were being stretched to their limits; the French (manufacturers) had opined that these helicopters were not designed for these altitudes. However, our aircrew operated them successfully on the glacier.
Our chopper was flying at very low heights and it seemed that we could touch the white virgin snow. The chopper pilots told us that the fresh snow made their task very difficult. They also told us that it made the task of the Army even more difficult, as snow covered the crevices and posed a hazard to the Army troops that marched up and down the glacier. We passed various Army camps on the glacier - small posts with personnel positioned there permanently for a duration of time. The environmental conditions, and the living conditions, as we saw them from the helicopter made us feel that we were living in 5-star comfort in Leh. This being our Army's first year on the glacier - the conditions were very basic, to say the least; things, in terms of living conditions, have since improved, although the natural environment has not altered materially - temperatures of -50 degree Celsius are normal; with snow storms and other high altitude phenomenon like strong winds, snow drift, avalanches are part of the major hazards.
The glacier slopes upward gradually and helicopter was following the slope of the glacier, slowly gaining height. We reached Sia La. The chopper pilots did not want us to get out of the helicopter, as the helicopter could not switch off at that altitude - oil congeals and it becomes difficult to restart the engine thereafter. We had carried some mail for the troops there and handed them over to the jawans - lighting up their faces - letters and news from home is always welcome, specially so at these desolate places. The jawans did not let us close the chopper door thereafter. They insisted that we get off the chopper - the chopper pilots relented and told us that we could go out for 2 minutes. Those two minutes were spent with us meeting with all the jawans and getting a feel of the area and the prospective targets. We took a picture with the tricolour and the jawans based at this pass. The soldiers requested us to send some old magazines for them, so that they could keep in touch with what is happening - it's a different world out there, you see.
Any visitor is welcome here, as it breaks the monotonous life of the soldiers based there - imagine sitting at over 18000 ft on a glacier with no means of leaving for an extended period - you have trekked up and will live there for a, hopefully, pre-defined period and trek down on completion, if all goes well. Living at these altitudes is a task by itself for normal humans born and brought up in those regions. Imagine the degree of difficulty for some of our troops that have been based at Siachen that have never used blankets, let alone quilts - troops from the southern parts of India. Some of us have a feeling that the Army fights only during the war - well, they fight the elements, besides the enemy, every day along our borders, some of which in the North and the East of our country are really breathtakingly beautiful but are a nightmare to defend against external aggression, as we saw during the Kargil war. Loss of limb and life is not only during war; it happens on a nearly daily basis at these places. Frost bite, pulmonary oedema are two of the major reasons for these losses; it happens in the 'line of duty' - a term that all our troops are very familiar with.
We then were taken to Bilafond La. Once again the chopper could not switch off here and the pilots did not permit us to get out of the helicopter because we had to leave early. The mail was passed on to the troops and they were heart broken when we said that we could not come out - they did the next best thing - they insisted that we have at least a welcome drink, to which we said ok, if they could hurry up. Within no time we were handed over steel glasses which felt warm to the touch - the drink was warm orange squash laced with rum. We fighter pilots had the same and the chopper pilots were given orange squash only. We took off and returned back to base camp; thanked the helicopter pilots; the Army and took off for Leh in the Mi-8. This trip was an experience - it taught us many lessons, besides giving us an insight into what we are up against. One of the most important lessons that I learnt can be summed up in the words of a hoarding that I had seen on Marine drive in Bombay in 1976, "I complained because I had no shoes, until I met someone without feet".
Our trip to the glacier; our meeting with our Army brethren - some of them disabled due to the natural elements convinced us that our living conditions at Leh with all its shortfalls was actually 5-star, relatively speaking. I can only salute the work that our personnel in Olive Green do during peace and war, and personally feel that they rightfully deserve our respect and gratitude for doing what they do to keep us secure as a nation.
I found this video on youtube which may give one an idea of the living conditions on Siachen glacier.