[This story has been set in the backdrop of the Siachen Glacier; which is also known as the 'Third Pole' on account of the extreme cold weather. Indian and Pakistani troops have been battling on the highest battlefield of the world for nearly four decades now. Both sides lose many lives and limbs every year, and even now, more lives are lost to the inclement weather, than enemy action.]
To say that this story is pure fiction is an insult to those who lost their lives. But to be any more accurate, will endanger those who are still battling for theirs.
Chandigarh. The last link between sanity and madness.
I arrived in the late hours of the night. It was bitterly cold. Usually is, this time of the year. Clear sky though. They told me there was a confirmed flight next morning and my name was on the manifest.
There was nothing to do except to kill the night. The bar at 204 transit mess is a purely functional one. Meant for serious drinking – that’s it.
I knew it was a mistake the moment I entered. The only other occupant of the bar was the old man. Clutching his thick glass. Late forties, I guessed. That would make him a Colonel, unless of course he had been shafted somewhere along the way.
The barman looked at me, not pleased that another officer had wandered in. Understandable considering the late hour. I was in two minds, but then what the hell, those who are about to die and that kind of stuff.
There was no alternative but to sit next to the old man. There were just two stools. The light was too dim to see him clearly. Nodding the obligatory ‘good evening sir’, I slid into the stool beside him.
He tried to lift his head, but somewhere in between decided that the effort was not worth it and mumbled a reply.
The barman shuffled to me, disrelish very evident on his face.
‘Drink sahib?’ he asked. Perhaps still hoping that I had come to use the telephone or something.
‘Large whisky, soda’ I said dashing his hopes.
After I took a swig, I turned to the old man. He might have been made of stone for all the movement he made so far. Of course, there was no doubt that he was stoned.
‘Coming back from leave sir? I ventured.
I got a grunt for a reply.
Come to think of it, that was a stupid question. A man coming down the glacier would hardly hang around the transit camp would he? But then I had to sound polite and if he wanted to be left alone, well mud in his eye I guess.
I finished my drink and motioned to the barman for a refill. Belligerently he poured another and stood back.
‘Cigarette, Navy Cut’ I asked the barman.
‘Sorry Sahib, only Charms’ he replied, happy that he had managed to pique me in his own small way.
‘Not even a packet’ I persisted.
‘No sahib, only Charms’.
At this, the old man slid something across the bar. It was the packet of the brand I had asked for. I mumbled my thanks and thought if I should mouth the perfunctory denial before I pinched his fags, but then on second thoughts, he did not look the sort of person who would insist.
As I lit the cigarette, he spoke.
‘I am coming back from a funeral’
Oh hell, now the chap has started and he is going to tell me his whole story, I thought. Last thing I wanted to hear about in this place was a funeral. Not the sort of thing to get cheered up on the way to the glacier.
But then I had asked for it, so here goes. ‘Someone in the family sir?’
He looked up sharply, ‘You could say that”
It wasn’t a very pleasant beginning. Two months ago, they told me about the option of volunteering for a stint in the glacier. Like many officers, I had no idea about what it involved except that it was bloody cold. Back then, I had been going through some problems and thought that it would be a change if nothing else.
I suppose I should have been suspicious at the alacrity with which my posting was effected, but of course, now it was too late. Here I was on my way up. Taking a last drink at a decent altitude. I was keen on knowing more about this supposed hellhole. After all, I was going to spend the next year up there; and hoping to come back in one piece.
‘An accident perhaps?’ I continued.
‘ Yes. At the glacier’
‘How?’ I persisted.
The old man took a long breath and shifted his frame. I could see his face in better light now.
Definitely a commanding officer or thereabouts, I decided. They get this gleam in their eyes when they become one I suppose.
‘You going up first time?’
‘Ah’ he responded as if my naiveté was the reason for my persistence. ‘Sure you want to hear about this?’ he continued.
‘Of course sir, anything I could find out about the glacier is welcome’
The old man began the story. No doubt, he was either drunk or simply pulling my leg. I mean things don’t happen that way, do they?
If there was a place on earth that could pass off as hell, this would be it. Siachen. A stony dead freezing wasteland, blanketed with ice through eternity. The only sign of life is the glacier itself. Like some monster twisting and slithering. Pulverizing everything in its path.
Icy winds swoop from the mountains surrounding the glacier, buffeting and crashing into the sheer cliffs. The unimaginable cold chills the very marrow of the bones, like millions of tiny needles. Slicing through clothing, skin and gristle, numbing the body and mind. Destroying the very will to survive. It is a place where even the sun surrenders, and shines impotently.
The locals dread the place. Not that there are very many of them. They call it the place of death. But like evil is sometimes beautiful, so is the glacier. Overpowering in its awesome grandeur. And yet, in the most beautiful of its moments, death lurks just a footstep away.
Many killers stalk the glacier. The most lethal of them are the avalanche and the crevasse. Between the two, the latter is more feared and for good reasons.
The avalanche usually predicts itself. It behaves in an understandable pattern. There are identifiable avalanche prone areas. Cliff walls whose sheer gradient cannot sustain the tons of load that is brought to bear on it during the night’s snow fall. Places, which receive sun’s rays through a longer period of the day causing the ice to behave like viscous layers. Or even spots where because of a quirk of nature, the mountains behave like the prongs of a fork. A faint reverberation between them, amplifies a million times, waking the sleeping giants.
Despite its destructive potential, the avalanche can be avoided through simple precautions or preemption. With experience, it is possible to choose routes that avoid the avalanche’s footprint. If that was not practical, an avalanche can be set off using explosives before it strikes. But the best method, and the simplest, was to restrict all movements to the early hours of the morning, when the cold binds the ice mass onto the slopes.
They demand respect, but if given that, the avalanches usually spared their victims.
Not the crevasse.
As the glacier convulses in its serpentine motion, it creates deep cracks or crevasses. These bottomless chasms seem to run to the bowels of earth. A rock thrown into some of these crevasses clatter for a long time before they fade out of hearing and still not reach the bottom.
Crevasses seem to have lives of their own. The Glacier’s torque and twisting shapes them, giving them form. This sometimes remains unchanged for years. At other times, it is mercurial like a snowflake. Some crevasses are narrow and straight, almost parallel in their slice to the core of the earth. Other’s twist and turn on their way to the depths. Some have broad gaping mouths, at times as wide as a mile. Others a slit, just enough for a knife’s blade.
Crevasses are treacherous assassins stalking its quarry. Almost as if the glacier was a beast which evolved its own ways to trap and kill its prey.
Falling snowflakes land on the lips of the crevasses. When the width of the crevasse is just right, those that freeze there, become a receptacle for other flakes and an intricate lattice of ice forms across the mouth of the crevasse. This sort of ‘ice bridge’ has been known to sustain the weight of several tons. Indeed, who knows how many such crevasses exist beneath the layer of ice.
But at other times, this crust breaks, swallowing the unfortunate soul crossing it. And once the crevasse struck, escape was rare.
The only defense against a crevasse was the ‘Rope’.
When soldiers moved across such terrain, they tied themselves to each other using a long rope.
Between each man, there is generally a slack of eight to ten feet. That way if ever one or more were to discover the existence of a crevasse the hard way, they still stood a chance of staying alive. A group of men traveling this way is called a ‘rope’.
And so it was in the early hours of the morning that the ‘rope’ set out on its journey across the twelve kilometres that would bring them to the forward post. This particular one consisted of eight men, a usual number.
The load each carried though was unusually heavy. The summers were fast approaching. (About four months of the year are euphemistically called ‘summer’ because the temperatures are slightly higher them). It was imperative to stock all the posts with provisions, before the campaigning season began, especially the liquid gold of glacier - kerosene.
In addition to the equipment, each man was carrying a jerry can of the oil, pushing the all told weight to almost 20 Kilos each. The loads were carried on backs using a frame of aluminium harness, thereby keeping the hands free. The going was especially strenuous that day. It had snowed heavily through the night and the surface had still not hardened completely.
Each footstep went down ankle deep. There was a strong crosswind with the gusts abruptly changing directions, staggering the men off balance. The soldiers were very tired. Yet it was better to keep moving than to stop. To halt would mean to let the thin film of sweat freeze in an instant, sapping yet more of the precious body heat. And the thought of the warmth and rest just three kilometres away spurred them on.
It was then that, without warning, that the crevasse struck.
In hindsight it was quite simple to reason why it happened to the last person on the rope. The crust, which had formed over the crevasse, had probably been weakened by the passage of seven men across it. Each man’s footstep, boring just a little more into the layer.
And the crust broke below the feet of the last man. He was plunged into the crevasse before he had the time to release a scream of terror. The seven feet of slack accelerated his body weight and the full force of the pull transmitted to the men ahead. It was a very wrong place to be caught.
Most of the men were on an uphill slope and the ground afforded little purchase. Four of the men were immediately jerked off their feet. Those who had the presence of mind went flat on the ground and struck in their ice picks. But the picks ploughed uselessly through the powdery snow and the whole rope was being pulled slowly, towards the crevasse.
Each man in the rope realized the danger that was lurking just a few feet away. The panicked struggles of the man inside the crevasse was causing the entire rope to be dragged gradually but surely into the crevasse. His screams of terror and thrashing only reminded each man of the fate that awaited them. The Patrol Leader shouted at the man inside to stay still, and after what appeared to be an eternity, he seemed to be able to control his panic and stopped moving.
Each man froze in his place. The worst nightmare of any soldier doing the “link” was unfolding in front of them. They knew that they were caught in a trap. Any motion they made, slid them closer to the crevasse and towards certain doom.
Despite the jerk of the fall, the patrol leader thankfully realized that his radio was still near him.
He inched towards it. And his movement caused a fresh drag toward the lip of the crevasse. The situation was obvious. Any attempt to move was to invite disaster. It was a stalemate. The crevasse had played its hand. The next move was left to the men.
The patrol leader had no choice.
‘Cut the rope’ He shouted at the penultimate man who was closest to the lip of the crevasse.
There was a wave of shock amongst the men. To cut the rope was to abandon all chance of saving their comrade dangling between life and death. Almost all chances at least. Yet the more experienced among them realized that the command though brutal, was the only course of action left to be taken. It was clear that the pull caused by the man inside the crevasse was threatening all of them. Their attempts to move, had proved just that. And to wait endlessly expecting the situation to change was suicidal. If anything, it would only get worse. The winds would soon freeze them and the last vestiges of energy would be drained battling the cold.
They realized they were caught in an impasse. Besides, while they lay pinned, they were powerless to help the man inside. He would dangle there until incredibly low temperature of the interior of the crevasse reduced him to a lump of ice.
Despite the logic it is hard to be the one to cut a man’s lifeline. The soldier drew the knife in his hand but hesitated.
‘Cut it Damn you’ the patrol leader shouted with fresh anger.
The lash of the order moved the man involuntarily and the blade sliced through the rope.
They could hear the fresh scream of terror as the man felt his lifeline give way. But abruptly it stopped. The soldiers gathered themselves and rushed to the lip of the crevasse. They peered in and what they saw was another miracle of the glacier. And the men heaved a sigh of relief.
If they could get help in time, maybe there was a chance after all. The patrol leader ran back to his radio and began shouting into it.
Ten minutes later, the news of the accident was relayed to the Base camp. The Base camp is located at the tail of the glacier. Here the glacier decreases altitude and melts into the river Shoyk flowing to Pakistan. The base camp is also the point where the glacier technically starts. It is a logistic and rescue base rolled into one.
The specially trained rescue team at the base camp has an unenviable job. They are called to carry out rescue missions for virtually all crisis’s that occur in the glacier. Of which there are enough to keep them busy.
As soon as the code word for an accident was blared on the loud speaker at the base camp, the rotors of two helicopters began their beat. They would require about 10 minutes of warming up before the blades could painfully gather enough purchase in the thin air.
And even then, they would be able to transport just one man; at the most, to the altitude they had to operate in. The rescue team itself was in the control room finding out what information they could gather. Which, at this stage was not much.
‘Man down in crevasse’ said the base commander.
This particular team was being led by a much younger man.
‘How long?’ he asked as he looked at the map in front of them. He was not particularly bothered about the location. That was the job of the pilots; who were charting a flight plan towards the rescue point. But he had to know the vital information about which area the crevasse was in, simply because each area had it’s own peculiarities.
‘Could be anywhere upto 45 minutes, maybe more. Add the flying time and maybe it would be closer to an hour before you get there.’ said the base commander quite pessimistically.
‘Lousy timing’ said the senior pilot as he looked out of the window.
They all understood what he meant. It was another of the glacier’s vagaries. The main valley that contained the glacier averaged the breadth of a kilometre. The glacier itself was fed from the countless smaller and very narrow valleys, many of which hardly ever saw the light of the day because of their narrow mouths and winding structure. As the sun rose during the day, it warmed the air on the main glacier. The white snow acted as a powerful reflector and the air mass was quickly heated.
As the hot air started rising - the colder air from the feeder valleys rushed in to fill the vacuum. This incoming gust created a phenomenon akin to high-speed gales that shifted its direction and speed treacherously. This made flying over the glacier more difficult, as noon approached. And a virtual impossibility after noon.
The pilot glanced at his watch. ‘Three hours max. Do your stuff in that time and we can get back home’ he told the rescue team commander. ‘We are ready when you are.’
The four man team was taken in two lifts. While the helicopter was flying towards the accident site, another rescue team had started from the parent unit at the glacier. This team also consisting of four, was being transported in snow scooters. In addition to the standard rescue gear, they were carrying hot beverages for the stranded men. Both the teams arrived almost simultaneously at the accident site.
The helicopter marked the site of the accident and then deliberately veered away to find the drop point which would spare the men below the blast of the rotor’s down wash. The link patrol leader received the rescue team and they started towards the crevasse. The helicopters started on their way back to ferry the second lift.
‘It’s incredible’ said the Rescue Team Commander, looking down the crevasse, as he shook his head in disbelief.
This crevasse plunged straight down for about 30 feet before it narrowed and sharply twisted at an angle. It was this twist that had saved the man inside. While he dropped, his body had got stuck into the wedge made by the twist and he lay there jammed between the two walls of the crevasse.
The Team commander swung the powerful beam of his flash light beyond the man but could see nothing but darkness. He moved the beam back towards the victim. That was another surprise. The fall itself did not seem to have hurt him much. He was still conscious and coherent. They could only see his upper body but there were no signs of blood. Also he could move his arms weakly, another good sign. But there was no telling below his waist.
Preliminary examination over, the rescue team started their work. First, they would anchor the man to a rope to prevent him from slipping further down. They started clearing the snow on a spot near the edge of the crevasse to find the hard ice surface beneath. Firm enough to hold the piton, which would take the load of the team going in and the victim, when he was brought out.
While the Team Commander worked, he was thinking out his strategy. Crevasse rescue is a complicated task. More often than not, crevasses have overhangs. That usually means icicles growing downward, which ruled out a straight pull. The victim would simply be impaled on the icicles. The work around was to slither down, level to the victim, and anchor him to one’s own body. Then heave the victim away from the crevasse wall using both legs and hands. Each heave had to be timed perfectly with rhythmic pull of the rope above, lest they be dragged across the wall. In this case, mercifully, there were no icicles but still the victim was stuck for some time. That meant he would be dead weight.
In any case, his legs are a goner, he thought. Forty minutes in the deep freeze and the doctors have no option but to chop them off. Still it was not his worry. That would come later. His preparations finished, he straightened and turned around. They could hear the drone of the approaching helicopters, getting the second set of men.
One last bit remained. They had to know how deep the crevasse was. This was a tricky part. The rescue team has to know the score. They need to know whether the crevasse is very deep or relatively shallow.
Makes world of a difference to the way they work.
If it is reasonably shallow, they can at times take risks, secure in the knowledge that a mistake will not plunge them into the depths. It was against rules, but the team sometimes would take off their own safety harness to work unencumbered. However determining the depth is left until the very end. Usually just before the rescue team is going in. There is good reason for that too.
The reactions of a crevasse victim follow a predictable cycle. The initial moments when he falls in, are of sheer terror. Nobody obviously knows what happens to those who don’t make it, but those who are eventually rescued, gain a fair control of their nerves after a little while. And when they see that efforts are on to rescue them, some even become confident enough to appear positive. They do know that it is not going to be for free. But losing a few digits or maybe even a limb to frostbite is relatively a small price to pay to stay alive.
That is when the victim realizes that it is not so horrible after all.
But there are occasions when the victim discovers that the situation he is in is actually worse than what it appeared. This newfound knowledge can be the trigger that sparks off a wave of fresh panic. In instances like this one.
By this time, the victim would have certainly lost all sensation of his body. Might even be fooling himself that his legs are resting on the bottom of the crevasse. If at this juncture he were to discover that he’s stuck in a bottomless chasm, it would be like a weak swimmer realizing that he’s at the deep end of the pool. But it had to be done. As unobtrusively as possible, the Team Commander dropped the chunk of solid ice into the crevasse.
‘Shit’ mouthed the commander involuntarily. The continual clatter of the stone confirmed their worst fear. The crevasse was very deep.
The Team Commander adjusted his harness and started down into the crevasse, his mate playing out the anchor rope while he descended. The rest of the rescue team had reached. They began harnessing themselves to follow.
‘Mike One to base. We are in’ one of them spoke into the radio.
Fifteen kilometers and twelve thousand feet below, the voice crackled out of the speaker, telling the base that the attempt had commenced. As always the base control room was occupied by the members who advised the team at the rescue site. Most of the men in the room had a lot more experience to draw upon. The doctor was there too, to counsel about on-site resuscitation. Their main purpose was to coordinate other resources that might be demanded by the team up there.
And they had another task.
To veto any idea that might be endanger the lives of more men. The last job was a tough one. Over the years, the control room has had its own share of casualties. The men looked at the clock on the wall. Most eyes turned automatically towards the doctor. He had been waiting for their unspoken query.
‘Slim, very slim’ was all he said.
‘Base, we are coming back’ the voice of the helicopter crew came through.
The first part of the chopper crew’s of delivering the rescue team to the site was over. The second part was to get the team and the victim back.
Something that they did not always achieve. On many occasions their return manifest comprised the same number as their inbound one, and in especially unfortunate instances - less.
It was decided that the close confines of the crevasse permitted only two men to work at a time. The remaining two stood ready to relieve those inside or to effect a secondary rescue. It was not unknown for a member of the rescue team himself to be trapped inside, necessitating another rescue in the bargain.
The rescue team commander reached down level with the victim. The relief on the face of the victim was obvious. The commander drew his arms around the victim as the second man of the team slid a looped harness around the upper body of the victim. If nothing else, he was not going to plunge any deeper into the crevasse.
On closer scrutiny the situation became apparent to the rescuers. Their man was stuck between the walls of the crevasse. There was no option but to pull him free. Tough job, but not something they had not done before.
The team commander tugged twice on the rope securing the victim, signal to the men above to start pulling. The entire team heaved the rope. Nothing happened. Puzzled, both the team inside and those waiting at the lip of the crevasse, moved the rope to check if it was snagged somewhere. It wasn’t. The team commander repeated his signal and added a shout.
‘Pull harder’, he said as he grasped the rope in his hand.
The men strained with their complete strength, the effort breaking a thin film of sweat on them. The harness around the victim crunched as it crushed the powdery snow and bunched around his body. But the man did not budge an inch.
The Team Commander first felt it in his hand. It was then that the true horror of the predicament struck. First to the team commander, then to the team members and finally to the victim.
Until this time, the victim had been surprisingly calm. The arrival of the rescue team and the reassurances he got, had given him hope. That was the drill. Always give hope. It is an inborn survival instinct. Hope. But now he realized that something was dreadfully wrong. From the time of his fall he had been told and instinctively known, not to move. He felt like an insect that had fallen in a spider’s web. Keep still, don’t move. Don’t cause any tremors that may break the fragile grip of the walls and plunge you down, they had told him.
Only the grip wasn’t fragile. It was awesomely powerful.
There were several explanations of what could have happened. The victim’s body had been in close contact with the icy walls of the crevasse. His body heat caused a thin film of ice on the wall to melt probably for a fraction of second and then immediately re-freeze. Clutching him there like an ice tray stuck to the floor of the freezer.
And of course, the Glacier moves all the time. So perhaps from the time he fell in, it had been twisting, murderously clenching him in a death grip. Who knows? But at that moment inside the crevasse, the commander knew one thing for certain. That the combined strength of nine men could not pull the victim up.
He tugged his own rope twice urgently. He needed to talk to base. They would know what to do. They always knew. He was alarmed. This was like nothing that he had faced before. In his panic he even forgot what his sudden departure would signal to the victim. He would worry about that later. Right now he had to find a way to get the man out.
The troops above noticed the repetitive jerking of the rope. They let go of the one they were holding and hauled the team commander out. He snatched the handset from the operator and spoke.
‘He’s stuck. We can’t pull him out.’
The control room at the base camp was galvanized by the latest transmission. The Base Commander was not sure he heard this correctly.
‘Mike One, come again’ he said.
‘He’s stuck, Damn it. He is frozen there like an ice tray. We tried pulling him, he is not budging.’
If the circumstances had been otherwise the Base Commander would have felt small sense of satisfaction. The rescue team was asking for his guidance. Only he did not have any to give.
‘You need more men up?’ he asked.
‘No use. The rope is stretching’
The meaning of this statement struck all men in the control room.
The rope used in the glacier, if it had a mind of its own, would probably be offended by the generalized nomenclature it is referred to. This is a specially constructed piece of equipment. Designed using a complex combination of fibers, its slender proportions belie the fact, that it is one of the strongest materials created by man, And yet when the heft on it exceeds a limit it begins to stretch, admitting that the strain on it is beyond what it could handle.
The control room was perplexed. The faith of the team commander on the ability of the control room to find a solution to his problem was painfully evident. The control room had to respond.
‘You got scooters there? Use them.’ Said the Base Commander, referring to the snow scooters he knew to be in location.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ it was the doctor. ‘If he’s pulled by the scooter it will break his bones.’
‘You have a better idea?’ snapped the Base Commander. The doctor looked away.
Up above the team commander kicked himself for not thinking about it. He gave instructions for the snow scooter to be positioned. They hooked the rope to the rear of the scooter. The driver glanced at the team commander. Seeing him nod, he gave the machine its full throttle. The rope bit into the lip of the crevasse digging in a furrow and stretching. Without orders, the men seized the taunt rope and stated pulling at it. It was no use of course, but then in these moments of madness, logic does not work.
The victim did not move.
‘Nothing, no movement’ the team commander spoke to the control room.
‘Try again’ came the reply from the control room. What else could they say?
‘It’s time’ the pilot spoke in the control room.
The control room was jerked back to another cruel reality. The wind was already playing up. The choppers had to go in immediately to get the rescue team back. It was an irony. They all knew that too. The rescue team for all their skills could not be left stranded up there. It was simply a question of human anatomy. They were stationed in the base camp at much lower altitudes. Centrally located. To be able to respond to any sector of the glacier. Unfortunately, that also meant that they were unacclimatized for the higher altitudes. For them to remain at high altitudes beyond what was absolutely essential was to court disaster. And if the chopper did not go fetch them back now, they would have to be left through the night.
The Base Commander looked at the clock on the wall.
‘Ten minutes?’ he asked the pilot.
The Base commander turned towards the radio.
‘Mike One, you’ve got about twenty minutes before first lift comes. Do your best.’
Up above, the Team Commander looked incredulously at his own watch. Twenty minutes. Damn! What could they do in that much time? The situation inside the crevasse was turning nasty. The victim had begun to understand that there was something drastically wrong. That he might not be rescued after all. He began to panic all over again. In a desperate voice then commander instructed the team.
‘We all go in’
The Team Commander and his partner pitched in two fresh ropes using the same anchor and slithered down. They carried their ice axes, and started to hack at the edge of the ice wall. It was useless. The close confines of the crevasses prevented the full swing of the axe. The walls were so hardened that the picks just bounced off them, hardly making a scratch. As they swung furiously, one of the picks slipped and dug into the victim’s arms. The man cried out in misery as this fresh pain flailed him.
Finally, realization struck them all. There was no way this man could be pried free from the crevasse.
They could now begin to hear the faint thump of the approaching choppers. Time was up. The team commander motioned to his men to start moving up. Very reluctantly they tugged at their anchor ropes and started being pulled up.
By now the victim had broken down completely. He was sobbing uncontrollably. Pleading not be left behind. The team commander fought back to control his own tears. There was nothing, absolutely nothing that he could do. He heard the first sortie land and moments later, take off. They had another twenty minutes or so before the choppers came back for him.
‘Don’t leave me Sahib’ implored the victim.
The team commander couldn’t take it any more. All his training, his skills had never prepared him for a situation where he would have to watch helplessly as a man died painfully, slowly, being able to do nothing about it. There were no words to say, no hope, no consolation to offer.
Soon the victim seemed to find a new strength. Perhaps he finally got the courage to accept his fate.
His voice was much steadier when he spoke again.
‘My family, Sahib, I have three small children. And my parents, they are old.’
‘They will be looked after, don’t worry’ replied the team commander.
‘They should not know that I died like this.’
‘No they won’t. They will be told that you died immediately on falling.’
‘Tell them. Tell them that…’
‘Yes. What do you want us to tell them?’
‘Tell them that I am sorry. You know, for leaving them like this.’ Fresh tears started streaming down his eyes.
‘Don’t be. They will be looked after.’ The team commander found his own voice choking.
It was surreal, talking so matter of factly to a man who was about to be left to his death. Like an unbelievable nightmare. It could not be happening, and yet it was.
‘How much longer?’ asked the victim.
At first, the team commander misunderstood. He started to say that the choppers should be coming back any time now, but then he realized what he was being asked.
‘Not long’ he lied.
‘It’s not painful, I cannot feel anything’
‘Yes and soon you feel drowsy and that will be it.’
‘I am frightened Sahib’.
‘Think of God’ the Team Commanded touched his arm. ‘And don’t worry about anything.’ His words sounded empty, even to himself.
‘Can you.. can you stay till I go Sahib?’ he asked hesitatingly.
As if to answer his question, the feeble drone of the choppers filtered down the crevasse. They were back for him. Suddenly the crevasse seemed a lonely and a terrible place to leave a man to wait for a lingering death. The team commander freed one of his hands and gripped his anchor rope. His other hand held the palm of the victim. To tell what was passing through his mind is not something that words can accomplish.
‘I have to go’ he muttered shamefully.
The victim did not let go of his hand. The team commander jerked his rope twice.
And then the screaming began. The victim’s shrieks of terror followed the team commander all the way to the top. He felt he could hear them even above the din of the rotors. As he pulled out of the crevasse he could feel that the winds had picked up speed. He saw the pilot motioning at him urgently, to board the chopper. His partner was already beginning to pull out the equipment.
The team commander stood motionless at the lip of the crevasse. Time seemed to stop for him. The downwash of the choppers threw snow and debris all around. He could see the pilots motioning for him to hurry. But he heard nothing. Nothing - except the screams of the man inside the crevasse.
‘Wait’ he said abruptly to his mate. ‘I’m going down for a minute.’
‘But Sahib, there is no time’ argued his partner. ‘Even if you have left something it is not worth going back.’
The team commander did not reply. Instead, he started to slide down the crevasse again. His partner seemed to read his mind and reached out to hold him.
‘Don’t do it Sahib’ he implored. ‘It’s not right.’
‘There is nothing else I can do for him’ the team commander jerked his arm free and started down.
‘I am coming with you Sahib’
‘NO’ he shouted. ‘I will do this myself.’
‘What the hell is he doing?’ Hundred paces away, the one of the puzzled pilots asked his co-pilot worriedly.
The gusts were already jostling the helicopter on their skids. The pilot was fighting hard to keep the chopper under control.
‘Victor one to base, what the hell is your boy upto? We can’t hang around here any longer’ the pilot radioed the base camp.
“I have no idea’ came back the voice of the Base Commander. ‘He knows he has to pull out of there.’
After what seemed an eternity, the team commander came out of the crevasse. His partner pulled him out and they began running towards the waiting choppers.
Twenty minutes later, they were back in the base camp. As per the norm, the entire rescue team and the air crew moved to the control room for debriefing. The team commander was not among them. Everybody thought that it was because he was disturbed. No one mentioned his absence.
That evening he was at the bar, well on to a drunken stupor when the Base Commander joined him.
‘Finally it’s always the bar’ he said to the younger man. ‘Whether we get the man out or not.’
The team commander did not move.
‘It is a part of the game.’ continued the Base Commander. ‘Sometimes we win, other times the glacier. No reason to feel too bad.’
The team commander turned slowly to face him.
‘It’s not that’ he said. ‘That’s not why I am sad’.
And as they looked at each other, the Base Commander understood.
For a long moment they did not speak. Finally, the Base Commander broke the silence.
‘If that’s what you did, it was brave.’
‘I don’t feel brave.’
‘Nevertheless it was courageous. Not many would have thought about it, and fewer could have done it.’
The team commander did not reply.
‘How?’ asked the Base Commander.
The team commander took a long breath and turned away before answering.
‘I used a rope’
‘No…. I guess he knew it was the best way out.’
The Base Commander heaved a sigh and began walking away.
‘There are two more things’ said the team commander.
‘His family has to be told’.
“Obviously, someone will be going to do that, might have already done so, you know’.
‘No. You have to do it’
‘Why?, I mean why me.’
‘Alright, and the other thing?’
‘I want a transfer. I can’t do this job any longer’.
‘Sorry about the second part. No way. You can’t apportion problems without accepting to handle some yourself’. The Base Commander did not wait for a reply as he left the bar.
The cigarette burned my finger and I was jerked back to reality.
I mean what I was hearing so far was a fantasy wasn’t it? I looked at my watch. It was very late.
The old man had almost finished.
‘So you see I am coming back from a funeral, figuratively. Because the body is up there inside a crevasse and will be there, from here to eternity.’
‘You are…’ I began.
‘Yes. I am the Base Commander at the base camp.’
We finished our drinks, rose and left for our rooms. Of course, I did not believe a word of what he said.
Things just don’t happen that way do they?
The author was posted in the Siachen Glacier for a year. He wrote several stories of his experiences in the Glacier. This one was first published in the Infantry Journal in 1995