- Major General Mrinal Suman
Siachen Glacier at a height of over 18,000 feet is the world's highest battle field. Enormity of effort required for living and fighting at that altitude can be judged from the fact that the highest mountain in Alps is Mont Blanc at 15,774 ft and climbers carry oxygen with them.
Ironically, Siachen means 'places of the wild roses' in local lore. In addition to the hostile activities of the enemy, soldiers endure treacherous environment - avalanches, snow storms and crevasses make for a deadly combination. Frost bites result in loss of limbs in numerous cases. Peculiarities of the challenges faced can be gauged from the fact that disposal of human excreta has been defying all solutions – chemical, biological and physical. Due to extremely low temperatures, it just does not decompose and remains unchanged for ever, posing major hygiene problems.
Thousands of soldiers have perished due to pulmonary oedema and other high altitude diseases while defending this inhospitable terrain. As Western countries do not face such an environment, very little medical research has been carried out in the world as regards long and short term effects of high altitude areas. In case a man is taken directly from plains to Siachen, he is unlikely to survive.
His lungs will fail to trap enough air to get required supply of oxygen and he will, in all probability, succumb to accumulation of fluids in his lungs. Therefore, soldiers have to undergo elaborate acclimatization programme before induction, spanning over 4 weeks and even more.
Snowstorms last for weeks and temperatures dip down to minus 60 degrees centigrade. Helicopters, the sole means of quick de-induction, become inoperative and the area remains cut-off for prolonged periods. Construction and maintenance of helipads is a huge challenge. If constructed in summers, they get buried under heavy winter snow. On the other hand, in case they are prepared in winters, snow around them melts in summers and they get perched on tall snow pillars.
Image: In this handout photograph released by the Indian Defence Ministry on February 8, 2016, Indian army soldiers search for survivors after a deadly avalanche on the Siachen glacier. (AFP/Indian Defence Ministry)
(1 of 5)