Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Just 7,000 feet below Everest!

AT 4 AM, it was dark. One could barely see the gray Antonov 32 parked in a remote corner of the tarmac with its tail ramp open. Half an hour later, the pilots kicked off the two engines even as we somewhat nervously took our seats. The ramp was pulled up slowly and it was now even darker inside. The AN32 started rolling and gathered speed. A dim yellow light came on. As the aircraft took off and the commander announced phones to be shut, I just about managed to text my younger brother one thousand miles away not sure if the cell was still getting signal.

We were little more than a dozen and accompanying us were a couple of officers and a few Army and Air Force men. There were two long benches along the both walls of the aircraft. These benches had no cushion and no backrest. Along both benches were two overhead cables hooked from front end to back end of the aircr

aft. One had to sit with straight back, pull the belts from behind around your waist a

nd hold on to the overhead cables. While taking off and landing, the AN 32 shakes almost violently and if you are not holding on to the overhead cables with all your strength, your upper body or torso could be thrown around in all directions.

The aircraft did not seem to be air conditioned nor sound proofed. For toilet, there was a 7-feet high box fitted at the front end just outside the cockpit with a tank inside

This is how we would make the first two hours of our three-and-half hour journey to the Siachin Glacier!

Message came late previous afternoon. I was on the list for Army’s trip to Siachin next morning. As a journalist, I was being invited along with a dozen others to visit Siachin, its command headquarter

s and some forward posts for a first person experience on how it was at the world’s highest battle field. How the officers and men of Army and Air Force were doing their job – selflessly. In the most inhospitable weather and terrain where some of the posts are at a height of up to 22,000 feet, these men are defending the frontie

rs with immense sacrifices in their personal and family lives.

It was going to be a dawn to dusk trip from Delhi. After a light dinner and lots of water – important for spending the whole day in such high altitude – I went to sleep early. We were to gather at the Palam Air Force base at 4 am. After last minute verification of credentials and briefing by a battle-hardened Major, we started walking towards an AN 32. Army jawans were loading biscuit packets and water bottles for us.

With its both propellers on either side in full blast, the Russian built twin-engine turboprop aircraft roared into the dark Delhi sky. AN32 or the Antonov 32 aircraft is highly versatile and effective in mountainous high altitude flying where the air is thin and conventional engines produce lesser power than capacity due lack of oxygen. While in conventional aircraft, engines are fitted underneath the wings, AN32 engines are fitted above the wings. Navigator on the aircraft informed me later that the high-fitted engines and propeller gives pilots a far greater control and maneuverability while landing on mountainous air strips.

Soon we left the northern plains behind and were approaching the Karakoram ranges. Stretched far and wide I could see from the window hundreds of kilometers of ice peaked mountains underneath us with the

average height of these peaks at 5 miles. The K2 at little over 29,000 feet is the highest peak. The propeller on my side was right outside the window behind me and to see the machine cutting through some fierce icy winds sent shivers down my spine – not because of the cold outside but the very thought of anything going wrong at this point. No rescue team will ever reach these most glaciated mountain ranges on earth. Despite the intense roar and noise of the engines, I could feel a pin drop silence inside the aircraft.

With the early morning sun coming out at a far distance, the skyline was turning bright from golden. Everyone had their heads turned backwards with their faces into the windows. Fear aside, none wanted to miss the rare sight outside either. Watching the sun rise over the great Karakoram was indeed a rare site.

To relax the tensed atmosphere, an officer suggested why not we have some biscuits, Cadbury chocolates and cold drinks. Soon we would be landing at the Thoise Air Base at over 10,000 feet, the gateway to Siachin. We arrived at Thoise amid bright sunlight but very chilly winds. Walking down the ramp of the aircraft, I had the first jaw dropping look of the mighty ranges – the Saltoro Ridge.

Despite still being at a distant, the ranges looked like ramparts of a fort that could never be captured by the enemy. For years now, the Indian Army has held all the dominating heights of these ranges.

At the officers’ lounge in the terminal area, hot breakfast was served with tea. It was so chilly that most of us were gulping the steaming tea and still couldn’t feel it. A little later the commander of the Siachin brigade arrived in a helicopter from the base headquarters. We had another round of tea with him while he briefed us on the history of the glacier, its terrain and the work he was doing.

He also spoke to us in detail about how the Army supports the local civilian population. There are very small settlements in the area and villager go high up the mountains with their goats and sheep. Their most important needs from the Army are kerosene and medical support. Many a times choppers rescue them from higher ridges when they fall ill. We were witness to one such mission which I will write about in Part II.

Helicopters are the lifeline in the entire Siachin area – be it supplies, fuel, medical rescue or surveillance. Doing this round the year is the 114 Helicopter Unit of the Air Force – more famously known as the Siachin Pioneers. Recently it was reported that a pilot landed his chopper on a peak at 28,000 feet!

It was time for the most crucial second part of our journey – a one-and-half hour flight by the MI17 helicopter to the base camp. This flight would take us to unprecedented altitudes and amazing sights...

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