When Arvaan Kumar, 17, walked into his class at Vasant Valley school, earlier this month, everyone clapped. Arvaan was just back from a trek to the Siachen Glacier, a place his grand-uncle Colonel Narinder “Bull" Kumar is credited for bringing to India’s notice.
Back then, Kumar, a fierce and feisty mountaineer with a loud laugh and love for beer, had encountered some Western maps that incorrectly identified a large chunk of north-eastern Kashmir as Pakistani territory. He convinced the army to let him take the first recce undercover expedition to the glacier in 1978. In 1984, India launched Operation Meghdoot to stamp its claim on the glacier. A key base at 18,300ft was named Kumar Post after the colonel.
In 2003, when Outside trekked to Siachen from India and Pakistan to record the story of the brutal face-off between the two on the world’s highest battleground, one Pakistani major told the magazine: “Colonel Kumar is the man who started all this. I have no wish to meet him—that bastard."
All these years later, Mercury Himalayan Explorations, the adventure company run by Kumar’s son Akshay and daughter-in-law Dilshad, got permission to take the first private trek to the glacier. Dilshad led the trek that took a year and a half to plan. For her nephew Arvaan, walking on glacial ice with crampons was a life-changing experience. “It makes you think about what our soldiers go through, you feel connected to nature, you think about life and death," the teenager said.
Siachen, guarded by the military for 32 years, is the most gruelling stint for a soldier; India spends Rs5 crore a day to maintain troops there, according to The Hindu newspaper. Only a fraction get a chance to serve on the northern glacier—look for the grey and white ribbon in an army officer’s medals to know if he has been there.
The glacier has been mostly out of bounds for civilians, but in 2007 the army’s adventure wing started an annual trek. If you’re interested in the 60km trek from Siachen Base Camp to Kumar Post, you need to be fit, under 45 and ready to take a month off. The trek takes up about half this time, the rest is preparation. Freelance fashion designer Anjana Singh, 27, is on the army trek that began on 15 September. Her father and her father-in-law served in Siachen and she has heard glacier stories all her life. “I have been trekking with my father since childhood and I wanted to try out the glacier trek," she says over the phone from Leh.
The almost mythical glacier in the Karakoram range of the Himalayas may conjure up romance and unexplored adventure for the climber but the old man in Captain Raghu Raman’s chilling short story, The Rope, had a different take: “If there was a place on earth that could represent hell, this would be it. Siachen. A stony dead freezing wasteland, blanketed with ice through eternity. The only sign of life being the glacier itself. Like some prehistoric monster, twisting and slithering sinuously. Pulverizing or sweeping away everything in its path…And the icy chill, that benumbs the body and desensitizes the mind. Degenerating and finally sapping the very will to survive."
The short story, which first appeared in the Infantry (India) magazine in 1995, went viral in February when we tracked an audacious rescue operation (involving choppers, lasers, at least 150 soldiers) to free Lance Naik Hanumanthappa, trapped under 30ft of blue ice at 20,500ft. He died after he was rescued. Avalanches and other environmental factors (not enemy fire) are the leading cause of death in Siachen.
Raman’s tale was also a scary introduction to Siachen for a young officer. One year after he read the story, when he was told he would be headed to the “valley of death", he only felt dread. Here’s his diary account of the typical send-off soldiers receive from the base camp: “There are prayers by the panditji and the pastor, tea and snacks, and then the entire battalion lines up and the people going shake hands with all of them. It can be quite discomforting and overwhelming for some as it gives them a feeling of a final farewell," he writes. For him that overwhelming adventure had all the Siachen staples: Coming under an avalanche, frostbite, sleepless nights, breathlessness, an enlarged liver, defecating on the edge of a crevice, no cigarettes, alcohol or baths for months—and, of course, losing men and missing the birth of your child.
Another army man, narrating the tale of the several men he lost to a sudden avalanche during his stint at Siachen, writes: “Apart from weather, the feeling of loneliness surrounded by sheer cliffs and the sea of snow can be killing. For any outsider it may sound like a beautiful picnic spot but for soldiers it is a battlefield where the real enemy is the beautiful-looking SNOW itself."
One big challenge is to keep men mentally alert in that mind-numbing monotony, he told me over the phone. Memorizing family trees with their linked stories and learning a new language from his troops were some of the things he did to keep his men on an even keel.
The Mercury Himalayan group didn’t make it to Kumar Base. But Arvaan didn’t mind: “When the mountains call, you will go; if they don’t call, you don’t go." He was quoting from John Muir and his grand-uncle. “Kumar didn’t call us this time," he added.
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable every fortnight. She tweets at @priyaramani and posts on Instagram as babyjaanramani.
Also Read: Priya’s previous Lounge columns