Capt Ratnavel Thanikachalam fastened the last button of his heavy vest , the thick mittens scratched into his palm,and the woolen scarf covering his dark neck almost strangulated him,he felt and looked like an astronaut in his spacesuit,he was worried about how he would manage the strenuous trek ahead
The icy terrain that wound tortuously up into the smog was a not very encouraging sight .
The torrid cold was biting into his southern bones ,the wind chased it into every corner of his lithe body
Dr Thanikachalam hailing down south from a small village called Sivaganga near Tirunelveli was now preparing to climb the Siachen ,
Sivaganga to siachen rhymed well ,it would be a great story to be retold to his grandchildren later in his life. the rigours of an army doctor had to be borne with the pleasures ,he reminded himself .
He could still picture the shiny tears rolling down his mothers face on his selection into the Army Medical Corps two years back , the boot camp and the several transfers all flashed through his mind like a movie,it wasn’t that bad not bad at all and the uniform was something to die for ,but today he had his doubts .
His commanding officer had called him to his cosy and warm office the evening before and told him that he was to leave for Siachen immediately and he would be joining the Maratha regiment for the journey
The treks were well planned, down to meticulous details and the briefing gave him an idea of what he would be facing, they would leave by 8pm with a guide who would come from point B to take them unto there and the relay would be taken up by the guide from point C whose duty was to guide them to point C and not an inch more, each guide was an expert in his terrain and could find his way through the treacherous glacier blindfolded.
Walking through glaciers was no fun, they were shifty and each crack could be a deep crevasse and a fall would lead to oblivion, the angry rumble below reminded one of the energy of the glacier, it would be suicidal to venture in moonlight as glaciers lit up like a Christmas tree offering easy target practice for Pakistani sharpshooters .so it had to be only on a black moon
Each step should be measured and soft with no sudden movements, no skidding utter concentration, no experimentation and implicit obedience to the leader were the scary instructions ringing in his ears from the briefing
That day Mittulal his man Friday had called him for dinner at 3 pm in the afternoon
!! “Saab ithar se rat bahut jaldi aajayegi”he murmured to his questioning , he was then told to get a quick nap and when woken up at 7 pm, felt fresh and was game to anything .
The cold darkness was pierced by the whooping war rumble rising from the rusty throats of the Maratha jawans as they began the trek ,being the descendants of Chatrapathi Sivaji war cries were in their genes
They fell into an easy rhythm as they jaunted ahead carried on by the fervour of the group never feeling tired .
The effort made sweat trickle down Tanikachalams back giving him a shiver even in the icy cold .Tiredness enveloped them gradually after hours of shifting gaits in the glacier, conversations had died down and occasional whispers could be heard coupled with wheezy exertions ,the silence was deep and even in the darkness one could feel nature in all its magnificience ,the vastness of the glacier ,made them pygmies in the midst of giants .
They were surprised when point B came upon so unexpectedly and ahead of schedule ,the tearing pace had its reward but some were yet to pay its price .
The scout from point C had not reached point B, the C.O radioed the message to his counterpart and made it known that they had reached point B,”why did you reach ahead of schedule? Now you have to wait for the guide for at least two hours “came back the answer.
Inactivity brought cold with it and the troops started trotting on their foots and whipping their hands as fires were prohibited, a soldier was brought to the doctor with a peeled and bleeding nose tip, he had plucked the frozen droplet of sweat on his nose tip and it had come off with his skin, one had to be careful in such freezing climates, even passing urine could land one in trouble when it froze midway.
Thanikachalam also started feeling the cold ,he felt a sharp sting in his fingers like a scorpion bite, he knew what was happening , the sweat was getting frozen in his mittens it gave him the fright of his life,frost bites were quick and devastating ,
he became confused , worried and agitated , the altitude too was getting on to him he wasn’t remembering things well and he was shocked to know that he had started talking to himself about the stupidity of joining the army when all his classmates earned money in cosy warm hospitals in Chennai ,a few jawans were watching him strangely .
He pulled off his mittens and saw a red and angry finger staring at him ,his medical training made him do the rest involuntarily ,he yelled for mittulal his man Friday ,and demanded hot water in a thermos, he then dipped his fingers into the scalding water almost burning his skin ,within moments he could feel the pain subside and a slow tingle gave him the joy of life ,then on he was into a frenzy of dipping and getting his thermos filled from the powerful stove carried by the jawans to make tea being an officer helped in such situations as he could get things done .
It seemed like aeons before the scout turned up ,the doctor trudged ahead whimpering at times with a finger in the thermos and mittulal dutifully carrying his bags till they reached point C.
He fell into the camp bed exhausted and drained but in the back of his mind he was laughing yes he had made it and with all his fingers intact ,soon a wide grin lighted his dark face !
Sivaganga made it to Siachen but it was a cold sweat indeed !
( this is a true story recounted by my army friend with name changed of course )