Noel Ellis's Official Blog

I wield the pen to explore the vastness of the human mind

Tag: HIGH ALTITUDE

MY LADAKH DIARIES

MY LADAKH DIARIES

 

My climate (acclimatisation) at Leh went off well and I was ready to take on the mountains. For a Mech officer to get posted to high altitude meant one more medal. To earn it, I had to spend 180 days excluding breaks which I thought would be a cake walk. The reality was way off and I shall share how tough life is subsequently.

Early morning we started in a 1ton for Tangtse. It could take 6-8 hours, I was told. All was going well till we passed by a canal. I saw huge layered ice slabs neatly piled like files in a rack. A thought passed my mind, that why they want ice slabs in such weather. I looked at the Indus which was smoothly flowing, shimmering and meandering in the valley below but got no answers. Then I thought they must be transporting ice to Leh. Such weird thoughts get sorted out very fast. I got to know later that the canal had frozen in winter, ice was still melting and water goes to the Stakna hydel project. How stupid I must have felt. Bloody mechie come down to mother earth, I told myself.

As we were crossing a causeway near Karu, my excitement knew no bounds when I saw a BMP near the Indus river bed. My imagination started running wild as the valley was broad enough to take a Combat Group. I had also heard that a Mech Battalion and an Armoured Squadron were located there. I was on home turf kinds and without even reaching Tangtse, I was already making plans to take on the Chinese with anti-tank missiles.

Karu onwards the climb started getting steep. I, who had driven a 1 Ton up every sand dune of Jaisalmer District, now started to feel the presence of the mighty mountains. The scene was barren but sublime. The drive was bumpy and kept getting bumpier. Soon the road disappeared and converted into a track. Our vehicle started skidding. The sound of the engine in constant low gear was telling me something. Sitting behind, I was not able to see the valley below but when suddenly our driver braked and we started to slide backwards and the damn thing turned away from the mountain wall. My instinct to jump out was at its peak. Luckily the tailboard hit the vehicle following us & we came to a halt. All of us jumped doing a kind of obstacle course as the vehicles were kissing each other.

My heart skipped a beat when I peeped over the side into the valley. There were more than 10 odd vehicle chassis crumpled and crushed half buried in a graveyard of sorts. My goodness Lord I said, today we would have been minced. Our driver quickly got out, put a rock under the tyre and opened the tool box. He pulled out some chains. They were very funny looking things and I assumed that they would be for towing but to my surprise I found them to be anti-skid chains. Water had frozen and made a thick slate of ice on the track. Every year I was told that one odd vehicle goes down this slope. Frankly, I got the shivers down my spine. Whatever parts can be recovered from the vehicle is recovered and rest is destroyed in-situ. I shuddered but put up a brave face. The cold now started to grip me; I wore my coat Parka thereon.

I was shocked to see two drivers trying to burn their vehicles by lighting cotton waste under fuel tanks of their 3 Tons parked on one side. I almost shouted at them but I was told that the diesel has frozen in the pipes, as they must not have put anti-freeze in their tanks. I would have arrested them for destroying government property.

We reached Changla, it is 17,586 feet above mean sea level. It is the second highest mountain pass after Khardungla. The GREF teams keep it open but in the thick of winters it closes for weeks together. People told me that kindly pray before you leave or else Changla Baba will keep calling you back. The driver knew that I was a novice; he opened the glove box and handed over a pack of Parle-G and an aggarbatti to me. I thanked him as my “batti” was really band for obvious reasons.

The toughest part was yet to come which was down hill to Zingral. I could see the TCP but the road was multiple Zs, a zig-zag kind of landscape. On the first hairpin bend I saw a 3 ton in its grave. The officer sitting next to me narrated the story that it was a 3 Ton carrying CSD stores of a regiment which went down. He was part of the rescue mission. They told me that day every local Ladakhi they met was drunk. The reason was this vehicle was carrying about 150 cases of the most precious liquid on the other side of Changla. All bottles broke on impact and the liquid froze. The local fellows, after rescuing the men got busy sucking on ice and carried chunks of frozen liquor home. The drink was definitely on the rocks. In Jaisalmer one craved for ice, here one just needed rum and a glass.

It was close to dusk when we rolled into our battalion. The welcome board said “Second to None” with Snow Lions painted on its sides. I looked up and thanked the Lord and also said Changla Baba ki Jai in my mind.

I was cold, fatigued, disoriented and dizzy with a slight headache. I just wanted to have a hot cup of tea and I wasn’t disappointed as a jawan said “TASHI DELEG” & poured piping hot tea from a Chinese thermos in steel glasses. I rolled the glass vigorously in my hands. With one sip, I was already feeling better.

How many such trips would be needed to please Changla Baba? I wondered!!!!!!!!!!

JAI HIND

© Noel Ellis

FIRST DAY IN LEH

FIRST DAY IN LEH

 I was posted to a new battalion on deputation based at Durbuk, (Tangtse) in 1990. It was in high altitude. Cold, frozen, snowing and icy was the impression in my mind. I was told it has a rear near Leh. “Rear” had a very different impression in my mind.

I was posted in Jaisalmer then and having measured the hot & sandy deserts by all means of transport available in the army including by foot I was looking forward to this change.

Zozila pass had not opened so I had to travel by air from Chandigarh to Leh. I was shoved into an IL-76. I saw this huge aircraft up close for the first time. It had been converted into a double Decker and I got a seat near the tailboard. Engines started and that whine was getting to scare me a little. We rolled off. With the first “jhatka” when the brakes are released I almost fell off. Soon the ears started getting blocked. I kept praying not realising I shall be jumping with parachutes from this plane later in life.

A 45 minute flight was an experience in itself. Then there was a thud, it was touchdown at Leh. We taxied and parked and as the tail door opened I saw a mountain of sand. I said to myself, hope I have landed at the right place. A very smart looking NCO with a red beret received me. We were off to a transit camp in a very shinny one tonner. We reached the site and I was taken inside a mess.

One had to bend to get in. Two odd bulbs were glowing in that room, flickering with the fluctuating voltage. They used to go dim and then flicker and then suddenly emit a bright light. I saw four people sitting on the table playing bridge. A few Gorkha looking people wearing torn sandow baniyans and combat pants were serving drinks and snacks. The bar man had a weird haircut with locks of curly hair over his ears. He was also chewing gum, unheard of in messes I suppose. I was not used to the “Pinja” way of life. I wished the crowd, they acknowledged as if saying one more “murga” has come and continued playing.

I was feeling cold in the month of April and watching those waiters in sleeveless baniyans I was getting the shivers. My feet were getting cold too and I was itching to go to the loo. The waiter guided me to a bathroom where I saw the Indian style thing. The door latch was a wire cable which one had to hook to a nail. No flush and I also noticed that the window glass was actually a transparent plastic sheet with which we used to cover maps. Water was freezing; sinks were there but without taps. Boy, I was in for adventure. I looked up to God, as I was closer to him by 11000 feet and asked him to bless me.

I came back and took a seat when someone said “saab ko drink lagao”. I said it’s too early, he said how you dare disobey the commanding officer. The waiter was already on my head with a whisky-pani. I asked for soda and he gave me a dirty look as if such things were never heard in these valleys. My mind floated back to Jaisalmer where Naik Padmasanan L our unit soda factory NCO could be hauled up for not filling adequate gas in the soda bottle.

I was a rum drinker so got it changed, took a swig and felt a little warm. In the mean time I found one waiter lighting up a contraption which I later came to know is called a “bukhari” (Kerosene heater). My feet were as cold as ice as the sky was overcast. The rum gave me a little pep but the bukhari boosted my morale. I was in summer uniform and constantly getting goose pimples which I think the mess Havildar noticed and from somewhere he brought an outer of a “coat parka”. I wanted to stand up and kiss him for his thoughtful gesture.

The barman was refilling the glasses without anyone even saying a word. I was already feeling little  tipsy by midday. The CO got up to take a leak & shook hands with me. He told me to enjoy my drink and left. Bridge continued. At 1.30 pm a person came with soup. It smelt good and I had a sip and it tasted really good. I asked the waiter what soup it is. He said “Haddi ka soup”. I was taken aback, “kis ki haddi ka soup”. Later I found out it was chicken soup.

Lunch was laid and I was feeling glad already. I ate well but the foursome had their “saunf” on the bridge table itself. We exchanged pleasantries during lunch. They told me to do as the Mess Havildar tells me to do. Then they got glued to their dealt hands with toothpicks stuck in their teeth.

I was taken to my room and given a sleeping bag. The mess Havildar said saab “aap sho jao”, dinner will be served in the room. I being from 17 Mech Recce and Support and that too Tracked was taken aback that in JA-SALE-MER even in midst of summers, we were told to report in suit and tie to the mess. Mess Havildar replied Sir; aap ka “climate” nahi hua hai is liye. Baki shaab log climate kar chuke hain. He meant to say that you have walked the earth more than you had to on the first day of acclimatisation in Leh, others are old hands. I thanked my stars and knocked off in deep slumber.

This was on first day of my posting to high the altitude desert. The next stage was at 13000 feet in the battalion after four days. The foursome also said “In the Land of Lama don’t become a Gamma”. What did they mean? I kept wondering!!!!!!!!!

JAI HIND

© Noel Ellis

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