Lieutenant Abhinav Trivedi checked his Seiko Astron GPS watch and squirmed in his seat. The dial showed 12th December — 11:35. Only a few minutes ago Dhruv — the advanced light helicopter of Indian army was cruising comfortably at 90 knots amidst a light snow fall but now it was trembling like a leaf under the impact of a terrible blizzard. It was snowing quite heavily, visibility was dropping fast, and the stormy winds were making Dhruv swerve and bounce in mid-air as if being swung by a cable. Abhinav was overawed by the unexpected turn of the events. He was forewarned about the ferocious and unpredictable weather of Siachen, but nothing could have prepared him for what he was experiencing now.
Siachen is the 70 kilometers long glacier in the eastern Karakorum range in the Himalayas, sometimes referred to as the ‘Third Pole’. Siachen is famous for two reasons. First- it is the second largest glacier in the world; and second- it is the world’s highest battlefield. This is the place where for the last three decades, the two neighbors: India and Pakistan have remained entangled in a frozen conflict. It is said that in this cold and inhospitable terrain often the biggest enemy of a soldier is the weather.
The Dhruv helicopter was on a sortie from the army headquarters at Leh to a remote outpost in Siachen where the Indian engineers had built the world’s highest helipad. Named after a gritty Ladakhi soldier- Havildar Sonam, the Sonam post served as an administrative and reinforcement base to sustain the soldiers at the northern outposts of Kajiranga and Bana.
The winds picked up even more, and Abhinav strained to look out of the window pane and sighed — the window pane was white, opaque with frost and snow. He removed the over-sized headphones
covering his ears; the howling sound of the winds and ominous thunder in the sky made him swallow hard. Unable to restrain himself any longer, he leaned forward and touched the pilot’s shoulder.
The pilot looked back briefly at his lone passenger, removed his own headset, then asked in a loud voice, “What?”.
“Weather is deteriorating rapidly. We must hurry.” Abhinav had to shout to make himself audible.
The pilot shook his head in disagreement. “We can’t go any further. We are turning back!” He yelled.
Brigadier Naveen Kumar had personally briefed him about the importance of the mission — the message he carried was vital, young lives and the country’s honour were at stake. He had to reach the post at any cost.
“No! We can’t return!” he exclaimed, an expression of concern and urgency appearing on his face. His outburst elicited no response from the pilot who was already busy with the instrument panel.
“Sir, I know you have been flying in Siachen for a long time. What do you think? Can we reach the post?” Abhinav added a bit desperately.
Squadron leader Vikram Singh Rathore gave his young passenger another glance and a frown appeared on his face.
“Actually we have not been introduced. May I know your name, officer?” He asked in a harsh tone.
“I am Lieutenant Abhinav Trivedi of the Mountain Strikes Corps.”
“And may I know the reason for your desperation to reach Sonam Post?”
“I am on a special mission, Sir. I am carrying crucial intelligence input for the commander of the post. I can assure you that it is a matter of immense importance!”
Vikram hesitated before speaking, he could sense the urgency in the young man’s voice. Being the senior most pilot of Indian Air Force’s iconic helicopter unit ‘Siachen Pioneers’, Rathore was proud of having braved quite a few blizzards in his tenure of more than five years in Siachen. Yet, this storm was in a different league altogether. He decided to be frank.
“Lieutenant Abhinav we can’t fly much further in this weather! Dhruv helicopter can indeed fly up to 21000 feet altitude in extreme conditions, a capability very few helicopters in the world possess. But even Dhruv is not powerful enough to brave the winds blowing at a speed more than 100 km per hour. Even if we somehow managed to reach the post, landing would be impossible; the winds will tear the rotor blades!” He shouted while gripping the control stick with both hands.
Abhinav clenched his teeth in frustration. “How far are we from the post?” He suddenly asked, his mind working furiously to find out a solution.
“We are flying at an altitude of 19,500 feet and the post is about five kilometers ahead. We don’t have much time. We will have to turn back before it is too late to even return to the headquarters.” Vikram glanced at the dials on the instrument panel and yelled back a bit angrily.
Abhinav ignored the pilot’s outburst and volleyed yet another question, “How long do you think this blizzard will last? Can we come back tomorrow?”
Vikram reacted sharply, “This is Siachen, young man! Here a blizzard like this usually takes at least a week to die down and I have even heard about the one which lasted a full twenty-two days!”
Abhinav shook his head vehemently; he could not wait for a week! After a long moment, when he stood up from his seat, his mind was made up.
“You are a legend Vikram Sir, I have heard so many stories of your grit, gallantry and flying skills! Our motherland’s honour is at stake, please try to take the helicopter as near to the post as possible. You can fly back when I have jumped out!”
“What?” Vikram cried out in astonishment, “Are you out of your mind?”
When he got no response, he quickly glanced back, the young man was already standing at the door of the cabin with a long rope in his hands.