An enthusiastic Commanding Officer takes his Special Force unit on their annual mountain training programme.
The annual desert and mountain training in the unit was a ritual adhered to in all sanctity. The fate of so many men on either occasion hung on a slender thread in the Commanding Officer’s hand. If the Colonel happened to be a little outdoor oriented, with a touch of the artist in him, all one could do was to sit there in helpless astonishment and watch him, using bold strokes of his pencil, reduce a three feet by three feet map to a Husain masterpiece.
The great paradox is that a flick of the wrist in such a case can mean a millimetre on the map, the consequence of which in the mountains can reduce a body of fit and healthy men to abject misery. In fact, given a pencil and a map, he was like a five-year-old, making circles larger and larger with every stroke. Frankly, if I hadn’t been one of his officers who had to follow those lines on the ground, I could have found the whole thing quite amusing. He would stop his bizarre designs, only when one of us had mustered enough courage to interrupt his cartographic creativity.
“Beg your pardon, Sir. That should warm up the boys for a start. Any further planning can be done on the way.”
“Yeah,” he would grunt, “just one more point. What’s the height Adjutant?” “Excellent. There’s a little temple on top and it should make an excellent view. Any other points gentlemen?”
“Well what about logistics Sir?” piped up one of the officers. –
“Logistics! Don’t use that word!” said the Colonel, absolutely appalled at the question. “It does not apply to the Special Forces. Man pack, self-contained.”
And on that unholy note most of the briefings would end. So that was the Commanding Officer of the Special Force unit I had the privilege to serve in. For the annual mountain training that year, the Colonel decided to take the unit climbing from 5000ft from a place called Bearh in the Palampur district, to Billing and then onwards along the river to a pass at 17000ft, on the other side of which lies Bara Bangal. Mark you, it was not the height that was indomitable, but the incredible time limits to achieve it. A paltry eight days to touch and be back in the unit.
The Regimental Medical Officer (KMO) was positively alarmed. “This goes against the ethics of mountaineering. What about acclimatisation Sir?”
“Acclimatisation? Never heard the word Doc. Frankly, I can’t even pronounce it. This is a Special Force outfit, not a NCC girls’ battalion.” growled the Colonel his brow darkening at such a stupid question.
It was just at the end of March when the mornings and evenings in the mountains retain the chill of the receding winter. In the permanent shadows of the trees and nalas, the snow still sat with little streams trickling out from under, to water soggy brown patches of land now rich with wild potatoes. Flora and fauna changed as we ascended higher. Pine trees gave way to Rhododendrons and finally, to thick Deodar forests. The melting snows from the heights discharged a surfeit of water turning the dry nalas into raging torrents. It was a heartening sight, with no time to enjoy it though. For the rapid pace of our climbing was like the German blitzkrieg of Western Europe. The first day we touched Palachak at 7000ft and the next day we were encamped at 9000ft. Our pace suitably impressed even the locals.
“How far to Kaluchak?” the Colonel asked a local on the way.
“We do it in five. Sahib should take six hours.” he answered.
“Well then we’ll wrap it up in four.” replied the Colonel, flicking his cigarette and picking up his pack.
The local was positively bewildered at this self-affliction and turning to the Colonel, with disquiet and apprehension written over his face, asked in all earnestness if a war had broken out. As we climbed higher, the Colonel’s mood seemed to get better. He was pleased, I guess, at the pace maintained by his boys. Camp on day six was struck at 14500ft. That evening, the Colonel was in very high spirits.
“The men have performed satisfactorily so far,” he said, sitting around the fire. “Not a single drop out. Tomorrow gentlemen, we climb up to the pass.”
“Harry,” he said turning to his senior Team Commander. “I want everybody up and that includes the cook, sweeper and dhobi. To think of it, seventeen thousand may be considered tiny in this country, but then it’s higher than the tallest mountain in Europe. And Harry, issue the boys rum and let them get a good night’s sleep. In the morning we kick off early, so make sure about the administrative bandobast now. A hot cup of tea would do wonders at the top.”
A stream of instructions was directed at each of us. Doctor to carry his medicines, self to bring up the fear, so on and so forth, till his zeal and enthusiasm had fairly charged all of us and a mere climb to a pass had taken the proportions of a final assault to some major peak.
The next day at the crack of dawn a column of men could be seen struggling up the precarious track. As we got higher, quite a few of us developed headaches and breathlessness. It was a fairly demanding ascent and it did stretch most of us to our limits of endurance. In about eleven hours, the remnants of the Army struggled up onto the pass. The Colonel was exuberant and poising himself on a rock he addressed the assembly. The occasion definitely demanded a speech and the men settled around, exultant with their achievement or more, I guess, at having finished the marathon climbing exercise.
“Shabash,” the Colonel began “when the going gets tough the tough get going!”
The men nodded in agreement. Frankly the exultation had given way by now to a severe headache. With your head about to implode, few could have disagreed with the Colonel at that stage. Though the Doctor did sneer and mutter something about the tough reporting sick.
“Yes Doc, you’d like to say something?” continued the Colonel, “What about your medical theories? Didn’t I tell you they don’t apply to us? Shabash again; Harry organise some tea and let the boys have lunch. Where is the bloody camera?”
Just when the first snap was about to he clicked, a faint jingling of bells was heard at a distance. The Colonel’s eyes narrowed and a big crease appeared on his forehead, as he shook his head in thought from side to side like a confused gun dog, trying to catch the direction of the sound.
“High altitude effect Doc, or do you guys also hear it?” asked the Colonel in bewilderment.
All heads had turned right. Not only bells but also the mellifluous sound of music wafted across from the other side of the pass. Because of strong winds and a limitation of space, we were fifty meters below the pass in a bowl, and each of us at the moment had his eyes transfixed on the pass. The Commanding Officer had stopped his monologue; the men fell silent and even the garrulous doctor for a change had no remark to make. This was grotesque, defying logic. Drums, bells and music at this height!
We didn’t have to wait long, for the silhouette of a massive gaddi dog broke the snow-capped crest line. The dog stopped and surveyed the rabble below. He had seen humans before, but this lot didn’t resemble any he had spent time with. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, he stood silently watching us and looking back over his shoulder from time to time to make sure his party hadn’t deserted him. He was followed shortly by a little boy who came and stood next to the dog – as baffled by our presence as we were by his. Following him the local band arrived with one of them, believe it or not, actually playing an antiquated bagpipe! Where he was getting the air to blow into the instrument beats me, for there didn’t seem to be enough around for one’s existence. If this wasn’t enough, up came a pony with a young woman riding it, all resplendent in her bridal finery, with the beaming bridegroom walking beside her.
It was a bloody baaraat at seventeen thousand feet! Incredible, probably the highest barat in the world. Can’t get higher than this, I thought. Then without breaking a note on the pipe or pausing for breath, the entire procession continued on its way down. I could have actually applauded at the spectacle, if it hadn’t been for the Colonel. His expression was undoubtedly a harbinger of ill tidings to follow. Clearing his throat, he continued with his address as if nothing had happened.
“Most of you I notice have headaches and breathing problems, Fiker nahi, it just means a little more time ought to be spent at this height. So now if you gentlemen have rested, we’ll move on!”
“Can all of you see that?” asked the Colonel, pointing to his right, where rising sharply, a few hundred feet above us, loomed the savage form of another peak. “Well gentlemen, lunch-break at that summit!”
Saying this, he promptly picked up his stick and turned away. Behind him a broken, dishevelled body of men with great reluctance and difficulty, lethargically heaved themselves up from wherever they were sprawled and the ant like crawl began again.
“Keep your fingers crossed buddy,” piped up the doctor cheekily,” the locals are not having a marriage reception party up there!”
The humour, however, was lost in the senselessness of the situation, for none of us were in a mood to laugh.
This story was part of the Borderlands section of The Outdoor Journal Spring 2016 edition of the print magazine.