How difficult was it at Giyari!

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Rehman Bilal & Fawad Ashraf

Giyari last year was caught unaware and hit in pre-dawn timings by a crumbling mountainside of huge ice slabs several meters thick. This frozen waste also brought along with it gigantic boulders weighing tons which were floating, rolling and gathering speed in powdery snow. Inaccessible, highly varied terrain did not leave scope for accurate forecasting. Finally, the snowy disaster exacted its price from the loyal, brave guardians of our frontiers. The tragedy that hit Giyari was the work of a snow slide of a scale that easily qualified as the most extreme case both according to the US as well as European standards.

The breadth of the avalanche was over a kilometer, the valley is about one kilometer wide and the height of the accumulated snow varied from 25 to 65 meters. This makes 40 million cubic meters of snow. It would total up to slightly less than half a billion cubic feet of accumulated snow and debris. The problem with this U-shaped, disaster-struck valley was that the excavated snow could only be dumped downstream. Summarily, clearing the entire area before the then approaching winter was a physical impossibility. Since the entire mass of snow could not be shifted, digging was confined to selected areas. This was possible through vertical shafts or, tunnels in the vertical plane or on an incline. The selection of digging sites had to be done based on intimate knowledge of the layout of the camp as well as satellite photography. Fortunately, all possible means were employed for making sound decisions.

The problem of digging out of bodies was compounded by the fact that slab avalanches have tremendous speeds. Scientists have recorded speeds up to 250 miles per hour. In face of such a powerful natural phenomenon, personnel and equipment must have been dislocated like pieces of straw. It was logically concluded that due to such unpredictable displacements, bodies might not be found at the projected sites. Despite these problems and after the efforts of more than one year most of the bodies of shaheed soldiers have been recovered.

It was also worth analysis as to what happened to machinery at such a high altitude. Giyari is located at over 13,000 feet above sea level. At that altitude, the air becomes thin and barometric pressure falls to half. As is well known, diesel engines generally have a compression ratio of around 1 to 16. In view of the physical change, the output of the engines drops dramatically and machines lose power. In high altitude areas of advanced countries, engines have been suitably modified to induct air through compressors to ensure that air pressure is maintained at one barometer. Inadequacy of such equipment had also curtailed speedy progress of the rescue operation.

In addition to problems related to equipment, the snow deposited by the avalanche itself was undergoing change. The snow, ice and rocks that had accumulated in the valley covered the termination point of the glacier. Accumulated snow was also getting converted into a glacier. This implied that packed snow would become rock hard and machinery would not be able to effectively operate in the area. It also implied that all the activities that took place in a glacier would also occur in that snow bed like formation of crevices and glacial movement towards the snout, which was the end of the glacier.

Giyari’s high altitude rescue operation was being conducted in an extremely hostile environment. Due to lack of oxygen, personnel easily got out of breath and were exhausted within minutes. It was also very difficult for soldiers to use their personal tools and equipment because of extremely cold weather. Due to extremes of environment, the human brain’s concentration and coordination between mind and body was reduced. Men could also get, and many did get, frost bite due to exposure to cold temperatures. Men also had to wear dark goggles to protect themselves from ultra violet rays that could cause snow blindness at that height.

Besides foregoing problems, there were generally medical complications leading to loss of appetite as human blood becomes thicker due to addition of red blood corpuscles as a result of the body reaction to make up for oxygen deficiency. Diseases related to oxygen starvation could also occur, and it did occur. In addition, over exertion could lead to a deadly disease called edema. In this case, the patient has to be evacuated to a lower altitude. If that is not done, the patient can lose his life. Alternately, edema can inflict irreversible damage to the patient’s body or brain. In high altitude conditions, human heart palpitation can also rise dramatically and there can even be cardiac arrests. All these elements had factored in the Giyari recovery efforts.

Throughout the year, all through day and night, personnel, dogs, detection equipment, excavation equipment and dumpers were working to their limits. Ironically, at such high altitudes, many of the daily results were sometime reversible. Excavated pits continuously filled by powdery snow during blizzards. Similarly, the recurring freezing and melting process continuously hardened the snow brought down by the avalanche.

Dawn to dusk, soldiers kept working non-stop to retrieve the bodies of their comrades-in-uniform. All these efforts continued much after the extinction for the faintest ray of hope that any of the victims was alive. Human lives were lost in avalanches primarily due to injuries, asphyxiation and low temperatures. The glaciated graveyard of Gyari was certainly unique. Amongst those mosses and lichens were buried the proud sons of our soil who dared awesome natural phenomena in the line of duty by sacrificing their lives.

In the lower reaches of Giyari valley, some bushes have now started sprouting and budding. Nowadays, there is a fine fragrance in the air. In the late spring that characterizes the area, wild roses have begun to blossom. These are the famous roses for which Siachen has been named. The wild, pink roses look beautiful from a distance and their fragrance is intoxicating. Despite their allure, they grow on thorny bushes and cannot be easily picked. Those roses signify the ambiance of our shuhada (martyrs) as also the determination that they are not an easy target for the enemy. They can only be appreciated from a distance but cannot adorn decadent lawns.

This fiercely independent bush only grows and flourishes on the fringes of Karakorum’s glaciers. Its thorns deter alien intrusion aimed at picking the flowers and attempts to do so will result in bloodied fingers. This is the message for all those harbouring ill intentions against Pakistan. Those gallant soldiers laid down their lives defending the frontiers of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. As we have observed Yaum-e-Shuhada on April 30, let us pledge and prove it through our words and deeds that we honour and cherish the ideals and honest commitment of our shuhada and ensure that our green flag with the proud crescent and star is always flying high.