NORTH SIKKIM: 1997-98

I left Kohima, a far mature person than the one who had reported there. 20 PUNJAB was in North Sikkim (Tibet Plateau), a super high altitude area, considered tough by a lot of people. Walking in rarified atmosphere can be difficult. My battalion headquarters was at a height of 17000 feet. The tree line finished at approximately 12000 feet. My company headquarters was at 19000 feet.

Wikipedia about High Altitude

To Get an idea about things I have quoted from the Wikipedia.

Atmospheric pressure decreases exponentially with altitude while the O2 fraction remains constant to about 100 km (62 mi), so pO2 decreases exponentially with altitude as well. It is about half of its sea-level value at 5,000 m (16,000 ft), the altitude of the Everest Base Camp, and only a third at 8,848 m (29,029 ft), the summit of Mount Everest.[8] When pO2 drops, the body responds with altitude acclimatization.[9]

Mountain medicine recognizes three altitude regions which reflect the lowered amount of oxygen in the atmosphere:[10]

·        High altitude = 1,500–3,500 metres (4,900–11,500 ft)

·        Very high altitude = 3,500–5,500 metres (11,500–18,000 ft)

·        Extreme altitude = above 5,500 metres (18,000 ft)

Travel to each of these altitude regions can lead to medical problems, from the mild symptoms of acute mountain sickness to the potentially fatal high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE). The higher the altitude, the greater the risk.[11] Expedition doctors commonly stock a supply of dexamethasone, to treat these conditions on site.[12] Research also indicates elevated risk of permanent brain damage in people climbing to above 5,500 m (18,045 ft).[13]

Humans have survived for two years at 5,950 m (19,520 ft, 475 millibars of atmospheric pressure), which is the highest recorded permanently tolerable altitude; the highest permanent settlement known, La Rinconada, is at 5,100 m (16,700 ft).[14]

At altitudes above 7,500 m (24,600 ft, 383 millibars of atmospheric pressure), sleeping becomes very difficult, digesting food is near-impossible, and the risk of HAPE or HACE increases greatly.

Reporting at North Sikkim

To reach my battalion headquarters involved going through three stages of acclimatization: 9000 ft (6 days), 12000 ft (4 days) and 15000 ft (4 days). At Stage-1 camp I met Capt Sanjay. He found that I was carrying shorts and was mentally prepared to run. He explained to me the instructions of high altitude areas. He was a qualified instructor for mountaineering and had done 2-3 expeditions. For 4 days I abided totally by what Sanjay had told. I walked gently approximately one and a half hour each day. Fifth day I decided to follow my instinct and wore shorts and ran continuously for over an hour covering over 8 km. I felt good. I never bothered for Army regulations about high altitude training thereafter.

We are advised to have a light dinner because a heavy meal would reduce the space for lungs to inhale the air. I used to feel hungry at night because I was doing good cardio exercises (walk & not run at 17000 and 19000 ft) in the morning and lifting weights in the evening. I consulted Sub Nasib Singh, my senior JCO (Services Hammer thrower). He said, “Sahab thik se khana khao. Kuch nahin hoga” I took his advice.

Medical Issue- “You are Taking It Lightly”!

My normal BP even today is 70/110 & resting pulse rate is below 60. It was something like this then too. It is considered normal for the BP to rise at such heights. My BP on the first day at 17000 ft was 60/90. I have a problem of irregular pulse. In this area another thing happened my pulse used to get lost after 7-8 beats and reappear after sometime. I have a problem of excessive sweating and this causes me to get dehydrated earlier than normal. If I get up suddenly from a state of lying down or even sitting, then I get dizzy. This condition got accentuated. Our battalion doctor told me that I had a medical problem. He advised me to drink more water, increase sugar and salt intake. I said “Fine I will do it”. He found me taking this issue in an abnormal manner. He said, “You are taking it lightly sir”. I asked him a question, “What should I do, keep worrying about it & actually fall sick? You give me medical advice & I will follow it” After a series of investigations a medical specialist told me to forget about the entire investigations. I told him, “I never bothered about it in the first place!”

War-game at Gangtok

In a war-game we have a Red Land (implying China), a Blue Land (implying India) and a control headquarters to give decisions on the conduct of the war-game. In a war game at Gangtok I was part of the control headquarters. It was aimed to ratify the defensive plans of Blue Land against an offensive by Red Land. The control headquarters was headed by a Deputy Commander of a brigade, a competent officer. We had the entire information about Blue Land. Red Land’s plans had not been received. 5-6 competent Majors were working in the control headquarters. I was one of them. I knew the defensive plans of the brigade that I had to control. This had taken me barely a day. Before the Red Land plans were approved by the General and the war-game begun, there was hardly anything to do. The Divisional Headquarters Library had a good collection of Asterix Comics. Probably someone with my kind of child-like tastes had been in charge of it sometime. Whenever our boss visited our operations room he found the other Majors doing some work & I was found reading only Asterix Comics. He felt that I was the one wrong guy given in his team. He told me as much & threatened me that he was giving me one day to know all the defensive plans of the brigade I was controlling by the next morning and he will take my test on the subject. I told him to test me then and there and why give me an entire day because I already knew what was expected of me. He tested me. In a matter of 10 min we developed professional respect and friendship. I became his advisor and remained so throughout the war-game.

The Artillery Brigade Commander is generally made the Red Land Commander. He made a plan which lacked cohesion but was in accordance with what the Brigadier perceived that the General liked. When the plan was presented the General found it to be quite poor. His remarks made the Brigadier cry. The plan was shelved. The General appointed his GSO-1 (Operations), a smart professional, assisted by me to make a new plan. Thus two officers replaced a group of officers assembled by the Artillery Brigade. We presented the plan the next day. The General made his usual sarcastic comments but suggested no changes to the plan of Red Land. This plan was approved and the war-game conducted accordingly. For over 48 hours all involved in the war-game remained awake when it was conducted. It was an educative experience.  

Officiating as Brigade Major

Ajay, my course-mate and good friend was the Brigade Major (BM). He fell ill and an urgent relief was needed. The General suggested to the Brigadier that I was suited for the job. Thus I officiated as the BM for over 3 months. During this time, I wrote the “Anti-tank Defensive Plan of Tibet Plateau” which was accepted by the higher HQ. Also in this period we had a serious tragedy at Thangu. I had written about it earlier.

Senior Command (SC) Course

From Sikkim I went to attend the SC Course, meant to train us to command a battalion as CO, a dream which all junior officers have. I will talk about it in the next blog.

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