The plumes of towering clouds above Changu Lake on December 28, 2018, made for some impressive photographic props; like the 2,577 other tourists we made merry, clicked pictures, took rounds of the frozen glacial lake riding on the yak and then the first flakes of pure white snow wafted down by the cold breeze – the crowd went into a hysteria: taking selfies, videos, pictures, posing went into overdrive. Business went as usual for another 10-15 minutes before copius snowfall started. We rushed to the shop renting us thermal wear and waited for our driver to return – there’s no mobile network in Changu area so obviously no means to contact him. Finally, he came and after waiting for a while for the intensity to lessen, we started on our journey downhill to Gangtok.
The dry road in the morning had been battered with a thick blanket of snow and almost all tourist vehicles (with no chain in their tyres for traction) imperiled themselves as they moved downhill slowly, facing difficulty maintaining alignment and most importantly negotiating the hideous hair pin bends.
We had prayer on our lips as our vehicle slowly made its way through the icy roads. It was not even five kilometres downhill than our vehicle stopped as all other vehicles ahead of us lay disoriented in the snow and our driver advised us to leave the vehicles and start walking. It was the last thing on our mind but we grudgingly agreed knowing we might freeze to death if we stay in our vehicle and it was also getting dark.
And so started our long five kilometres trek in icy roads downhill to India’s Army’s acclimatisation centre – 236 Transit Camp: lost count of the number of times we tumbled and fell, labored to take baby steps searching for fresh snow to avoid slipping. Every time we met an Army man in our trek and asked him how far was the camp, the response was always a diplomatic: its just round the corner.
As we trudged down and finally reached the Transit Camp, what struck me was the place had already been prepared to host us! Six buildings housing the jawans had been completely vacated for the ladies and children amongst tourists and this is with mattresses and blankets. Men had been provided a nearby camp area and Gun Repairing Workshop for night stay where I found blankets and sleeping bags provided to all occupants. Feeling claustrophobic and with my body paining from the series of tumbles and falls, trudged to the Medical Ward where I found two able lady doctors with assistance from a battery of male colleagues looking into all cases of concern. People were being administered oxygen or being treated for hypothermia. I got checked for my pulse rate and administered some pain relieving tablets along with oxygen.
I was still concerned about my wife and son who had moved into one of the six buildings: didn’t know in what condition they were in and whether everything was fine. After feeling a touch better, I moved out of the medical ward to search for them and even announced their name over the microphone; it was then that I found them in the queue for dinner. Warm khichdi, chapatti, fruits for dinner was more than any of us had expected after what we had gone through. There were jawans forming a human chain ready to help tourists from tripping on the icy floor enroute to the Dining Room.
Aggrieved and concerned fellow tourists kept requesting Army Officers for their BSNL mobile phones to reach for their relatives and friends and never saw an Army Officer refusing even once!
After looking for a quiet place (chair) to sit and doze off, I was awakened in the night by severe nausea and feeling of puking. Mustered strength to head towards the Medical Ward again but was stopped at the door by a Jawan (learnt Jawans had been assigned round the night over two hour slots to guard each building where the trourists were occupying) who advised me not to go out in sub zero temperatures (it was -16 degrees outside to be precise) and brought me some tablet and warm water. The short time I waited for the warm water, I was shivering to the bone and felt like I would pass out.
I cannot thank the unknown jawan enough who went out in the chillingly cold night to get me tablets and a glass of warm water to soothe my high altitude sickness.
As we kept shifting listlessly between half sleep and half dizziness, little did we know that rescue vehicles of the Army were operating the whole night, getting stranded tourists to the safety of the transit camp.
In the morning, I was awakened by the sound of pickaxe and shovel breaking working: went out and saw almost 15-20 Army jawans engaged in clearing the ice from the compound so that people don’t fall while walking. Soon there were announcements for breakfast and people queued up for poori and pickle – mind boggled at the humongous efforts required to make pooris for all of 2,580 rescued tourists !
We learnt roads were getting cleared both downhill and uphill and by 1-2 pm vehicles stuck near Changu Lake would be able to come down. It was again a very well managed exercise by the Army with people not relying/waiting for their own vehicles but hopping on to whatever vehicle was available on a first-come-first-serve basis. Senior citizens and children were specially ferried in Army jeeps upto the point of vehicle pickups.
…As our return vehicle quickly ate up the miles downhill, we sighed a deep sense of relief that we were still alive but at the same time gratitude swelled in our hearts that had it not been for the Army, we would have died a painful death caught in the throes of a remorseless wilderness. Kept looming in my eyes the motto of one of the battalion units of the Army that had vacated its quarters and berths for hapless tourists:
“ The Safety, honour and welfare of your Country comes first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the people you lead come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety comes last, always and every time”
(The author is an NRI working in GCC who was part of the group of tourists caught up in snowfall in Nathu La/Changu Lake)