The plumes of towering clouds above Changu Lake made for some impressive
photographic props; like the 2577 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 ten-fifteen 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

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
acclimatization 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, 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 off.

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 was awakened by the sound of pickaxe and shovel breaking
working: went out and saw almost fifteen-twenty 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 2580 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 served 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 Chetwood Credo followed by all 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”

[Original post in DBPost in January 2019 which has since been broken and hence reposting here]

DISCLAIMER: The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article. The author carries the responsibility for citing and/or licensing of images utilized within the text.