ISLAMABAD — The Pakistan Army has raced to rescue any survivors of a huge avalanche which it says has buried more than 100 soldiers at a base in Pakistani-administered Kashmir
The avalanche took place at 6:00 a.m. local time April 4. The base, situated in the Gayari district, is near the Siachen Glacier in the Karakorum mountains separating Pakistan from China. Avalanches do occur in the region and regularly claim lives. However, this latest avalanche is unprecedented both in scale and location.
Avalanches normally occur near forward posts inhabited by far fewer troops and have killed a great many over the years. The rescue effort is underway but is hampered by difficult conditions.
Brian Cloughley, an analyst and former Australian defense attaché to Islamabad, is familiar with some of the conditions found in the region.
“Life is harsh at these altitudes, and rescue operations will experience difficulties we can only imagine,” he said.
The rescuers will face considerable challenges not only from the weather, but altitude-related fatigue and danger of further avalanches, Cloughey said.
“Use of helicopters creates reverberating noise, which could trigger another slide, yet it is essential they be employed to move rescue teams around and get any survivors out of the area quickly,” he said. “That’s a very difficult decision, but I think we can rely on the commanders on the ground to decide what is best for their soldiers.”
The Pakistani Army relies on the Mi-17 ‘Hip’ for most of its high altitude operations. At higher elevations, the Army employs the AS350 Ecureuil/Squirrel, and Eurocopter AS355 Ecureuil 2, which have taken over from the venerable SA 315B Lama.
Speed is of the essence, Cloughey said, but will be tempered by the effects high altitude has on the human body.
“The main thing is to get people digging down, because there could well be some people trapped in pockets of air, but that is much easier said than done,” he said.
“Where do you start? And you just can’t whip in reinforcements, because they won’t be acclimatized, so all the work has got to be done by those already in position — and it is extremely tiring to undertake physical labor at that height.”
The trapped soldiers are from the Northern Light Infantry, which played a prominent part in the 1999 fighting that raged between Indian and Pakistani forces around the Line of Control bisecting Kashmir between Pakistan and India near the town of Kargil.
The Siachen Glacier is the location of the world’s highest battlefield. Pakistani and Indian troops have faced-off and occasionally clashed at altitudes as high as 22,000 feet since Indian troops occupied the heights overlooking the glacier in 1984.