Courage and camaraderie: Indian Army expedition climbs over 18,000 feet to recover bodies of three soldiers

Members of the High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) undertook the heroic mission to retrieve the bodies of three Havildar instructors who were buried in a deadly avalanche
The soldiers were buried in an avalanche nine months ago (Photo | Special arrangement)
The soldiers were buried in an avalanche nine months ago (Photo | Special arrangement)

NEW DELHI: In an extraordinary display of courage and camaraderie, the Indian Army has recovered the bodies of three soldiers after undertaking a gruelling expedition at more than 18,000 feet, reaffirming its commitment to leave no man behind, dead or alive

Members of the High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) undertook the heroic mission to retrieve the bodies of three Havildar instructors who were trapped and buried under the debris of a deadly avalanche while undertaking a mountaineering expedition in October 2023.

Background: A fateful expedition

In July 2023, a 38-member mountaineering expedition from HAWS set out to conquer Mount Kun in the Union Territory of Ladakh. The expedition planned to conquer Mount Kun by October 13, 2023 which is located at treacherous terrain with unpredictable weather in this glaciated region posing immense challenges.

While fixing ropes on a snow wall, the team was struck by a sudden avalanche on October 8 at the height of over 18,000 feet on the Fariabad Glacier. The expedition made all endeavours to rescue four team members who fell in a crevasse and were buried under a large volume of snow. Despite valiant efforts, the team could only recover the mortal remains of Lance Naik Stanzin Targais. The bodies of Havildar Rohit, Havildar Thakur Bahadur Ale and Naik Gautam Rajbanshi remained trapped deep within the crevasse.

Operation RTG: The quest to bring them home

Refusing to leave their brothers behind, HAWS launched a meticulously planned mission, codenamed Operation RTG, on June 18, 2024. The mission was named in honour of the missing soldiers -- Rohit, Thakur and Gautam. The expedition consisted of 88 expert mountaineers.

A road head camp was established about 40 km short of Khumbathang for deposition of specialised mountaineering and rescue equipment, special clothing, survival kits, tents, meals, etc. Two helicopters were also placed on standby to ferry the mortal remains of the bravehearts and for evacuation of the rescue team, if required.

A base camp was established at a distance of approximately 13 km from the road head at a height of about 14790 feet. Maj Gen Bruce Fernandez, Commandant, HAWS, stationed himself at the base camp, overseeing the rescue efforts.

The incident site was approximately 3 km from the base camp. Every precaution was taken to ensure the safety of the search party.

A glimmer of hope

The first significant breakthrough came when the mortal remains of Havildar Rohit Kumar (Dogra Scouts) were found below around 30 feet of snow and ice in the crevasse on July 4. The mortal remains were transported to Kumbathang by helicopter. This reinvigorated the team members as they continued their search. Braving the challenges posed by extremities of cold and terrain, they went 10 feet deeper in the crevasse, where the mortal remains of Havildar Thakur Bahadur Ale (Gorkha Rifles) were recovered on July 7. The quest for the mortal remains of Naik Gautam Rajbanshi (Assam Regiment) went on, as the team's resolve to bring their comrades home remained unwavering. The mission's aim was finally accomplished on July 8.

The mortal remains have been transported to the respective families with full military honours, bringing closure to the loved ones, who had patiently waited to bid a final farewell to the bravehearts.

Toughest mission of my life: Brigadier SS Shekhawat

Brigadier SS Shekhawat, the Deputy Commandant of HAWS, personally led the search operation, emphasizing the mission's importance.

He is no stranger to the formidable challenges of mountaineering, having climbed Mount Everest thrice and been awarded the Kirti Chakra for one of the toughest operations conducted by the Indian Army.

"We dug for nine days straight, 10-12 hours every day at 18,700 feet," he recounted. "Tons of snow and ice were removed." The gruelling effort tested the resilience of the entire team, both physically and mentally.

Despite the immense hardships, Brigadier Shekhawat expressed a profound sense of fulfillment which he says was the toughest mission of my life, physically, mentally, and emotionally. He added, "But I am satisfied that we have retrieved them. Rohit has been cremated with full military honours. Thakur and Gautam are being sent to their kin where they will receive the befitting last rites the soldiers deserve."

Spirit of HAWS

The operation exemplifies the core values of HAWS and the Indian Army -- the relentless pursuit of excellence, unwavering commitment to comrades, and the ethos of leaving no man behind. The extraordinary efforts of HAWS serve as a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made by our armed forces and the unbreakable bonds forged in the crucible of duty and honour.

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