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The bodies of three of the four army personnel, who died after their mountaineering expedition team was struck by an avalanche last October at a height of over 18,300 feet in Ladakh, have been recovered amid challenging conditions, according to defence sources.

The bodies of Havildar Rohit Kumar, Havildar Thakur Bahadur Ale and Naik Gautam Rajbanshi were trapped deep within a crevasse and lay buried under thick layers of ice and large volumes of snow for the past nearly nine months.

A defence source said their bodies were recovered over the last one week. The body of Lance Naik Stanzin Targais was recovered soon after the incident. In July 2023, a 38-member expedition team from the Gulmarg-based High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS), an elite training institution under the Army, had set out to conquer Mt. Kun in the Union Territory of Ladakh. The expedition started on October 1 and the team hoped to conquer the peak by October 13, sources in the defence establishment said.

“The treacherous terrain and unpredictable weather in this glaciated region posed immense challenges. While fixing ropes on a snow wall, the team was struck by a sudden avalanche on October 8 at a height of over 18,300 ft, between Camp 2 and Camp 3 on the Fariabad Glacier. Four members were caught in the deadly slide,” the source said.

The expedition team made all endeavours to rescue those who fell in the crevasse and got buried under large volume of snow and “laid down their lives in true spirit of adventure and quest”, the sources said.
But, in the Army’s spirit of ‘Leaving No Man Behind’, a team of mountaineers of the HAWS then undertook a heroic mission to recover the mortal remains of their fallen comrades, they said.

“Operation RTG (Rohit, Thakur, Gautam)” that sought to retrieve their bodies was launched on June 18.
The mission was named in honour of the missing soldiers and the rescue expedition consisted of 88 expert mountaineers. The sources said 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 and meals.

Two helicopters were also placed on standby to ferry the mortal remains of the bravehearts and for evacuation of the rescue team, if needed. They said a base camp was established at a distance of around 13 km from the road head at a height of about 14,790 feet. Maj Gen Bruce Fernandez, Commandant HAWS, stationed himself at the base camp, overseeing the rescue efforts.

Brig S S Shekhawat, the Deputy Commandant of HAWS, personally led the search operation, emphasising the mission’s importance. “The incident site was approximately 3 km from the base camp. The rescue team faced formidable challenges at an altitude of 18,300 feet. They established a forward base camp on June 25, with two intermediate camps for acclimatisation. Equipped with satellite phones, special tents, and advanced tools, and supported by dedicated helicopters stationed 20 km away, every precaution was taken to ensure the safety of the search party,” a defence source said.

The bodies of the three personnel have been handed over to their families with “full military honours”, bringing closure for the loved ones, who had waited to bid the final farewell to them, they said. Sharing details about the recovery of the bodies, the sources said the first significant breakthrough during the operation came when the mortal remains of Havildar Kumar (Dogra Scouts) were found at about 30 feet of snow and ice in the crevasse on July 4. The mortal remains were transported to Kumbathang by helicopter.

With renewed resolve, the team, braving challenges posed by extremities of cold and terrain, went 10 feet deeper in the crevasse, where mortal remains of Havildar Ale (Gorkha Rifles) were recovered on July 7. Search continued for the mortal remains of Naik Rajbanshi (Assam Regiment), as the team’s resolve to bring their comrades home remained unwavering, they said.

The mission’s aim was finally accomplished on July 8, as the bodies of the three soldiers were recovered and no team member was left behind, the sources added. Brig Shekhawat is no stranger to formidable challenges, he has climbed Mt. Everest thrice and been awarded the Kirti Chakra for one of the toughest operations conducted by the Indian Army, the sources said.

However, he described ‘Operation RTG’ as the most demanding mission of his life. “Dug for nine days straight, 10-12 hours every day at 18,700 feet,” he was quoted as saying by a defence source.
“Tons of snow and ice was removed. The grueling effort, both physically and mentally, tested the resilience of the entire team,” Shekhawat said.