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SOURCE: INDIA TODAY

Over the last month, you have heard a constant claim from experts and veterans of how the upcoming winter could hold answers to the continuing India-China military standoff in Ladakh. You have seen images of Indian and Chinese soldiers kitting up for the forbidding inbound winter months at very high altitudes. That the two sides are preparing for a long harsh winter.

Well, there’s no more waiting to do. That winter has arrived.

In the Pangong sector, where the situation has been particularly tense since August 29, the edges of the Pangong lake have begun to freeze this week. Temperatures at the heights held by Indian and Chinese troops at Finger 4, for instance, dip to minus 4 degrees. By mid-October, the lake surface will be totally frozen. In the Depsang and Daulat Beg Oldie areas of Ladakh’s sub-sector north (SSN), for instance, minimum temperatures are already hovering around minus 14 degrees and will dip rapidly with each passing day.

While troops from both sides have fired warning shots into the air as many as four times between August 29 and September 8, the unforgiving weather has already begun to take its toll.

In the last four days, Indian positions have witnessed a daily stream of Chinese combat medics evacuate small numbers of PLA troops from high altitude posts in the Fingers area on stretchers, a morbid reminder of the effects of rarefied air and extreme freezing conditions even during the day.

These conditions will get significantly worse with each passing day. The evacuated troops have been regularly replaced to maintain numbers at these forward posts, some of which are less than a kilometre from Indian positions.

Military sources say Chinese troops evacuated from the Finger 4 area are being taken into a field hospital near Finger 6 for interim treatment. As part of the mobilisation on both sides, field hospitals have also sprung up on both sides in the Depsang sector, where tensions have brewed even as the spotlight remained fixed on the Pangong area.

Indian and Chinese forward posts are keeping a hawk’s eyes on the effects of weather on each other’s troops — an ironic situation given that in years past, there have been occasions when troops from each side have received medical treatment from the other when logistically feasible or when patrols have crossed. In the current atmosphere of distrust and hostility, such humanity is virtually unthinkable at the front.

To be sure, it is not as if Indian soldiers aren’t vulnerable to high altitude conditions. Like the Chinese posts, Indian posts all have embedded combat medics with specialised medical equipment and stretchers in the event that troops get afflicted by unwelcome winter visitors like frostbite, chilblains and the dangerous high-altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPO).

While there is no ruling out Indian troops falling prey this winter to the unforgiving conditions in the standoff zone, it is also true that Indian Army troops have had longer and deeper experience at far higher altitudes than those at Pangong Tso.

The Indian Army remains deployed year-round in peacetime in the super-high altitude and super-harsh climes of the Siachen glacier and Saltoro ridge. While the Pangong heights place troops at altitudes of 16,000 feet, posts at Siachen touch a staggering 22,000 feet. For perspective, Mount Everest is 29,000 feet high. Decades at those heights have brought hard-fought Indian Army experience with some of the most painful afflictions caused by those conditions.

HAPO, for instance, is an old adversary of Indian troops in Siachen, one that has spawned the oft-repeated refrain, ‘Where the weather is the soldier’s biggest enemy’. And with good reason too. Since Operation Meghdoot to dominate the Siachen heights in 1984, the Indian Army has waged a daily battle to manage the toll of HAPO, a condition that involves painful fluid accumulation in the lungs at high altitude, with tell-tale signs involving frothing at the mouth and voluble gasping for breath.

It has taken years of fatalities, research, preparations, equipment and daily vigilance to tame the effects of HAPO. And while far less than in previous years, it remains a lingering presence.

Chilblains is another painful condition caused by tissue damage from exposure to cold and humidity, one that debilitates soldiers and often requires their removal from their posts and transfers to lower altitudes for treatment.