Compiled By: Shri Ramakrishna Prasad
Col. Narendra Kumar (born on 8th December 1933), the mountaineering legend (who lost four of his toes to frostbite in 1961) is one of the most highly decorated officers in India. He is the only colonel awarded the Param Vishisht Seva Medal (PVSM) distinction in all three services (normally accorded only to generals). He has also been honoured with the Padma Shri, the Kirti Chakra, the Ati Vishist Seva Medal, the Arjuna Award and the IMF Gold Medal by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. Yet, few people in Indian know about Col. Kumar’s pioneering contributions to both mountaineering and national security. Its time we give him the respect and recognition he truly deserves.
It all started with a German mountaineer and an American map. In the late 1970s, Col.Kumar was in charge of the High Altitude Warfare School in Gulmarg (which was also the mountain warfare school of the Indian Army). A German explorer — with whom Kumar had earlier traversed the upper reaches of the Indus river in Ladakh — showed him an American map of northern Kashmir that marked the Line of Control (LoC) much further to the east than he expected. Realising that the US appeared to have cartographically ceded a large chunk of eastern Karakoram (including the Siachen glacier) to Pakistan, a furious Col. Kumar bought the map and sent it straight to the Director General of Military Operations. Alarm bells ringing loudly in his head, he also volunteered to organise an expedition to the area to “correct the map”. Realising the need to cut through red tape and get to work, the recon mission was thus termed a ‘practical training session’ for students.
Soon after, Col. Kumar headed into uncharted territory with a team of students from the High Altitude Warfare School. It was the first Indian expedition into the heart of Siachen — the largest alpine glacier on earth that has nearly two trillion cubic feet of ice. Beginning at the snout of the glacier, Col. Kumar and his team slowly but steadily made their way up the massive bulk of unforgiving ice. On the way, they had to navigate tricky crevasses and stay ahead of avalanches while braving temperatures that dipped to a numbing -50 degrees Celsius. However, news of this expedition soon leaked across the border. By the time Col. Kumar’s unarmed team reached the icy source of Siachen, Pakistani fighter jets had started flying over them, firing coloured smoke!
This and the trash that the team had found along the way — Pakistani cigarette packs, food cans and climbing gear — convinced him that the Pakistanis had been stealthily trying to entrench their claim on Siachen. Taking this trash and photos of the hovering jets as proof of Pakistani incursions, the team returned to base. Despite this recon report, it took Col. Kumar a while to convince his seniors about the seriousness of situation. It was not until early 1981 that he finally got the go-ahead to map the entire glacier, all the way from the snout to the Chinese border.
And so Col. Kumar returned to Siachen, this time becoming the first Indian to climb the Sia Kangri —at 24,350 feet, this peak offers stunning views of the sprawling glacier. He came back with a detailed ‘sit-rep’ (situational report) that was immediately dispatched to Indian Army’s headquarters. Realising that the Indian Army was now clearly involved, Pakistan ramped up its stealthy bid to secure Siachen for itself. Recognizing the strategic threat, India immediately dispatched troops of Kumaon Regiment to the Siachen for control of the glacier and the neighbouring peaks in the Saltoro range. Under Operation Meghdoot, IAF choppers pushed themselves to their maximum capabilities to air-drop soldiers at Bilafond-La (that translates to “Pass of the Butterflies” in Balti language).And this is how India established a crucial military foothold in what would go on to become the world’s highest battlefield, beating Pakistan by a week. Their most important weapon? The detailed maps, photographs and videos made by Col. Kumar and his team. In the years that followed, a key army post on the glacier was named Kumar Base, making Col. Kumar perhaps the only living Indian army officer to enjoy this extremely rare honour.