6 Kms to the south of Haldwani is Patwa Dangar, a place so high that you could touch the clouds with raising your hand just above the shoulders. This is sort of an unexplored hill station which surprisingly has a circuit house and a small village scattered over the highs and lows of steep hill.
12440 ft. (3792 m) above the ground you have to be really tough to live out here.
For the facts, the concentration of oxygen at sea level is about 21% and the barometric pressure averages 760 mmHg. As altitude increases, the concentration remains the same but the number of oxygen molecules per breath is reduced. At 12,000 feet (3,658 meters) the barometric pressure is only 483 mmHg, so there are roughly 40% fewer oxygen molecules per breath. In order to properly oxygenate the body, your breathing rate (even while at rest) has to increase. This extra ventilation increases the oxygen content in the blood, but not to sea level concentrations. Since the amount of oxygen required for activity is the same, the body must adjust to having less oxygen. In addition, for reasons not entirely understood, high altitude and lower air pressure causes fluid to leak from the capillaries which can cause fluid build-up in both the lungs and the brain. Continuing to higher altitudes without proper acclimatization can lead to potentially serious, even life-threatening illnesses.
As it happened I enrolled myself in an annual CATC (Combined Annual Training) camp of NCC along with hundreds other. Honestly, humans have no business there where a mountain leopard is living out lavishly but Patwa Dangar was an exception; amidst the grave forest of Himalayan range of Dehradun the place is struggling to coexist with a deadly predator and moaning cattle who make horrible sound once they spot the walking death or once one of them is attacked.
No. 1 Delhi Air Squadron had almost 50 cadets, 5 PI staff (Physical Instructors), 1 medical staff and the Commandant, WingCo Virendra Singh Malik and so were the army troops consisting of around 30 cadets, 3 PI Staff and their Commanding Officer Maj Dinesh Bisht. I must ask for your forgiveness for I have always had problems remembering dates so I am not sure what day it was but it certainly wasn’t winters for I remember ourselves taking bath bare bodied and with chilled water from a small mountain spring.
Soon as the bus started to cra6wl on the circular roads of Dehradun, boys started puking and would stop only when the bus stopped once in a while on a turn. They seem to have developed a sync with its motion for whenever bus rolled – puking started, and would stop once bus stopped. I wondered if body clock had something rather important to attend-to at that moment.
Acclimatization is a phrase very frequently used in the communities of Armed Forces and among those who dream of scaling the mountains; we soon discovered the real meaning of it. Had it not been the rigorous training beforehand, we would have given-in to the climate completely. So, except from throwing up there were no cases that required medical attention.
For the benefit of the mass, let me oblige myself to explain ‘acclimatization’: the major cause of altitude illnesses is going too high too fast. Given time, your body can adapt to the decrease in oxygen molecules at a specific altitude. This process is known as acclimatization and generally takes 1-3 days at that altitude. For example, if you hike to 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), and spend several days at that altitude, your body acclimatizes to 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). If you climb to 12,000 feet (3,658 meters), your body has to acclimatize once again. A number of changes take place in the body to allow it to operate with decreased oxygen.
-The depth of respiration increases.
-Pressure in pulmonary arteries is increased, “forcing” blood into portions of the lung which are normally not used during sea level breathing.
-The body produces more red blood cells to carry oxygen,
-The body produces more of a particular enzyme that facilitates the release of oxygen from hemoglobin to the body tissues.
Not drifting further from the story, let me take you straight to Patwa Dangar.
After making ourselves comfortable with the climate (via mass-puking) we soon were greeted with the relish of Tea and morning snacks prepared by the advance-party.
Soon enough we were told where our barracks were and ‘the hustle’ to setup tents, parade-ground and squadron’s quarter-guard (place where squadron’s insignia is hosted and weapons are kept; it also serves as day-time office for presiding officer) began, which took entire morning. Cadets around me and at the far end of the camp were carrying the rods, hammers, snippets, nails, joints, and other parts of the tents: setting up the mess, quarter-guard and quarter master’s tent, and subsequently others’ as well. This all hard work soon turned out to be lame compared to the task that awaited next – we were now asked to fetch water and fill all of the big drums for the use in Mess, medical-room, general toiletries, for guards, and other sundries. Filling drums? – No problem but who would fetch the water using buckets from a spring not less than 100 ft. deep!
Nevertheless, it had to be done so the senior cadets formed a human chain from the top to the bottom of the spring and passed buckets after buckets to fill-in all the water drums which took three hours and surprisingly ended in a celebration when everyone joined-in for a mass-bath down in the deep spring!
We were to stay here for 15 days. On the night of the first day, as we all were tired, we went into sleep soon as our heads touched the ground (we didn’t have pillow but only thick rugs to sleep inside brick-and-mortar bunkers). Early in the next morning soon as the ‘enthusiastic people’ returned from bath, a whistle went out for PT. It was time for some good drill. (I never bothered to bath in those 15 days, except once!)
We were taken to the parade-ground for the drill and given enough ‘treatment’ to last the day. Soon after PT we found ourselves munching on the morning snacks which was as delicious as food from a five-star hotel could be at that time – after thumping our feet hard on ground for 4 hours. This was a regular schedule so we didn’t bother to complaint about the mostly-cold tea, ever!
During night we used to spread salt around our rugs to keep leeches away, which were known to be in-abundance at this place; just how abundant we didn’t realize until the 7th day of the camp when some of our ‘experienced-patrons’ included me and two of my friends in an out-of-bound expedition. This was more-or-less intended to fetch oranges and peaches, apart from satisfying their urge to break rules, from the trees of the shallow forest situated on the eastern-slope of the Patwa Dangar hills. The forest was adjacent to the camp’s dump-yard where we used to dispose garbage. This area was on a steep downward-slope and was denser towards the far eastern side.
We knew about the presence of leeches and were afraid, but didn’t have slightest of the idea how many of them were there? So, a small bottle of Sodium Chloride (common white-salt) was taken along which is known to block the respiratory system of the leeches thus sending them to their deaths.
We were 6 people in grey shirt, trousers and I had my brown PT shoes on with end of the trousers tucked inside the shoes and tied tightly so not to let the leeches get inside.
The beauty of the forest and the village in the valley to the south was remarkable but we didn’t have time to stop and admire them, for soon as we stepped on the grass – we saw our fear taking shape! Opposite to our anticipation there were, not hundreds, but thousands of them! – the deadly looking, stick like leeches; about 2-inch-long and less than 5 mm in thickness; they rose on one of their mouths and used the other to turn and propagate. We were not to be told to run, so we ran spreading salt across – everywhere- all the way we ran through. On every step of ours that landed on the flat grass, we saw the grass growing bigger in height, a closer look and one can tell that these were not grass-strands but leeches – hundreds of them in every square-foot of area!
I was running like madman through the forest, crossing many orange and peach trees behind me who, now I think, appeared to be laughing at us.
After running for a few minutes, we found a safe looking spot which was a small, or rather tiny, wooden bridge on a very thin river stream. This place was cinematic and water in the stream was so clear that it was impossible to tell that if there was any water at all unless one strained a few muscles around the eyes. The place was safe, at least we thought it was, except for a very few leeches (as compared to the place we had just been to), which seemed like crossing the bridge same as us – around ten of them. We took revenge by pouring salt over them.
It was decided that we will run to the camp through the path leading to the Mess area which was supposed to have more rocks than trees. Running towards the camp felt like running for a new life; I did not mind if my PT shoes lost their soles and if it was hurting running bare-footed on the rocks, for my senses were overruled by my survival-instinct and mind was drained-out of all the thoughts but one – ‘get to a safe place’.
Upon reaching near the camp we stopped to count friends; it turned out we had more than we went down with – there were leeches stuck to our feet, legs, thighs, and groin. I had 13 of them stuck to all possible parts of my both legs! Some thin and others gone huge with my blood inside their bellies. I closed my eyes and let others ‘pluck-out’ mine too. They were sprinkled with salt and pulled out using twigs. Shoes’ upper parts, those were still hanging to my feet, were removed and thrown away.
Thus we reached camp bare footed, exhausted, terrified and blood-ridden. It was, though, not the end-of-the-day for us; we were seen running hastily towards the camp from the forest’s side, so were greeted by the medical officer accompanied with the camp senior and given the ‘treatment’ by both, latter after the former!
This adventure found its way into the evening and bed-time tales among cadets and we made it to the squadron’s and Delhi Directorate’s map!