Captain Shiva Chouhan is the first woman army officer to be deployed at 15,632 feet at the Siachen Glacier.
'It has been a memorable journey,' says the 25 year old who has gone where no women officer has gone before.
Just two years into joining the Indian Army, Captain Shiva Chouhan of Rajasthan has amassed an abundance of jaw-dropping work experience.
From the deserts of Rajasthan, her first posting was to the mountains of Leh as an officer in the Corps of Engineers.
Last year, she participated in a cycle expedition from the Siachen War Memorial to the Kargil War Memorial, cycling for 508 kilometres over 11 days at treacherous heights of 9,000-12,000 feet.
The officer then undertook a month-long rigorous training at the Siachen Battle School along with male counterparts. The training included scaling walls of ice, avalanche and crevasse rescue, surviving blizzards etc.
In January 2023, Captain Shiva became the first woman to be deployed at the Siachen Glacier where she is engaged in combat engineering tasks at certain posts.
Officers and men posted on the glacier serve a three-month tenure. Their living quarters and office is set up in fabricated huts furnished with heating devices.
Uniforms are white, multi-layered body suits made for extreme high altitude. Stepping out without snow goggles can make you go snow blind; frost bites, chilblains, insomnia and isolation are other risks faced by soldiers in that extreme weather.
"The army teaches and trains us to be effective in all kinds of roles and terrain.
"Mental toughness is the key," says Captain Chouhan in a phone conversation with Rediff.com's Archana Masih about life as an officer operating in the world's highest battlefield and opening the doors to other women after her.
When did you know that you were selected to begin training for this assignment?
I volunteered and it was also the initiative of my regiment. I had the support of the Fire and Fury Corps, the Siachen Brigade and my regiment. Together, they all made it happen for me.
All officers and men deployed in Siachen go through a process of acclimatisation so that our body can get used to such environment.
It takes a four day trek to reach my post. In a day, we walked for around seven-eight hours to get to the intermediate camps en route.
You are in a place where no woman has served before. What were some of the thoughts going through your mind before you took over duties at that post at almost 16,000 feet?
To be very honest, we are trained before any deployment or posting. For example, before I was commissioned into the Indian Army, I was trained at the Officers Training Academy. Since I'm an officer in the Corps of Engineers, I had to complete pre-course training programmes in institutes of the army.
The army teaches and trains us to be effective in all kinds of roles and terrain.
How unique has been your experience serving in the Siachen Glacier?
It is the most memorable journey of my life. I got to learn more about the operational aspects of all the arms of the army deployed in this terrain, not only of the engineers regiment that I belong to.
I am responsible for the posts directly under my command. I look after the soldiers of the engineers regiment deployed at different posts in Siachen.
We undertake engineering tasks like construction of helipads etc.
Those deployed in Siachen live and work in prefabricated tents. Since you are the first woman to be deployed there, what are the living and work facilities like?
The structure and facilities are adequate for any woman officer and whosoever will come here after me. I have a separate tent and all the facilities are adequate for both men and women.
There are snow scooters available. We travel to other posts in snow scooters and also by foot.
There a TV set and we keep in touch with our families through telephone calls. WhatsApp connectivity is patchy. There is also STD booth at the post.
What are the challenges of weather and terrain that you have encountered?
We encounter severe cold climatic conditions and sub-zero temperatures. There is an endless ocean of crevasses, overhangs, high speed winds, ice walls, mountain heights.
There are times when the weather becomes bad, sometimes it lasts a week and helicopters bringing supplies etc have to turn back.
There is also the challenge of isolation and the challenge is to keep myself and my troops fit. Mental toughness is the key; it is more important over physical fitness.
How do officers and men keep mentally tough and beat the isolation?
We speak and interact with the officers and men so that we don't feel lonely.
My boys are deployed at different posts, so I make sure to speak to them about their wellbeing and their daily tasks.
In the army we go undergo training to keep mentally robust so that we can serve in tough, isolated areas. It gives you confident to help the men under your command.
At those heights and rarefied atmosphere, how do you keep yourself physically fit?
We do some physical exercise as advised by the doctor suitable for those heights where the oxygen levels are extremely low.
I make sure to take a walk outside my tent for about 600-700 meters and then do breathing exercises and yoga.
Drinking plenty of water is necessary to keep oneself fit and free from diseases.
Since you are the first woman ever to be deployed in Siachen, what was the reaction of the men when you joined the post?
It was a new situation for them, but they were very welcoming and cooperative.
I did not feel any different here and the battalion accepted me wholeheartedly. Every member has been very supportive.
What is the food available at that height and terrain?
We eat a balanced diet of rice, dal, roti, eggs, etc. Sometimes we even get fresh vegetables. There are frozen food items also available.
Helicopters bring in the rations.
How has life changed for you in the Indian Army?
My transformation from a civilian to an army officer, firstly, has made me physically and mentally strong. Even in a remote and isolated area we have the confidence of looking after the men under our command.
Moreover, the Indian Army has given me my own identity. I will take whatever comes my way and clear the stepping stones of life.
Watch: Captain Shiva Chouhan's life at Siachen, the world's highest battlefield.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com