The Tribune - Spectrum

, July 7, 2002

He has lived a hero’s life
M.P. Nathanael

Sonam Wangyal was honoured with the Padma Shri and the Arjuna Award
Sonam Wangyal was honoured with the Padma Shri and the Arjuna Award

YOU ask for the ‘hero’s’ residence in Leh and the locals will guide you to Sonam Wangyal’s house in the Mentokling Hotel compound, for Sonam Wangyal is no small name in Ladakh. He is known as the ‘hero’ who conquered Mount Everest. For his daring feats and achievements in mountaineering, he was honoured with the Padma Shri and the Arjuna Award in 1968.

Sixtyfour-year-old Sonam Wangyal’s life has been full of adventure. He excitedly rattles off anecdote after ancedote from his eventful past.

He is the sole survivor of the encounter that took place between a CRPF patrol and Chinese soldiers on October 21, 1959, at Hot Springs on the Indo-China border in Ladakh. Ten CRPF men lost their lives, having been heavily outnumbered by the Chinese, while nine others were taken captive. Sonam Wangyal was among those few who could make good their escape.

October 21 is observed as the Police Commemmoration Day all over the country by the police forces in memory of not only the 10 CRPF men who laid down their lives at Hot Springs, but also other police personnel who have laid down their lives at the alter of duty during the past year.


Recounting the encounter, Sonam Wangyal says that in early September 1959, personnel of a checkpost at Chushul were taken prisoner by Chinese intruders and were released after a month at Chushul airstrip. He was in the party that was sent to Chushul to get the released Indian prisoners. After they were brought to Leh, he was again ordered to proceed to Hot Springs with a party of the Indo-Tibetan Border Force (ITBF) which comprised 40 personnel of the Central Reserve Police on deputation to the ITBF. After a week-long trek through inhospitable terrain the party reached Hot Springs.

Karam Singh, an officer of the ITBF and S.P. Tyagi, a Deputy Superintendent of Police on deputation from the CRPF, established a post at this spot, bereft of any inhabitants for miles and miles except the Chinese soldiers a few kilometres away, across the border. On October 20, when a patrol team went missing, another patrol left in search of them from the base at Hot Springs. Sonam Wangyal was a member of this patrol which comprised about 10 men. After covering about 10 miles, they spotted some horses and Chinese soldiers in well-entrenched bunkers well within the Indian territory.Since the Chinese soldiers were in greater strength, the patrol retreated and returned to the base with a view to returning with a larger strength.

At 7 in the morning on October 21, Karam Singh left the base with a posse of cops to counter the Chinese and get them to vacate the Indian territory.When Karam Singh lifted the mitti at the spot where he stood to indicate that the land was in Indian territory, the Chinese commander, too, did likewise to indicate that the land belonged to China. This went on for about three hours, after which a boulder rolled down from one of the Chinese bunkers, which were at a considerable height. No sooner did the boulder roll down that all hell broke loose. There was heavy exchange of fire, leaving 10 CRPF men dead while nine, including Karam Singh, were taken prisoner by the Chinese. The remaining personnel, most of whom suffered serious injuries in the heavy firing by the Chinese, retreated. Among them was the wounded Sonam Wangyal.

With sadness and wrinkles showing prominently on his face, Sonam Wangyal recalls how he had seen two CRPF men lying dead on either side and how his efforts to retrieve their bodies proved futile.

The bodies of the 10 gallant CRPF men were returned on November 24, 1959. The sad part, he says, is that only 10 Indian policemen were permitted to approach the Indo-China border to collect the bodies of the CRPF men, which had to be brought to Hot Springs on horseback. The Chinese could transport the bodies in their vehicles right up to the point where they were to hand over the bodies to the Indian policemen. It speaks volumes about the perseverance and stamina of Indian policemen that they trudged a distance of 250 km from Leh to maintain the post at Hot Springs.

"Even while we were collecting the bodies, Chinese women in uniform were clicking photographs. The Chinese soldiers were wrapped in snow-white warm clothing and snow boots, while we were in our woolen Angora shirts and jerseys, bearing the brunt of the biting cold at that prohibitive height of 16,300 feet", he adds.

The bodies of the CRPF men were cremated with full police honours at Hot Springs. Since 1961, the spot is a place of pilgrimage for policemen from all over the country who pay homage to the martyrs there.

Sonam Wangyal later went on to climb Mount Everest from South Col. It was this feat that earned him the Padma Shri and subsequently, the Arjuna Award. He remained the Principal of the Sonam Mountaineering Institute in Gangtok (Sikkim) from 1976 to 1990.

Having retired as an Assistant Director of the ITBF in 1993, he settled down in Leh to look after a hotel — The Mentokling Hotel — which he opened on a piece of land gifted to him by the Jammu and Kashmir Government in 1968.

While three of his daughters are married, his son, an employee of Jet Airways in Leh, and his wife and daughter live with him.

An expert on matters relating to high altitudes, Sonam is often invited to give talks on healthcare at high altitudes by the ITBF and other organisations. His knowledge of the hills and mountains is simply mind-boggling. He is, indeed, a proud son of the soil.

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