Twenty-three participants from 14 states have qualified for the semi-finals of first Soul of Steel Challenge, one of the toughest high-altitude endurance tests in the world.
After extremely rigorous training at camps in Nainital and Gamshali, Uttarakhand by special forces veterans and serving army officers skilled in mountaineering and high-altitude survival, these young men and women were selected from an initial short list of over 400 aspirants.
About 12-to 14 from these semi-finalists, broken into three or four teams, will now compete for the final race — a mix of military-style high-altitude operations and alpine adventure sports — in the mountains of Uttarakhand in mid-June.
Organised jointly by the Joshimat-based Ibex Brigade –the oldest Mountain Brigade of the Indian Army – and ‘Conquer Land Air Water’ or CLAW, a band of Indian Special Forces veterans, the annual event was formally flagged off on January 14 by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh from Dehra Dun, where he had gone to preside over the 7th Armed Forces Veterans celebrations.
But the planning and preparations for it began more than six months before that, owing to the numerous security clearances as well as the logistical and safety issues involved. The Ibex Brigade, the only independent Mountain Brigade of the Indian Army, guards about 250 km of the Line of Actual Control along the Garhwal Himalayas. The LAC has turned hot since May 2020, when violent clashes followed Chinese attempts to intrude into areas claimed by India. This also led to many villages in the area emptying out fearing further escalation, posing a security concern.
The idea behind this event is to showcase the massive potential for adventure sports and tourism in the greater Himalayas and further re-affirm and validate Indian claims along the border. It will also provide much needed employment opportunities for locals in the forward areas as well as for Special Forces Vets, who despite their multiple skills and specialisations ranging from multi–terrain survival skills, mountaineering, skydiving, unarmed combat, and emergency medical response in hostile terrain and weather, don’t have too many options in the corporate world.
Eventually, the Indian Army and CLAW hope to get foreign participants to register as well, thereby turning it into an international event which tests the limits of human endurance and grit. The race (and the intense training sessions which preceded it) is being filmed for international release.
As a former Marine Commando who is now Head of Security for an Airport in South India put it, “Soul of Steel ticks several boxes, and I am confident it will soon evolve into one of the major adventure tourism events internationally. And because it is being run by Vets and the Indian Army, it will also be ecologically sustainable. My salute and best wishes to the organisers.”