High in the Karakoram, the stubborn armies of India and Pakistan have faced off for 19 years on the Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battleground and a flash point in the deadly dispute over Kashmir. In this exclusive report, an American writer and photographer spend two months inside the ultimate no-man’s-land, witnessing the human and environmental devastation of a conflict without end.
Up ahead rose a snowy 18,950-foot saddle that marked the end of the Indian subcontinent and the beginning of Central Asia. From its crest you could gaze into India, Pakistan, China, and Tibet. Surrounding us on all sides was an unbroken wall of pinnacles—huge cetacean humps barnacled with impossibly large cornices, seracs, and needlelike spires. “I am so happy to be in these mountains!” cried Mohmad Yaseen Khan, a 47-year-old Kashmiri Muslim who was serving as our guide and cook. “The number of peaks I want to climb here is… is… well, I will have to make a special trip back just to count them. See how each one shines in a different way? See how their shapes are different? This is a place where a mountaineer would want to be buried.”
Within a 25-mile radius of where we stood, 48 peaks rose above 19,000 feet; only 16 of these have names, and only six have been climbed. Above them towered 27 giants with altitudes exceeding 23,000 feet. Thirteen of these have never been scaled, and they include some of the greatest remaining prizes in Himalayan mountaineering: Saltoro Kangri II, four peaks in the Apsarasas group, and another three in the Teram Kangri group.
But there’s a reason these mountains remain untouched: They sit in the middle of a 250-square-mile war zone where India and Pakistan have been fighting for the past 19 years as part of their intractable dispute over the state of Kashmir. What might be a climber’s paradise is instead the site of a harrowing and improbable siege, the highest and coldest combat theater in the history of the world.
For four days, Yaseen and I, along with photographer Teru Kuwayama and 11 Ladakhi porters, had slogged up the middle of the glacier, ascending through a series of Indian army camps, toward a place called Kumar Base, a bleak outpost at 16,000 feet that serves as the central supply depot for two battalions of Indian troops. Daily artillery barrages and small infantry skirmishes occasionally mushroom into full battles, but for most of this war, India and Pakistan have been mired on the ice, burning up huge amounts of resources and manpower to hold the lines at heights that reach 22,000 feet.
At Kumar Base, the by-products of this stalemate were glaringly apparent. The camp is a cluster of 20 fiberglass huts and tents shared by some 35 officers, enlisted men, and porters. Perched on the crest of a massive, scabrous pile of reddish-brown rubble roughly 60 feet high and 900 feet long, it has the same features as the surrounding mountains—cols, ridges, arêtes—with one significant difference: It’s made of garbage.
We picked our way through the scab with the kind of care normally reserved for a high Himalayan traverse. At the base of the camp, a recent avalanche had disgorged burlap sacks, old door frames, mortar boxes, rolls of bailing wire, and pieces of fiberglass. Running down the flanks were chutes filled with an unstable layer of plastic sunscreen bottles, bent stovepipes, charred wood, helicopter wheels, and rotting vegetables. As we trudged toward the summit, precarious cornices threatened to crack off and bury us in a deluge of empty jerry cans, burst oil drums, tattered parachutes, ammunition cases, crushed cartons of mango juice, box upon box of two-minute masala noodles, and large metal containers labeled ANTI-PERSONNEL MINES.
All of the other camps we’d passed through were miniature versions of Kumar, and their collective filth—a dietary and industrial record of nearly two decades of uninterrupted war—was bound for the same destination: the bowels of the glacier. From there, this toxic compost would leach into the headwaters of the Nubra River, and then into the Shyok River, the Indus River, and ultimately into the Arabian Sea.
There was no wind to disperse the odor that hung over Kumar like a malignant bouquet: raw kerosene, raw vegetables, raw sewage. I breathed it in, tasted it. Even by the standards of men who are too busy fighting one another to care about the damage they’ve done to a magnificent ecosystem, this was too much.
Yaseen, however, seemed oddly cheerful about it all. “I am so happy to have come here and been given the chance to see this garbage!” he declared. I asked why.
“Why? Because many of my friends in the army told me about how much trash was here and how it has spoiled the glacier, and I didn’t believe them. But now I’ve seen it for myself. Now I know that my friends were telling the truth.”
THE MOST CRITICAL SECTION of the 1,800-mile border between India and Pakistan is a 450-mile line that cuts through the valleys and mountains of Kashmir. Here, for more than half a century, at least 500,000 Indian and Pakistani troops have faced off. In 1965 and again in 1971, the armies fought two conventional wars, both of which Pakistan lost. Since the late eighties, the border has also been the focus of a brutal guerrilla-style conflict. While thousands of Islamic militants trained in Pakistan have crossed the border to wage jihad, Indian security forces in Kashmir have imprisoned, tortured, or executed hundreds of civilians suspected of collaborating with the militants. In the past 14 years, more than 36,000 Kashmiris have died. These facts alone would probably qualify it as the most dangerous border in the world, even if it did not harbor the potential to trigger a nuclear holocaust.
Ten years ago, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency concluded that Kashmir was emerging as the most likely place on earth for a nuclear war to break out. This seemed imminent in the early spring of 1999, when 800 Pakistan-supported militants seized a 17,000-foot ridge overlooking the cities of Kargil and Dras in India-controlled Kashmir and began shelling a vital Indian military road that connects Srinagar to Leh and the Siachen Glacier. India responded with full force, and by early May of that year there was heavy fighting along 100 miles of the border. The situation was especially unstable: Only twelve months earlier, India and then Pakistan had each carried out successful nuclear detonations for the first time. By July 4, when the Clinton administration forced Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif to back down, both sides had reportedly put their nuclear strike forces on alert.
The origin of this larger conflict can be precisely dated to midnight on August 15, 1947, when Britain’s Indian Empire was officially partitioned into the new nations of India and Pakistan. The upheavals of Partition produced one of the largest migrations of refugees in modern history—some ten million people—and the slaughter of as many as one million Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims as neighbor killed neighbor during the chaos that ensued. Another casualty was the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (commonly referred to simply as Kashmir), which had a Muslim-majority population ruled by a Hindu maharajah and would soon become the object of a bloody tug-of-war. Two months after Partition, India and Pakistan crossed swords over Kashmir, and they’ve never really stopped.
When the first round of full-blown fighting ended in January 1949, two-thirds of Kashmir was in Indian hands, including Jammu, the Buddhist region of Ladakh, and the biggest prize of all, the legendary Vale of Kashmir. Pakistan got the regions of Gilgit and Baltistan, which it now calls the Northern Territories, plus a sliver of southwestern Kashmir. According to the United Nations, the final disposition of the entire region—pending to this day—is to be determined by a plebiscite among Kashmiri citizens, the majority of whom are still Muslim. Until that vote takes place or an acceptable alternative is put forth, the de facto border has been the cease-fire line, now known as the Line of Control, which begins near the Indian city of Jammu and cuts a wobbly path northeast toward China.
That line stops well short of the Chinese border at a map coordinate known as NJ9842. At the time of the cease-fire, no fighting had taken place beyond this point because the area was too remote. Negotiators from both countries simply agreed that, starting at NJ9842, the line would be understood to extend “thence north to the glaciers.”
Those five ambiguous words were a ticking time bomb. In the spring of 1984, after three decades of cross-border hostility, armies from both countries raced to seize two key passes on the Saltoro Ridge, which originates not far from NJ9842 and forms the western wall of the Siachen. Since then, the war has been fought largely in secret, its front lines rarely observed by outsiders or foreign journalists. All along the Saltoro Ridge, Indian and Pakistani soldiers have erected between 120 and 150 outposts perched at elevations ranging from 9,000 to 22,000 feet. The locations of most of these, their routes of access, even their names, are closely guarded secrets. The total number of combatants is unknown, but probably falls between 8,000 and 10,000. The death toll is also classified, with estimates ranging between 2,500 and 4,000 killed since 1984. The cost of the war is murky, too; together the two countries are estimated to be spending between $182 million and $438 million a year.
Here’s what is beyond dispute: Never before have troops fought for such extended periods in such extreme physical conditions. At least twice a week a man dies, occasionally from bullets or artillery, but more often from an avalanche, a tumble into a crevasse, or a high-altitude sickness—perils usually faced only by elite climbers. Not surprisingly, the men who serve in the war regard it as the supreme challenge for a soldier.
“Minus 50 at 21,000 feet—it’s beyond anything the human body is designed to endure,” an Indian officer on the Siachen told me. “This is the ultimate test of human willpower. It’s also an environmental catastrophe. And—no doubt about it—things can only get worse.”
LAST AUGUST AND SEPTEMBER, after securing access from the Pakistani and Indian armies, Teru and I trekked to both sides of the Siachen conflict to get a look at this highest and most hidden of military standoffs—the first American journalists to do so on foot. It was a tense time. Islamic militants had bombed the Indian Parliament in New Delhi the previous December. By the summer, a million troops were deployed along the border. When we arrived in Pakistan, British and American diplomats had just succeeded in getting the two countries to step back from the brink of a nuclear exchange.
Our journey began in Khapalu, a town on the Shyok River, where we met Major Mohammed Tahir Iqbal, the second-highest-ranking officer at brigade headquarters for Pakistan’s Siachen operations. The major greeted us in his office, then took us outside to view a concrete scale model of the entire Siachen theater. “Our objective is to foil the Indian designs,” he explained, waving a long bamboo stick to point out various features of the model. “We are just trying to maintain operational readiness so that they do not think of any further mischief.” Easy enough to say, but by almost any measure—military might, economic clout, political stability, population—India is more powerful than Pakistan. And it never lets Pakistan forget it. To compensate, Pakistani soldiers exhibit a spirited swagger, which can be fierce, comical, and endearing. Dressed in a tan one-piece uniform and speaking with clipped military precision, Tahir combined a little of everything as he clomped about on the Siachen model in his heavy black boots.
The model featured more than 100 white-capped mountains and ridges, blue rivers, and carefully labeled flags marking each army’s bases and posts. To the east and west stood a dense thicket of peaks divided by the two main rivers cutting through the region, the Indus and its mighty tributary the Shyok. There were few towns, roads, or bridges. Several glaciers were splayed across the map, the largest of which, by far, was the Siachen, which ran in a long diagonal line from northwest to southeast. Running parallel to the Siachen on its western side was a massive, virtually unbroken wall of peaks and escarpments. This was the Saltoro Ridge.
Looking at the impenetrable mountaintops, you could see why almost a century passed between the first report of the Siachen Glacier’s existence—by the British explorer William Moorcroft, in 1821—and its first survey, in 1912, by the American team of Fanny Bullock Workman and her husband, William. You could also see why climbers have been intrigued: Here, deep in the Karakoram, an entire sea of virgin peaks lay waiting to be bagged.
During the decade after the first ascent of Mount Everest, by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953, virtually all the great peaks in the eastern Himalayas of Nepal were climbed, including Cho Oyu, Lhotse, and Dhaulagiri. Soon enough, mountaineers turned their gaze to the Karakoram, which contains four of the 14 highest mountains on earth—most notably K2, first summited by an Italian team in 1954. The door to the Karakoram was mostly shut, however, during the two wars that India and Pakistan fought over Kashmir in 1965 and 1971. Then, in 1974, Pakistan’s Ministry of Tourism decided to open the region again, issuing permits allowing foreign expeditions to climb on the Baltoro Glacier, near K2, and to explore the no-man’s-land around the Siachen.
Between 1974 and 1981, at least 16 major expeditions climbed up to the Siachen and beyond—11 from Japan, three from Austria, and one each from Britain and the United States. Pakistan’s motive for issuing the permits, it seems, was a desire to promote mountain tourism. But as expedition reports circulated through the mountaineering community made clear, the foreigners had concluded that the Siachen belonged to Pakistan. This impression also took root in the minds of the Pakistani government, and today the list of these expeditions is often cited as proof of ownership. “Our contention,” Tahir told me, waving his stick, “is that this is our area.”
India says the same thing, and both sides are unwilling to admit that neither has a solid legal claim to the region. (To avoid being dragged into the conflict, the United States has steadfastly refused to take a side.) Robert Wirsing, a professor at the U.S. Navy’s Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu and one of the world’s leading experts on the dispute over Kashmir, puts it more bluntly. In his view, the claims of both sides are equally spurious. “The Indian arguments are absolutely 100 percent false, and so are Pakistan’s,” says Wirsing. “The Pakistanis have no right to base their claim on permits issued to foreign mountaineers. And the only strength to the Indian argument is that it’s backed by a force that cannot be dislodged.”
Neither side is budging, but judging from Tahir’s map, the Pakistanis definitely face an uphill task. The entire Saltoro Ridge, including the two highest passes that connect Pakistan to the glacier—Bilafond La at 18,200 feet and Sia La at 18,850 feet—is bristling with red flags: Indian army posts. On ridges running parallel but at significantly lower elevations, you see a corresponding belt of blue flags: the Pakistani posts.
Tahir reluctantly conceded that the Indians own the high ground, but insisted that Pakistan has “better communications, better roads, and better motivation.” And that wasn’t all.
“Morally,” he said, bringing the tutorial to a close, “we occupy the high ground.”
TO REACH THE FRONT LINES we drove along the Shyok, then headed deep into the mountains to a village called Dansam, a hub for roads leading to the major Pakistani combat sectors. Our destination was a base called Ghyari, which is lodged at 12,400 feet in a narrow valley leading up to Bilafond La. We arrived on an August evening under a canopy of stars, coming to a halt beneath a wooden marquee emblazoned with the words GUARDIANS OF THE FROZEN FRONTIER.
Ghyari sits between soaring granite walls as bold and majestic as El Capitan, threaded with waterfalls that turn to mist before they hit the valley floor. Farther up this valley lie several Pakistani artillery batteries, which lob shells at the Indian posts dug in on the ridges above. Ghyari is a supply center and rehab station for worn-out soldiers—they recuperate after coming down from the front, or pause to acclimatize before marching up to relieve their comrades, who are rotated out every two to eight weeks to prevent high-altitude sickness and brain damage.
The Ghyari base consists of a dozen neatly whitewashed buildings and a 600-year-old mosque established by Sayyid Ali Hamadani, who introduced Islam to Baltistan in the 14th century. A few steps from the mosque sits an underground bunker that serves as a studio for a young man named Makhtar, who paints portraits of the shaheeds, or martyrs—soldiers who have been killed in this war and thereby gained admission to paradise. The Pakistanis believe their religious faith gives them motivation that the Indians lack. “The concepts of jihad and shahadat—or Ôlife after death’—help us strike hard,” explained Major Sikendar Hayat, 41, second in command at Ghyari. “It is what we call a force-multiplier.”
Islam isn’t the only influence on this army; as is true on the Indian side, its rituals are clearly British. At the heart of the base sits a crude cricket field said to be the highest in the world. On our first afternoon at Ghyari, a Sunday, the officers gathered on a row of folding chairs to watch a match. In front of them was a low table with a field telephone that squawked every few minutes as posts called in reports.
After two hours of casual cricket talk—”Good batting, sir!”… “Shabash! Well done!”—the game was halted for high tea. The officers rearranged their chairs in a circle while the sirdar, a bearded man in a white lace skullcap, started serving them. Without warning, a massive, hollow boom resounded from the ridges up near the front lines.
“Artillery?” asked Major Sikendar, looking behind him.
“Rockslide,” responded a second officer.
“Must be artillery,” said a third.
“Phone!” barked the commanding officer, a chiseled lieutenant colonel on his third tour of Siachen duty.
Sikendar seized the green field telephone, cranked the handle, listened, grunted. Everyone else stared at the ground. After a minute or two, it emerged that dynamite was being used to clear a route blocked by a landslide. The tension ratcheted down a notch, but the tea was now cold. Sunday afternoon cricket was over.
THAT EVENING IN THE OFFICERS’ MESS, three guests on loan from other regiments were entertained prior to returning to their home units. The C.O. singled out one young captain for special praise: Safdar Malik, 30, who had just descended from a post called Tabish, which sits on the northwest side of Bilafond La. It takes six days to reach Tabish from Ghyari, traveling by night to avoid Indian snipers and artillery. The final approach requires troops to jumar up ropes anchored to a rock wall, exposing them to sniper fire from several Indian posts hundreds of feet above. Once you get to the post, you’re sure to be pounded relentlessly by Indian rockets.
“We never keep track,” one captain who had served there told me, “because if one counts, he completely forgets himself.” Tabish was established during a brutal firefight in September 1987, when the Pakistanis lost a crucial high post known as Qaid, then failed to push the Indians off the neighboring ridge. Last spring, when Captain Safdar was there, Tabish’s problems were aggravated by an avalanche of rocks that damaged several bunkers. Safdar apparently acquitted himself well during this crisis.
“Your leadership was exemplary,” the C.O. announced. “Young officers like you are the reason why we continue to dominate the enemy. Officers like you are the reason why we will ultimately prevail in this war.”
Life at such forward positions is brutal, and the Indians begrudgingly admit that the Pakistanis are tough customers. “They are sitting right underneath us on an 80-degree slope,” one Indian officer who was stationed above Tabish would tell me later. “We can throw grenades just like pebbles on top of them. It really takes guts to be there.” Captain Waqas Malik, 26, who served at Tabish, grimly described the hopeless feeling of such positions. “Once a ridge has been occupied,” he said, “you require a heart with the capacity of the ocean to accept the casualties you will incur in the taking of it.”
Each high post is manned by a squad of six to 18 men commanded by a young officer, usually a captain, and space is tight—a couple of fiberglass igloos, machine-gun platforms, a latrine, and a tiny area for religious worship. Each soldier is in charge of a particular weapon: light machine guns (LMGs), mortars, anti-aircraft guns. The men stay out of sight by day and stand watch by night.
Unlike mountaineers, who usually climb during the best weather, Siachen soldiers endure the worst the mountains can throw at them, year-round. Avalanches are frequent and terrifying; their thunder is so great that it’s often impossible to distinguish from shelling. Blizzards can last 20 days. Winds reach speeds of 125 miles per hour; temperatures can plunge to minus 60 degrees. Annual snowfall exceeds 35 feet. During storms, two or three men have to shovel snow at all times. If they stop, they will never catch up and the post will be buried alive.
“Sometimes in the winter, you see nothing but white,” said Captain Jamil Salamat, 24, the medical officer at Ghyari. “And you think, Maybe I will never make it back. That is the hugeness, and the hugeness has its own effect. It’s overwhelming. The snow is like an ocean up there.”
In such extreme cold, the single most important resource is kerosene. Known as “K2 oil,” it is used for cooking, melting snow for water, thawing out frozen guns, and keeping warm. It gives off a noxious smoke that coats the igloos with grime; for months after they descend, soldiers cough up black gunk.
Survival under these conditions requires specialized equipment. There are 112 separate items in a Pakistani soldier’s high-altitude kit, including two types of oxygen canisters, three models of ice axes, three kinds of rope, 29 sizes of pitons, five different pairs of gloves, three types of socks, a puffy white down suit rated to minus 60, and a black plastic”nuclear-biological-chemical warfare face mask.” The Pakistani gear that I saw seemed to be generally low-quality stuff; most of it carried the brand name Technoworld, which no one I spoke to in the outdoor industry had ever heard of. In contrast, Indian soldiers get state-of-the-art gear from a wide range of highly specialized Western firms like Koflach, Asolo, and Black Diamond.
The monetary cost of these posts is enormous. A liter of kerosene that goes for 19 rupees in Rawalpindi costs Pakistan more than 650 rupees by the time it’s been hauled to 19,000 feet. (On the Indian side, almost every pound of supplies, including the artillery pieces, is flown in by helicopter because there are no roads on the glacier, pushing transportation costs ten times higher.) Each summer in the Ghyari sector alone, more than 35 Pakistani bases, gun positions, and fighting posts have to be stocked with some 2,000 tons of ammunition, rations, and fuel. This material is freighted to Ghyari by truck and hauled up the ice on mule and donkey trains. To prevent snowblindness, the pack animals are equipped with specially made glacier goggles. Sometimes they stumble and plummet into the crevasses. “They scream for an hour until they freeze to death,” one of the muleteers told me. “It is terrible to hear.”
Over 90 percent of the casualties on both sides are caused by weather, terrain, and what mountaineers call “objective dangers.” Above 18,000 feet, the human body cannot acclimatize and simply starts to deteriorate. Soldiers fall ill, lose their appetites, can’t sleep, and have problems with memory. Severe frostbite—all it takes is touching a gun barrel with bare hands—can result in the loss of fingers and toes. The two most serious killers are HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema) and HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema). Men suffering from HAPE, an accumulation of fluid in the lungs, cough up a pink froth and can be dead in a matter of hours. With HACE, fluid leaks from oxygen-starved blood vessels in the brain, causing severe swelling, headaches, hallucinations, and dementia. Untreated, HACE can kill a man within 24 hours.
In settings like this, suffering is often transformed into legend. The Pakistanis tell of a post beyond Sia La, at nearly 22,000 feet, that is said to have three separate cracks in the ice known as Three-Man Crevasse, Five-Man Crevasse, and Eight-Man Crevasse—each named for the number of men who died falling in. Soldiers talk of men losing their minds and leaping from the posts to their deaths. Some say their tormented cries can be heard in the wind over the peaks. And then there’s the story about the platoon killed in an early battle at Bilafond La, whose bodies froze into such grotesque positions that their corpses had to be hacked into pieces before they could be placed in helicopter panniers and brought down for return to their families.
Whether such tales are true is less important than what they symbolize about the futility of Siachen duty. “From what I’ve read, no one has ever been stupid enough to fight at this level before,” an officer at Ghyari remarked one afternoon when none of his colleagues were within earshot. “I hope it won’t be repeated again, because it’s a waste. A big, bloody waste.”
THE ARTILLERY FIRE HAD BEEN so fierce during the summer of 2002 that the Pakistani top brass delayed our trek to the front. But on our third day at Ghyari, they gave the go-ahead: We would be escorted by a squad of eight soldiers who had been ordered to relieve Captain Yasin Rafiq, the commander of a post called Sher.
Sher is perched at 19,600 feet on a ridge at the head of the Chumik Glacier, a short, steep tributary that comes crashing down into the Bilafond Glacier from the northeast and is one of the few Pakistani positions on the Saltoro that commands the high ground. It took us three days to hike there. On the third day, we reached a field of metal shards from exploded Indian artillery shells. Soaring above us was a huge crescent-shaped saddle. To get to its crest—where we could see the tiny black spot that was Sher—we had to ascend a thousand-foot snow-and-ice wall, pulling ourselves up on fixed ropes.
At the top, we caught our breath beside an 81mm mortar tube, then stepped into the post itself. Sher is only about 12 feet wide and 40 feet long. On one side are two fiberglass igloos where the men eat, cook, and sleep. On the other are a hulking 14.5mm Chinese-made anti-aircraft gun, a machine-gun bunker, and, higher up the ridge, a tiny observation post. We hobbled across 12 feet of frozen mud, stepped up to a stretch of rope serving as a guardrail, and stared down a 3,500-foot drop to the Indian front lines.
We were greeted by Captain Yasin, 29, who had been at his post for 82 days. Yasin pointed out an Indian supply base less than three miles away on the glacier below (from this distance, it was a brown spot on the ice), an Indian seasonal observation post (which we couldn’t see), and an Indian helicopter route. He announced grandly that this was the first time foreigners had been permitted to visit Sher.
Above the post, the ridge rose to a massive double peak called Naveed Top. In April 1989, the Indian army launched a mission known as Operation Ibex; its aim was to capture this peak and force the Pakistanis to vacate the entire upper portion of the Chumik Glacier. Three teams of Pakistani soldiers attempted to reach the summit to thwart the Indian operation and failed; one team was wiped out by an avalanche, the others halted by overhanging seracs. A last-ditch decision was made to airlift troops to a point just below the top of the 22,185-foot mountain using French Lama helicopters designed to fly no higher than 21,000 feet.
The air was so thin, the pilots feared they would crash if they attempted to hover. So after stripping as much excess weight as they could, they used a maneuver called a “running drop,” which required an individual soldier dangling from the bottom to be dropped onto the peak as they passed over. The first to make it was a 29-year-old lieutenant named Naveed-ur-Rehman. He was soon joined by a sergeant named Mohammed Yakub. But then a storm blew in and both men were forced to huddle on the mountain without supplies for two nights.
“The wind was so strong,” Naveed, who is now a major, later told me, “that we had to dig in our heels to avoid being carried away.” Over the next 40 days, six choppers relayed 86 soldiers and 38 tons of supplies onto the peak. Two Pakistani soldiers died and 30 were wounded during the defense of Naveed Top. That May—after the Indian advance was halted by a massive avalanche that killed a large number of their troops—both sides agreed to demilitarize the summit.
Or so say the Pakistanis. To this day, the Indian army denies that any of this ever happened.
That evening, after the sun went down, the men at Sher all crammed into the largest igloo for what Captain Yasin called “after-dinner discussion.” It began with the sergeant, or havildar, thumping out a beat on an empty jerry can using a carabiner. The men began singing in Pashto, while Yasin—who is a hafiz, which means he has memorized the entire Koran—translated for me. It was a song about the cruelty of beautiful women, he said, about the rigidity of their hearts and the shallowness of their sincerity. Then the men shifted to Urdu, the language of the Mogul poets and Sufi mystics. They sang of how the affection between men and women has the power to transcend social caste. They sang about an aspect of love so complex and subtle that Yasin said it was impossible to translate and advised me to just sit back and enjoy the music.
After the singing stopped, Yasin and I stepped outside. The moon was surrounded by a rainbow-colored ring, harbinger of a storm, and the peaks were cast in a milky glow. From the shadows came a disembodied voice in Urdu.
“Beautiful night, sir.”
“Mehboob, is that you?” said Yasin to a lone sentry who had volunteered to stand watch so that his companions could hobnob with the guests.
“Captain,” I said, “could you ask Mehboob what it feels like to stand watch on a night like this?”
Yasin asked, and the reply came floating down.
“Mehboob says that a night such as this makes him feel good because he can see forever, and this helps him to perform his duty of observing the enemy. And he also says that the moonlight gives him a feeling of much refreshness.”
“Yes. Much refreshness.”
Before ducking back inside, I took a long look. Somewhere out there, roughly 14 miles to the northeast, lay the Siachen—the heart of the conflict. To reach it, we would have to retrace our steps back to Islamabad; fly to Dubai, then to New Delhi, and then to Ladakh, the most remote and northern part of Kashmir; and from there drive up to the glacier—a loop of more than 3,000 miles to get to a place I could almost see from where I stood. All because of a four-inch line on a map.
BEFORE LEAVING PAKISTAN, I heard quite a few remarks about Narinder “Bull” Kumar, a legendary Indian military man and mountaineer, and none of them were complimentary. “Colonel Kumar is the man who started all this,” Major Tahir had fumed. “I have no wish to meet him—that bastard.”
The insults did little to prepare me for the bald, friendly man who was brimming with good humor and charm when we met at the New Delhi airport. Kumar, now 69, is short and powerful, still packed with thick muscle from his days as a climber. He has a thin white mustache, an endearing propensity for laughing at his own jokes, and an enormous fondness for beer. Kumar’s family originally came from Rawalpindi and moved, just before Partition, to what is now the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. After graduating from the Indian Military Academy in 1954, he joined the army and was earmarked for the cavalry. But in 1958 he got the chance to attend the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, run at the time by Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who summited Everest with Hillary. Inspired, Kumar flung himself into high-altitude mountaineering and began racking up notable achievements.
In 1965 he handled the logistics for India’s first successful expedition to Everest, which placed nine men on the summit, then a record. In 1970 he led the first recognized ascent of 23,997-foot Chomo Lhari, the highest mountain in Bhutan. And in 1977 he headed up the first ascent of the difficult northeast spur of Kanchenjunga. The nickname Bull comes from his tendency to charge relentlessly into whatever he’s doing. He’s a national hero in India, the star of seven films, six books, and two postage stamps. These days he’s a successful businessman in New Delhi and, with his 32-year-old son, Akshay, runs an adventure travel company called Mercury Himalayan Explorations, which we had hired for the task of getting us to the Siachen Glacier.
Kumar’s involvement with the Siachen dates back to 1977, when he was approached by a German rafter who wanted to undertake the first descent of the Nubra River from its source at the snout of the glacier. The man brought Kumar a map of northeastern Kashmir that had an unusual feature. Beyond NJ9842, the point where the Kashmir cease-fire line ends and an invisible line was supposed to run “thence north to the glaciers,” the map depicted a straight line canting off at a dramatic northeastern angle and terminating on the Chinese border at Karakoram Pass. The story behind this line, which suggested that the Siachen Glacier lay squarely inside Pakistan, remains mysterious to this day. One theory, however, is that it was drawn by the U.S. military.
Back in 1962, India and China got into a brief war over the Aksai Chin, a 15,440-square-mile section of high desert east of the Karakoram that was claimed by both countries. Several months before the fighting ended (resulting in a crushing defeat for India), the U.S. government provided an airlift to aid beleaguered Indian troops. Five years later, the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency, a division of the Defense Department, published a Tactical Pilotage Chart for northern Kashmir. TPCs, which are designed to help military pilots avoid trespassing into another country’s airspace, sometimes delineate borders by making reference to prominent geographical features easily distinguishable from the air. Karakoram Pass, which stands out among an otherwise indistinguishable sea of snow-capped peaks, was one of these.
Whatever its murky origins may have been, the DMA’s Tactical Pilotage Chart for 1967 was the first recorded instance of the line connecting NJ9842 to Karakoram Pass. Over the next several years, it was reproduced by some of the most prominent publishers in international cartography, which often use DMA maps as a source of information. “When I saw this map,” Kumar told me, “it didn’t take more than a split second to say it was wrong! I was the one who discovered this.”
In short order, Kumar got his hands on journal reports from the international expeditions that had traveled from Pakistan into the Siachen. In January 1978, he took his findings to Lieutenant General M. L. Chibber, India’s director of military operations. Chibber quickly obtained permission for Kumar to mount a reconnaissance expedition to the Siachen. That summer Kumar led 40 climbers and 30 porters up to the glacier’s halfway point, and from there a summit team of three completed an ascent of 24,297-foot Teram Kangri II. The team also came across the sort of evidence that Chibber was looking for.
“We found labels from tin cans and cigarette packs with Pakistani names, German and Japanese equipment,” recalled Kumar. “It was this that convinced the government of India that Pakistan was going where it should not have been.”
In the summer of 1981, Kumar went back with a 70-member team and completed a snout-to-source traverse of the glacier. In eight weeks, they climbed Saltoro Kangri I (25,400 feet) and Sia Kangri I (24,350), hiked to the top of Indira Col (the watershed at the north end of the glacier), and skied Bilafond La.
“There wasn’t a soul there,” Kumar recalled of those adventures. “There was so much to climb—so many uncharted high peaks! And those pinnacles—rock pinnacles going straight up! And small glacial streams—so blue and so cold! The view from Sia Kangri looking down on the Siachen was such a beautiful sight. Just like a great white snake… going, going, going. I have never seen anything so white and so wide.”
Later that year, Kumar published an account of his journeys in the newsmagazine Illustrated Weekly of India. This set off alarms in Pakistan, and by the summer of 1983 military expeditions were probing the glacier on both sides. By then Chibber had been sent to Leh and was running India’s Northern Command. He concluded that the only way to secure the glacier was to preempt the Pakistanis and seize Bilafond La and Sia La. In mid-April 1984, two platoons of Ladakh Scouts were airlifted onto the Siachen. On April 17, two Pakistani helicopters were sent out for reconnaissance, one of them piloted by Colonel Muhammad Farooq Altaf. They reached Sia La that afternoon.
“We could see a party of Indian soldiers,” recalled Altaf, who is now retired and lives in Islamabad. “I was in the number-two helicopter, and the number-one helicopter had just turned back when one chap started firing. In our postflight check after returning to Dansam, we found bullet holes near the tail rotor. These were the first-ever bullets fired in Siachen.” He shook his head and smiled. “They beat us by one week. Too bad.”
General Chibber’s strategy had worked. But he soon realized that if they wanted to retain control of the passes, Indian troops would have to spend the winter at altitude. This was a new kind of warfare, and Chibber used every trick he could think of to stack the odds in India’s favor. He flew in prefabricated fiberglass igloos designed for Antarctic expeditions. He persuaded the Dalai Lama to confer a special blessing on a set of silk bracelets for the Ladakhi troops. In February 1985, the Pakistanis attacked Bilafond La but failed to dislodge the Indian troops. When spring arrived, Chibber’s men were still in place.
“And that’s when the race started,” recalls Brigadier Muhammad Bashir Baz, who commanded a Pakistani helicopter unit in the Siachen theater from 1987 to 1989. “Each side started climbing any peak they could. Then the other side would go and occupy a neighboring higher peak. And so on, and so on, until they reached 22,000 feet. That is how this war unfolded.”
AFTER MEETING KUMAR, Teru and I flew to Leh, the 11,500-foot capital of Buddhist Ladakh. There we met Yaseen, our uncontainably cheerful Kashmiri guide, and a liaison officer assigned by the Indian army to chaperon us on our trek across the glacier: Somnil Das, a 24-year-old infantry captain who had recently spent four months commanding a post above Bilafond La. His job was to make sure that we didn’t see anything we weren’t authorized to see.
To get from Leh to the snout of the glacier, we hired two jeeps and headed in a snowstorm up the single-lane road that ascends through miles of steep switchbacks before it crosses Khardung La, at 18,380 feet the highest paved highway pass in the world. We descended into the Nubra Valley. The surrounding ridges were naked and brown, as smooth as a fossilized dinosaur bone. The snow turned to rain, the rain ended, and the afternoon filled with a pale lavender light. Now the road started climbing again, and flowers appeared: the wild, tangled Sia roses that gave the glacier its name. Das swiveled around in the front seat.
“Hey, would you guys like to hear some rock?” he asked, shoving a tape of Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion II into the jeep’s cassette deck.
“So what exactly happened to these guys?” asked Das. “I heard that they all became drug addicts and that the band is no more.” Teru informed Das that while various members of the band have had their problems, Axl Rose is still around.
“So Slash is no longer there?” asked Das plaintively. Teru shook his head.
“That’s really a shame. That guy was too good on the guitar. I used to love listening to him at my post.” He stole a glance out the front windshield.
“Okay,” he said. “That’s it, the snout of the glacier. Can you see the pinnacles? Total ice. Absolute ice.”
There it was, immense and gray and hulking, a 200-foot wall of boulders and gravel and muddy ooze. It plugged the entire valley from end to end, surrounded by 19,000-foot fangs shooting almost straight into the air. From a dark hole beneath the ice roared the Nubra River, roiling and chalky, laden with grit.
Base camp for the Siachen theater is tucked into the western side of the valley, just short of the snout. Little more than a dirt lot holding about 35 brown-and-green rectangular buildings, it is the nexus for the world’s highest, most expensive, and longest-running military air operation. Two days earlier a glacial surge of ice and boulders had coughed out of the mouth of the Nubra and obliterated the steel suspension bridge leading to base camp. We turned onto a temporary bridge that the engineers had thrown up in 24 hours and rattled across, passing under a brightly painted sign that announced, HERE FORTITUDE AND COURAGE IS THE NORM. Up ahead was a tall pole that displayed a bright green flag.
“Green indicates there’s no casualties on the glacier,” explained Das. “A red flag signals that someone has been injured. Black means death.” Our jeeps came to a halt. “Well, we’re here,” he said. “Welcome to the Siachen.”
WITH DAS IN THE LEAD, our party set out on foot. The plan for the first day was to hike five hours to Camp I and rest overnight. From there we would follow a northwesterly route, passing through Camps II and III, until we reached Kumar Base, about 25 miles into the middle of the glacier. The whole trek, to Kumar and back, would take nine days.
It was late September by now. The autumn snows had already begun, and each day the temperatures, which hovered in the thirties, seemed to drop more. We slept in the tents or in the fiberglass huts; we ate meals that Yaseen prepared by the light of a candle stuck to the lid of an oatmeal can. One morning, about an hour before the sun hit the ice, Yaseen came into the tent and beckoned me outside. “Come! Come!” It was our first clear day; the sun was turning the tops of the peaks gold. “Look at the faces of these mountains!” he marveled. “See how beautiful they are? See how special? The mountains here, they tug at your heart.” He grabbed the front of my jacket and gave it a sharp yank. “We call this kashish, which in Urdu means Ôattraction’ or Ôpull.’ Can you feel it?”
What I felt was a low vibration coming from the rotor blades of three high-altitude Cheetah helicopters beating their way up the glacier in close formation. They looked like tiny green insects—delicate, bulb-headed dragonflies with red underbellies. This was the first of more than 17 sorties moving supplies up to the bases and posts that day.
Our progress was slow but steady, with Captain Das gradually revealing a few things about himself as we trudged. Most Indian officers come from parts of the country that have long-standing military traditions, such as the Punjab. Das is from Bengal, a place better known for producing poetry, philosophy, and India’s first Miss Universe. He grew up in Calcutta, acting in theater companies and singing for a band called Trash Pool. He was studying to be an accountant when he abruptly decided in May 2000 to enter the Military Training Academy in Madras. Six feet tall, with dark skin and black hair, Das has the rigid bearing of an officer coupled with a sad-eyed air. He volunteered to serve on the Siachen because, as he put it, “I’d never been on anything adventurous before, and I thought it would be good.”
His post, whose name he refused to disclose, is at 19,700 feet and is one of several key positions the Indians hold above Bilafond La. It looks directly down on Tabish, the besieged Pakistani post where Captain Safdar endured the rockslide. It took Das and his squad more than two weeks to trek up the glacier from base camp; the final stretch required an ascent up ropes anchored to a 460-foot ice wall. They got there on January 21, 2002, and spent the first week getting used to the shelling.
The Pakistanis fired an average of ten rounds every 24 hours when the weather was clear—usually after lunch, but also at night. Each incoming shell announced itself with a sizzling wail. At the first sound of a barrage, Das would order his squad to take cover in a nearby ice cave while he and two other soldiers took lookout positions. Most of the shells landed in soft snow and were duds; only those that struck rock or ice would detonate—unless they were airburst shells, which have fuses timed to explode before they hit the ground. “The splinters come out sounding like a hundred people screaming,” said Das. “You have no idea where the next shell is going to land. It’s terrifying.”
By the middle of February, Das and his men had adapted to the shelling and the sleep-all-day, up-all-night routine. The cold was a different story. Even with all their clothes on—five pairs of socks, three pairs of gloves, a down jacket—they shivered miserably in their double sleeping bags. The latrine presented another problem.
“After a bunch of guys take a shit, it’s impossible to clear it away,” Das explained. “Pouring boiling water on it, or banging on it with an ice ax, won’t work—it just keeps building up. So those mounds, we would have to clean them with our machine guns. Cock an LMG—tacka-tacka-tacka—and it breaks into tiny pieces of rock-shit. They fly in the air. A couple times a week is enough.”
In March, a cake and a white puppy with black spots made the trip up the ice wall via a gas-powered winch. The cake was for Das’s birthday; he turned 24 on March 7. The puppy was named after the post, so Das refused to tell me its name. It slept in Das’s sleeping bag and survived on butter, rice, and chocolate. During Das’s downtime, he read his way through every book in the post’s “library,” including the complete works of Jane Austen and Into Thin Air.
In April the routine took a turn for the worse. “It just kept snowing and snowing and snowing,” said Das. “It was like somebody pouring truckloads of snow on top of you.” At three o’clock one morning, a massive avalanche wiped out an entire Indian post near Das’s ridge. Five men were killed. It took the 11 survivors more than eight hours to dig themselves out, under enemy fire. “This happened right in front of my post,” said Das. “It was like the sky breaking on your head.”
On May 21, Das and his squad were relieved, and he handed his dog over to the new commander. He had spent 120 days at 19,700 feet. No mountaineer in the world can make such a claim.
I asked if he ever wanted to go back.
“Never,” he said. “Not in my life. I went up to the post hoping for some action. But to have a shell land right on top of where you are, with the splinters flying, it scares the shit out of you. Once you’ve been under fire, you never want it again.”
IT TOOK US FOUR DAYS to reach Kumar Base, which sits at a point where two other glaciers come crashing in. From the northeast, toward China, the icefall from Teram Shehr cuts a broad swath across the east side of the Siachen. From the southwest, toward Pakistan, the Lolofond Glacier descends from Bilafond La in a gentle roll. The base floats above the surface like an ice ship. At the bow and stern are two platforms that serve as helicopter pads. In the middle is a warren of dirty parachute tents and fiberglass huts connected by a lane of wooden pallets. Running down the sides are streams of refuse and thin brown smears of frozen feces. In the distance, you can see other camps rising raggedly out of the moraine, each looking like it has just been through a ruinous siege. All of these are connected to Kumar by a four-inch-thick black plastic umbilical cord known as the K2 pipeline, which snakes up the center of the glacier. Once or twice a month, the pipe bursts. The breach is usually repaired within a few hours, but a big hole can result in as much as 7,000 liters of kerosene spewing onto the ice and draining into the crevasses.
From the top of Kumar, you have a splendid view of the Siachen’s white skin, the white peaks that wall it in, and a dense ring of odd white pillars stretching out from every side of the base. These pillars are the remains of 19 years of parachute supply drops. Over time, as the ice has melted and refrozen, they have risen about five feet above the surface. Most appear to have a head, shoulders, and a torso. There are thousands of them, and from above they look disturbingly human.
This scene is bizarre enough by day, but at night it becomes truly ghastly: a frozen necropolis of trash, a Golgotha of ice haunted by the spirits of the dead. When the wind subsides and the moon rises and you gaze out at the cordon of pillars shrouded in the pleated folds of the parachutes, it looks like you’ve been encircled by an army of ghouls, as if all the soldiers slain in these mountains have risen from their icy graves and gathered before Kumar to stand in mute judgment of what they have done to one another, and to the balance of nature. “This is the most depraved thing I’ve ever seen,” Teru whispered one night. “I don’t know if this is war. But it’s definitely hell.”
There is not much cause for optimism with regard to the future of this hell. Since 1986, India and Pakistan have sat down seven times to hammer out some kind of solution to the Siachen war. Although they’ve come tantalizingly close to an agreement more than once, the talks have broken down each time, and the Kargil incursion of 1999 drove a stake through the heart of any rapprochement for the foreseeable future. What’s worse—as if this situation could possibly get any worse—an end to hostilities on the glacier is inextricably tied to perhaps the toughest geopolitical mess of all: achieving peace in Kashmir.
Meanwhile, the corrosive detritus of war keeps metastasizing. The Indian army has an impressive scheme to try to clean the glacier by building a gargantuan aerial cableway that will cart supplies up and carry waste down. And Harish Kapadia, a well-known Indian mountaineer, is trying to galvanize a grassroots campaign to turn the region into an “international peace park” that Pakistan and India would share. But that seems highly unlikely. As Colonel Kumar told me back in New Delhi: “There’s no sharing to be done. The Siachen belongs to us.”
On our final evening at Kumar Base, I sat down on a rock to watch as a storm moved in over the Saltoro. The clouds were scudding along the tops of the peaks, and the sky was bruised a deep purple. I turned to the north. Somewhere up there, over on the other side of Bilafond La, the Pakistani soldiers at Tabish were gearing up to endure another night at their post. I looked south. Farther down the glacier, the men at Sher were undoubtedly doing the same. The storm would probably clobber both posts, but for the moment, the Siachen front was very still.
And then something strange happened. The wasteland disappeared and I saw only the great peaks, the great bowl of dark sky, the great ice serpent of the glacier. The sadness and despair of our journey fell away and left only desire: the desire to strike off across the glacier toward Bilafond La and climb its ridgeline. The desire to ski down the gentle slope of the Lolofond Glacier, as Colonel Kumar had done during that magical summer of 1981. The desire to go marching off toward Indira Col, to posthole up its sugary flanks and gaze into the white wastes of China. Like Yaseen, I wanted to come here without restrictions and without confinements; to set up a base camp with some friends; to scale every peak that struck my fancy, for as long as it took me to swallow them all or be swallowed up by them.
I wanted to do all these things, and I knew that they were all impossible. The most that was possible—and this was a lot, I realized—was to feel the pull of these mountains, a pull that is powerful enough to transcend the war and the squalor and the shame of everything else that has happened here. If you go to the Siachen, the very best you can hope for is to know the meaning of kashish.