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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.