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“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.