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This is the last part of the exclusive report by kevin fedarko.
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 thiskashish, 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.