Siachen Glacier: Pristine beauty, and the war at the top of the world

Time Magazine: War at the Top of the World

Siachen Area Kashmir Map
  • In spite of the severe climate, the word `Siachen` ironically means `the place of wild roses`.
  • The glacier is the highest battleground on Earth, where India and Pakistan have fought intermittently since 1984.
  • Siachen is the world's largest non-polar glacier, and thus is sometimes referred to as the third pole.

A ceasefire has been in force on the Actual Ground Position Line in the Siachen area since the midnight of November 25, 2005. Nine round of talks have been held on Siachen and the 10th round is going to be held on May 23 and 24, 2006

T h e S i a c h e n G l a c i e r is located in the East Karakoram/Himalaya, at approximately 35.5 N 76.9 E. It is one of the five largest glaciers in the Karakoram, situated at an average altitude of 5,400 meters (~17,700 feet) above sea level. Most of the Siachen Glacier as is the LoC, a hotly contested territory between Pakistan and India.

The roots of the conflict over Siachen (the place of roses) lie in the non-demarcations on the western side on the map beyond NJ9842. The 1949 Karachi agreement and the 1972 Simla agreement presumed that it was not feasible for human habitation to survive north of NJ9842. Piror to 1984 neither India nor Pakistan had any permanent presence in the area.

Counting the cost of holding on to Siachen

Pawan Bali / CNN-IBN July 28, 2007

Siachen is an ironic name. The world?s highest battlefield, where soldiers battle bone-chilling cold, avalanches and biting wind, is named after the Sia rose. Siachen means a Valley of flowers.

Sepoy Gopal Das, 20, is new to Siachen. After a strenuous three-week training, Gopal would be certified fit and assigned to a post anywhere between 18,000-feet to 22,000-feet high. His duty would be to monitor over 49 miles of an inhospitable icy frontier.

?When I came here initially, I had headaches because oxygen levels are low. The training was bit difficult and I was scared initially,? says Das.

Indian Soldiers in Siachen

Every year over 7,000 soldiers are trained at the Siachen Battle School in high altitude warfare skills to fight the many dangers of Siachen. ?There are soldiers who have never seen anything like this. That is why he have special training for them, so that they are psychologically ready to deal with it,? says Major R K Sharma.

Once a soldier adjusts to the terrain, it is time for a trek: 25-28 days of treacherous walk to glacier posts. The temperature at these posts dips below minus 45 degrees, and the wind chill may bring down the mercury by another 15 degrees.

The first challenge of high altitude is hypoxia, or in lay man terms low oxygen. The second challenge is cold,? says Lt Col Anuj Chawla, Officer in charge, High Altitude Research and Medical Centre, Leh.

There are lots of things which can harm or kill you in Siachen: ice crevasses where temperatures slip to minus 200 degrees, avalanches and ice storms, exposure to ultra-violet radiation, frost bytes, dehydration, extreme weight loss or even a rare case of snow blindness.

High altitude pulmonary oedma, a condition in which the lungs fill up with fluids, was a major cause of death once and still constitutes around 60 per cent of hospital admissions. ?Despite the best of training you still cannot be sure who will succumb to what. Even the best of the fit men will come across a problem they are not trained to deal with,? says Major Sharma.

Soldiers posted in Siachen get a monthly incentive of around Rs 6,000 but the honour of serving in this tough battlefield is the greatest motivation. ?The inherent motivation factor is pride in the unit platan ki izzat (honour),? says Colonel D K Srivastava, of the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry.

Counting the cost in Siachen

India spends Rs 5 crore every day on Siachen. The cost in terms of lives is tragic. India and Pakistan have lost 3,000 soldiers here?more men died because of the weather than in combat.

A memorial lists the names of 800 Indians soldiers who have died here since Operation Meghdoot of April 13, 1984 when India first occupied the heights.

India and Pakistan have maintained a tactical ceasefire for yours years now but the cold icy terrain continues to be a silent killer. Four India soldiers died this year and 10 in 2006.

Siachen takes a heavy toll on the country?s coffers as well. A major portion of the Rs 5 crore India spends every day is just on ferrying supplies to the glacier.

Cheetahs and the Mi-7 helicopters carrying all supplies like ration, kerosene, medicines, fibre huts and snow scooters to the glacier. The helicopters are excellent workhorses but their missions are dangerous. There have been over 48 crashes in the glacier till date, many of which were fatal.

?The terrain poses a lot of problems. There wind patterns change and the helicopters fly through narrow valleys. The helipads are close to ledges,? says Lt Colonel RPS Bajwa, Officer in Command, Aviation Detachment.

The maximum load a Cheetah can carry inside is 220 kg, and if it is under-slung (load tied to the copter) the limit is stretched to 300 kg. But as temperatures rise, the load carrying capacity decreases. Flying in every little requirement costs a small fortune

?The flying hour on an aircraft costs around Rs 60,000 and there are times when we can carry only one jerry can. So it?s a huge effort the country is sustaining troops here,? says Lt Colonel Bajwa.

To sustain troops, kerosene is vital. Every solider is rationed three litres daily to keep warm and to cook. The army has now laid pipelines all across the glacier to cut down the cost of transporting kerosene, but the extreme cold freezes the supply.

"We found pumping is economical but it needs lot of maintenance. The pipelines burst and the pumps and oil freeze,? says Col Shrivastava.

The spiraling costs of Siachen have always triggered debate. Does India need to plant troops here? It doesn?t, says defence expert Amitabh Matoo, Vice Chancellor of Jammu University and a member of the PM?s task force on global strategic developments

?Siachen glacier doesn?t have any inherent strategic value. It only has a symbolic value,? says Matoo.