Siachen Glacier: The story with pictures

Siachen Glacier: The story with pictures

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.

T h e S i a c h e n G l a c i e r

For more than 17 blustery, shivering years, the Indian and Pakistani armies have been fighting a "No-Win" war on the 20,000-foot-high Siachen Glacier, the world's highest battleground. Pakistan, like India, has about 10,000 soldiers camped on this glacier. For a soldier, this is where hell freezes over, a 46-mile river of slow-moving ice surrounded by stupendous towers of snow. Temperatures swoon to 50 below, and sudden blizzards can bury field artillery in minutes. Men sleep in ice caves or igloos and breathe air so spare of oxygen that it sends their hearts into a mad gallop. Fainting spells and pounding headaches are frequent. Frostbite chews its way through digits and limbs. They are prepared, both sides say, to battle on the roof of the world forever.


Indian army on Patrol

For more than 17 blustery, shivering years, the Indian and Pakistani armies have been fighting a "No-Win" war on the 20,000-foot-high Siachen Glacier, the world's highest battleground. Pakistan, like India, has about 10,000 soldiers camped on this glacier. For a soldier, this is where hell freezes over, a 46-mile river of slow-moving ice surrounded by stupendous towers of snow. Temperatures swoon to 50 below, and sudden blizzards can bury field artillery in minutes. Men sleep in ice caves or igloos and breathe air so spare of oxygen that it sends their hearts into a mad gallop. Fainting spells and pounding headaches are frequent. Frostbite chews its way through digits and limbs. They are prepared, both sides say, to battle on the roof of the world forever.


Map of Siachen TOI

The Siachen(the place of roses) glacier, 72 km, in the East Karakoram is one of the longest glaciers in the Himalaya and Karakoram. It has number of peaks, side valleys and at its head lies the Indira Col, the divide between South and Central Asia. The Nubra river drains the glacier and ultimately joins the Shyok river near Khalsar. On the west lies the West Karakoram (now under Pakistani control) and towards the east is the Shyok basin, forming the border with China. The northern slopes of the Indira Ridge leads to the Shaksgam valley.


Cheetah helicopter at Siachen

In 1949, after the first of three wars,the nations agreed to a cease-fire line that unfortunately stopped short of the remote massifs of north-central Kashmir -- a disputed area on the map where India, Pakistan and China rub shoulders.The wording in the agreement merely said the line was to continue "north to the glaciers." For two decades, this vague phrasing was of more concern to map makers than soldiers, but then in the 1970s and early eighties Pakistan permitted several mountaineering expeditions to climb high peaks on this glacier. This was to reinforce their claim on the area as these expeditions arrived on the glacier with a permit obtained from the Government of Pakistan. In many cases an liaison officer from the Pakistan army accompanied the team.


Indian Army using snowmobiles for patrol

Pakistan gave permission to a Japanese expedition to attempt Rimo peak in 1984. This peak is located in the side valley, east of Siachen. It overlooks the eastern areas of the Aksai Chin. Such an expedition would have firmly linked the western routes with the eastern routes, -- the trade route leading to Karakoram Pass and China. The Indian army decided to take action and to prevent such an expedition from proceeding. In April 13, 1984, the Indian Army made a "pre-emptive" move into the glacier to defend the territory and the peaks and passes around it when it launched "Operation Meghdoot". Within weeks, Pakistani forces swept in to oppose them, but the Indians have been able to hold on to the tactical advantage of the high ground. The last major gunbattle in the region was reported September 4, 1999, when India said Pakistani artillery and mortar fire killed nine Indian soldiers on the craggy slopes of Turtuk, near the 47-mile-long Siachen Glacier.


Mi-17's on a supply dropping mission

As of date, some 10,000 troops are deployed by Pakistan and a befitting number faces them on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control. To cater to such a large number of troops, about 6000 tonnes of load is flown into the Siachen Glacier every year. An almost equal amount is para-dropped there. This is achieved by the IAF's AN-32 aircraft and helicopters which serve as a 'lifeline' for the Northern Sector. The Kargil fighting showed India that the most uninhabitable, frozen land was not a sufficient barrier to intrusion. The Indian air force, trying to show that it is on the alert in a region even harder to defend than the sheer Kargil cliffs, has arranged a series of trips for photojournalists to see the Siachen operation. "Particularly since the Kargil war, the load of responsibility of the air force has increased," Air Vice Marshal S.K. Jain told journalists during the tour. "The forces are on alert, ready to meet any threat." The sound of incoming gunfire could be heard as the air force transports loaded up at Leh, on the approach to the Siachen Glacier.

Despite five layers of clothing, paratroopers shiver as they wait to board an air force transport at the world's highest air base at Leh. The AN-32A planes approach the stark runway at Leh in snowy mist, pushed by tail winds. The pilots navigate the steep mountains by sight. Higher on the icy Himalayan peaks, helicopter pilots battle downdrafts as they land on helipads to deliver precious supplies or rescue injured soldiers. The pilots stay on the ground no more than 30 seconds for fear of being shot. But cold kills more troops than bullets. Soldiers brought down to base camp often suffer hearing, eyesight and memory loss because of prolonged use of oxygen masks. Many lose eyes, hands or feet to frostbite. At the glacial heights, where even drinking water is from melting the ice on stoves, bathing is a rarity. Washing of clothing, too, is not possible. Hence, 14 pairs of thermal socks per individual are given for a 90-day stay so that the problem of washing at the posts is eliminated. But soldiers have to wash their clothing before depositing it back and leaving the glacier. Clothing used in the glacier is washed at the hot water sulphur springs on the banks of the Nubra at Panamik, a village near the base camp. Such is the rotation schedule that the washing goes on round the year. A serving Captain, just back from his glacier tenure, describes Panamik as the "world's biggest and highest dhobi ghat".


Indian igloos

Some army posts on the peaks are only 1,000 feet from Pakistani entrenchments. Cheetah helicopters fly in to retrieve wounded or sick soldiers and drop supplies to their comrades, who remain behind on the lonely promontories. The enemy is hard to see in the crags and craters in the vast whiteness -- and harder to hit. Rifles must be thawed repeatedly over kerosene stoves, and machine guns need to be primed with boiling water. At altitudes of 18,000 feet, mortar shells fly unpredictable and extraordinary distances, swerving erratically when met by sledgehammer gusts. While some troops fall to hostile fire, far more perish from avalanches and missteps into crevasses that nature has camouflaged with snow. This is especially so now in springtime, as the sun licks away several feet of ice and opens new underground cracks and seams.

But for all these logistical peculiarities, the Siachen conflict might be thought of as just another low-intensity border war -- were it not being fought between the world's two newest nuclear powers. Their combat over a barren, uninhabited nether world of questionable strategic value is a forbidding symbol of their lingering irreconcilability. "This is like a struggle of two bald men over a comb," said Stephen P. Cohen, an authority on the Indian subcontinent at the Brookings Institution. "Siachen is the epitome of the worst aspects of the relationship. These are two countries that are paired on a road to Oslo or Hiroshima, and at this point they could go either way."


Mi-17 dropping supplies

Most of India's many outposts are west of the glacier along the Saltoro Range of the Karakoram Mountains. These pickets are reachable to an enemy only after a strenuous climb and then a frontal assault, a near-hopeless task in such thin air. After 50 strides, even a well-conditioned man is gasping for breath with his muscles in a tremble. Seventeen years of refrigerated combat have brought only 17 years of hardened stalemate. The Pakistanis cannot get up to the glacier; the Indians cannot come down. "Nobody can win, no matter how long we fight," said Maj. Gen. V. S. Budhwar, the Indian commander in Leh, whose region includes Siachen. "But this is our land. It is a portion of our nation-state, and we will not cede it." Occasionally, some vital strategic importance is assigned to the Siachen area, with hypothetical aggressors flooding across mountain highways. More often, the conflict is described as a simple matter of principle. Imagine, people say, how America would respond if the Russians overran even a small, barren chunk of Alaska.

"Siachen is an awful place where you can step on a thin layer of snow and, poof, down you go 200 feet," said Gen. Khalid Mehmood Arif, the retired former vice chief of Pakistan's military. "But no nation ever wants to lose a single inch of territory, so Siachen has psychological and political importance. Its value is in ego and prestige." Arduous to live in, the Siachen area is beautiful to look at. Some of the world's tallest mountains fill the landscape, their snowy tops giving way to rivulets of white that glitter against the black and purple rock. It is a moonscape of mesmerizing pinnacles and ridges and drops. Ice formations rise a mile high. Clouds seem at arm's reach. The Indian base camp is at the very start of the glacier, which gently curves upward like a giant white tongue. Barracks, helipads, supply sheds, satellite dishes, a hospital and Hindu shrines are spread across several acres. It is clear the Indians have been here awhile and are ready to stay. The command post is carpeted. Curtains hang along the windows. "We have the heights," said Brig. P. C. Katoch, who runs the operation. In contrast with the superior vista those heights afford, he said, the Pakistani soldier sees nothing: "He hears a helicopter and shoots. He hears artillery and shoots. It's stupid. He doesn't know where he's shooting."


Supplies packed for loading on Mi-17

But being king of the hill is costly. The Pakistanis can resupply most of their posts by road and pack mule. At their forward positions, some as high as 21,000 feet, the Indians must rely on helicopters. The whirlybirds strain against the altitude like oversized bumblebees. Many an airdrop is swallowed by the snow. Both sides deploy about 3,000 soldiers. While the Pakistanis refuse to divulge how much they spend in Siachen, the Indians estimate the cost at about $350,000 to $500,000 a day, said Lieut. Gen. R. K. Sawhney, the army's director general of military intelligence. Transporting kerosene is one major expense. Some Indian soldiers live in igloos made of fiberglass panels. Six soldiers can sleep in jigsaw configurations, crowded into a room the size of a king-size bed. Others live in ice tunnels gouged out with a pickax. Either way, small kerosene stoves are the hearths they huddle around. The hissing competes with the howling of the wind. Black smoke seems to color everything, including a man's spit. The highest perches are occupied by only a handful of soldiers, and sleeping is rarely done at night, for this is the most likely time for the enemy to sneak up. Sentry duty is bleak work. Hot water bottles do not stay hot for long. A relay must be set up to exchange frozen rifles for defrosted ones.

During storms, the heavy snowfall seems as thick as long, white drapery. The wind does pinwheels, and the basics of a hard life gets that much harder. "At my post, you have to use a crawl trench to get to the toilet," said Cpl. Joginder Singh. "When it snows, the trench fills up and you have to stand. The enemy can see you and that's how you die." It is difficult to know how many men have been killed. Some local news reports put casualty totals for both sides in the thousands, but this seems based on conjecture. The Pakistanis do not release such details, and the Indians say they have lost only the 616 soldiers whose names appear on a stone memorial at the base camp. The inscription reads: "Quartered in snow, silent to remain. When the bugle calls, they shall rise and march again."


Indian army on Patrol

To this day, Kashmir is the issue that most heats the blood of Indians and Pakistanis. "The roots of the Kashmir problem are very tangled, but as far as the glacier goes, this is simply a matter of Pakistanis sneaking their way into a place that doesn't belong to them," said India's Lieut. Gen. M. L. Chibber, retired, who is central to the Siachen saga. An amiable man who left the army in 1985, General Chibber now follows the guru Sai Baba and speaks easily about the futility of war. In 1978, however, he was a commander with responsibility for Siachen. He was alarmed to learn that the Pakistanis were accompanying mountaineers to the glacier. Just as troubling were maps printed in the West. They showed Siachen as part of Pakistan. By the early 80's, both armies were sending expeditions into the area, and suspicions accumulated like fresh snow. In late 1983, the Indians became convinced the Pakistanis were about to seize the glacier, General Chibber said. This was inferred from intercepted communiqués. If further evidence was needed, he said, it came when India sent procurers to Europe to buy cold-weather gear. They ran into Pakistanis doing the same shopping.

India's "pre-emptive" takeover of Siachen was called Operation Meghdoot after the divine cloud messenger in a Sanskrit play. It soon came to seem a burdensome success. Like over-eager chess players, the Indians had failed to plan several moves ahead. "No one had ever carried out military operations at these altitudes and temperatures, so we figured after the summer ended, we'd have to pull out," General Chibber said. "But with the first snows, we realized it was possible to stay up there all winter. If we left, the Pakistanis would take the glacier and then we'd never get it back." In the conflict's first years, with the armies inexperienced at such a cold war, the number of casualties mounted quickly. Valiant, if foolhardy, assaults were attempted. Frostbite, snow blindness and pulmonary and cerebral edema took a huge toll. Daring raids are now rare, the Pakistanis say, though the Indians often boast of victorious defensive skirmishes, killing three here and a dozen there. Each side makes claims the other vigorously denies.


Indian artillery

These days, the blasts of artillery and mortar shells are the war's steady cadence. "We fire at them and they fire at us, but this is not a place where the usual calculations of trajectory and distance apply," said Capt. Hamid Mukhtar, a Pakistani artillery officer. Captain Mukhtar was serving at a forward post at 18,000 feet, near a ridgeline known as the Conway Saddle. "There are crevasses on either side of these paths," he cautioned as he walked. "Step into the wrong place and you will go to meet God beneath the snow." Daily patrolling is necessary, if for no other reason than to tread on a marked trail so it will not disappear. In February, in a typical catastrophe, an avalanche crushed 13 Pakistani soldiers tethered together with rope. A single survivor led the search that later recovered the pristine dead, their bodies preserved as if locked in cold storage. Melting leads to snow slides. The noontime temperature in early spring was 10 below, but the sun was bright enough to rapidly turn an exposed nose the color of a radish. Sweat is a problem because it becomes ice in a soldier's gloves and socks. Frostbite is then quick with its work. Even after a day's exertion, most soldiers have little appetite at these heights. Rations come out of tin cans. Fresh produce is rare. An orange freezes to the hardness of a baseball; a potato cannot be dented with a hammer.

Despite the hardships, both sides report an oversupply of volunteers. Stints in Siachen usually last three months or less. "This is my country's soil, and whether something grows here or not, I would gladly die to protect it," said Cpl. Mohammad Shafique, a Pakistani. Few soldiers know much about the other side's territorial claims, but they seem untroubled by doubt of the enemy's murderous skulduggery. While many people in India and Pakistan hope for rapprochement, others merely heap fresh animosity upon the old. Evil is presumed. General Budhwar, the Indian regional commander, said Pakistanis suffer from a "deformed growth," becoming brainwashed in school "with all the dos and don'ts" of Islamic fundamentalism. "Their very existence depends on being inimical to India," he said. One of his counterparts is Brig. Nusrat Khan Sial, who commands Pakistan's Siachen operation from the city of Skardu. He called the Indians "cowards" whose Hindu beliefs lack reverence for human life. He said he suspects they have used chemical weapons in Siachen, which the Indians vehemently deny. "It will be the Indians, not us, who will trigger this situation up to the level where both sides resort to nuclear weapons," he said.


Siachen service medal

Over the years, Siachen itself has been the subject of seven "major rounds of talks," said Robert G. Wirsing, a scholar at the University of South Carolina. Under various Governments ruled by various parties, negotiators have agreed that the conflict is futile -- and some have even called it lunatic. But one side or the other has always been too afraid of a double-cross to complete a deal. Domestic politics are also a hitch. Any compromise involving Kashmir looms like a lit fuse, especially to unstable Governments. So the two armies fight on, proud of conquering the elements if not each other. Their doctors have become experts at high-altitude medicine, their helicopter pilots adroit at skirting the cliffs. Solar panels are affixed to some igloos. On the Indian side, a kerosene pipeline is being completed. A ski lift will ferry soldiers across the canyons. A pulley system has begun to hoist supplies up the mountainsides. Bacteria are eating human waste in machines called biodigesters. "We have become specialists at high-altitude fighting -- probably the best in the world," boasted General Sawhney, sounding as self-congratulatory as his Pakistani counterparts. "We can tolerate the harsh elements. We have made livable conditions." They are prepared, both sides say, to battle on the roof of the world forever.