Will the glacial wilderness of Siachen stage war, or will it be where ibex and snow leopard roam?
The militarization of the Siachen A glacier has attracted media attention only of late. Since the glacier lies in the most remote region of the Karakoram range, a year-round occupation of this Karakoram ice-giant was never previously attempted and the standard military strategy of occupying the heights has resulted in far more casualties from altitude than from gunfire.
The Siachen can be reached by foot through the Saltoro Valley, after a long, hair-raising jeep ride to Khapalu from Skardu, where Pakistan maintains an airfield. The Saltoro has traditionally been the avenue of access to the Siachen. Although the first European explorers did not cross the Bilafond La until 1909, local Baltis recount a history of cattle raiders from Yarkand (now in Chinese Xinjiang) crossing the Bilafond and the Siachen when the ice was less severe. This other route is from the Dansam Valley up the Bilafond glacier, and over the 18,000 Bilafond La into the Siachen basin. A few stone heaps and ruins of livestock pens along the Siachen’s lateral moraines indicate that hardy Yarkandis may indeed have once exploited Balti herds. Some locals say Yarkandis and Baltis once engaged in polo matches here. Whoever they were and for whatever reason they came, they left a large pile of horned ibex skulls at the only grassy oasis in a wilderness of ice and rock, a place called Teram Shehr or “Lost City,” located where the Teram Shehr Glacier joins the Siachen.
Of even greater significance are extensive carvings chiseled into polished boulders across from Dansam village. Stylized animals, horse riders bearing round shields, ibex figures and Buddhist stupas, here, as in other parts of Baltistan, indicate an ancient traffic over the high passes. In 1909, on the first crossing by a European of the now Indian-occupied Gyong La, high above Goma village, T.E. Langstaff found a stone cairn. Certainly the approach up the Nubra valley to the Siachen snout was never customarily used, nor was Nubra ever entered via the Siachen. Early 20th century explorers encountered treacherously deep water and rapid currents in the summer, coupled with shifting quicksands.
Visitors to Nubra, reputed to be the most peaceful. Buddhist valley Ladakh, were travelers on the arduous Leh-Yarkand trade route. The route left green and fertile Nubra at Panamik, and led up to the desolate, bone-strewn Saser La. The harmonious coexistence of caravan trade and Buddhist establishments continued in Nubra from the heyday of the Silk Route, some 1500 to 2000 years ago, until the early 1950s when the Chinese Revolution reached Xinjiang and closed off the Leh-Yarkand route over the Karakoram Pass.
Nubra stayed closed to outsiders after that. A part of Ladakh, it continued its ancient ways. Not until Chinese troops began occupying traditionally Indian portions of Ladakh in
1956, culminating in the Indo-Chinese war of 1962, did India begin to take more interest in the Tibetan cultural zone of Ladakh and commenced a large military build-up. India first had to construct a road from Srinagar over the Zoji La to Leh, on which busloads of tourists and daily army convoys travel today.
Pakistan, claiming Muslim Kashmir, clashed with India in 1956 and 1971. These conflicts led to increased militarization on both sides of the cease-fire line, but the line was drawn only up to the great Karakoram glaciers. Beyond was a remote and inhospitable region, in which neither side saw reason to define its line of control.
Since Longstaffs exploration of the Siachen basin in 1909, and until 1947, only a handful of international expeditions ventured onto the Siachen, via Baltistan or via Nubra. And from 1956 to 1977, 16 expeditions have visited the Siachen, all from the customary Pakistan side.
In 1978, an Indian Army expedition led by Colonel Narindra Kumar, forged a route up Nubra onto the Siachen. Col. Kumar headed India’s High Altitude Warfare School, formed as part of India’s response to the Chinese incursion in Ladakh. With official approval, and the aid of more than 1000 meters of fixed rope, Col. Kumar’s team reached the Siachen where they succeeded in making a second ascent of the 24,300 ft Teram Kangri II.
Curiously enough, this Indian expedition to territory assumed to be under Pakistani control, produced no discernible ripple in diplomatic circles. Perhaps the concerned Pakistani authorities were unaware of it; or perhaps they considered the Siachen open to only those willing to test their mettle against its great frozen heights.
After 1978, several more expeditions made it to the Siachen, again from the Baltistan side. In 1980, a second Indian Army expedition proceeded to climb on the Siachen, and again raised little fuss in diplomatic circles. But though India had begun to construct a more secure approach up Nubra, it still refused outside expeditions permission to enter via that route.
In 1981, the Advanced Mountaineering Course of the Indian High Altitude Warfare School, under the direction of Col. Kumar, elected to return to the Siachen with 15 instructors and 40 students. It was the largest single expedition ever to the Siachen. The Indians succeeded in traversing the Siachen on skis, visiting all the major passes, and climbing both Sia Kangri, (24,350 ft) and Saltoro Kangri (25,400 ft.)
This expedition drew more attention. The 1982 American Alpine Journal noted that the Siachen, previously considered part of Pakistan, was now also claimed by India. Pakistan claims that by 1982 the Siachen had become an important issue to India’s Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. Perhaps she was captivated by the curious identity of the name she shared with the Indira col on the northern Siachen border with China, or perhaps she sought to exert pressure on Pakistan and, indirectly, on her great Asian neighbor and Himalayan rival, China. Baltis claim that Indian troops began appearing at this time in the Balti villages just below the Kondus and Bilafond Glaciers.
Pakistan continued to allow access to the Siachen during 1983, but in 1984, India became aware of a Japanese proposal to Pakistan for an expedition to the Rimo glacier, an eastern arm of the Siachen. In April, Indian troops occupied the Siachen to forestall any such moves from the Pakistan side. In May, Pakistan closed the area to expeditions. Serious fighting ensued that summer, but Indian forces remained on the western passes leading to the Siachen.
Col. Kumar, who appears to have largely initiated India’s move on the Siachen, notified the A.A.J. editors that Saltoro Kangri and Sia Kangri, peaks above the west side of the Siachen, “are very much in India.” In 1985, India published regulations for expeditions to the Siachen via the no-longer restricted Nubra valley.
The 1984-85 Himalayan Journal viewed all this as “part of the Great Game,” a reference to the expansionist rivalry between the Russian and British empires, and the editor remarked that “proof of possession lies in climbing.” The same author remarked in the 1986 Alpine Journal that it is now India which gives permission for Siachen expeditions, which “shows who’s boss.”
What will become of this remote wilderness region? Will it be guns on ice? Or will it be a place of peace, a place of solitude amid the Karakoram giants, a place for ibex and snow leopards to play out their lives, a place visited by the occasional mountaineering party for a few weeks or a month, a place where we take only pictures and leave only footprints. War here, like anywhere else, is a deranged use of technology and development. It might as well be fought in outer space.
John Mock directs the World College West Programme in Kathmandu.