"They look like animals when they come down, unshaven, dirty, and thin as rods," said an Indian officer in September 2003, describing troops returning from a three-month stint on Siachen, where India and Pakistan had fought a war over an uninhabitable wasteland of snow and ice on their border since 1984. In November 2003, the two sides agreed on a cease-fire; since then neither has fired a shot. Yet thousands of men remain, still dying from the brutal conditions -- in April, an avalanche buried 140 Pakistani troops and their civilian staff alive. This week, senior civil servants from India's and Pakistan's defense ministries are meeting in Pakistan, but expectations are low. It is a measure of the peculiar intransigence of India-Pakistan relations that despite repeated calls for a negotiated settlement -- renewed by Pakistan's Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, after the avalanche -- neither country can find a way to bring their men down from the mountains.
This is a war that has thrived on superlatives -- the world's coldest, highest battlefield, fought many days' drive from the nearest city. Men posted to Siachen huddle in isolated posts along a jagged 68-mile-long front line, believe in ghosts, go half-mad from the unbroken white, and struggle to eat at altitudes where even walking is a strain. Far more have died from the effects of the weather and the terrain than from enemy fire. They have endured the physical scars of amputated, frostbitten limbs and the mental scars of premature aging, memory loss, and, some say quietly, impotence. "It is madness to be up there," said the officer, who declined to be named, speaking of the suffering, rather than the glory, of the Siachen War.
The blood feud between India and Pakistan, which began at independence in 1947, was initially based on ideology, the former secular and the latter Muslim. Yet Siachen was a single-minded battle for territory. Soldiers in both countries told me that "not 1 inch of land" could be ceded to the other side. And the result has been a fight with many casualties and little gain, employing World War I-style trench warfare at 18,000 feet.
Siachen is the largest of a number of glaciers -- giant, rubble-strewn, potholed, cracked open by crevasses -- that slide down from the jagged peaks of the Karakoram Mountains into the snow-filled valleys below. Nothing grows there; no animals can live there. The region lies on the outermost rim of the old kingdoms of Jammu and Kashmir. Since the times of the maharajah, it has been a place of myth. Only the bravest of explorers dared to go there, and those who did traveled in awe of the mountains. It's hard to imagine how anyone could try to own them.
And in the beginning, nobody did. After their first war, when India and Pakistan agreed on a cease-fire line dividing Jammu and Kashmir in 1949, they demarcated their positions as far as map-grid reference point NJ9842, from which the border was to be extended "thence north to the glaciers." At the time, there seemed to be no reason to demarcate the Siachen region. No one was ever expected to live there; it was literally a no man's land.
Then came the maps. They appeared in the 1970s, brought to India by tourists and travelers and showing the unclaimed Siachen glacier as Pakistani territory. India accused Pakistan of "cartographic aggression."
At the time, India had little to fear from Pakistan. India had just crushed it in the 1971 war when East Pakistan broke away to form Bangladesh. But it feared China. After defeating India in a humiliating border war in 1962, China built close ties with Pakistan. And Siachen lay at the point where India, Pakistan, and China met. In the summer of 1978, a team of Indian military mountaineers explored Siachen to make sure that Pakistan could not connect with China to the north. That first expedition found little to justify this fear -- the terrain was so wild that it took hours to cover a distance that in the plains would take minutes. The Indian team stayed for more than three months in Siachen, not so much to stake a claim, but to explore. "It was not a war," the leader of that first mission, Narendra "Bull" Kumar, told me in an interview in 2004. "It was a mountaineering expedition." There would be several others, enough to spook Pakistan into sending its own men.