Life in Siachen

"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. "


"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. "


"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."


"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."

"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."

Here soldiers are left to stare and shoot at each other across the line of control in a complex of trenches and bunkers.

Toothpaste freezes in its tube, speech can be blurred, frostbite and chilblains are common and plummeting temperatures can leave scores dead.

The fact is the human body continuously deteriorates above 18,000 feet and with winter temperatures of 70 degrees below zero, the inhospitable climate in Siachen has claimed more lives than gunfire.

If you let bare skin touch steel for more than 15 seconds—a finger on a trigger, for example—you risk severe frostbite.

Kumar described the glacier as "like a great white snake ... going, going, going. I have never seen anything so white and so wide."

There was no wind to disperse the odor that hung over Kumar like a malignant bouquet: raw kerosene, raw vegetables, raw sewage. I breathed it in, tasted it. Even by the standards of men who are too busy fighting one another to care about the damage they've done to a magnificent ecosystem, this was too much. 

These are the ambiguous words that are at the root of the conflict:"thence north to the glaciers.". Both the countries interpret North in their own way 

"Minus 50 at 21,000feet—it's beyond anything the human body is designed to endure," an Indian officer on the Siachen told me. "This is the ultimate test of human willpower. It's also an environmental catastrophe. And—no doubt about it—things can only get worse." 

Unlike mountaineers, who usually  climb during the best weather, Siachen soldiers endure the worst the mountains can throw at them, year-round. Avalanches are frequent and terrifying; their  thunder is so great that it's often impossible to distinguish from shelling. Blizzards can last 20 days. Winds reach speeds of 125 miles per hour; temperatures can plunge to minus 60 degrees. Annual snowfall exceeds 35 feet.  During storms, two or three men have to shovel snow at all times. If they stop,  they will never catch up and the post will be buried alive.  

Over 90 percent of the casualtieson both sides are caused by weather, terrain, and what mountaineers call  "objective dangers." Above 18,000 feet, the human body cannot acclimatize and simply starts to deteriorate. Soldiers fall ill, lose their appetites, can't sleep, and have problems with memory. Severe frostbite—all it  takes is touching a gun barrel with bare hands—can result in the loss of fingers and toes. The two most serious killers are HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema) and HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema). Men suffering from HAPE, an accumulation of fluid in the lungs, cough up a pink froth and can be  dead in a matter of hours. With HACE, fluid leaks from oxygen-starved blood essels in the brain, causing severe swelling, headaches, hallucinations, and dementia. Untreated, HACE can kill a man within 24 hours.    

"I don't know if this iswar. But it's definitely hell."  

"There's no sharing to be done. The Siachen belongs to us."

The trash mountains at Kumar base  are bizarre enough by day, but at night the scene is truly ghastly—a frozen necropolis, a golgotha of ice haunted by the spirits of the dead.