It is months since the ice avalanche triggered by a glacier that slipped at Giyari made headlines. The only hope is to look for the dead, a consolation adieu by the bereaved families and to bury the shaheeds with full military honours.
On the early hours of April 7, 2012, the wall capsized. The momentum generated jumped the ridges to hit the valley and roll onto the military base. Within seconds of settling, the below freezing temperatures gelled the blocks into an ice massif over a kilometre-long and hundreds of feet high. Once again this theatre claimed more soldiers due to the harsh geographical conditions than hostile fire?
As rescue turned salvage teams nibble through this massif, over 150 soldiers and civilians lie buried. With rising temperatures, this salvage operation has become trickier due to the endemically unstable nature of ice structures.
It is technically and historically indisputable that area of the Saltoro Range and Siachen Glacier right up to the Korakoram Pass belongs to Pakistan. In the Karachi Accord, both sides had left the area unmarked from NJ9842 onwards; an imaginary intersection of gridlines where the conflict begins. After the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict, India had held territory well short of the apex at Karakoram Pass, restricting the bottleneck from Saltoro to Aksai Chin (occupied by China) to less than 60 kilometres. The NE side of the triangle ran undefined along NJ9842. In intervening years of hiatus, India never claimed this territory while Pakistan freely allowed foreign expeditions with Pakistani liaison officers to visit the area.
In 1957, a British university expedition led by the legendary, Eric Shipton, reconnoitred Saltoro Range through Belafond La Glacier, and skirted through Siachen and Baltoro Glaciers back to Skardu with a Pakistani permit.
The first ascent of Hidden Peak (8064m) by a US team with a Pakistani climber in 1958 had explored various routes and chosen the longest approach from the base of Sia Kangri as the most practical.
The US maps of the area in the 1960s show the Ceasefire Line and later the Line of Control between Pakistan and India running from the last defined point in the 1949 Karachi Agreement, NJ9842, to the Karakoram Pass, thus putting the entire range of Saltoro Kangri and Siachen Glacier in Pakistan. This US map was frequently used during arbitrations at the Foreign Office levels and the UN.
In 1960, a joint Australian-American-British expedition to K-12 Peak, under the name of Saltoro Expedition, explored the area around K-12.
In 1962, a joint Japanese-Pakistani expedition led by T. Shidei made the first ascent of Saltoro Kangri following the South East Ridge route. This route is now under Indian occupation.
In 1975, a Shizuoka University team with 10 climbers and Captain Shaukat Nazir Hamdani climbed Teram Kangri (7465m) on August 10 and Teram Kangri II (7406m) on August 12/13. These are now with India.
In 1976, another Japanese party conquered the remote Apsarasas I (7245m). The Saltoro Range was now becoming a training ground for Japanese expeditions to venture at other 8000m peaks in Pakistan and Nepal.
It was the Indian occupation and retention of some areas of Kargil in 1971 that widened the funnel held by Indians and think adventure. In 1980s, the Indians began feeling their way towards the Saltoro range.
In 1982, the author explored the area as member of a Pakistani-Swiss-French mountaineering expedition right up to the mouth of Siachen Glacier. The expedition followed the traditional Sia Kangri route summiting the Gasherbrum I (8064m) in August. From our camp 4 that towered Sia Kangri, we took photographs of the Conway Saddle and Siachen Glacier. It was then that a high altitude porter Mohammad Hussain from Khaplu disclosed that there had been some Indian movement in the Saltoro Range the previous year. On the way back, the information was passed on to concerned military authorities at Skardu and the Military School of Mountaineering. We donated most of our high altitude equipment to the NLI battalion deployed in the area so as to check the Indian forays more effectively.
In 1984, the Indian forces occupied Siachen and the passes that led to it from the Saltoro Range. Pakistan reacted. Indian military presence is also a factor in the pollution and melting of the glaciers; the environmental damage of which the world tends to ignore. The Indian army has cut and melted glacial ice through application of chemicals receding glaciers at a rate of 110 meters per year. On the Pakistani side, glaciers continue to grow.
At high altitudes, rugged terrain interspersed with peaks, glaciers and moraines leave limited space for military deployments. Many times, the troops have to ride luck to escape the fury of nature. Giyari is one such tragedy.
A study of released photos and satellite images of Giyari reveal permanent nature of billets and encampments ignoring the massive overhang of ice (serac). The years that this overhang took to build up to this size indicate that the impending dangers were never factorised into the tactical appreciation of ground and weather; or, perhaps, the tempting and comfortable location limited any other choice.
Twenty eight years is a long time in an area where every step is dangerous. Perhaps, it was this feel safe that created a mental block to even reconsider shifting. The divisional headquarter needs to review the locations of all such bases, involve mountaineers, geologists and glaciologist in studies to ensure that our troops deployed in prohibitive conditions do not become sitting ducks and that there is a constant vigil on our environment.
As summers approach, the temperatures above 30C will thaw the ice walls leaving behind the dead, boulders and debris. Ironically, the location would again be safe for an undefined future as long as these pronging fingers of seracs are kept in observation.
n The writer is a retired officer of Pakistan Army and a political economist.