The Siachen Glacier is located in the eastern Karakoram range in the Himalaya Mountains at about 35.421226°N 77.109540°E, just east of the Line of Control between India-Pakistan. At 70 km (43 mi) long, it is the longest glacier in the Karakoram and second-longest in the world’s non-polar areas. It falls from an altitude of 5,753 m (18,875 ft) above sea level at its head at Indira Col on the China border down to 3,620 m (11,875 ft) at its terminus.
The Siachen Glacier lies immediately south of the great watershed that separates the Eurasian Plate from the Indian subcontinent in the extensively glaciated portion of the Karakoram sometimes called the “Third Pole.” The glacier lies between the Saltoro Ridge immediately to the west and the main Karakoram range to the east. The Saltoro Ridge originates in the north from the Sia Kangri peak on the China border in the Karakoram range. The crest of the Saltoro Ridge’s altitudes range from 5,450 to 7,720 m (17,880 to 25,330 feet). The major passes on this ridge are, from north to south, Sia La at 5,589 m (18,336 ft), Bilafond La at 5,450 m (17,880 ft), and Gyong La at 5,689 m (18,665 ft). The average winter snowfall is 10.5 m (35 ft) and temperatures can dip to −50 °C (−58 °F). Including all tributary glaciers, the Siachen Glacier system covers about 700 km2 (270 sq mi).
Indian army checkposts are located on the Siachen glacier. Due to the Siachen conflict, the glacier is also known as the “world’s highest battlefield”. GSM mobile service was launched in 2009 near the army base camp. There are no roads in the glacier region. On the Indian side, roads go only as far as the military base camp at Dzingrulma at 35.1663°N 77.2162°E, 72 km from the top of the glacier. Aside from Indian and Pakistani military presence, the glacier region is unpopulated. The nearest civilian settlement is the village of Warshi, 10 miles downstream from the Indian base camp.
Meaning of Siachen
“Sia” in the Balti language refers to the rose family plant widely dispersed in the region. “Chun” references any object found in abundance. Thus the name Siachen refers to a land with an abundance of roses. The naming of the glacier itself, or at least its currency, is attributed to Tom Longstaff.
The glacier’s melting waters are the main source of the Nubra River in India Ladakh, which drains into the Shyok River. The Shyok in turn joins the Indus River; thus, the glacier is a major source of the Indus. Global warming has had one of its worst impacts here in the Himalayas with the glaciers melting at an unprecedented rate and monsoon rains now appearing north of the mountains. The volume of the glacier has been significantly reduced over recent decades. Military activity since 1984 has caused general environmental degradation on the glacier, and may be contributing in a relatively small degree to localised melting.
The glacier’s region is the highest battleground on Earth, where India and Pakistan have fought intermittently since April 1984. Both countries maintain a permanent military presence in the region at a height of over 6,000 metres (20,000 ft). The site is one of the most eminent examples of mountain warfare.
Both India and Pakistan have wished to disengage from the costly military outposts. However, after the Pakistani incursions during the Kargil War in 1999, India abandoned plans to withdraw from Siachen without official recognition of the current line of control by Pakistan, wary of further Pakistani incursions if they vacate the Siachen Glacier posts without such recognition.
During her tenure as Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto became the first premier from either side to visit the Siachen region when she went to the area west of Gyong La. On 12 June 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the area, during which he called for a peaceful resolution of the problem. In the previous year, the President of India, Abdul Kalam became the first head of state to visit the area.
India-based Jet Airways plans to open a chartered service to the glacier’s nearest airlink, the Thoise airbase, mainly for military purposes. Pakistan International Airlines flies tourists and trekkers daily to Skardu, which is the jumping off point for K2, the world’s second highest peak just 33 kilometres (21 mi) northwest of the Siachen area, although bad weather frequently grounds these scheduled flights.
Since September 2007, India has opened up mountaineering and trekking expeditions to the area. The first group included cadets from Chail Military School, National Defence Academy, National Cadet Corps, Indian Military Academy, Rashtriya Indian Military College and family members of armed forces officers. The expeditions are also meant to show to the international audience that Indian troops hold “almost all dominating heights” on the key Saltoro Ridge and to show that Pakistani troops are not within 15 km of the main 70 km-long Siachen Glacier. Ignoring protests from Pakistan, India maintains that it does not need anyone’s approval to send trekkers to Siachen, in what it says is essentially its own territory. In addition, the Indian Army’s Army Mountaineering Institute (AMI) functions out of the region.
On 7 April 2012, an avalanche hit a Pakistani military camp in the area, burying at least 130 Pakistani soldiers.