"There wasn't a soul there," Kumar recalled of those adventures. "There was so much to climb—so many uncharted high peaks! And those pinnacles—rock pinnacles going straight up! And small glacial streams—so blue and so cold! The view from Sia Kangri looking down on the Siachen was such a beautiful sight. Just like a great white snake... going, going, going. I have never seen anything so white and so wide."
Later that year, Kumar published an account of his journeys in the newsmagazine Illustrated Weekly of India. This set off alarms in Pakistan, and by the summer of 1983 military expeditions were probing the glacier on both sides. By then Chibber had been sent to Leh and was running India's Northern Command. He concluded that the only way to secure the glacier was to preempt the Pakistanis and seize Bilafond La and Sia La. In mid-April 1984, two platoons of Ladakh Scouts were airlifted onto the Siachen. On April 17, two Pakistani helicopters were sent out for reconnaissance, one of them piloted by Colonel Muhammad Farooq Altaf. They reached Sia La that afternoon.
"We could see a party of Indian soldiers," recalled Altaf, who is now retired and lives in Islamabad. "I was in the number-two helicopter, and the number-one helicopter had just turned back when one chap started firing. In our postflight check after returning to Dansam, we found bullet holes near the tail rotor. These were the first-ever bullets fired in Siachen." He shook his head and smiled. "They beat us by one week. Too bad."
General Chibber's strategy had worked. But he soon realized that if they wanted to retain control of the passes, Indian troops would have to spend the winter at altitude. This was a new kind of warfare, and Chibber used every trick he could think of to stack the odds in India's favor. He flew in prefabricated fiberglass igloos designed for Antarctic expeditions. He persuaded the Dalai Lama to confer a special blessing on a set of silk bracelets for the Ladakhi troops. In February 1985, the Pakistanis attacked Bilafond La but failed to dislodge the Indian troops. When spring arrived, Chibber's men were still in place.
"And that's when the race started," recalls Brigadier Muhammad Bashir Baz, who commanded a Pakistani helicopter unit in the Siachen theater from 1987 to 1989. "Each side started climbing any peak they could. Then the other side would go and occupy a neighboring higher peak. And so on, and so on, until they reached 22,000 feet. That is how this war unfolded."
AFTER MEETING KUMAR, Teru and I flew to Leh, the 11,500-foot capital of Buddhist Ladakh. There we met Yaseen, our uncontainably cheerful Kashmiri guide, and a liaison officer assigned by the Indian army to chaperon us on our trek across the glacier: Somnil Das, a 24-year-old infantry captain who had recently spent four months commanding a post above Bilafond La. His job was to make sure that we didn't see anything we weren't authorized to see.
To get from Leh to the snout of the glacier, we hired two jeeps and headed in a snowstorm up the single-lane road that ascends through miles of steep switchbacks before it crosses Khardung La, at 18,380 feet the highest paved highway pass in the world. We descended into the Nubra Valley. The surrounding ridges were naked and brown, as smooth as a fossilized dinosaur bone. The snow turned to rain, the rain ended, and the afternoon filled with a pale lavender light. Now the road started climbing again, and flowers appeared: the wild, tangled Sia roses that gave the glacier its name. Das swiveled around in the front seat.
"Hey, would you guys like to hear some rock?" he asked, shoving a tape of Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion II into the jeep's cassette deck.