"We never keep track," one captain who had served there told me, "because if one counts, he completely forgets himself." Tabish was established during a brutal firefight in September 1987, when the Pakistanis lost a crucial high post known as Qaid, then failed to push the Indians off the neighboring ridge. Last spring, when Captain Safdar was there, Tabish's problems were aggravated by an avalanche of rocks that damaged several bunkers. Safdar apparently acquitted himself well during this crisis.
"Your leadership was exemplary," the C.O. announced. "Young officers like you are the reason why we continue to dominate the enemy. Officers like you are the reason why we will ultimately prevail in this war."
Life at such forward positions is brutal, and the Indians begrudgingly admit that the Pakistanis are tough customers. "They are sitting right underneath us on an 80-degree slope," one Indian officer who was stationed above Tabish would tell me later. "We can throw grenades just like pebbles on top of them. It really takes guts to be there." Captain Waqas Malik, 26, who served at Tabish, grimly described the hopeless feeling of such positions. "Once a ridge has been occupied," he said, "you require a heart with the capacity of the ocean to accept the casualties you will incur in the taking of it."
Each high post is manned by a squad of six to 18 men commanded by a young officer, usually a captain, and space is tight—a couple of fiberglass igloos, machine-gun platforms, a latrine, and a tiny area for religious worship. Each soldier is in charge of a particular weapon: light machine guns (LMGs), mortars, anti-aircraft guns. The men stay out of sight by day and stand watch by night.
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.
"Sometimes in the winter, you see nothing but white," said Captain Jamil Salamat, 24, the medical officer at Ghyari. "And you think, Maybe I will never make it back. That is the hugeness, and the hugeness has its own effect. It's overwhelming. The snow is like an ocean up there."
In such extreme cold, the single most important resource is kerosene. Known as "K2 oil," it is used for cooking, melting snow for water, thawing out frozen guns, and keeping warm. It gives off a noxious smoke that coats the igloos with grime; for months after they descend, soldiers cough up black gunk.
Survival under these conditions requires specialized equipment. There are 112 separate items in a Pakistani soldier's high-altitude kit, including two types of oxygen canisters, three models of ice axes, three kinds of rope, 29 sizes of pitons, five different pairs of gloves, three types of socks, a puffy white down suit rated to minus 60, and a black plastic"nuclear-biological-chemical warfare face mask." The Pakistani gear that I saw seemed to be generally low-quality stuff; most of it carried the brand name Technoworld, which no one I spoke to in the outdoor industry had ever heard of. In contrast, Indian soldiers get state-of-the-art gear from a wide range of highly specialized Western firms like Koflach, Asolo, and Black Diamond.