Oropolitics

Coordinate Point NJ9842:

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A Narrative Chronology of the Siachen Glacier Conflict and Mountaineering in the Eastern Karakoram

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July 18th, 1947: the Indian Subcontinent swelters in monsoon heat as it learns that the British Parliament has just passed the Indian Independence Act. In only one month, British India will cease to exist. The document stipulates that the territory be partitioned into two sovereign dominions, Pakistan and India. A border commission, chaired by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, with two respective representatives from the Muslim League and Indian National Congress, works feverishly to negotiate a line from the Arabian Sea, through the fertile Punjab, and over the mountains to the Chinese frontier. At the stroke of midnight on August 15th, Viceroy Lord Mountbatten formally dissolves the British Indian Empire. The Subcontinent descends into chaos.

On October 25, Maharaja Hari Singh, the Hindu ruler of Kashmir, a region dominated by Shia Muslims, signs an Instrument of Accession to the Union of India, citing Pakistani militant activity in his state as a pretext for requesting Indian military intervention.

India and Pakistan are immediately at war. They fight two more conflicts, in 1965 and again in 1971. Negotiating a cease-fire at Simla in 1972, both countries agree to a Line of Control (LOC) along which to separate their hostile armies. The LOC follows the high mountain divide northwest of the Kashmir Valley, before heading east – directly into the desert hulk of the Karakoram mountains.

But, at Coordinate Point NJ9842, the survey line stops. It seemed inconceivable to the UN commission that demarcated this boundary (originally surveyed in 1959) that either country would fight over such rugged terrain. The final wording of the 1972 Simla Agreement reads that from this point, the border will continue: “thence north to the glaciers”, presumably to the Chinese border.

East Karakoram Map, courtesy of the Alpine Journal.

In 1967, tactical pilotage charts printed by the United States Air Force begin to show the border as proceeding from NJ9842 in a direct line east-northeast to the Karakoram Pass, inadvertently awarding 1,900 square miles of disputed territory, including all of the Siachen Glacier, to Pakistan. Located to the northeast of NJ9842, The Siachen is the longest glacier in the Karakoram, and the second largest outside of polar regions. It flows east, feeding the headwaters of the Nubra River, before joining with the Shyok and making an abrupt, 150 degree turn to the west. Owing to it’s 70 kilometer length and zig-zag shape, many explorers and mountaineers, from Eric Shipton to Galen Rowell, have accessed the upper Siachen from Pakistan via two critical passes, the Sia La and the Bilafond La.

In 1975, a large Japanese expedition, approaching the Siachen via the Bilafond La, makes the first ascents of Teram Kangri I and Teram Kangri II. Apsarasas I is climbed the following year, also by a Japanese team approaching from Pakistan.

In 1978, India responds. The Indian Army launches its own mountaineering expedition to the region, and claims the first ascent of Teram Kangri II, in direct refute of the previously documented ascent of the mountain from Pakistan. Oropolitics, as journalist Joydeep Sircar describes this new and curious game of mountaineering for political purpose, is on the verge of precipitating an international conflict.

In 1984, it is announced that the Japanese will be conducting yet another expedition to the same region from Pakistan. The Indian Army launches operation Meghdoot and seizes the Siachen Glacier by military force. Pakistan mounts a fierce counter-attack a week later, but Indian soldiers already hold the high ground, and Pakistani commandos are unable to dislodge them from the Sia La and the Bilafond La.

In 1985, India invites teams from Great Britain and Japan to climb in the Eastern Karakoram, in an apparent maneuver to bolster their territorial claims in the region. The British head to the Rimos, while the Indo-Tibetan Border Police leads a joint-expedition with 5 Japanese climbers to Saser Kangri II, the highest unclimbed mountain in the range. Real-time firefights flare only 50 miles away as the team struggles to fix a line of camps up the mountain’s northeast ridge. On September 7th, 1985, four Ladakhi team members reach the western edge of the mountain’s summit ridge, and declare success.

“The peak is marked by a point on the eastern end of an almost 1 km long summit plateau…”, the 1985 Himalayan Journal notes after the account of their climb. “The western end of the plateau is also reported by this expedition to be of the similar height. It is felt, after study of available photographs and maps, that perhaps Saser Kangri II has two peaks, west and east.”

Classified maps printed by the Indian military would denote the western end of SKII’s summit ridge as being three contour lines, or sixty to eighty meters, lower then the East summit. Subsequent surveys of the world’s highest mountains would cite “Saser Kangri II East” as the 49th highest mountain in the world, labeling it unclimbed.

On August 24th, 2011, “Saser Kangri II East” – the highest summit of Saser Kangri II – is climbed in alpine-style by the American team of Mark Richey, Steve Swenson, and Freddie Wilkinson.

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By the year 2012, ninety-seven of the world’s hundred highest mountains have been climbed. The three which remain untrod:

  • No. 40, 7570 meter Gangkhar Puensum, located in the Bhutanese Himalaya
  • No. 94, 7250 meter Labuche Kang III, located in Tibet
  • No. 100, 7221 meter Karjiang, located in Tibet

This list is notable for the fact that every mountain is located in a region where access is tightly controlled. For mountain explorers of the twenty-first century, the Himalaya’s last unclimbed peaks exist in political, rather than geographic, wilderness.