Siachen: The world's highest cold war
By Nick Easen
(CNN) -- Mention Siachen to anyone bar Indians and Pakistanis and it will mean little, but for those on the sub-continent it is the ultimate symbol in the dispute over Kashmir.
For the nuclear neighbors, maintaining positions on the frigid Siachen glacier has come to symbolize the political and military resolve in this intransigent conflict.
Blazoned day-by-day in the local media, it is the world's highest battlefield, with troops stationed higher than most North American, European or African mountains.
At 6,300 meters (20,700 feet) India controls these breathless heights at an estimated cost of up to $1 million a day and is reluctant to back off for fear Pakistan might walk in.
Yet there is no doubt the logistical and physical challenge of supplying troops at sub-zero conditions beggars belief.
Ironically experts say the strategic importance of the glacier, where neither side had troops until 1984, is debatable.
After partition in 1947 no one bothered to extend the line of control between Pakistan and India up to Siachen because no one thought it was worth bothering about.
However, the 75-km (47-mile) glacier, one of the longest outside of the poles has come to represent a lot more.
Here soldiers are left to stare and shoot at each other across the line of control in a complex of trenches and bunkers.
Toothpaste freezes in its tube, speech can be blurred, frostbite and chilblains are common and plummeting temperatures can leave scores dead.
Yet plenty of volunteers file along the roads of Jammu and Kashmir up to Siachen in the belief that after serving -- and surviving -- a three-month stretch on the high front line they can expect a boost to their military career.
The fact is the human body continuously deteriorates above 18,000 feet and with winter temperatures of 70 degrees below zero, the inhospitable climate in Siachen has claimed more lives than gunfire.
But nothing seems to shake the resolve of governments in the warm capitals far away.
Any talk of a mutual withdrawal from the crippling environment is always referred to in the context of pulling back from the entire line of control -- something both nuclear-armed powers are unlikely to do, say observers.
As long as Pakistan and India remain at deadlock over Kashmir, troops will remain on the blizzard-blasted Siachen glacier.
It is likely that any eventual withdrawal from Siachen, which has claimed so many lives, will be less painful to give up than any other positions.
Largely unknown in the West
On the edge of the glacial moraine soldiers live in igloos called Bana or Bhim in Hindi and are served an extravagant menu whilst clothed in the expensive high altitude gear.
Mirza Aslam Beg, head of Pakistan's armed forces a decade ago, told Reuters news agency that supplying troops with a loaf of bread costs India two rupees (four U.S. cents) in the plains and 200 rupees on Siachen because it has to be taken by helicopter.
Not any ordinary helicopter but India's Indigenous Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) that can generate lift in the extremely thin air at this altitude.
The world's highest helipad also exists here at Sonam, at a height of 21,000 feet.
At these dizzying heights, breathing can also be a huge effort and many soldiers suffer from high-altitude pulmonary and cerebral edema, headaches and hypertension.
Facts about Siachen
The glacier is the most prominent feature of the Saltoro mountain range, which lies at the extreme northwest of India's Karakorum region.
Bordering on Pakistan and China it is an extremely pristine environment, yet environmentalists say that the military activities have sent tons of chemicals onto the surface of the glacier, polluting the headwaters of the Indus River.
In the near future Indian and U.S. forces are to hold joint mountain-warfare exercises in Alaska for the first time -- the climate and terrain in Alaska matches conditions in Siachen.