Across a rampart of rock and ice stretching the length of the 75-km Siachen Glacier, an Indian soldier, Amarjeet Singh, is preparing to take up his battle position against the Pakistanis. Singh had served on the glacier before, in 1989, at the height of the fighting with Pakistan, but he thinks his second tour of duty will go easier. Indian and Pakistani troops are no longer shooting at one another. They are mainly worried about avalanches and deadly high-altitude sickness instead. "It was much worse before," recalls Singh, who says he now has warmer boots to protect him against frostbite, and better ice axes. Once he gets to his mountaintop bunker, entombed under layers of snow, Singh, like the other soldiers there, can call home by satellite phone from their soot-blackened igloo, while waiting out the hour that it takes to boil rice at these altitudes.
Even with improvements in military equipment, Siachen is still an awful place to wage a war. Both countries refuse to disclose their casualties in the 21 years that they have been fighting up here, but some military analysts put the combined death toll at anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 lives. Temperatures can fall below -55°C; and more soldiers are killed in avalanches than by gunfire. To mount an assault on an enemy-held mountaintop is often suicidal. Because of the lack of oxygen, attacking soldiers can climb only about five meters before they have to stop to catch their breath. If you let bare skin touch steel for more than 15 secondsa finger on a trigger, for exampleyou risk severe frostbite. Says Rifaat Hussain, who teaches political science at Islamabad's National Defence College: "It's totally insane to be fighting a war at these altitudes."
Recently, TIME was able to visit both sides on the glacier and talk to soldiers involved in something that, if not the world's most insane war, is surely the war fought in the most insanely impractical place. But the Siachen Glacier is worth visiting for more than the spectacular scenery. It is both a potential flash point between two nuclear powersand potentially evidence of a new spirit of cooperation between them. The two neighbors nearly waged a full-scale war in 1999 when 800 Pakistani soldiers disguised as militants scaled a 5,100-m-high ridge near Kargil in Indian-held Kashmir and began shelling a major road used by the Indians to supply their Siachen outposts. India recaptured Kargil after suffering many casualties, but the Indians remain wary of the peace-making vows of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who, as army chief, had planned the Kargil offensive. Today, Siachen is more important as a test of diplomacy than of high-altitude battle skills. If India and Pakistan cannot solve a dispute over a chunk of ice that is of little strategic value, asks Jalil Abbas Jilani, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry spokesman and one of the key diplomats in talks with India, "then how can we fix more complex issues like Kashmir?"
It's a good question. In November 2003, India and Pakistan declared a cease-fire along their disputed border from the Siachen Glacier through Kashmir. The truce, which has held, is part of a thaw in the hostility between the two countries. Nowadays, Kashmiris can travel by bus across the hilly, barbed-wire front line to visit relativesthe first time they have been able to do so for 50 years. Businessmen are hatching plans to pump oil from Iran through Pakistan to India's factories, and Pakistani musicians and actors are heading for Bollywood spotlights. In June, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during a visit to Siachen, said he wanted to turn the battlefield into a "peace mountain." A few days later, India's army chief General Joginder Jaswant Singh said the Indian army had drafted a road map that would convert the glacier and its surrounding peaks into a demilitarized zone. However, years of mistrust bedevil the peace process. Neither nation wants to be the first to pull its troops off the ice for fear that the other would rush in. Vijay Oberoi, a former Indian army vice chief of staff and an influential military analyst in New Delhi, has doubts about Pakistan's true intentions. "We have suffered when we trusted them," he says. The Indians see their own position on the Siachen Glacier in grand terms. "The fact that India is on Siachen, and in control of it," says Lieut. Colonel J.S. Pundir, "is a sign that we can be a superpower." The Pakistanis are equally suspicious of the Indians. "We don't want to be here," says Captain Nazir, "but the Indians moved in first, and we've sacrificed a lot of blood to keep them from advancing farther into Pakistan."