Siachen in 1930, long before it became the world’s highest battlefield

Image: Reuters/Pawel Kopczynski
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The 72 km long Siachen glacier, in the East Karakoram is one of the longest glaciers in the Himalayas. It has a number of peaks, several side valleys and at its head lies the Indira Col, the divide between south and central Asia. The Nubra river drains the glacier and ultimately joins the Shyok river near Khalsar. To the west lies the West Karakoram (now under Pakistani control) and towards the east is the Shyok basin, bordering China. The northern slopes of the Indira Ridge lead to the Shaksgam valley.

Many explorers visited the Siachen glacier from 1875 onwards. Several points of geographical disputes were settled by their observations. Prof. Dainelli in 1930 completed much scientific research of the Siachen.

From 1984 a high altitude war has raged on its heights between Pakistan and Indian forces, claiming many lives. The war raged till 2003, when a cease fire was agreed. But the soldiers are still occupying high posts and face the altitude and inclement weather, paying a price.

My taking part, as geographer and naturalist in the De Filippi Expedition of 1913–14—the expedition of longest duration, widest organization and largest programme of scientific research ever made to the Karakoram—had left in me such a strong desire to return, that one fine day I worked out a programme for an expedition of my own.

But one valley, in particular, had remained outside the area of my travels: the Nubra valley. And at its head there is the gigantic tongue of the Siachen, the largest glacier of the whole range. Nothing was known of the geology of its immense basin, and this gap in our knowledge was of no small importance for the reconstruction of the geological structure of the Karakoram and for the history of its formation and upheaval.

The Siachen glacier could not be called unexplored; but unknown was still its actual connection with the neighbouring Rimo glacier. I may be allowed to recite briefly the history of Siachen’s discovery and exploration. The upper Nubra valley itself had seen few European visitors and was known to be difficult of access, on account of the numerous fords. Of the old travellers only Moorcroft, in 1821, had reached it, followed by Vigne in 1835, Thomas Thomson and Henry Strachey in 1848, and Drew a few years later. Then we come to recent times, signalled by some unsuccessful attempts, and by two successful ones: those of Longstaff in 1909 and of the Vissers in 1929. 

Of the old travellers only Strachey ventured on to the glacier, but even he turned back after about two miles on account of the difficulties encountered on the way. And since his time till Longstaff’s visit the Siachen was shown on maps with very modest dimensions, since it appears to anyone approaching from the head of the Nubra to be cut short by a large rocky wall.

It was in 1909 that Dr Longstaff, coming from the Saltoro valley and ascending the Bilaphond glacier to the top—the Bilaphond La or Saltoro pass—descended another glacier on the far side and discovered that this joined an immense glacier, hitherto unknown. At the time he could not see the end of it and found it difficult to ascertain its general direction. Following Sir Francis Younghusband’s suggestion, Dr Longstaff ascended the Nubra valley a few months later— as soon as the river allowed him to do so—and reaching the Siachen snout, ascended the glacier for a few miles, to a point whence he could recognize in the distance the great mountains which he had seen, a few months before, enclosing the head of his unknown glacier. Thus the immense size of the Siachen was first discovered; Dr Longstaff made a sketch-map of it, which, considering the rapidity of his travels and the huge area of the glacier, is astonishingly accurate in its topography.

Dr Longstaff’s tracks from the Saltoro valley were followed in 1911 by the Workmans, who considered the Siachen glacier worthy of a whole expedition. They returned by the same route the following year, 1912, remained on the glacier less than a month and a half, made a good map of it and left it again towards the west. They affirmed, however, the inaccessibility of the glacier from its tongue, and attempted to find a pass eastwards to the Rimo. In 1929 the Visser’s ascended the glacier from its tongue for some five miles and then left it to explore a large valley draining into the Siachen from the east.

I should here mention the fact that my expedition was organized on my personal initiative. According to my original programme my companions would have been three; Miss Ellen Kalau, a strong alpinist and ski-runner, belonging to a family of travellers and naturalists, and to whom I intended to entrust many tasks. Dr Desio, my former pupil, who was already acquainted with the region, and Hashmatullah Khan, formerly Wazir-i-Wazarat of Ladakh, an old acquaintance of mine. At the last moment Dr Desio’s duties in Italy obliged him to renounce joining the expedition.

The Siachen had to be reached before the melting of the snows caused too great a rising of the Nubra waters. Rapid marches, therefore, were made towards Leh. After five days at Leh I left with the camp and crossed the snow-bound Digar La on foot and under bad weather conditions. In the Nubra valley I picked up the provisions previously ordered there, thus reaching the Siachen tongue, with all my baggage, a caravan of seventy coolies and six-and-a-half tons of food for the men, carried by an additional caravan of ponies and supplementary coolies. On the 9th of June—exactly two months after my departure from Florence—I was heading for my first depot up the glacier. I hope my English colleagues will appreciate this rapidity of execution, which I consider a record!

Progress on the glacier was naturally slower: indeed I could not augment my means of transport, and my loads, especially those comprising provisions for the caravan, were very numerous. In fifteen days I covered about half the glacier, reaching the place where its main affluent, the Teram Shehr, enters from the east. On the junction spur, at a spot well sheltered from the wind but well exposed to the sun, and on ground unusually covered with abundant vegetation of grass, flowers and burtse, I established my base-camp, which, was to remain there for nearly two months.

The base-camp was in a particularly favourable position: at about half-way up Siachen and near the place where the Teram Shehr flows in from the east and the Lolophond glacier joins from west.

I had already made a collection Alpine flora during the De Filippi Expedition, but this one is certainly much more abundant and more interesting, because it presents a real oasis of vegetation, completely isolated amidst the surrounding glaciers. The fauna was also extremely rich, of vertebrates; amongst the latter the most seen were the Ibex, which approached our base-camp, sometimes in herds of several dozens.

This favourable situation owes its existence to a kind of small Ward curve of the mountain ridge, where it descends suddenly just before the Teram Shehr junction. A lateral tongue of the Teram Shehr glacier, in fact, projects into it. This abrupt inward curve of the slope had caused the formation of a small lake between the rocks of the slope and the ice-flow of the Siachen. This small marginal lake was most interesting to watch. 

My life at the base-camp became somewhat less free from anxiety during the second part. But the mail-runners who left on the second week found the Nubra river so swollen and impetuous that they risked their lives when trying to swim it. They returned to the base-camp without clothes, and covered with bruises and wounds. Thus I was definitely shut off from the world, in the middle of the Siachen, and a period of uncertainty began for me.

To return by the tongue of the glacier was now impossible; to quit it by the affluent leading to the Bilaphond La—the route of Longstaff and the Workmans—was against my wishes. To succeed I must make the crossing to the Rimo, a detail in my programme which remained an uncertainty, since the pass had been unsuccessfully attempted by the Workmans without a laden caravan and with excellent Alpine guides.

All useless loads were now sent back to the mouth of the glacier. Flour and fuel were sent ahead on the Teram Shehr. On the 7th August I moved camp towards our exit from the Siachen. As I had to bring over a ton of burtse fuel with me, there were about three loads for each man, and I was forced to repeat the marching tactics by which each stage required three days. I will here quote what the Workmans wrote about their ascent of the Teram Shehr glacier and their attempt to reach the watershed between the Siachen and the Rimo.

“Seen from the Rose [that is, the Siachen] this glacier [the Teram Shehr] appears to rise gradually for miles, but in reality its higher part was composed of three slopes broken by short snow-terraces, and its whole upper area was cleft by crevasses of a size and depth not met with on the Rose or its other large affluents. A wide plateau was finally reached lying at over 18,000 feet. This white sea is cut up by schrunds and chasms running in all directions. Leading the caravan cautiously in and out of this maze, we advanced slowly, until Savoye said the responsibility for him was too great, as the caravan might at any moment become engulfed in this vortex of seemingly bottomless chasms. We had wished to reach the end of the plateau, now quite visible, and see if any possible passage existed leading towards the Nubra and Rimo glaciers, but this was no smooth lustrous expanse, such as are some elevated plateaux in Himalaya, but a mountain-devil’s snow-continent set with death-traps to entice unwary men into their pitiless jaws.”

Added to our uncertainty regarding the route, was the bad weather. For nine days we had snow, thick fog and tempests of wind. Yet not the slightest incident occurred, although I could allow my men no day of rest. Through this perseverance came my best reward when, on the tenth day, having arrived just below the pass and overcome every difficulty, the fog lifted and was replaced by perfectly serene and peaceful weather.

The skis we had worn till then brought us nearly to the top of the pass at about 20,100 feet. From there the Rimo descended. I recognized its large basin and the slopes of black schists and pink dolomites. We made a rapid descent down the Rimo and crossed to the northern tongue, whence the Yarkand river rises. Sixteen years before I had found this tongue flattened and easy; now it was swollen and ended in a vertical wall some hundred feet high. On the evening of the 20th August, when I arrived there, I could find no line of descent, and the whole of the next day was spent in finding a way down, by no means an easy matter, especially for a laden caravan.

The difficulties of the journey were thus over. Near the Karakoram pass I found Hashmatullah Khan with ponies and provisions. Two weeks’ marching, across the Depsang and the Saser La, brought me again to the Nubra  valley. To the pass between the Siachen and the Rimo, reached and crossed for the first time by my expedition, and nameless until now, I have given the name “Col Italia” I hope that the Survey of India will accept it, in recognition of the contribution made by Italian travellers and scientists to the knowledge of the Karakoram.

Excerpted with the permission of Roli Books from Legendary Maps from The Himalayan Club: Commemorating 90 years of the iconic institution by Harish Kapadia. We welcome your comments at