Friday, September 14, 2007

kashmir's glacier opens to climbers as tensions thaw

By Jason Overdorf in Delhi
The Independent - 14 September 2007

Kashmir's treacherous Siachen glacier, battleground for the high-altitude standoff between India and Pakistan – sometimes termed "the coldest war" – is now set to become a tourist attraction.

In what has been pitched as a vote of confidence in a ceasefire that began in 2003, the Indian army announced yesterday in Delhi that it plans to open the 72 kilometre-long Siachen glacier to civilian trekking expeditions.

India and Pakistan – which have fought three wars for possession of Kashmir – are perhaps closer to a peaceful resolution than ever before. But to cynical observers, the move fits neatly into the tradition of oropolitics – or using mountaineering for political purposes – that has framed the conflict for many years.

Cadets from Indian military academies will begin a climb to the 16,000 feet Kumar Post next week, according to local reports.

If that expedition is successful, regular civilian expeditions – including some catering to foreign climbers – will be launched next year.

"The glacier can become a major tourist attraction. Since the ceasefire agreement with Pakistan, things have been safer and it is possible to hold such activities," a senior army officer was quoted as saying.

The first batch of trekkers, scheduled to set out from Leh on September 19, will be provided with basic training at the Siachen base camp by the Indian army. Ten experts on glaciers will guide the expedition, and the Indian army will provide equipment, lodging and logistical support for the trekkers.

An army spokesman indicated that the move to open Siachen to trekkers was inspired by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's call to turn the glacier into a "peace mountain" in 2005.

India and Pakistan have battled intermittently on the forbidding glacier since 1984.