How a tiny line on a map led to conflict in the Himalaya

The untold story of a U.S. geographer’s error that pushed India and Pakistan to fight on the world's highest battlefield

Soldiers assigned to the 62 Brigade of the Pakistan Army pause beneath the Trango Towers at the terminus of the Baltoro Glacier. “It’s difficult terrain,” one says. “But we must defend every inch of our motherland.”

Maj. Abdul Bilal of the Pakistan Army’s Special Service Group huddled with his team beneath a rock outcropping deep in the Karakoram Range. It was April 30, 1989, and a late afternoon snow squall gathered around the 11 men as they labored to breathe the thin air more than four miles above sea level. At first glance they might have appeared to be mountaineers, except for the white camouflage jackets they wore and the automatic weapons slung over their shoulders. 

In fact, mountaineers would have been jealous of this vantage point, which offered a panorama of some of the world’s most colossal mountains. The hulk of K2, the second highest point on Earth, loomed just over the horizon, 50 miles to the northwest. But the majority of the icy peaks remained unclimbed and nameless, identified on maps only by numbers that corresponded to their elevations.

Climbing to their position on this peak, labeled 22,158, would’ve required ascending an avalanche-riddled face of rock and ice. Four men had died trying. Instead, Bilal’s team had been ferried by helicopter. One by one, the men dangled from ropes as the helicopters struggled to stay aloft in the thin, subfreezing atmosphere. Deposited some 1,500 feet below the summit, the team spent a week fixing ropes and reconnoitering the terrain above to prepare for this decisive moment.

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